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Working in Cross-Cultural Crews On Board

Rose Joilis 2

As the world has become more globalised and different cultures migrate to different countries, yachting has also become more multicultural. 

It was inevitable really:  not only is the yachting industry global in reach, but it also offers excellent salaries and the entry level courses are both short and relatively inexpensive when compared with most vocational or degree courses. 

I think that the multicultural nature of the yachting community is a gift that is often taken for granted, and that perhaps some dangerous or hurtful behaviours have crept in with this cultural shift. 

 I’m sure many of us think that working with people from other parts of the world is simple enough to do, but do we know really know what our crewmates’ culture is and how it differs from our own?  Who can say what is a ‘normal’ way of eating, speaking, or communicating?  

In yachting I am not really sure where the driving ethos comes from, or how the preferences arise for one nationality over another. 

Is it the owner’s or the captain’s nationality that dictates the cultural climate of the boat?  Both?  It doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this article, although I’m curious what the situation is on the boats you work on and I would welcome your comments below. 

signposts2What does matter is this:  That because we are of one nationality or another does not make one the right one and one the wrong one.  Racism is always destructive; in a crew mess it’s a catastrophe. 

The crew mess can be a very fun place to be when we are having some playful banter.  But how do we know when we have crossed the line?  How do we know that we have really hurt someone’s feelings or made them question their own self esteem and their sense of belonging in the team? 

I once worked on a boat where there was a crew member of Asian descent.   Their entire life had been spent in Europe, and they grew up with potatoes on their dinner plate rather than rice- and didn’t even like the stuff.   But every time that rice bowl hit the crew mess table it was a free for all.  ‘Hey, how come you don’t eat rice- you’re Asian! Blah, blah, blah.’ 

Unfortunately, his first night on board was sushi night and it carried on from there.  I’m sure that you all have witnessed the same sort of endless teasing. 

Forbes published an excellent article on how cross-cultural miscommunication affects the workplace, some of which is particularly relevant to yachting. 

Of many good points this article makes, there is one that stands out to me:  Just because we may speak the same language does not mean that we understand each other’s cultures.                                           

“I have often found that there is as much misunderstanding culturally between an American and a British person as between an American and a Chinese person,” Professer Erin Meyers is quoted as saying in the article. 

 “This happens because when you work with someone who speaks a different language (and eats different food, and looks different than you), there is a stronger expectation that cultural differences will impact your effectiveness, so people are on the alert…

“If a Chinese colleague does something unexpected, we’ll often attribute it to a cultural difference, but if it’s a Brit, we’re more likely to “forget” the cultural difference and blame them for being inefficient [or whatever the metric in question is].”

“When we speak the same language and look more or less the same, we need to be doubly aware that cultural differences may lurk in unexpected places,” says Meyer.  “Then we can be flexible and open to different cultural approaches to getting the job done.”

The article recommends finding out about the cultures of the people you work with- even more important in yachting where you live with them too.  Some things you find insulting might be a form of politeness, and some things you consider polite behaviour might be quite rude! 

For instance, did you know that in Asian cultures, listening silently and pausing before responses is considered a sign of respect for what is being said.  Western culture tends to abhor a silence, and often people tend to start blabbering again to save the situation from descending into awkwardness, thereby robbing the listener of their chance to respond. 

Getting to know each other as individual contributors to your crew is paramount to your team’s success.  As the season grinds on and tempers get frayed, it’s more important than ever to understand your crew mates and where they are coming from, both literally and figuratively. 

Asking (respectful!) questions about the backgrounds and cultures of those who you work and live with will create better relationships.  Not only that, but it’s interesting stuff to know.  As I said at the beginning, living in a multicultural workplace is a gift, one that allows you to know the world a little better. 

By putting in the effort to understand the cultures of those around you, you can then guide the other crew towards better understanding- and enjoy a more successful, happy team. 

For an amusing look at the rise of multiculturalism in yachting, read Monty Python and the Rise of the Multicultural Crew Mess.

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