Education and Employment

How enhancing your cultural knowledge will improve your career


There are still a few places in the world with only one culture, but they are becoming few and far between. The rest of us are navigating through a myriad of cross-cultural borrowing, mixed-cultures, and newly introduced cultures infused from our new multinational business owners or experts injected into our sphere from other continents, and so on.

For most of us, in-depth cultural knowledge will accelerate our careers. Often the best raises available in your career path will be an expat position with your current firm, a new job in a foreign land, or a position on the other side of your country (which may also have significant cultural differences).

These types of opportunities do not just present themselves. You must create them by demonstrating job skill sets as well as understanding your future destination’s culture. At the very least, you need to understand your current bosses’ cultural backgrounds, some of which may be a little different from yours, while others may be drastically different. Failing to do this may result in you making some cultural faux pas and miss that promotion.


Link Your Skill Sets with Your Cultural Knowledge

The linkage between skill sets and specific cultural knowledge is the big pay-off.  The world has always contained pockets of knowledge. In your knowledge pocket, where you have honed your skills, you will always be underpaid because you are easily replaced by your neighbor.

True, the knowledge gaps were even bigger many years ago, but today we have such a variety of knowledge and skill sets that there are more knowledge pockets than ever before. They are just not as obvious.

Now is the time to develop and hone your specialized skill sets and then take them to a place where your skill sets are sparse or non-existent, and where pay differentials exist. While an excavator operator might make only 18 USD/hour in Florida, USA, that same operator might make 47 USD/hour in Perth, Australia, due to a high demand and shortage of operators.

Even within the same country, significant pay differences can exist. For example, the average nurse anesthetist in Florida, USA, might be paid around 177,000 USD, but could potentially make 246,000 USD in Montana, USA.  Of course, to acquire the position in the other location, you will need to demonstrate your cultural knowledge for that area.


Expat Employment Can Be Quite Lucrative

The biggest pay-off can be expat positions. Expat salaries often pay around 25% more, but the tax savings can be substantial, and most firms pay for housing, travel, spousal support, private schools, and other perks that significantly improve your standard of living as well as your ability to save your earnings.

The other big pay-off is landing a new job in a foreign country. These types of positions are often restricted to highly skilled personnel due to immigration regulations that block applicants with lesser skills. To make this jump, you often need a graduate degree and 10 years of professional experience (except for a few jobs, such as engineering, nursing, and IT - which seem to be in short supply in more than half of the world’s countries). However, the United States pays very well in these fields, so that limits your desirable destinations. 

Lack of Cultural Knowledge Will Harm Your Career

If you have no cultural knowledge, you will never get the chance to show your value because people will focus on your lack of cultural knowledge rather than your skills. Perhaps you maintained eye contact too long with your foreign hosts and made them feel uncomfortable. Or you kept stepping back while you conversed with your new future boss whose culture dictates a closer talking distance than you’re used to. Or maybe you expected your overseas counterparts to trust you after only a few meetings without realizing that in their culture, trust is developed over years or even decades, not days or weeks. 

These are just the beginnings of the basics. There is much more to learn, and you cannot just pick one new culture to learn, since the opportunity may not come from the location you expect.


There Are Efficiencies in Acquiring Culture Knowledge

Fortunately, learning about cultures is much like learning musical instruments: after you master two, the third and fourth are easier, and the process becomes more obvious.  Plus, in today’s world, you have already been exposed to numerous cultures, religions, beliefs systems, etc. You are well on your way to becoming a culture savant.

The same goes for learning multiple languages, which is quite helpful because so much of a culture is based on its language. Studying multiple languages may not be feasible for most of us, so I suggest you always endeavor to learn at least key phrases. This alone may be enough to significantly increase your income, particularly if your cultural knowledge is pervasive and your skill set is in demand.

Learn how to greet, toast, say goodbye, show agreement, etc. in your host’s language. Once you land a position in another country, make a concerted effort to acquire a working knowledge of the host language, particularly if you plan to stay for a significant period of time.

You also need to recognize the value of in-depth cultural knowledge. One of these in-depth concepts is factual knowledge versus interpretive knowledge. For example, it is a well-known cultural fact that the number four is considered negatively to many with a Chinese cultural background because it is pronounced the same as the Chinese word for death. However, this is not interpretive knowledge.

Interpretive knowledge tells us whether we can use the number four in a price tag, such as $14.95 versus a phone number or the number for a floor or room in a building. The answer is that the price tag is acceptable since it is a temporary use of the number, but a phone number ending in four is unacceptable since it is permanent and noticeable. The same goes for floors or rooms in a building (just as many Western buildings skip the 13 th floor).


Focus on Building Your Cultural Knowledge on a Daily Basis

If this sounds overwhelming, do not worry too much. You do not need to know everything about a specific culture. Still, you should know enough to demonstrate that you respect the other culture and it is a good idea to know more than your competition (i.e., the other foreigner).

More importantly, there is an abundance of material readily available to enhance your cultural knowledge. When feasible, take courses that examine cultures within a business context, read books on specific cultures, such as the Culture Shock series, or international business negotiations textbooks, etc. Be cautious, however, in that these materials may be out-of-date because cultures are always evolving.

Your best learning tool is to meet and converse with people from different cultures or foreign lands. Not only is it free, up-to-date, and fun, but it will also enhance your knowledge of and appreciation for a diverse set of cultures. It is also very likely to provide you with career opportunities that you never would have had without that cultural knowledge.