Do Ri Me – Achieving Intercultural Competence. A Christmas Post by Ms. Bernie Wrafter

What does intercultural competence feel like?

For me it is the Ri stage in the Japanese Martial Arts concept. The end of a journey of diligence, dedication and attention to detail. By the time we reach Ri we have integrated the traditional wisdom of the masters and are now equipped to separate and leave. At this stage our moves are natural, becoming one with the spirit of events and the people in them.

Lachen glücklich multikulturell Gruppe junge Menschen in einer Reihe Freisteller

It is a journey for companies, managers and executives

How do we become one?

Answered simply – when organisations grasp that culture is dynamic and begin to understand that time abroad ≠ intercultural competence. When we create an organisational setting which values acquiring intercultural competence as the priority. When we steer the individual towards reflection, adaptation and culturally adapted solutions as a style of leading and interaction – stress testing them on the job.

From unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence – 4 steps to getting there.

The 4 Steps to Competence presents a framework for self-management and performance review.

At the outset of any new assignment we are rightly confident, exuberant even. We are, however, in a state of unconscious incompetence where diversity can provide unexpected challenges. It is our awareness, openness, cultural sensory perception and adaptation that will decide whether we move up to the next stage of learning. Seeing conscious incompetence as a natural stage to progression would act as a propulsion for the individual into the next stage of conscious incompetence. The opposite, avoidance, with all the camouflaging behaviours typical of this cycle should not be an option.

For most of us this stage is very uncomfortable, one we want to remove ourselves from quickly. Not too quickly though because it is here we need the patience and diligence to construct our way out – and this is cultural competence. We will draw on all our reserves of situational courage and our skill in communicating across differing worldviews. We will arrive, chastened, humbled but well equipped at conscious competence when we master these attitudes and behaviours.

Ri – the final stage in attaining competence is unconscious competence. To enter and attain our Ri however our executives need to remain consciously adaptive, to be able to assess and change style depending on the global context and the diversity of the set of people involved. Ri then represents a permanent state of flowing conscious competence – elevated on the shoulder of the masters, eyes forward, at the helm, steering a steady course in choppy seas.

A note about the author – Bernie Wrafter is a trainer, facilitator and coach. She runs a consultancy working with German and Swiss based multinationals coaching and nudging nationals from all continents to experience transcultural managerial gems! Her passion is high functioning diversity in teams, transnational management development, and successful conflict mediation across cultures.

She has studied and worked in the UK, USA and Germany, is a native of Ireland (though rejects national categorisations.) Rather, she identifies herself as “at home in the world, but seldom at home.”

 

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Cultural Nightmare at Christmas – Kafka was a Banker

A relocation to the UK that could not have gone much worse….

It was the last intercultural relocation training before Christmas. For Mary and Sam, a lovely couple from Russia and India respectively. They picked me up from an out-of-town station and drove me back to their nice house. As I sipped my coffee and bit into a Swiss chocolate, their unbelievable story of British bureaucracy and service stupidity unfolded – in the 13 years I’ve been in this job, this had to be the worst case of intercultural cock-up I have witnessed.

unhappy business woman showing crumpled contract

British banks seem to operated by unfriendly algorithms

The bank that likes to say “No!”

Working for a global company Mary, had an American bank account in the heart of Moscow that provided for all her domestic and international business needs. We she heard of her relocation to England her first move was to telephone them and ask to set up a similar account in the UK. 1. No one picked up the phone. 2. Undeterred, Mary sent a series of e-mails that met with a similarly silent response. “Oh well”, thought Mary, this is an opportunity to open up a British bank account. She eventually found that this global bank had no high street operations in the UK.

On arriving in London, Mary and her husband moved into a hotel. They should have moved directly into the house and see 7. From a hotel she called a famous high-street bank and enquired about the protocol for setting up a UK bank account. She was given a list of documents to produce and an appointment was set up. Mary knew that she was moving out of London to deepest Hampshire and so wished to set up a bank account in the larger local town, the one nearest to the village where she wished to live. She had taken time off from work to attend the bank meeting. 3. When she turned up at the bank she was told (only then) that setting up a Hampshire bank account would not be possible, because, as of that moment, she was not actually living in the county. Mary was upset, because she could have been told this over the telephone and she had taken time off from work to attend the meeting, where she was promised, the procedure was pretty simple and would take no more than 25 minutes.

Mary delayed opening a bank account until she had secured a nice property. More later. 4. Having moved into the property, Mary set up a bank meeting in the local large town. She went there secure in the knowledge that she was living in the county. It was early days and she had yet to receive any sort of Bill. Again she took, a half day’s holiday to visit the bank. There she was told, that without a utility bill in her name for her Hampshire residents it would not be possible to open at the bank account. With an increasing level of frustration, Mary left, went home, and telephoned one of the utility providers and asked them to furnish out with a bill. 5. A couple of days later Mary set up ANOTHER appointment and proudly produced the said utility bill. This time the bank clerk enquired about her date of arrival and her other activities regarding registering to live and work and be paid money in the UK. Because she had been in the UK for less than one year, she was told she did not have a valid credit history and therefore, without sponsorship from her company, it would not be possible to open a bank account. Barely containing her anger, Mary enquired why had it taken so long to announce this important fact. No meaningful answer was forthcoming. Mary approached her Human Resources department and asked for a sponsorship letter that would compensate for her lack of credit history. An HR department employee duly drafted a letter and gave it to Mary. Mary photocopied the letter and set up another appointment. 6. A disappointed Mary was told that 2 things were wrong with the letter. One, it was a black-and-white photocopy and not a colour copy. Two, it had been signed “on behalf” or somebody and not with a simple name. Mary then let loose with her feelings of anger, rage and disappointment as she retold the Kafkaesque nightmare to the surprised bank assistant.

Mary and her husband had been allowed a looksee visit to become familiar with the UK and to identify and close a deal to secure a house to live in. They had been allocated a relocation agent who would select a number of properties for them to see. The visit was arranged in plenty of time for them to relocate smoothly from their old town to their chosen house in UK. 7. When they met the relocation agent, she seemed somewhat lacking in charm and communicated with an air of pessimism and scarcity about the cost and choice of property on offer in the area. The first house Mary and her husband saw was horrible. Small, dark, poorly located and at what seemed a seriously overinflated price. The 2nd 3rd and 4th properties were better but in no way adequate. With growing frustration they sensed that the relocation agent was not telling the entire story. As they drove in her car to the final property, the agent extolled the virtues of their “last chance” location as if it would be the answer to their prayers. It wasn’t. They had taken time out of their busy schedules to come all the way to the UK to waste a day looking at a substandard portfolio of properties that were very much on the B list.

  1. Mary and her husband decided to take care of their property search themselves. Using social media and various agencies that identified a number of much better places. Again many properties seem to be somewhat overpriced when compared with their research figures gained from their investigation via social media. They understood that it was normal practice to under quote and see if the landlord would accept the request. They put in a number of low offers for property, and then had to wait for months to get a response. Each real estate agent told them the same thing – they should only put one offer in at a time. They said that if they put in more than one offer, they would not be taken seriously. What seemed to be happening though was that the landlords were shopping around for better offers. In some cases they did not hear back for a number of months. This must have been very expensive for the landlords. Eventually, after 2 months, the winning landlord came back accepting a reasonable offer and the deal was closed. Mary using various social media websites found a lot of these landlords had wasted months and eventually accepted offers even lower than the one Mary had offered.

Physician heal thyself

  1. Mary has a chronic but not serious medical condition that requires medication. When she had left her previous apartment, she had packed her pills in her suitcase to be placed on a lorry and taken to England. The French company had told her the lorry would arrive in no more than 48 hours. As a backup, Mary had anticipated the chance of the delay and so had a Moscow doctor write out a prescription in English that she could use in the UK. The lorry became stuck in a French port backlog. Time for plan B. 10. Mary knew that she had to register at a local health centre to gain access to the NHS and to see a General Practitioner. When she heard of the freight delay, she telephoned the health centre to request a 5 minute appointment to obtain a prescription for the medication she was already taking written on green British prescription paper so that she could take you to a chemist and continue taking her pills. The GP’s receptionist, told her, that because this was not an emergency, she can only get an appointment in 7 days time. Mary was aware that the emergency service was in a different place and that the GP surgery was the first port of call for any medical condition. She was sure that the medicine would turn up in just a couple more days and therefore did not make the appointment. The slightly overbearing GP’s receptionist warned her that she should take the appointment for 7 days time as if she did not take it now and call back later her overall delay could be more like 10 or 14 days. Mary left it anyway.

The French port delay continued, and the medicines did not arrive. Mary phoned back the receptionist, and made an appointment, it was for 10 days after the first phone call. The receptionist had indeed been right in her pessimistic prediction. 11. The day of the GP appointment came, and Mary were driven in some pain and discomfort to the surgery. She went into the small doctors office and explained his scenario. Rather than simply write a prescription, the doctor, with no notes to refer to, said that her stomach pain could be anything, and that she should go away, wait, and come back in a week’s time. He said that if the pain continued he would write her a prescription for analgesics. Mary’s mind began to spin at the ridiculous nature of the British system of banking and face-to-face healthcare.

She had experienced better in both Russia and India.

A simple assumption

  1. Mary and Sam are intrepid travellers and, despite experiencing bureaucratic attacks of incompetence, they thought they’d venture to Edinburgh for a nice weekend. Looking on the Internet they found reasonably priced tickets and elected to start their journey from a “London” airport. Here began their last pre-Christmas disaster. Coming from the West side of London, they imagined that Stanstead airport would be close. For one reason or another, they set off 30 minutes late. Then, they missed a vital turning just a few kilometres before the airport. This last mistake meant a detour of 30 km, by which time they had missed the flight. There was little else to do but to drive back home. The irony of this day was not lost on them. They had spent 10 or 11 hours driving. In that time – they could have reached Scotland by car!

Tragically, all of these incidents that happen before the relocation day. I met with this lovely couple, experienced their warm personalities, their generous actions as hosts and saw their mild disposition. There followed a therapeutic and laughter filled cultural session on how the strange, secret and perplexing world of UK bureaucracy actually works.

Can you guess some of the answers?

Banks – the days when sophisticated career professionals took care of banking relationships are long gone. I have had retail bank staff at my local branch, talk about their minimum wage conditions, the all-powerful computer algorithm making all the decisions combined with their lack of autonomy or authority to make discreet real world decisions and the fact that the high street bank is no longer the human and sensible place what it once was. ADVICE – at the first sign of Franz Kafka, write-down contemporaneous notes in your Moleskine, and find the number and address of the banking ombudsman. A letter threatened or sent here works wonders, and normally generates a grovelling apology and efficient solution to your outstanding issues. Don’t be part of the system – Get ahead of it.

GP Surgery – the receptionist in the story, had been told to turn away patients. She had incorrectly used the distinction between an emergency and non-emergency to do this. She was wrong. Your job as a newcomer to the UK is to expect various barriers to put in your way. These you must overcome with a display of assertive power. Think of it as a video game or medieval quest. The first obstacle as a receptionist who will say, “go away.” ADVICE – become a broken record repeating your, “I am ill and I must see the doctor.” After 2 or 4 repetitions, the receptionist will cave in and grant you an appointment. If it is too long to wait, threaten to call 999. This normally changes her attitude.

GP – again British doctors are told to under prescribed and under-diagnose. In a 5 to 7 min cursory verbal exchange, they will often wrap up this inconclusive session with, “You seem to be fine. If it still hurts comeback in 2 days/a week/a month.” ADVICE – again it’s time to find your personal power and issue the broken record statement, “I feel really ill and wish to see a hospital consultant.” Again, 2 or 4 repetitions of this should see a change in attitude. You will either get a deeper diagnosis, a useful prescription or be referred to a medical expert.

London Airports – there are not 5 London airports! There are 2 airports “in” town. London airport – a tiny and fragile landing strip surrounded by water near Canary Wharf in the East End of London. It is wonderful, cosy and cheap but vulnerable to wind, fog and rain. Many flights are delayed or cancelled. Heathrow airport is the nearest thing to a proper London airport, though technically it is only just within the M25. Stanstead airport should require a passport to get to! It is nearer Cambridge and can take many many hours in busy traffic. Luton airport cannot be reached directly by train. We forgive Gatwick airport for pretending to be in London, as the train service is very efficient and for a lot of people in South and Central London, it can work out as the nearest convenient airport location to begin your holiday. If anyone ever tells you Southend airport is a London airport – punch them in the face. They are lying and part of a Government conspiracy 😉

 

Happy Christmas.

P.S. Mary and Sam felt reassured by the cultural briefing on the true workings of the UK. They realized that they were not stupid or wrong. Simply that they were too nice for the system. We wish them well and we wish you well on your next trip to the UK.