Why Cross-cultural Fluency Is Among Today’s Most Sought-after Workplace Skills

Dec 1, 2022

In today’s globalized business world, our working lives are undoubtedly enriched—and sometimes challenged—by the reality of working across cultures, geography and time zones. Virtually every industry, from finance to fashion, digital marketing to hospitality, operates internationally, with global colleagues or consumers, or both.

It’s little wonder that top employers are increasingly looking for new talent that can thrive in diverse, international environments. Over and above second-language fluency, hiring managers are citing “cross-cultural fluency” as a desired or even essential competency.

With over 100 nationalities studying with us across our international campuses, we see the value of diversity and the benefits—and unique challenges—of cross-cultural interactions every day at Les Roches.

So, what is cross-cultural fluency? Why should it matter to your employability? And how do you develop it?

What is cross-cultural fluency?

Cross-cultural fluency refers to your ability to understand, communicate and engage with people from different cultural backgrounds. This fluency goes well beyond just spoken language. It’s the ability to recognize and understand the context of different behavioral norms and engage appropriately.

Cultural fluency involves being aware of what’s considered appropriate etiquette around the world—from body language to physical contact to eye contact. It means having next-level emotional intelligence, being sensitive to cultural nuances and being adaptable in your interactions with individuals from other cultures.

Why is cross-cultural fluency a key competency for a successful global career?

In a globalized world where instant communication is possible across international offices, it’s a well-intentioned mistake to assume barriers to communication no longer exist.

Of course, people all around the world are more alike than unlike. However, being tuned into slight differences in cultural norms between yourself and your international co-workers and customers—or even the person sitting next to you on your train commute—can make a big, positive difference in your everyday interactions. Understanding appropriate greetings, reading body language and non-verbal cues, and being aware of how different cultures express emotions help to avoid misunderstandings and build trust.

The benefits of effective cross-cultural communication in the workplace are huge. Research has consistently shown that building cross-cultural teams and forging diverse, international working relationships are good for business. Productivity, creativity, innovation and profitability all get a boost from working effectively across cultures.

Understanding these benefits is essential if you’re in a leadership role. But good cross-cultural communication skills are enormously valuable at any stage of your working life, particularly if you aspire to have a global career.

How do working practices differ across cultures?

Learning whether the individuals you’re working with come from cultures that are expressive (Americans) or reserved (many east Asian cultures), direct or subtle, hierarchical in their corporate structures or value a group consensus, helps to avert misunderstandings or conflicts.

A meeting with an open and expressive Italian team can feel very different to a meeting with a naturally more reserved team from Thailand. Approaches to timekeeping and punctuality can vary around the world—where German or American colleagues might have their eye on the clock before a meeting, Indian or Mexican teams are often less strict about start times.

Levels of formality often differ too, depending on both geography and workplace culture. What you’d be expected to wear to a meeting with a Brazilian team in a luxury or corporate environment will likely be different from what you’d wear to a meeting with Australian colleagues working in a start-up.

Expected working hours can also vary widely across cultures, companies and sectors. On average, American workers tend to put in more hours annually than professionals in other Western countries. Alternatively, with the goal of maintaining productivity and work-life balance, some Swiss companies are now trialing a four-day working week, following the success of shortened working weeks and hours already seen in Iceland and some Nordic countries.

Along with working hours, it’s also courteous to be aware of the holiday celebrations and religious festivals that your colleagues and clients might be observing. That way, for example, you won’t book an ill-timed business lunch during a period of fasting.

Re-thinking the “Golden Rule”

Understanding the reality that other people have different perspectives, boundaries and belief systems to yourself is the foundation of building cross-cultural fluency. And with that understanding comes the recognition that the “Golden Rule” of treating others how you want to be treated is well-meaning but insufficient in a global society. A request or interaction you may be comfortable with could be culturally challenging or offensive to someone else.

Instead, business leaders increasingly cite the “Platinum Rule.” That is, to treat others how they want to be treated. Here the focus is on you to respect the needs and boundaries of those you’re working with. This might require some research, practice and a bit of humility.

If you’re unsure how to appropriately address someone, ask. If you make a cultural faux pas, be quick to apologize. And continue to live by the Platinum Rule wherever possible.

How can you boost your cross-cultural fluency?

So, with this in mind, what’s the best way to improve your own cross-cultural fluency? Immerse yourself in other cultures. Get to know colleagues and clients from other parts of the world. Where appropriate, ask politely about their backgrounds, interests and where they’re from. Read global news, watch international films and broaden your own understanding of what’s happening on the international stage. Travel. And check any unconscious bias you might have about other cultures.

Studying abroad is often cited as a life-defining experience and one that’s invaluable in building your cultural fluency. If you are considering a Bachelor’s degree, be open to opportunities to study overseas. Look for courses and institutions offering cultural diversity within their student body and seek out friendships among your global peers.

Seeing things from different, global perspectives will open your eyes to new, creative ways of approaching common business problems.

Exploring other cultures

As an initial step to boosting your cultural fluency, here are 5 working practices from other cultures that we could all learn from:

1. Flat organizational structure in Denmark

According to the World Economic Forum, Denmark has the flattest work hierarchy in the world. In practice, this means that Danish workers can enjoy sharing ideas and having open discussions as equals, without deference to titles or seniority. This egalitarian approach helps employees at all stages of their careers to feel empowered in the workplace.

2. Gender equity in Iceland

Iceland leads the world in countries actively closing the gender gap, with gender equality enshrined in law. In the workplace, at least 40% of board members must be women. And when it comes to maternity/paternity leave, both parents enjoy a full 6 months, with one month transferable between parents.

3. Group harmony and fitness in Japan

We all know the positive impact exercise can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. For decades, Japan’s Radio Taiso has been broadcasting morning calisthenics routines, designed to be done in groups, whether at school, home or in the office. Exercise programs at work are now common in Japan—building fitness, morale, and a sense of group harmony among colleagues.

4. The right to disconnect in France

In an age of endless emails and instant, 27/4 communication, work burnout is becoming commonplace. Since 2017, French employees have enjoyed the legal right to disconnect from their work phones and emails outside of set hours. Along with a 35-hour working week, work-life balance in France is among the best in the world.

5. Connecting over coffee in Sweden

Fika, the custom of taking a break for a cup of coffee and a sweet treat, is ingrained in Swedish culture. In fact, some Swedish companies even include the right to fika breaks in their employees’ contracts. This informal pause in the day allows colleagues and friends to take a break from the daily workplace grind and connect


Les Roches

Three international campuses, more than a hundred nationalities studying with us… when we say “Global Hospitality Education” we really mean it. Whether you’re looking for undergraduate or graduate programs, Les Roches serves up academic rigor with a twist of innovation and entrepreneurship. Our campuses are uniquely compact and caring environments, while our commitment to Swiss-style, hands-on learning and small class sizes means you’ll make the most of every minute of your study time. And when you graduate, you’ll be in demand: 94% of our career-seeking students have one or more job offers upon graduation.

Discussion Questions

  • 1
    Cross-cultural fluency applies to different continents, countries and geographic regions. Provide an example of a time when you traveled to another location and observed cultural differences.
  • 2
    Provide an example of how cross-cultural fluency could give you a competitive advantage in your future dream career
  • 3
    Describe a situation that required you to consider a different perspective from your own when exploring an issue.
  • 4

Classroom Connection

Career CLuster:

Instructional Area(s):

Performance Indicators:

Adapt communication to the cultural and social differences among clients
Exhibit cultural sensitivity
Explain cultural considerations that impact global business relations
Treat others with dignity and respect