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Worldly Wise

Avoiding the Double-Edged Sword of Cultural Differences

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

1450861963_57791Imagine sitting in a meeting with people from China or any culture with a strong collectivist approach to decision-making. Your Chinese counterparts don’t speak up in meetings and don’t volunteer their opinions when clearly the group process demands their participation. If you are from an individualist culture, such as the United States, you may find it impossible to understand why they aren’t speaking out. 

Likely, something cultural is at play. Inside the Chinese person’s head is a mantra that is loudly ringing: Don’t push yourself forward unless someone asks your opinion. You, on the other hand, may not be used to drawing other people out. You let people take care of themselves. You assume that if someone has something to contribute, that person will speak up. So, you conclude that your Chinese counterpart doesn’t have anything to offer, or perhaps is in a position that is beyond his or her capability. At the end of the meeting you are shocked when your Chinese counterpart says, “I didn’t say anything because no one asked me.”

Cultural intelligence is a double-edged sword. It helps us to understand differences. It also rushes us into drawing sweeping conclusions, many of them negative, about every representative of other groups.

Over centuries, people have established behavior patterns that we think of as integral to their cultures. These practices tend to linger today even though they may be relatively dysfunctional in the integrated, global business world in which we live. Modern economies, technology, and science all chip away at the utility of ancient beliefs, but these cultural patterns hold fast. Cultures are slow to change, while business practices can change within a matter of years. 

Consider the meeting we imagined above. Some of the people in the meeting with you are caught in their collectivist cultural behaviors that make it very difficult for them to make quick decisions without consulting with their family or business groups. The inability to make a quick judgment looks unreasonable to someone who comes from a culture where individualism is revered and strong.

For this reason, one could say it is unreasonable to apply the criteria of “reasonableness” when judging cultures. Because of the extreme economic differences between Chinese urban dwellers and rural Chinese, one might expect the two groups would be culturally different. But we know they are not. Urban Chinese who don’t know their neighbors, who live far away from their birth families, and who switch jobs every two or three years may still be locked into a collectivist mentality. Culturally, they are still living in a small village where family means everything. Attendant cultural patterns are deeply ingrained, and switching them off is not easy—even when they no longer work. 

Herein lies the double-edged sword of cultural understanding. Your first assessment of another person from a different culture is probably formed because you are looking at behaviors that make no sense to you—as seen through your own cultural lenses. 

How can you avoid this trap?

It is important for global business people to get to know other’s groups and cultures as thoroughly as possible. If you are visiting an Asian country, begin reading about its history and culture. Understanding their history and geography can help you understand why Chinese see themselves as superior, while at the same time maintaining a non-confrontational communication style. The name China literally means center of the world, and they are very cautious about respecting whoever is in power.

In the customer service and organizational communication work that my team does around the world, we teach a powerful but simple communications style tool. We emphasize that the person who is most flexible and can pace different styles will be the better communicator. As participants understand different styles, they can more easily pace them. If styles are paced, then rapport can be established. There is no right or wrong way when it comes to communication. There are just different ways of communicating. The same is true of cultural differences.

Pace the behaviors you see, particularly those that are different from your normal way of behaving in the world. Don’t mimic. Mimicking is one of the fastest ways to destroy a relationship. Don’t be afraid to point out differences or to ask questions so that you can better understand what lies beneath someone’s behavior.  

When you notice differences, ask yourself a simple question: Is this difference emanating from hundreds of years of formed patterns that make perfect sense when placed in context? Likewise, how is my behavior being judged?  And how can we learn to trust each other and enjoy our cultural differences with acceptance?