Making the Most of Cross-Cultural Encounters

Understanding differences between cultures can provide helpful insight for situations encountered everywhere in our increasingly global society, including common encounters on U.S. farms.
Making the Most of Cross-Cultural Encounters - Articles


Food is a central part of life in every culture. And eating with others is meaningful. The foods may be different, such as this ugali (corn porridge) and dried fish from Tanzania, but the significance of eating together isn’t.

When I'm visiting a dairy and encounter Spanish-speaking personnel, I usually want to be friendly and greet them with a simple phrase or two such as, "Hola. Como estás?" However, what first comes to my lips is usually something like, "Habari? Pole na kazi." Yikes! Wrong language.

I consider it an honor to have recently spent three-and-a-half years in East Africa. Long-term immersion into a culture very different from my own opened my eyes to interesting cultural issues, many of which are universally relevant. But along with the things I learned in Africa also comes the reality that the Spanish I learned in high school was pushed out of my mind, or at least confused, by Swahili.

Understanding some simple, but extremely important, and sometimes irritating, differences between cultures can provide helpful insight for situations encountered everywhere in our increasingly global society, including common encounters on U.S. farms. Below is my list of ten important considerations for the cross-cultural encounters that occur daily on many U.S. agricultural operations.

Ten important considerations for the cross-cultural encounters

1. Time management

In many cultures outside of the U.S., time management is a low priority. A stronger emphasis is placed on relationships and hospitality. If paths cross with an acquaintance, maintenance of that relationship by taking the time to converse and maybe even eat together is a higher priority than keeping an appointment. Do you notice exceptional hospitality skills in foreign-born workers you interact with? Are there times that a lack of punctuality might be excusable? When managing employees, expectations about when to arrive should be clearly communicated, and it may be helpful to explain the negative impact that tardiness can have on animal welfare and milk production.

2. Management of finances

This was the biggest stress to me in Tanzania. Financial need is prevalent and a matter that is communicated openly with friends and family. It was hard for me to believe that the incessant requests for money were actually, in a roundabout way, compliments. Asking me for money meant someone considered me to be a friend and wanted me to have the opportunity to demonstrate my friendship in a practical way. Unfortunately, this was compounded by the fact that I was a foreigner, and foreigners have developed a reputation for handing out freebies, but that's an issue for discussion somewhere else. The point is that financial struggle is common, and in many cultures it is something people talk about openly. Additionally, many foreign-born workers in the States send significant portions of their paycheck to family members who live elsewhere, even if it causes them significant hardship. When it becomes clear that one of these sacrificial givers is struggling to maintain a reasonable quality of life at home, might there be ways to help them through means other than cash payment to help them maintain an adequate quality of life?

3. Health issues (and deaths)

These are especially important matters in many other cultures, and there may be an expectation of solidarity and unity that will impact an individual's work schedule. Even if no family lives nearby, it can be very stressful to receive bad news about an ill family member or a friend or relative passing away. Is there room for any flexibility when health and family issues are paramount? Would you ever consider giving money or attending a funeral to show support for a family?

4. Language & communication styles

There are a wide array of languages and dialects. Have fun with them. Try to learn someone else's language, or even accent. Be patient when they struggle to communicate quickly. Realize that when you explain something, it may not have been fully understood, even if they seemed to agree to it. In Tanzania, when I was trying to engage in Swahili conversations, I tried to master the art of acknowledging what someone was saying without committing to full agreement. It was an instinctive effort to disguise how much I didn't understand. Even when I understood most of the words, the meaning was difficult to grasp, and I didn't want to admit that every time. This happens ALL THE TIME on farms around the U.S. with personnel who weren't raised with English as their first language. Struggles with effective communication may be unavoidable, but sometimes there are critical messages that need to be fully understood. Do you get help from fluent speakers of the best understood language to make sure important messages have been explained and understood well?

5. Oral vs. written

In some countries and cultures, reading is not common. People are taught to read at school, but there are few books in homes. However, that doesn't mean information isn't passed. People in those regions and cultures often have an incredible ability to learn and to retain information by listening and watching. Do you utilize pictures and oral repetition in training and other communications to facilitate different learning styles?

6. Knowledge

To be honest, Americans tend to be loud and arrogant. If you are traveling in another country (even in Europe) and cross paths with other Americans, you'll probably notice that it's easy to pick us out. We tend to be quite confident in who we are and what we know. Though confidence and knowledge are good, we should be careful not to disregard the knowledge of others simply because it is different from our own. Americans praise independent thought and self-expression. In some other cultures, the good of the group is more important, and an individual will try to avoid standing out. If that individual is now working on a U.S. farm, they may be quiet and seem to have little to offer. However, they might understand more than anyone realizes and have some great ideas, but they will choose not to risk standing out from the group because that is uncomfortable to them. If you supervise foreign-born personnel, do you understand their strengths, and do you take advantage of the skills unique to them? Have you shown interest in who they are and where they come from?

7. Leadership in work environment

This is a complicated topic, and the nuances can hardly be captured in a few sentences. In Tanzanian culture, which has significant similarities to Latino cultures, workplace hierarchies are strictly adhered to. Working in U.S. dairy operations with multiple managers, foreign-born employees may find it hard to know how to respond. Having a visual depiction of the farm management structure can be helpful for everyone on the farm see who to consult for different issues on the farm. In your management style, do you consider those who may have very different perceptions of "normal" from yours?

8. Entitlement

Along with different expectations of leadership, there may also be differing expectations of what benefits should be received by an employee from their employer or supervisor. During my time in East Africa, it often amazed me how things could blow up in situations where a foreigner was serving in the role of manager. Tanzanians' frustrations regularly built, often over petty issues, and would unexpectedly be vented in an office meeting. Clear communication helps, but it takes consistent effort to really understand these intricate dynamics. When was the last time you had a conversation with the people you supervise about their expectations of you? You might be the best one to start that conversation, which will also provide an opportunity to explain your viewpoint.

9. Sharing meals

Food is a central part of life in every culture. And eating with others is meaningful. The foods may be different, but the significance of eating together isn't. In many cultures, choosing to spend time with people and eating their local food, even if it is difficult to eat for one reason or another, is a noticed and appreciated compliment. If you're managing an operation with employees from different cultures, consider planning events that include the types of food they prefer, rather than pizza or some other American food. And eat the food with them, even if it isn't your favorite.

10. Laughter

How often do you laugh with your cross-cultural acquaintances? Laughter is great medicine.

Cross-cultural friendships can be a lot of fun. Yes, things sometimes don't make sense and can be frustrating, but there are so many fascinating things to learn with and about people. Work through the challenges and don't miss out on the fun!