Informal Cultural Consultants:

A Trusted Advisor from Within the Other Culture Is Your key to Success in a Cross-Cultural Job Environment


Why you need a sounding board from within the target culture, how to find someone willing to fill that role…and what to do when you just don’t like their advice.

You’ve filled your brain with as much knowledge as you can get your hands on about the culture you’ll be working in: history, language, political hot topics, business practices, maybe even taken an exploratory trip or two to the region… you’ve left no stone unturned in trying to prepare yourself for the challenges that await you on your international assignment.

While there are any number of cultural learning tools, from books to team activities to online courses, so often the most obvious— and at times most helpful—is the one that gets forgotten: A trusted advisor from within the other culture.

Dr. Alisa Eland, the Associate Director for Counseling and Advising in the International Student Services office at the University of Minnesota, refers to these people as cultural consultants: Local individuals willing to help you process confusing interactions or give you a heads up on potential cultural speed bumps.

“I had a few people in Berlin over time that I could just go to and say: What happened here? What’s going on? What does this mean? …a lot of times I feel like people are willing to kind of help you unpack something, debrief it and figure it out.”

Dr. Eland’s overseas experience includes time in Berlin and Japan, but even here in the United States she works with the intricacies of culture on a day-to-day basis in her counseling and advising work with international students, over 40% of whom are Chinese.

“We have a Chinese staff member. We hired her specifically as the population started to change because we needed her expertise in our office and then as a resource to the campus…So when we’re working with Chinese students she can give a cultural perspective on what might be going on.”

While the team’s Chinese staff member works in a formal capacity, Dr. Eland also encourages her international students and students preparing to study or work overseas to find informal cultural consultants that are willing to help you along the way.

Cultural Mishaps Continue to Prevent Success

Despite the many excellent tools available to those working in a global context, cultural mishaps continue to present a major pain point for many organizations. Here are just a few statistics from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s global report on the importance of communicating and collaborating across cultures:

  • 1 in 2 executives reported that “ineffective communication or inadequate collaboration” have resulted in financial losses.
  • More than half of companies responding said that cultural differences were the factors most likely to cause issues in cross-border work, ranking ahead of language, workplace norms, translation issues and accents.
  • 64% of businesses believe language and cultural differences hamper their international growth plans.
  • 90% of executives state that improving international communication skills improves revenues, profits, and market share.

The NGO world is also rife with stories of errors that could have been avoided. Everything from projects that proved unsustainable because NGO leaders misunderstood the polite, indirect concerns expressed by local leaders, to money being wasted on culturally inappropriate training programs that taught workers to handle situations outside of the cultural norms of their environment, to misunderstandings between workers and locals that effectively undo progress made in international relations.

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How To Find A Cultural Consultant

When you first step into an office setting where you’re the minority, or when your feet first touch ground in another country, the sheer volume of new information, expectations, and even physical adjustments that need attention can overwhelm even the most capable of individuals.

In the midst of all of this change, how exactly do you find those cultural consultants?

  1. Humility Opens Doors

    Whereas students often enter a culture as natural learners, business leaders, educators, and foreign experts working across cultures often face a strong temptation to give off the sense that they “have it all together”.

    This is a tension Dr. Eland experienced right up front on her educator exchange in Japan.

    “I was coming in as an expert to share about how the U of M handles international education…I felt pressure to be a good representative of the U of M and to really share something that was helpful…I had this idea in my mind, oh, I’m a professional, I shouldn’t be making mistakes. This is my field.”

    “Experts” often face two temptations when in these situations: The first is to gloss over or ignore little red flags or awkward moments; the second is to become so enwrapped in their role as “expert” that they fail to even notice such warning signs.

    Dr. Eland’s advice in these times is to lean in and ask questions. Then listen. Allow yourself to be an “expert” who is still learning.

    Dr. Eland knew a few of her hosts from their time visiting Minnesota, so when she felt she might have made a mistake or misunderstood a cultural interaction she approached them for feedback.

    “They were just so kind and reassuring and really open with me,” she says.

    These individuals became an indispensible resource for Eland during her time in Japan, helping her to not only better understand the culture but ultimately influencing her own approach to her work with staff back at the U of M, where she seeks to encourage an environment of openness in which staff members feel free to ask questions without judgment.

  1. Connections Garner Trust

    One reason Dr. Eland felt safe approaching her hosts with questions is that she had previous experience with them, but you might not always have that option.

    So what do you do if you drop into an environment where you don’t know anyone and only have a basic understanding of the culture? Look for connections that establish a level of trust; those who feel connected with you will be more likely to respond honestly to your questions as well as give you room and grace to approach some of the more uncomfortable issues.

    One NGO worker connected with a grad student in her target area based on a third-level connection, a friend of a friend who knew someone. Coming from a traditional Asian environment that honors extended connections, this grad student opened up more quickly to the NGO worker than other Chinese in the area had. The student not only became friends with the NGO worker but ultimately became a prime sounding-board that helped the worker avoid potential pitfalls in her work with the local community.

    Some ways you can search out or develop connections include:

    • Check Your Current Network. Put the feelers out in your home network and ask if anyone has connections with those in your target culture. Ask them to introduce you and explain that you’re looking for someone that you could bounce some questions off of.
    • Ask Questions and Look For Connecting Points. Studies show that people are more likely to subconsciously like and trust those who seem like them in some way. When people recognize these similarities, they often become willing to share their honest(as opposed to their polite) opinions with you. How do you make this happen? Learn what you can about those you work with and share things about yourself: Where you went to school, your hobbies, other cross-cultural experiences you’ve had. You might find that connecting with someone over your passion for Manchester United or your experience traveling to Sri Lanka opens the door for genuine friendship and open discussion.
    • Be Social.It might feel tempting to cave with some wine and Netflix after your long day spent decoding culture, but taking part in social connections is often the best way to find a local cultural consultant. If your co-workers invite you out for a beer or (highly likely in Asia) karaoke, join them (at least sometimes). Many non-western countries see time spent socially with officemates as a critical aspect of building community, and these interactions can make them more likely to be honest when you ask for feedback.
    • Hire a language tutor.Language tutors are often accustomed to working cross-culturally and might be able to provide a unique perspective on your questions. Some individuals split their tutoring time so that 50% is for language learning and 50% is for the week’s culture questions.
  1. Wisdom in Many Counselors

    Near the end of her time in Japan, Dr. Eland visited another university relationally connected with the U of M. On her trip back to the university that was her primary place of work during the exchange, she was met with a surprising request she had not anticipated:

    “My contact there let me know that they wanted me to give a presentation. I think it was the next day…to the group of vice presidents…I was supposed to give a presentation and give them feedback about my visit and recommendations.”

    Dr. Eland found herself facing a conundrum: Should she be “polite” and indirect, offering some general complimentary thoughts, or should she be honest and share some areas that had room for improvement?

    “I really was assuming that I should be more indirect…[but] both my host and my boss said, no, they’re asking you for feedback…tell them what you really think.”

    By checking in with multiple advisors (her hosts and boss) Dr. Eland was able to get clarity and feel confident about her approach for the presentation.

    “It was mostly just very complimentary…But I did give them a couple of suggestions and then they actually implemented a couple of them,” she says.

    But what if your cross-checking leads to conflicting opinions?

    When NGO workers proposed a mobile library for a mountain village cluster in Southwest China one of their informal cultural consultants strongly discouraged the idea.

    Initially the workers were disappointed, but they kept asking around and trying to see if there was a way they could make the project work in the local context.

    Based on many discussions with others native to the area, the project went forward and became a huge success.

    Even though it may slow the process a bit, take time to ask for multiple opinions and watch for common threads (i.e., adjust the length of time the library stays at each location). At times you will have to “go with your gut”, but you’ll probably discover that your “gut” gets a lot smarter when you’ve received input from locals.

Responding to Advice: It’s Not Bad, It’s Different

So you’ve found one or two individuals you really connect with and trust. They’ve helped you navigate some tricky waters, but some of their advice feels incredibly uncomfortable to you or goes against your beliefs about how situations should be handled:

  • In many parts of Asia you may be encouraged to avoid raising your hand and asking questions during class (unless you’re in a class specifically for foreign students).
  • German friends may recommend you jump right into the nitty-gritty of a business call without wasting time on pleasantries like “how was your weekend?”
  • In Nigeria you might be told to avoid looking your superior in the eye when speaking to him or her.
  • In China it’s appropriate and even expected at times to comment on changes in a close friend’s weight.
  • In Saudi Arabia female educators or members of diplomatic envoys may be encouraged to avoid direct eye contact with male counterparts or wear head coverings.
  • In the United States, students are urged to engage in discussions during class and approach their professors in person with any questions or problems after class.

Dr. Eland says that she recommends that you think of certain actions as skills, not necessarily values.

“Sometimes when I’m working with students I am helping them understand the US academic system and how to be effective in the US academic system; that doesn’t mean that they have to take it on as a value…but [by learning these skills] they might be more effective getting something done.”

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For example, in some countries there are no lines at the bank. If you need to manage a transaction you’ll likely face a cluster of individuals thrusting their prepared bank slips towards the window and calling out their needs.

You could stand “in line” behind the group all day and never be helped.

So while you may value turn taking, in order to accomplish your business you would need to learn the skill of squeezing into the cluster at the window and calling out your request.

“It may not feel right. It might not be the right way to approach it at home,” Dr. Eland acknowledges, but it might be a necessary skill to learn to “move things in the right direction” while you’re in your host country.

Try, Try Again

The reality is that you will make cultural mistakes…and some of them might even be substantial ones. You may even make the mistake of thinking someone is a trusted cultural advisor and then realizing that either they’re not reliable or they just aren’t interested in that sort of relationship.

In reality, our mistakes often teach us much more about the target culture than our successes, so it’s important to have a mindset that allows for failures along the way. As for finding the right cultural consultant, Dr. Eland recommends you choose a similar approach to the one she encourages her international students to take: Reach out and offer friendship, and see where that takes you.

“…you have to kind of watch and try and see what happens. I think a lot of times if you do something with good intentions, and try to explain yourself, then you can get away with that [asking for cultural advice and guidance].”

And remind yourself: It’s worth the risk. Having a friend from within the host culture who can help you decode the conversations and behaviors around you is easily as important as any course, book, or cultural tool you could use to prepare for an international assignment.