Over the past year, one of my favorite virtual icebreakers for multi-cultural teams has been SHOW & TELL. Each team member is invited to keep their camera on and show an object that they have chosen as being representative of their culture (national/regional or other). This simple invitation expressly authorizing team members to speak about their cultures (the elephant in the room) reveal facets of co-workers, which often remain hidden during professional meetings.
Apart from the bonhomie unleashed by this activity, I am often delighted by the deep insights generated by even just a simple debrief. After we had kicked off this icebreaker in one such session, it was interesting for participants to reflect on the nature of the objects chosen by the various team members. While Indian team members had chosen objects related to religion, skin-care regimen (Ayurveda), family milestones (wedding photos etc.), their Western colleagues from various European countries had chosen an emblematic food/beverage, a touristic souvenir or a sports-related object. The masks were off and the elephant had just blown its trumpet loud and clear. What a wonderful, tangible illustration of how topics that are considered public in some cultures are reserved for the inner circle in others.
What might be the communication bloopers that arise when one remains oblivious to these boundaries separating the public and the private? Take the case of a French colleague in Bordeaux who was left perplexed when her Indian interlocutor based out of Bangalore signed off on an IM chat, wishing her “Sweet dreams” rather than the more impersonal “ Good night”! Did she need to be on guard or was it just a case of a well-intentioned person not having a clear sense of the linguistic/cultural borders between professional courtesy and intimacy?
At a deeper level, what does this tell us about the hidden needs of team members from different cultures when it comes to creating a sense of psychological safety in the team? In view of the rather “impersonal” objects shared by their Western colleagues, Indian counterparts -whose biggest expectations from intercultural and language workshops are to have a better connection with their Western counterparts- are most likely left hungry for more “personal” clues to help them build strong work relationships! On the contrary, the relatively high disclosure of “personal” details amongst colleagues can be interesting/fun but also sometimes uncomfortable for team members in whose cultures some of these details fall into the realm of privacy.
We have all heard of the story of the elephant and the 5 blind men! Now that we have stopped pretending that we are blind to the elephant in the room, we can get creative about bridging the cultural gap to create a sense of psychological safety for all team members!
Sunita Nichani began her career, teaching French as a Foreign Language, with a specialization in teaching French for Business and for commercial translation. She quickly pivoted and specialized in Intercultural Communication and Management, as she became convinced that these are often the most underestimated yet critical aspects of business collaborations. She has more than 15 years of experience as a freelance intercultural business consultant and coach, working with expatriate leaders, multicultural teams, delivering strategic sessions on intercultural themes to stakeholders from the world of business, academia and diplomacy. She continues to serve on the Board of SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, India as its President) and is Head of Corporate Training at the Alliance Française of Madras.
Sunita Nichani is a freelance consultant and coach for Intercultural Communication and Management. She is also the Head of Corporate Training at the Alliance Française of Madras. She serves on the Board of SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, India as its President).