Discussing how to work with cultural differences may seem unnecessary for those who live in California or other large metro areas throughout the country. And yet, even people who live in big cities that are havens of cultural diversity or who travel globally may stumble when encountering different aspects of other cultures. (I think of my own experience arriving in the Bay Area 27 years ago. Northern California, at that point, was not just a different culture, it was another planet. To some degree, it remains so for me.)
Professor Art Markman of the University of Texas at Austin offers three useful tips for working cross culturally, backed up by some interesting information. Here they are.
If you’re going to a specific country or region, it’s well worth it to do some research. With Google so handy, you hardly have an excuse not to. Of course, if you have a co-worker from the country you’re going to, ask questions. If they’re not insanely busy, and even if they are, they will be happy to tell you about their homeland. Just don’t ask snarky/ignorant questions. Example: I went to graduate school with a woman from West Virginia who said that someone had once asked her if her home had a flush toilet. Yes, I know West Virginia is not a “foreign” country, but I’m guessing you take my point.
Professor Markman also notes that some cultures—such as the U.S.—are individualist, while some—East Asia for example—are collectivist. The U.S. tends to be flat, and Japan is hierarchical, which means that everyone’s relative status determines how they interact.
Dr. Markman calls the brain a “prediction engine, ” always churning out ideas about what will happen in the future. He suggests paying “careful attention to the failures of your predictions.” Further, he notes “One thing that gets in the way of listening is that you may not give people an opportunity to create an expectation failure.” What this means is that you may not give people the opportunity to take actions that are different from what you predict they will do. His example involves asking an audience if there are any questions, when audience members are not comfortable asking questions in public. He recommend breaking through that barrier by saying something that reassures them that it is ok to ask questions and does not give them the option to say nothing.
He also notes that language differences can disguise prediction failures, so it’s a good idea to assign someone to write up and distribute a summary of high points of the meeting. (Not exhaustive minutes.)
Dr. Markman points out that it’s difficult to know what someone wants, a problem that is compounded when you’re working with someone from another culture. His solution, which is breathtakingly simple, is to ask. (After you have paved the way with reassurances and perhaps found an ally in the group who can let you know if you have elicited a different reaction than the one you intended.)
Actually, when you think about it, these suggestions are probably pretty helpful even if you’re not dealing with obvious cultural differences. Think about it. If you’ve been doing business in New York, a trip to the South may be confounding. These friendly folks seem to have all the time in the world to “visit” with you and yet, you may never see that left hook until it lands. We all carry our own inner cultures—introvert vs. extrovert, for example— with us, and these cultures can make it more difficult to work together and communicate well.
Comment on this post, if you will, and let me know about the cultural difference you’ve encountered, the issues they’ve created, and how you’ve dealt with them.