A FEW years ago, I worked in China. My secretary was Chinese. Although her English was fluent, communication wasn’t always easy. In my first week I asked her to update the staff phone list. At least in my mind, my exact words were: ‘It might be easier if the phone list was organised alphabetically. Would you mind looking into it?’ A week later I followed up as the list was not updated, only for her to tell me: ‘Oh, I didn’t realise you wanted me to actually change the list.’
I found when I phrased ‘commands’ as polite suggestions, fellow Brits felt they were being treated with respect. My Chinese staff, however, saw it is a lack of clarity and an evasion of responsibility.
How to give effective instructions isn’t the only challenge in a multi-cultural workplace. How do you persuade your colleagues? How do you talk to your boss or give feedback? What approach is required to get the best out of your team and motivate? What message do you send to clients with the way you run a meeting? Do they see you as professional or cold; friendly or slapdash?
Workplaces are increasingly multi-national. More than 25% of Aberdeen residents were born outside of Scotland, mostly outside the UK meaning clients and suppliers are as likely to be in Singapore as Perth.
They are also multi-cultural. Long gone are the days when more than half of the population tuned into Morcombe and Wise at Christmas and Coronation Street every Thursday night. The internet means we splinter off into thousands of different interest groups. A colleague may have a British passport but an Italian mother and have lived in Nigeria for two years.
Even if we could write an instruction book for all the different types in a multi-cultural world, it wouldn’t do much good. We still have to deal with individuals with increasingly varied experiences who do not fit into passport stereotypes.
An international education is the perfect preparation and you don’t have to travel abroad to get one. Nearly half the students at International School Aberdeen (ISA) are locals - part of a worldwide boom. More and more parents feel that to thrive in a globalised world their children need to think like global citizens. This is partly through having the every-day experience of a diverse environment but more importantly, it is the higher order thinking skills that an international education emphasises.
In the modern economy it is no good meeting a client from Egypt or Japan and thinking ‘I met someone from there once, this is what I should expect’. It is more about approaching the situation with an open mind and having the ability to critically reflect with a high level of self-awareness. To have a flexible attitude for a fast changing and diverse world.
An ISA education culminates in the highly prestigious International Baccalaureate Diploma. University admission tutors in England, Scotland and the US rate it as 10 times more effective in encouraging global awareness and connectivity than A levels or Scottish Highers, and considerably more effective in promoting independent inquiry, an open mind and self-management skills.
When I worked in China I had to learn and adapt very quickly on the job. How much better would I have been to have come with an international education, prepared for an ever changing and complex global society.