Research across cultures

One of the great things about working in academia is being part of an international community. At the University of Birmingham, there are students from over 150 countries and 34% of academic staff are overseas nationals. This generates a hugely interesting and creative environment for research.

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Unfortunately, it also creates opportunities for cultural misunderstandings (although anyone who has tried to establish what to call a bread roll in England will know you don’t need to be from different countries for that!). Many of these are harmless (see the aforementioned barm cakes) but at other times they can make working relationships difficult or strained, or serve to make someone feel like they don’t belong.

Luckily, there are things we can all do to increase our own cultural awareness so that everyone can exploit the full richness of a diverse international community.

Cultural self-awareness

It’s actually quite difficult to spot our own cultural biases. Our culture encompasses the social behavior, institutions, and norms we have grown up with and are surrounded by all the time. They’re normal to us, and our conformity is frequently unconscious. Over time, try to develop conscious cultural self-awareness – notice when your cultural norms don’t seem to match those around you and think objectively and non-judgmentally about the differences. Obviously this is harder for those currently living in a majority culture which matches their own, but it’s all the more important for the cultural majority to put the effort in. See what people from other cultures say about yours – for example, there are many lists online about the weird things that British people do.

Learn about other cultures

I love it when good advice is also fun to do. Expose yourself to different cultures, especially by asking your international friends and colleagues for advice and recommendations. This is likely to involve getting outside your comfort zone, but don’t be afraid to start small. You can start with exploring a country or region’s food, for example, or find out appropriate ways to mark a relevant cultural festival. Look out for cultural events and festivals happening near you, such as the annual Langar on campus, and make the effort to drop in, even if only briefly. Be curious. Ask questions (tactfully!).

Be ready to adapt

Heightened awareness and understanding gives us the ability to be able to adapt our behaviours to those around us. Since no one culture is objectively “right”, we can all afford to adapt our approach to make those around us more comfortable. Choose a meeting place that is inclusive of everyone’s cultures (e.g. coffee shop vs pub), limit your use of culturally-specific idioms or references, be aware of appropriate physical contact (e.g. greeting with a hug vs a bow), and so on. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt if they appear rude or over-familiar, until you know more about the cultural norms of their language and home culture.

For more on cultural awareness, there are some courses on LinkedIn Learning (free to UoB members); search for “cultural awareness” or start with the course on Developing cross-cultural intelligence. We all benefit from an exciting and diverse research community, and it’s on us all to make it work.

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Helen Kara

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