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CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING: The Challenge of Working Across Cultures

“Let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved.”
– John Fitzgerald Kennedy
American University, Washington, DC 1963

More and more companies are dealing with cross-cultural issues either as a result of having divisions located in other countries or because the people being hired speak English as a second language. The cultural mix within departments, on project teams and even in management ranks, creates an entirely new set of challenges for organizations.  The impact of culture differences on teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, support for authority and problem solving is profound and often confusing.  Even simple things – like brainstorming or holding a working lunch – have a wider impact than originally thought.  Where our personality types (think MBTI) are inborn and don’t change over time, our cultural response is learned, dynamic and constantly evolving.  Culture can be defined as a learned set of values, beliefs, norms and assumptions transmitted from one generation to the next, becoming  an accepted way of being, doing and thinking within a collective group.

Any discussion of cultural difference benefits from using two well-known models:    the GLOBE model of culture that started with Geert Hofstede’s five-dimensions and expanded to nine dimensions (power distance, collectivism in the organization, collectivism in society, uncertainty avoidance, assertiveness, gender egalitarianism, performance orientation, future orientation and humane orientation) and the Fons Trompenaars’ model developed in the early 1990s.  Trompenaars used seven bipolar factors:  five dealing with human relationships (universalist vs. particularist, individualist vs. collectivist, neutral vs. affective, specific vs. diffuse and achievement vs. ascription), one dealing with time (sequential vs. synchronic), and one dealing with nature (internal vs. external control).

Let’s look at an easy example of how one of these factors could affect a team.  In North America (USA and Canada), we are raised to be independent, free thinking, and comfortable making decisions on the spot – the characteristics of individualism.  We are taught early to be self-reliant and to enjoy our personal freedom.  Many times we find teamwork difficult because it requires us to suppress our “I” thinking in support of a more collective “we” approach.  For people in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the culture is more collective or group-oriented.  In these cultures it’s more important to be loyal and to show support for our own group over outsiders even if we disagree with our group.  These cultures often find it difficult to acknowledge anyone in an “out-group” and often need to refer back to an authority in decision making.  Now imagine a team made up of two Asians, one French person, one American, two Canadians and one Middle Easterner.    We can see where stress points would occur regardless of the topic, just based on the difference between an individualistic vs. collective approach.

Our cultural differences might also arise in the manner we communicate with each other.  Cultural communication is described as either explicit or implicit.  Verbal communication in an explicit culture, like Germany, the US, Canada and Great Britain focuses on being straight-forward, frank, to the point, where a yes means yes, and a no means no.  Those cultures that practice more indirect communication, such as France, Italy, Spain, and Arab, Latin-American and Asian countries believe the precise meaning of what is said depends on the context, not just the words.  The listener is expected to interpret the meaning, often based heavily on nonverbal cues.   A “yes” can mean “Yes, I heard you,” not “Yes, I’m in agreement.”   It’s easy to see how explicit communicators would see implicit communicators as vague, overly flowery, and unclear.  Implicit communicators would see explicit communicators as giving too much information, aggressive and lacking in style and finesse.  Combine these issues with the non-verbal body language of neutral vs. expressive and the communication becomes even more complex.  Expressive (or what’s called affective) types see neutrals as lacking commitment, dull and boring.  Neutrals see expressives as quick-tempered, unbearable in meetings, and lacking professionalism.  Expressives need bad feedback (criticism) in order to get better; neutrals need good feedback (praise) in order to get better.

These are just a few of the dimensions of cultural difference and already we can see how problems arise.  So what do we do to minimize the negative effects of our differences and capitalize on our diversity?  Here are some pointers:

1.  Increase your awareness of cultural differences through study and exploration.  First of all, know your own cultural biases and preconceptions and where “pressure points” might occur with other cultures.  Modern Family recently had an episode where family members tease Gloria about how she makes mistakes with our slang expressions.  Gloria finally explodes (her pressure point), reminding family members that English is her second language.  Clearly making fun of someone’s language difficulties is not okay.

2. Spend time getting to know co-workers and colleagues from on a personal level, recognizing that the degree of private vs. public space will be different based on the culture.  However, talking about children, hobbies, travel and food are all safe topics to get discussion going.  As you listen, hear what the person is saying based on his/her cultural perspective, not just your own.

3. Ask people to define what something means from their perspective rather than assuming that how you see and how they see are the same.  For example, you might ask someone, “How do you define what teaming means to you?”  “When we talk about efficiency, what would you focus on as most important?”  We recently had an interesting discussion in France about the word “accountability.”  The French have no word in their language for accountability, but rather see responsibility and accountability as interchangeable.  In North America, responsibility and accountability have two completely different meanings.

4. Develop “initiating phrases” that soften your approach and help understandings to be made clear.  In North America we have a tendency to be blunt and direct, and see others as rude when they don’t answer our questions quickly.  We’re not accustomed to expressing niceties or being cordial.  As a result, others often see us as aggressive.  A softer approach such as – “Pardon me; I’m feeling confused and recognize that I might understand something differently than you.  Could we just pause for a moment to share how we each see the situation?” comes across much better than “Look, just tell me what you mean.”

Many of us love to travel to different countries and explore the uniqueness of foreign cultures.  In those circumstances, cultural difference is fun and curious.  It feels different however when we have to work together on projects and in departments, solving problems and reaching agreements.  Then culture differences can become hurdles to overcome.   The more we know about different cultures and how they function as compared to our own, the more we will be inclined to openly discuss our differences and build bridges, rather than fences.


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