Soft Skills and Cultural Conditioning – Key for Keeping and Excelling at your Job

Heather Chetwynd


By Heather Chetwynd, president of Voice to Word Consulting Inc., a Toronto-based company which offers customized training and seminars to support the needs of clients who are not native English speakers.


Mohammad was in the running for a promotion but never got it. Why? According to his manager, Mohammad was considered rude by several of his colleagues. There were complaints about him being overly critical, raising his voice regularly and often making jokes at meetings during serious conversations.

What does Mohammad say? “I’m clear and expressive by nature. And the meetings are so dull, I have to lighten them up a bit sometimes.”

What does HR say? “The level of rudeness in this company is on the rise.”

Newcomers and employers have very different expectations around the importance of soft skills in the Canadian workplace. According to research*, 95% of employers consider these skills to be very important, whereas only 27% of newcomers do.

soft skills and cultural conditioning - shaking hands image
There are many reasons for this. For example, many newcomers have extensive experience working in English-speaking countries and have not had issues, leading them to pay little regard to any potential cultural differences while, at the same time, believing their speech will be perfectly fine in the Canadian workplace. Additionally, they have the expectation of getting a job quickly, given that Canada has requested professionals with their experience and background. Most come with appropriate soft skills from their country of origin and view technical skills to be of higher importance.

But often, after many attempts to get work, combined with all the roadblocks they face getting certified, frustration sets in. It is at this point that some immigrants decide to return to their country of origin, find work overseas or opt for a job which does not require their professional skills. Others try to do something differently by learning more about Canadian communication expectations.  As is said, you can’t expect different results from doing the same thing over and over.

So why is it that people, immigrants and native-born Canadians included, are having a hard time getting work or getting a promotion once they find a job in their field? While there are many possibilities, one major reason is insufficient soft skills in a variety of areas, ranging from not understanding culturally appropriate communication to not being able to express words and/or ideas clearly.


Levels of Directness

“The communication style disconnect happens all the time, regardless of language or cultural background,” says Nicole Stuart, CHRP, Director of Human Resources at Glaxo Smith Kline. “Some people are very direct and other people can be very offended by a direct communication approach.”

But levels of directness are also related to cultural expectations. The Canadian “feedback sandwich” – we say something positive, then the critical feedback, followed by one more positive statement – is often misunderstood by people from cultures that tend to be direct in their feedback.

“Sometimes when a conversation is verbal… the employee doesn’t really hear the message.” says Stuart. “I have found that, as soon as the manager has put something in writing, a very high percentage say: ‘Oh my goodness… you were being serious.’ Or else they never even heard it.”

Drawing the line between what is cultural and what is personal can be tricky. But understanding some basic cultural tendencies can help sensitize us to how our communication style has been programmed by our prior cultural conditioning.

For example, in Canada in an office environment, it is considered professional to control the volume of your voice, to soften feedback especially when it is the first time, and to respect all types of difference by monitoring our language and use of humour.

Body language – how close we stand to each other; how much eye contact we make and the degree to which we gesture – is also dictated culturally. Even turn taking in a conversation – Can we start speaking before the other person has finished? Should we wait a while before speaking? – is conditioned by our cultural experience. Breaking these cultural dictates can lead to our behaviour being considered rude, cold, overly friendly, inarticulate, etc.


Power Distance and Egalitarianism

Another very important cultural influence is related to the role of status and the degree to which we expect power to be distributed unequally in society ( Most immigrants to Canada come from countries that are highly hierarchical. Managers are expected to have extensive technical knowledge in order to control each step of the process and those they supervise expect to follow orders rather than take much initiative.

In contrast,Canadian managers may not have all the technical knowledge used in the department. They do, however, require the soft skills needed to win the respect not automatically attributed to those of higher status.Making all the decisions every step of the way is not important and, as power is shared to a degree, the employee who shows appropriate initiative is considered invaluable.

When a Canadian born employee with moderate technical skills is offered a managerial position over an immigrant with very strong technical skills, discrimination is often cited. While no one denies the existence of discriminatory practices, giving preference to a candidate with strong soft skills is common practice in Canada and a managerial approach consistent with our egalitarian culture.


Speaking Clearly and Appropriately

This emphasis on soft skills at higher levels of management includes being able to express oneself clearly and appropriately.Enunciation, correct rhythm, appropriate register of formality vs informality, the use of specific terms and expressions, etc. are all soft skills related to language and speech.Having limited skill in this area will create an impenetrable glass ceiling, limiting promotional opportunities.When combined with appropriate cultural soft skills, the more refined the speech abilities, the greater the opportunity for advancement.

Self-identification is key to making a change, says Stuart. If you are working, managers will often not address accent issues or anything that could be labeled as discriminatory. Identifying your own needs for soft-skill development increase the odds that you will be supported by your company in this area, as well as improving your odds for advancement. And if you are not working, as you are the only one that can make changes, learning different ways to communicate and influence people verbally, as well as adjusting your speech to be closer to the local accent and manner of expression, could be the key to opening up job opportunities.

* Report: Perceptions of Employment Barriers and Solutions,(from ALLIES, undertaken by R.A. Malatest and Associates, funded by the Government of Ontario;) taken from newsletter, March 2015.