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Culture Clashes

June 28, 2007

Hello again,

Reading some forum posts reminds me of how teachers travelling around the world to work brush up against different cultures and find it difficult to cope. We learn our cultural preferences from our environment. They are not inherited. Our cultural make-up affects how we react to various stimuli and how we make judgements. One result of being immersed in our own culture is that we tend to view the actions of others from our own perspective. We project our culture and our cultural expectations...

... on the people we deal with. While this is appropriate if they are the same culture, it is not helpful when dealing with individuals from different cultural backgrounds. In international business, it is important to be sensitive to a variety of different cultural backgrounds and to understand how to adapt our behaviour when dealing with them.

Culture affects our behaviour because it defines the framework of values that tells us what is appropriate and what is not. Because our culture is buried deep within our psyche, our reactions become reflexive. But in key areas that affect our relationships, different cultures have different values. Some of these areas are illustrated here:

1. Whom do we respect and how do we show it? A key aspect of our behaviour is how we perceive society’s pecking order and how we observe it. In some societies there are strict divisions between social groups, between those seen as occupying top or important positions and those beneath, or between age groups or genders. Such perceptions affect how formally or casually we address people.

Example of a culture clash:
In the UK if a customer calls a company with a query the company employee often gives just a first name. If an overseas customer from a society with a strict sense of social order called, they would consider it impolite of the person to give them a first name as it shows too much familiarity.

2. Taking risks. In many western cultures a person’s capacity for taking the initiative is generally praised and we don’t like our behaviour to be restricted by too many bureaucratic structures. In many cultures, people’s choices are much more restricted and they prefer to obey clear guidelines rather act alone and take a risk.

Example clash:
If you are trying to work with a client from a country with a culture that is unhappy with risk, you might have to be prepared to spend a long time building up trust and establishing a working framework before any business can be done. If you don’t understand the other side’s need to feel fully confident, you might get impatient and feel they are shilly-shallying unnecessarily.

3. Self-expression and individuality. In the West we value personal freedom and freedom of speech but many countries have a far more collective attitude. Freedom of speech is subordinated to the good of the group, so individuals are careful about what they say, especially on touchy topics such as religion or politics.

Example clash:
Be careful with humour and satire. We often use jokes as ice-breakers and to help make people relax but risqué jokes, jokes about religion, other nationalities or groups, or politics can be offensive to people from collectivist cultures.

4. Equality of the sexes. In the West we expect men and women to have the same rights and freedoms. Women are not barred from any jobs, or any activities and they do not expect to behave in a way that shows deference to men. Similarly men do not expect to make concessions to women. In many cultures gender equality is not the norm and men and women are assigned different roles and are expected to behave in different ways, with the male being assertive and the woman being subservient and nurturing.

Example clashes:
A woman sales executive leading a team trying to do business with a male-oriented culture will not be perceived as the decision-maker or the person with power. A male sales executive from the West might embarrass a woman employee from a male-oriented culture if he asks her opinion or jokes with her.

5. Time. Northern Europeans tend to equate punctuality with politeness. We see time as valuable and we do not like to overrun schedules, miss deadlines or have our meetings and telephone calls interrupted. In other parts of the world people are much more relaxed about time and are routinely late, don’t take deadlines seriously and allow meetings to overrun.

Example clash:
If a South American client invites you to a meeting but keeps you waiting for half an hour, you may take that as a personal insult but the client probably did not expect you to arrive on time and simply doesn’t think time and punctuality are important.

6. How we communicate. In some cultures people are very open and direct. They say exactly what they mean and there are no hidden messages. In other cultures, language is used much more obliquely and according to certain principles of politeness or face-saving. In such societies communications come from a whole range of clues including dress, seniority, status symbols.

Example clash:
If we use understatement or irony, the person from a more direct culture might take us literally. So, if we talk about a ‘slight problem’ to try to soften the impact of a major difficulty, the other person will think we have been deliberately dishonest. Or, if we use very direct language to a person with a more oblique communication style, we might seem impolite. We need to learn out the communication styles of others if we are not to misunderstand them or send the wrong messages ourselves.


If you are in a meeting, do you think it is acceptable to take a call on your mobile?
If you think your boss is wrong, would you tell him/her so?
If you have to choose a team member would you prefer the guy who is nice but a bit lazy or the one who is boring but hard-working?


In cultures with lax attitudes to time and structure, it is okay to take a call in a meeting but in countries such as the UK, Germany or Switzerland it would be impolite.

In cultures that have equal rather than status-oriented societies you could tell your boss what you think. In Asian countries that would not be possible.

In more feminine countries, you could choose the nice guy for your team because relationships are more important than outcomes. The Netherlands is a culture that takes this view. In the USA, the hardworking guy would be preferred.

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