Top 5 Tips for Cross-Cultural Success, by Shana Medah

by Shana Medah on August 24, 2010

Hosting an au pair offers a chance like no other to learn about other cultures and build enduring intercultural relationships. However, is certainly isn’t always easy. In some ways it’s like a marriage – all parties have to be committed to success in order to make it work. Here are a few tips to help you solve some of the cultural mysteries, bridge the gaps, and most importantly, learn as much as possible.

1. Realize that cultural programming is unconscious.

Most of the time, you aren’t consciously aware of how culture influences the way you think, behave, and interpret the world. Just like a computer, you respond to things according to your cultural programming. The people who are most successful with other cultures work hard to bring their unconscious programming to the surface. They observe their own behavior and reflect on why they act or feel the way they do. Once you are more aware of your own programming, you can start to put yourself into the cultural shoes of others.

2. Be a cultural detective.

3901910248_8abc66afca_m.jpgObserve the people you interact with who are from other cultures. Try to describe as objectively as possible what you see. Avoid descriptions that make a judgment about what you see. For example, instead of saying that the person you just met was disrespectful, you should simply observe that the person didn’t say thank you when you offered him something to eat. The first sentence assumes the correct way to show respect, while the second simply describes the behavior. Separating yourself from your cultural assumptions will free your mind to explore other cultural points of view.

3. Being culturally sensitive doesn’t mean you have to like everything.

When interacting with a new culture, you will find some things are very easy for you to adapt to, and others that you just can’t accept no matter how hard you try. Try to find a compromise with the things you can’t agree with so that you can still function in the society while not violating your own deeply held beliefs.

4. Remember that culture shock can be a good thing.

It’s not easy to feel confused and disoriented all the time. Recognize that this is normal process, and that it will eventually lead to better understanding of the new culture. Use your cultural detective skills to discover the logic behind the annoying, frustrating or confusing behavior of the people around you. Take time to retreat and recharge, but keep in mind that each encounter with the new culture is an opportunity to learn.

5. Keep your sense of humor.

They say that laughter is the best medicine, and the ability to laugh at yourself will help you keep things in perspective. Even the most experienced intercultural professional can tell stories of embarrassing mistakes. Learn from your mistakes and look for the humor in them.


Guest Blogger Shana Medah is the co-founder and Director of Training at Jamana Intercultural. She has over 20 years experience in crossing cultures, and has worked with people from over 50 different countries. Shana can be reached at


Gianna August 24, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Great post !
I have a couple of questions:
1. What tools , other than psychoanalyis , help us to identify our unconscious assumptions ? How can we access those tools ?

2. I hear host parents on this blog going to extraordinary efforts to accomodate various cultural differences. Specifically, I refer to food choices and eating habits.
My understanding of cultural exchange programs is that when a difference exists, it is the responsibility of the visitor to adapt. That does not mean we should be insensitive.
It just means that when a boundary must be drawn, local custom prevails.
When the guest returns home, he or she can make any judgement he or she wishes, but, while living here, the values of the host family prevail .

Thank you .

Shana Medah August 25, 2010 at 2:19 am

Great questions!
1) I’m going to answer your first question with a question: has your au pair ever done anything that you thought was rude, disrespectful, strange, or that made your uncomfortable? I’ve heard many times that “my au pair doesn’t take initiative”, or “She’s fine as long as you tell her exactly what you want her to do but she won’t think for herself”. Any behavior that you instinctively evaluate negatively is a red flag for potential culture clash, and offers excellent opportunities to reflect on your expectations of how people should do things, why you react as you do if you au pair doesn’t fulfill those expectations, and on the source of your expectations. This is where the cultural detective element comes in. There are also lots of great books available (we will have a recommended reading list on our website), and at risk of sounding like I’m pitching a sale (which I don’t intend at all), getting training in cultural communication skills helps a lot.

2) There is great merit to the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Food is a huge issue, being at once a very primal physical need as well as a trigger of strong memories and emotions, not to mention a significant expense in everyone’s budget. However, the notion of exchange assumes mutual give and take. I would like to suggest that there are even deeper cultural matters to tackle where there is a lot of room for compromise and meeting in the middle. Take for example the way people communicate with each other. If you come from a culture where a person should “say what they mean and mean what they say”, and that when problems arise, the best solution is to confront the problem directly and “get everything out on the table”, you might not pick up on the subtle (by Western standards) messages given by an au pair from a culture where saving face is extremely important and direct conflict is something to be avoided at all costs. Likewise, someone from this more indirect culture could find the other manner of speaking blunt and tactless. The two parties could go on as they are, insisting that the other is out of line, or each could try to move toward the middle. A direct speaker could make more effort at reading between the lines, and an indirect speaker can realize that no harm is intended by the direct speaker’s manner. They might not always get it perfect, but which situation will ultimately produce the most satisfactory relationship and the greatest opportunity for learning? (And when it comes time to talk to your au pair about all the expensive chocolate she’s been eating, you may be better equipped to deliver the message in a way that increases the chances of a successful resolution of your problem.) It is true that in many situations, the burden is on the au pair to adapt, but there is also a lot of room for each party to move toward the other.

Gianna August 25, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Great response. I am looking forward to checking out your suggested reading list.

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