Working Across Cultures: Lessons from the U.S. & Turkey's Young Leaders
Last September, I traveled around the United States with the top young foreign policy leaders from the U.S. and Turkey through the Atlantic Council’s Young Turkey Young America program. And this past March, I had another opportunity to spend two and half weeks with the same amazing group of people.
We met with political and business leaders, strategized ways to improve bilateral relations between Turkey and the U.S., and worked on joint writings and projects together. And while we were just getting to know each other in America, our Turkey trip launched with a strong bond that allowed us to explore foreign policy issues with great honesty and integrity and learn lasting lessons about operating in each other’s cultures.
During the trip, I was reminded that traveling in a large group and working with people from a vastly different culture can be overwhelming—but it can also be infinitely rewarding. So, whether you’re traveling abroad for work or working with people from another country, use these lessons learned from our trip to help you make the most of the experience.
Listen and Observe, Then Adapt
“Why are you so quiet?” our Turkish colleagues would ask me. In the first few days, our group of traditionally outspoken Americans was not only combating jet lag, but also trying to quickly learn the norms of Turkish culture. We were learning about Turkish time (showing up a few minutes later than the suggested time), how to navigate a six-course meal (and be able to eat another six courses for dinner), and how to conduct ourselves in body language and decorum at every meeting.
When you’re operating in a new place or business culture, nearly everything is different, and you have to quickly get up to speed. I found that watching how our Turkish colleagues acted in meetings and following their lead was the most effective approach. For example, we quickly learned how important the first Turkish president, Ataturk, was to the country’s history and culture, and that helped us show the proper respect when asking questions and walking through government buildings. It was also helpful to admit when we didn’t know something and to open our ears to different perspectives.
When you’re in a new setting, just spend the first few days observing and listening, and you’ll soon see how to adjust your behavior to find the right way to fit in.
Ask the Right Questions
On the American leg of our trip, our meetings were all about asking the “tough questions.” But in Turkey, meetings were about asking the right questions—and asking them thoughtfully. Americans can come off as very forward (who knew, right?), and people in other cultures aren’t always ready for or receptive to that.
For example, when the group discussed the issue of women in politics, we had to remember that some of the political parties we met with did not have women as part of their party at all. Rather than pointing out this disparity or calling out these leaders, my colleagues would ask questions like, “What strategies do you employ to recruit and encourage women to join your party?” These types of questions forced leaders to address the topic but didn’t put them immediately on the defensive.
Many accounts of history and political outcomes can be interpreted differently in the United States, so it was important to stay current on and respectful of Turkish perspectives. That didn’t mean we didn’t approach sensitive topics, and there were tense moments where we did hold leaders accountable, but we did it in a way that was respectful. Remember that you might not always agree with other cultures, but that being exposed to these types of conversations can challenge you in a totally new way.
Read Between the Lines
Now, even if we asked the right questions, we didn’t always get the proper answers. In fact, some leaders outright dodged our questions. (Others, though, were very honest and transparent with us, and those meetings were remembered as the best ones.)
Our Turkish colleagues would often remark that many of our speakers were just “doing their duty” or “saving face” (saying something different than the truth in order to maintain appearances), and we respected that. Still, the way we got something out of each meeting was later analyzing what was said and how it could be interpreted, as well as the issues that went unsaid. And trust me, we analyzed everything! We will never know why some people wouldn't answer our questions, but thinking critically about these meetings gave us a lot of insight.
In your own career, make sure you do your own research, have context for each person you meet, and understand his or her role in society and the workplace. Think through the cultural or political reasons why someone might be saving face as well as the message behind his or her words. Knowing how to navigate this will help you build strong relationships but still get solid information from your meetings.
Make Time for Fun
Our group loves to talk policy, and sometimes it could be borderline wonkish. In fact, most of the time, whether we were on an exhausted bus ride or at a wonderful Turkish dinner, we didn’t stop talking about policy, our meetings, and our opinions and ideas. Even when some of us were falling asleep, others would keep going on about free trade, human rights, journalistic freedom, political parties, and the challenges of Cyprus. And we loved it. It was as if we had all found other people from around the world who really understood our passion with foreign policy and politics.
But every once in a while, we gently excused ourselves from conversation to do something really fun, like head to the Soho of Istanbul or have some chocolate baklava. Taking that break was important—not only for getting refreshed so that we were sharp enough to engage in conversation when it really mattered, but also for building relationships, which made our work more effective. I highly recommend making time for fun—it's always worth it.
The goals of the Young Turkey Young America program are to strengthen understanding and relations between the U.S. and Turkey and cultivate lasting professional relationships. After spending a full month with both Turkish and American delegates, I can say that the program exceeded its goals, cultivating an awareness and relationship with Turkey that will dramatically affect our work. But we also learned lessons that we will carry with us for a lifetime—lessons that will help us no matter where we travel.
Want more? Check out the first part of this series, 6 Lessons From the U.S. and Turkey's Top Young Leaders.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author