Despite pre-deployment briefings, trainings and desk research, advisors will lack the cultural compass that they enjoy in their deploying country or institution. When working in their own environment, professionals are aware of workplace policies and procedures, such as communication and reporting methods, hierarchy, work ethics, time conception etc. Additionally, these professionals also understand the culture of their own country, region or group. Taken together, this gives the practitioner ample information on how to act, how to avoid actions that could offend colleagues and how to gain support and buy-in for their programmes.
As an advisor, on the other hand, you will have little or no cultural knowledge—both institutionally and socially—when you arrive in your host country or institution. It is therefore of utmost importance to refrain from making assumptions, analogies and metaphors that do not translate culturally. You also need to understand the history, legacies, size and sophistication of the country, development trajectories and challenges, local alliances, culture and customs etc. At an institutional level, you should seek to understand the modes of operation of your host institution, and gather information on unspoken rules.
The value of prior preparation should not be underestimated. Getting to know the history, culture and politics of the country and/or institution you will be deployed to should not be considered as an optional task that you will carry out only if you have the time. Rather, it should be scheduled in and prioritised as early as possible.
Once deployed, you could request your local counterpart to be your cultural advisor. While being an excellent source of insight on organisational and social culture, this is also an excellent rapport building exercise. It sends out the message that you too have something to learn. More importantly, it shows that you are making an effort to learn, and that you acknowledge that your counterpart also has something to offer, that is of value to your common goal.
In some instances, you may come across certain practices or norms that are different or even contradictory to your own. This does not imply that you have to accept them unconditionally. Instead, you need to try to understand why they exist, and what their purpose is. Your local counterpart may be able to offer you explanations. Be aware, however, that some issues may be too sensitive—or culturally inappropriate—to raise with your counterpart. In such instances, you will need to seek alternative sources of information. In all circumstances, you need to keep an open mind, and maintain an open and honest relationship with your counterpart.
Finally, you may not speak the local language when you arrive in a country. What is important, however, is to show that you are making an effort to learn—and practice—the language. This can demonstrate real commitment to your hosts and could, in turn, tremendously boost your relationship with local actors, facilitate interactions and give you access to otherwise unavailable information and individuals.