In almost any business these days, you are guaranteed to interact with people whose cultural background is quite different from your own. In a global organization, you may have colleagues that come from
a different country. You may partner with organizations whose employees come from another part of the country. There may also be cultural differences between you and some of the customers and clients you serve.
You may be tempted to follow the golden rule — and treat everyone exactly the way you would want to be treated. But that’s not the most effective way to navigate cultural differences. You want to accord people the same respect you expect from them, but how you interact with them will depend a lot on their expectations about what particular interactions should look like. This is why it’s helpful to know what specific cultural differences are.
It can be difficult to spot these cultural differences, though, because you are often unaware of your own cultural assumptions. A primary purpose of culture is to provide you with an orientation for understanding and navigating the world, because human beings come pre-programmed by evolution with very little specific knowledge about how to survive and succeed. Thus, the assumptions you make about the world based on your culture form your ability to evaluate everything you encounter.
To identify cultural differences, there are a few things you can do.
If you know that you are going to a specific region of the world, then it is worth doing your research about that area ahead of time. Even little things can be helpful. For example, before going to Bulgaria for the first time, someone told me that Bulgarians typically shake their head to mean “yes” rather than nodding as they do in the U.S. This information was valuable when having conversations with people so I didn’t assume people were disagreeing with me when in fact they were agreeing.
In addition, there are general aspects of culture that are useful for anyone to study. For example, the Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede outlined a number of dimensions that highlight ways that cultures differ. For example, American and Western European cultures tend to be individualist, meaning that they tend to value the action and freedom of individuals. East Asian cultures tend to be collectivist meaning that they value the needs of the group over the needs of the individual. American culture tends to be fairly flat — meaning that there is not a rigid status hierarchy, while Japanese culture is much more hierarchical, and so the relative status of everyone in the room determines the way people interact with each other.
Knowing about these dimensions can help you to notice behaviors that might otherwise be invisible to you when working with people from other cultures. They can also help you better understand any assumptions you make about what behaviors mean so that you’re more likely to interpret your colleagues’ actions with an open mind.
Your brain is a prediction engine, constantly trying to predict a variety of aspects about what is going to happen in the future — including the reactions you will get from others. When dealing with people from other cultures, pay careful attention to the failures of your predictions.
If the people you are working with are normally affable and they treat you frostily at the start of a meeting, that’s a sign that something has gone wrong. Similarly, if you expect that a proposal will be met with excitement, and the reaction is more tepid, that’s something you need to follow up on.
One thing that gets in the way of listening is that you may not give people an opportunity to create an expectation failure. That is, you may not allow opportunities for people to take actions that are different from the ones you predict, which might give you a sense that their interpretation of a situation is different from yours. For example, you might ask whether anyone has any questions, while the people you are dealing with are uncomfortable asking questions in a public setting. In this case, they will keep quiet out of respect, not because they don’t have any questions. And because you come from a culture where asking questions is appropriate, you may misinterpret their silence. You haven’t given them an opportunity to do something that would surprise you.
Instead, when first getting to know a group from another culture, do not give them an option to say or do nothing. For example, rather than ending an interaction with “Do you have any questions?” you can say, “Many people new to projects like this one have a number of questions, what are some of the issues you want to know about?” Now, you are explicitly giving permission to ask a question and making it clear that asking questions is the norm you expect.
Finally, recognize that language barriers can also make it hard to notice prediction failures. When talking to a native speaker of English, you can listen for subtle changes in tone of voice or word choice that may signal displeasure. Non-native speakers have a harder time using cues like this, and so you are going to have to work extra hard to detect violations of your expectations. One thing that can be useful is to have them write out a quick meeting summary afterward and send it around to make sure everyone is in agreement. You might also send summaries around occasionally to ensure that everyone agrees with your interpretation of where a project stands.
It’s generally difficult to know what someone else wants — even when you know them well. This problem is compounded when the people you are working with look at things through a different cultural lens.
Luckily, there is often a simple solution to understanding how people are reacting to their interactions with you — ask. At the start of a new relationship with individuals or groups from another culture, let everyone know that you want things to go smoothly and that you know that cultural differences can cause some unintended slights. Assure them that you will not be offended if they point out another way to handle a discussion.
Having established that you are open to learning, follow up by being explicit about the goals of a particular interaction. You can start a meeting or conversation by saying, “My intention here is to gather input from you so that I can make a decision.” Try to find an ally in a group you are working with who can let you know when you may have said something that elicited a different interaction than you intended.
You are pretty much guaranteed to make some mistakes when working with people from a new culture. If you set up a routine of communicating about issues that may arise, though, you can minimize the damage of the mistakes you make.
by Art Markman