A few weeks ago during our team’s weekly catch-up call I had a riveting story to tell about the drama in my apartment complex. Keeping in mind that all my windows were open, however, I slyly switched languages to tell my story, just in case any nosy neighbors were listening.
This is just one of countless examples of Spanglish being used in our work calls. In internal calls the transition is seamless — even within a single sentence — which makes sense considering we have a fully bilingual team, 2 native speakers, multiple team members who have lived and worked abroad, and an entire team that has worked with clients whose native language and culture is different from their own. When working with clients, it all depends on where they’re from and what they prefer. Some days, we may have meetings with English-speaking clients in California and then Spanish-speaking clients in Bolivia just hours apart.
The question I get from my family and friends both at home and abroad is always the same: Doesn’t that get confusing sometimes? And the truth is — yes! Each one of us has at least one story about a cultural faux pas we committed without meaning to, or an awkward moment where something — literally — got lost in translation. But when it comes to the multicultural, bilingual workspace, there are without a doubt more benefits than drawbacks, especially when we utilize the power of our multiculturality. Here’s how we use our superpower to improve our workspace for our team and our clients.
Working and living with people from different cultures has allowed everyone on the Indi team to develop their cultural competence — in other words, a better understanding of the fact that the environment we grow up in affects how we live and work as adults. Our home culture influences everything in our lives, from things as obvious as the food we eat to subtleties such as how someone expects to be addressed and spoken to in a professional setting. It’s essential to keep these details in mind when working both with people who share your culture, as well as those who don’t. So how do we do this at Indi?
Well, primarily it comes from time, experience, and exposure. And secondly, it comes from utilizing the multiculturality of our team to help each other understand the cultures of one another. For example, I recently took on my first project as a PM apprentice to Gini, our COO, working with a company from Bolivia. This was a great opportunity for me to observe all the nuances of how she and the other team members interacted with the client, and exactly what type of language they used during the meeting. Later, we aligned internally with the team to make sure that I had understood everything that went on in the meeting. Although I’m functionally bilingual, there are still subtleties that I don’t pick up on that the team can help me with so I don’t miss out on anything I should follow up on. And I can do the same for them in interactions with English-speaking clients.
There are obvious practical benefits to our team’s bilingualism: Being able to communicate with both Spanish and English-speaking clients worldwide (the second and third most widely spoken languages, respectively), expanding our pool of potential clients significantly. But as someone with a background in psychology, it also brings me back to studies I read in college about how being bilingual actually changes the way your brain works to make you a more flexible person in multiple contexts.
While being bilingual can make you feel tongue-tied at times, research has actually shown that having two language systems active at the same time in your brain helps you to constantly resolve internal conflicts and exercise your cognitive abilities. So what does this mean in practice? It can help you to multitask, stay focused despite distractions, and hold information in your mind while you’re doing something else. The flexibility that allows you to switch between languages actually helps your flexibility in other areas of life.
This is absolutely essential in our work at Indi. Our days are dynamic — for example, my day may include different meetings with teammates and clients, and in between posting on our social media, writing copy, or brushing up on trainings or readings I need to prepare for a meeting or workshop. All the while keeping tabs on administrative tasks and making sure everyone on a given project has what they need to move forward. While I’m not with the team physically — I’ve seen their calendars and can imagine they have equally dynamic workdays that require them to manage multiple responsibilities. I have no doubt that their effectiveness has to do with the flexibility granted by their ingenious, creative, bilingual brains.
It’s simple! Diverse cultural backgrounds = diverse ideas.
Just the other day when planning our social media calendar, one of our teammates had the idea that we could utilize our design and animation skills to share videos and infographics about important events and aspects of Argentinian culture, as many of our US-based partners and clients may be unfamiliar with what’s going on in Argentina. After all, as many US Americans well know — It’s not common for us to be informed on issues outside the US by our local and national media.
It’s these moments of exchange that make Indi unique. There are lots of design companies out there, but very few that inform the public about cultural issues while marketing their design skills. A diversity of experiences on our team means that we can share ideas that one of us alone may never have come up with.
I’ve told you all about Indi’s continuously developing cultural competence and bragged on our flexible bilingual brains and idea-sharing. A lot of this comes naturally from the makeup of our team. But every design team can take steps to increase their cultural competence and expand their global marketability, adapting to their clients instead of the other way around. Here’s my advice to do so.
Be flexible. When working with clients with different cultural backgrounds, there might be a gap in expectations because we simply work differently. Make sure both your and clients’ expectations for communication, meeting formats and timelines are clear and aligned — meaning being open to compromise and finding a middle ground, not just expecting clients to adapt to your ways.
2. Invest in language training. Learning the language that your clients most often communicate in will help you connect with them on a deeper level, no matter how little you know. That extra level of comfort you can establish can go a long way! Not to mention the cognitive benefits already mentioned.
3. Diversify your team. If your team all looks and thinks alike, that doesn’t leave much room for growth. Next time you’re hiring, consider how what makes us different can be such an asset, as well as pushing back against cultural and racial supremacy. In an increasingly globalized world, it’s not only an asset to embrace multiculturality — It’s our responsibility.