The best thing to learn is how little you know

The majority of cross-cultural disputes are not due to deliberate intentions to offend another person, but more due to misunderstandings and our expectation that others see the world the way we do. I propose that the best way to work across cultures is to avoid presuming others share the same beliefs, motivations and biases that you hold; the best thing you can learn is how little you know. Acknowledging your lack of understanding will help you to keep an open mind, making you a better friend, teammate and manager.




An exploratory study into expatriate managers and cross-cultural conflicts yielded three key reasons for interpersonal conflicts:


1. Differing perceptions of time, urgency, and implementation. The difference in work ethic was strongly recounted as a cause of interpersonal stress and conflict.

2. Negative stereotypes. Employees in host countries often viewed the expatriate managers as exploiters of the local, underdeveloped economy, without interest in investing in the local community.

3. Ethical dilemmas. Conflicts arise not just because the legal systems differ, but because there are also clear differences in how laws are enforced.

Adapted from Jassawalla, Truglia & Garvey, (2004).


The research concluded that conflicts with co-workers caused a great deal of anxiety and stress and it was recommended that to assist those working overseas, there should be intensive preparatory training. Training should go beyond the traditional learning of cultural norms and include interpersonal skills such as active listening, conflict management and ethical reasoning along with a selection criteria that includes emotional intelligence.


Cross-cultural conflicts are most likely to happen when we assume others see the world as we do.


Before working with new cultures; perhaps when studying overseas, taking an international assignment or even when working with a diverse team in your own country, our personal aims should always include learning how to adapt our behaviour across cultures… this ability is formally know as cultural intelligence (CQ). CQ is made up of four parts; cultural awareness, knowledge of cultural norms, your drive and your behavioural ability (Ang & Van Dyne, 2008). It should be noted here that only ¼ of CQ comes down to your knowledge of customs and traditions.


Whilst traditional theories of culture took a static view of values and beliefs within countries (e.g. Hofstede, 1991), modern opposing theories argue that culture is a more fluid and personal concept; perhaps linked with access to social media around the world, overseas assignments or study and the increasing numbers of third-culture-kids (TCK) and cross-culture-kids (TCC). Taking this into account, it is easy to see how a book on cultural norms has limited use when helping individuals successfully adapt behaviour to a diverse team or new location.




If you have recently joined a diverse team or new culture, there are probably quite a lot of things you don’t know about your teammates. Whilst the impact that personal details have on our working life will vary, it is certainly helpful to gain a little understanding of the upbringings and worldviews of team members. However, it may take time before teammates are comfortable sharing personal experiences and beliefs and this may further be slowed by language barriers for the sort of things that are less likely to come up in everyday conversation. Be patient with cross-cultural relationships!


Learning that your colleagues, boss or friends have very different worldviews can be surprising and confusing. Here are a few examples of unexpected experiences or views I have come across with teammates:


  • Discipline - being brought-up by parents using a caning as punishment
  • Views on marriage – being happy with the idea of arranged marriages
  • Attitudes towards everyday occurrences – coming from a culture that teaches girls not to take painkillers for period pain, meaning teammates sometimes have to take multiple days off work
  • Religious or superstitious beliefs – belief in ‘black magic’


Whilst the above are explicitly stated views, there are also many examples of things that go unsaid – such as the value of autonomy or interpersonal harmony, tight and loose cultures (click here for further information), individualistic and collectivist views and so on. For example, it may be the case that your team values the social aspect of pulling together and working as a group without individuals taking credit for individual parts of the project.




Cultural intelligence, the ability to adapt behaviors across cultures, is linked to improved performance in multicultural work groups, expatriate assignments and overseas study programs (Ang et al., 2007). In response to the increasing focus on the value of diversity in corporations, we help teams from different backgrounds to work together in the best way possible.


At The Change School, we run bespoke, experiential corporate programs for teams and managers to introduce and guide you through the concept of cultural intelligence. We use the Culture Chameleon approach to help us become aware of our natural colours (our own cultural biases), the colours of the culture we are in and how best to adapt. We create a relaxed and fun environment to aid bonding between diverse teams.


For those interested in learning more about TCKs (third culture kids), we hold an online TCK summit every month! We bring subject experts, practitioners and influencers together from cities around the globe to share their thoughts on a monthly topic and help build deeper insights into the TCK world. Find out more here!


To find out more, please click here to be directed to our website or say hello to Josie at


Avan Jassawalla, Ciara Truglia, Jennifer Garvey, (2004) "Cross‐cultural conflict and expatriate manager adjustment: An exploratory study", Management Decision, Vol. 42 Iss: 7, pp.837 - 849

Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., & Koh, C. (2008). Development and validation of the CQS. Handbook of Cultural Intelligence, 16-40.

Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and organisations-software of the mind: intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival. McGraw-Hill.

Avan Jassawalla Ciara Truglia Jennifer Garvey, (2004),"Cross-cultural conflict and expatriate manager adjustment", Management Decision, Vol. 42 Iss 7 pp. 837 - 849

Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., Koh, C., Ng, K. Y., Templer, K. J., Tay, C., & Chandrasekar, N. A. (2007). Cultural intelligence: Its measurement and effects on cultural judgment and decision making, cultural adaptation and task performance. Management and organization review, 3(3), 335-371.