What is cross-cultural training and how does it work?

What is cross-cultural training and how does it work?Cross-cultural training (also known as intercultural training) is a multi-faceted approach to increasing the knowledge and skills required to adjust to new culture. Brookfield Global Relocation Services found that 80% of companies who responded to their “2010 Global Relocation Trends Survey” provided international assignees with pre-departure cross-cultural training as a means of decreasing the severity of culture shock and improving the effectiveness of expatriate managers.

Intercultural training and culture shock

Culture shock is partly a result of stress due to uncertainty and anxiety about culturally-appropriate behaviours in a new environment. The authors of the book Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Current Approaches suggest that when we meet an unknown person, we subconsciously try to ease this anxiety by scanning our memory banks to re-examine past behaviours. Once we know what to expect based on this previous experience and we adjust our behaviour accordingly, the uncertainty and anxiety evaporate.

Further extending this theory suggests that it’s possible to experience “anticipatory adjustment” to an unfamiliar culture before arrival. In other words, if we have realistic expectations of life in the new locale and the skills to deal with intercultural interactions — the goals of cross-cultural training — we should be faced with less ambiguity, less stress, and an easier time adjusting.

Unfortunately, studies on the effectiveness of cross-cultural training have produced mixed results, perhaps because there is no consensus on what, exactly, it entails. Content, duration, and delivery methods vary widely:

  • Training can range from a few hours to a week or more.
  • The mode of delivery can be experiential and workshop-based, or lecture-style.
  • Trainees can work alone with interactive computer software, meet one-on-one with a trainer, or sit in a lecture hall with dozens of other participants.
  • Content varies from culture-specific (focusing on life in France, for example), to culture-general (giving expatriates the intercultural communication tools to navigate multiple cultures), to a combination of the two.

It’s this lack of consistency that tends to muddy the waters of any discussion on the value of training.

Worth it? Yes!

Rachel, a 50-year-old Canadian, has accompanied her husband to Ecuador, Malaysia, and now Scotland. She received both culture-specific and culture-general training, which included discussions of how her own cultural perspective could affect her judgments and interactions in the host country. Rachel is certain that this cross-cultural awareness made her life overseas much easier. “I was more prepared,” she says. “Without the insights of cross-cultural training, I would not have the ability to open my heart to other cultures.”

Because the content of Rachel’s training encompassed more than just area studies – delving into broader topics such as intercultural communication – it was highly relevant to her expat lifestyle. A 2001 study found that relevance in training led to accurate expectations, which positively affected the expatriate’s adjustment.

This is not to suggest that Rachel escaped culture shock entirely; she acknowledges experiencing frustration and uncertainty, saying that initially, “the rules were different and I just couldn’t figure them out.” However, she believes her training provided her with the cross-cultural skills to deal with those feelings.

Worth it? Maybe

Charlotte, a 56-year-old American, received intercultural training before her husband’s first assignment in Indonesia. She doesn’t believe her training contributed significantly to her adjustment, calling it “a waste of time.” The only way to feel at ease in a novel culture, she insists, is to immerse oneself in it: “I think people learn best from on-the-job training. It’s when you are right there in the trenches that you can guarantee the information will always be in your memory banks.”

However, Charlotte has recently moved to Nigeria for a new posting, and is experiencing enormous difficulty adjusting to her new home. Although she’s a seasoned expat, with more than fifteen years of Asian experience under her belt, she is struggling with the shock of living in such a completely novel culture.

Researchers Marie-France Waxin and Alexandra Panaccio write that “the more different a culture is from that of the country of origin, the more important and necessary is the use of cross-cultural training programs.” This opinion is one that Charlotte is starting to share: “I’ve given a lot of thought to what cultural training would have provided for this transfer,” she says ruefully. “We would have been better prepared.”

Cross-cultural training teaches the skills and knowledge that may provide anticipatory adjustment to people moving to a new culture. Expat spouses Rachel and Charlotte hold different views as to its effectiveness, but they both agree that inevitably, expats need to take the plunge and immerse themselves in their new lives. Says Rachel, “In the end, we can only prepare ourselves so much — then the actual experience needs to unfold.”

This article originally appeared on Suite101.com on April 28, 2010 © Maria Foley.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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