Tips on Working Cross Culturally in Entertainment
By Anna Robb
Working in different countries among different cultures can be hard. Yet many of us in the entertainment industry dive in and end up touring shows, creating events and/or relocating to foreign countries to work as performers, technicians or managers. No matter how qualified you are or how much experience you have under your belt, working cross culturally can make you feel like a novice. What works at home, doesn’t necessarily work in a foreign country so teams and individuals are forced to adapt, compromise and find creative solutions to getting the job done.
Here are some tips for those crossing borders to put on a show:
1. Do not have expectations of how someone will deliver on a role they have been allocated.
Many jobs mean different things in different locations and because there is no standard baseline definition of what a “stage manager” or a “technical director” does, don’t be surprised when a person implements the role in a way that is completely foreign to you. So be careful. Ask many questions. All of the questions. Discover and understand their approach and fill the gaps accordingly.
2. Your way is not the “Right” way. It’s just a way…
Never assume you know the “Right” way to do things. Leave your college education and your home country work experience at the door, because once you start working internationally, rule books go out the window. Sometimes you will find yourself at the mercy of the flow of the culture or the company and you will have to roll with it. That doesn’t mean you can’t bring in your standards or your procedures or your way of doing things into the job, just be prepared to compromise.. a lot.
3. Listen, observe and use local knowledge.
Every culture puts their own flavor on an event and there are certain elements you may have to deal with that are new to you. In China, this may be a ribbon cutting ceremony and long speeches. In the Middle East this may be the compulsory playing of the national anthem and adhering to royal protocol. In Indonesia, you may have to deal with a general lack of health and safety awareness or care for procedure. You get my point. If you are new to a country or area, lean in on local knowledge and seek out the people who can help you understand what you don’t know.
4. Create communication methods that work beyond language.
There are many things that can be communicated without words. Other communication methods become very important when you are working in places where there are multiple languages spoken. Drawing sketches, making gestures, using colour coding, making sound effects and using lighting cues can become replacements for the usual spoken word.
My husband once explained to a team in Thailand who could speak no English how tight he wanted to stretch a film to create a hologram screen by mimicking the sound of a ratchet strap, calling out “Tuka, Tuka, Tuka” to the rigger. How many times he said “Tuka” was how many times the rigger would tighten the ratchet strap.
Prepare to be creative with your communications.
During a creation of a show in Macau, (of which I was Production Stage Manager) it became a common signal between cast and crew to reply to instructions over the microphone by tapping their head with their fist to communicate to us that they understood. Gestures instead of words can speak volumes and create an efficient work flow if you are all on the same page.
5. Respect all crew despite the class, race or pay division.
For all the advancement (or lack thereof – depending on opinion) in the West for equality, rest assured you are going to experience greater inequity scales in other countries. You must also understand that these divisions of class or race between people is likely something you will have to navigate through to get your show up. Understand that some people around you may be paid appallingly, understand that there may be people who are super qualified but will never get a leadership position because of their race and the prejudices that come along with it. All of these play into people’s motivations and commitment to getting the job done.
Tom Warneke (another TAL contributor) told me once that one day on a gig in the Middle East, one of his crew members got injured and he organized an ambulance to get him to the doctor (like any person would for another human being). All the locals around him were shocked and surprised that Tom would do such a thing for a Pakistani crew member. Tom recalls even the hospital were surprised when he handed over his credit card to pay for his emergency visit.
Just because the people around you treat people in-equally, doesn’t mean you need to. Bring your moral standards with you and uphold them.
6. Evaluate what is in someone’s core and what’s in their flex.
A lady by the name of Julia Middleton wrote a book called Cultural Intelligence. As Oprah would say, I had an “ah-ha” moment reading this book. Julia really nails intercultural relationships and talks about understanding yourself in terms of your core (what is fundamentally unchangeable in you) and what sits in your flex (what you are willing to adapt to assimilate into an environment) and how to see that in others. When you operate with this understanding inter-culturally, you may find more ease in your work from place to place.
For a good summary on this, watch her TED talk.
7. Seek out unifying factors in your relationships and work hard on them.
As an idealist, I always believe there are more that connects us than divides us. Especially in entertainment, there are many common threads between technicians, crew, artists & performers worldwide. We are a subculture as such, those who make entertainment. When working internationally, it is important to double down and find those commonalities between you and the people around you. This is often how you will get your show across the line.
I hope you get out there and enjoy the challenge.