During my work with different (international) teams, I’ve noticed how varied the tempo of talking and moving among team members can be. There are individual differences, but you can see patterns between cultural groups. People from southern Europe generally have a different rhythm of speaking and planning than northern Europeans or Asia.
The manner in which people make contact with each other is different, too. People can get along very well, but blindly trusting that the other will meet an agreement that’s been made is not easy to do. Especially when people cannot “read” each other, misunderstandings can crop up – is that “yes” a real yes? What exactly does someone mean by “soon”?
In order to increase mutual trust, it is necessary to get to know someone better, but it is also important to discuss possible cultural differences. For one reason or another, talking about cultural differences can be a sensitive issue. Because of this, I went in search of a bias-free language that everyone can understand. I ended up at the most universal language that I know: music. Or, to be more precise: the language of beats and rhythm.
It is a language that connects us all, and one which we all speak. The language of rhythm is found in every place on earth:everywhere we can find people dancing, singing, clapping. And even when we’re not making music, you can see the language of rhythm in our ways of moving and communicating.
Every organization has its own rhythm. Every department. Every person. To be able to function, we align ourselves with our environment. We have to – it is an important driving need. When we are unable to synchronize with our environment, we feel uncomfortable and stressed. Rhythm is a natural process that connects people. When working with people who follow another (cultural) rhythm, this alignment doesn’t always happen naturally. When a group is completely “in sync” and everyone is aligned with each other, it seems as if activities just happen by themselves – as if the group is one organism, with one heartbeat.
In an intercultural team, it can be quite a challenge to reach this level of alignment. Very often, the members of a group work according to different (cultural) rhythms without being aware of it. We all march to a different drummer. By approaching cultural differences using the language of music, it is easier to get tuned in and orchestrate our cooperation.
The insight into “cultural rhythm differences” provides a new dimension to the French phrase, “C’est le ton qui fait la musique” – it isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it. In my blogpost about ‘Guideline 7: Match Cultural Rhythm Worlds’ you can see an impression of how I use rhythms in (intercultural) communication.