Cultural awareness starts with taking note of what is going on around you and comparing and contrasting your experience with that of what you are seeing at that moment. It means watching how people do things and respecting them if they are different.
Being culturally aware helps you with navigating foreign processes, understanding how to work with people, or pushing a project through inception to completion. All systems have shortcuts and back-channel means of getting things done. Awareness of how people do things can give you a better sense of how to find about about these alternate methods.
History is also important to understanding culture. During a summer in college I traveled to Italy as part of a study abroad trip for architecture school and the days were filled with drawing, taking pictures, sampling food, and exploring cities. While in Palermo, Sicily, our group had just finished a group dinner at a nice Italian restaurant that was overlooking the bay. The waiter came around at the end of dinner and asked everyone if they would like espresso. Most people passed, but I asked for a cappuccino. It was 9m and the waiter laughed at the request and said that he could bring me one, but that cappuccinos are morning drinks. I thought that people drank them all the time. Well, not in Italy.
Years later, I discovered more about cappuccinos and learned that it’s not the cappuccino specifically that they don’t traditionally serve you, but rather milk products. Apparently, in years past, people would only consume cappuccinos and other coffee drinks that contained milk first thing in the morning and not later because the milk needed time to digest. Consuming milk later in the day could contribute to indigestion. Maybe this was consumed at a time when people’s bodies weren’t able to tolerate dairy products. Regardless, over time these health-based norms stuck around and it affects people’s behavior today. The advent of Starbuck’s and the Americanization of European coffee traditions have helped to break down barriers in how people consume coffee. The awareness of the “why” is what helped me understand a waiter’s emotional response years ago.
As you are reaching out to understand why people behave in certain ways, strive to understand the “why” in their work. Don’t react to someone, but seek to understand the motives for their actions. This process will enable you to be more sensitive to others and their way of doing business. What they are doing is neither right or wrong, it’s just different. When you can see the factors that are motivating people’s actions then you will be able to unlock deeper insight into their “why”.