RW3's CultureWizard is a leader in the intercultural and e-learning industries. He creates customized, co-branded CultureWizard websites that teach culture and foster cultural awareness through interactive e-learning tools and resources.
CultureWizard works with experienced interculturalists globally and tens of thousands of employees of global corporations turn to his insights daily. Country specific information on over 135 countries provides a wealth of cultural information and strategies for success when living and working around the world.
Latest Posts by CultureWizard
Pretend you’re leading a global team remotely, with members from China, the Netherlands, France and the UK. You’ve just finished reviewing the first stage plans submitted to you by each division and you don’t like what you see. While your Chinese, Dutch, French and UK colleagues all speak perfectly good English (particularly the British team member), their work just isn’t up to par. Now, you’re minutes away from your weekly video conference call with your team members and you’ll have to deliver some bad news and criticism to get the project back on track.
Because you don’t have the time to call each colleague individually and deal with the specific issues in private. It all has to be handled over the group call. You have two cultures, the Chinese and British, who tend to communicate indirectly, and two other cultures, the French and Dutch, who tend to communicate very directly. The British can handle criticism, but it’s all done through inference and “sandwiching,” whereby the main point or criticism is preceded or placed between a pair of positive statements.
Say, Stan, lovely job on the graphics. Maybe we should
review the projections a bit, but the report looks great.
The only thing that matters in that statement is the bolded bit.
However, “sandwiching” tends to confuse the Dutch who deal much better with direct and honest feedback, and may irritate the French who find false pleasantries patronizing and insincere. And then you have your Chinese colleague who places enormous value upon maintaining “face” and could be very uncomfortable, possibly even ashamed, of having their work criticized before international colleagues. How do you go about delivering bad news and criticism to four colleagues from four distinct cultures?
At CultureWizard we think about these situations a lot. The Harvard Business Review did a nice job presenting a few real-life scenarios. Here’s what we suggest when it comes to breaching the culture and criticism divide.
1. Talk about culture and how it impacts the way we say and hear things, particularly criticism. Give an example from your own culture to make the point and ask others to share their perspective.
2. Be mindful to keep up morale, and use a generally positive tone. Even though your Dutch and French colleagues might find it unnecessary and a tad frustrating, in general, they will be less frustrated than your Chinese colleague might be hurt and disengage if your criticism causes a loss of face.
3. Try not to embarrass anyone. If you’re having a particular issue with one colleague’s work, and you know they value maintaining face, discuss your issue in private rather than risk embarrassing them in front of the entire team.
4. Provide clear directives in written form so your team can have something to go back to after the meeting that constructively explains your criticism. If you know individuals expect you to manage process closely, don’t take anything for granted. Extra detail and context will help.
5. Be clear, concise and kind. Reiterate your main points before you get off the call and ask individuals to re-state in their own words what they’ve understood their next steps to be.
Check out this Primer on Anglo-Dutch Translation. Priceless!
What stories and insights—good or bad—can you share when culture and criticism came face to face?
Those who have been following the news may know that French President François Hollande’s affair with actress Julie Gayet, is making headlines worldwide. While followers around the world consider it a scandal, the French reaction could be described as more of a collective shrug.
A recent study by the Pew Research center suggests that French voters are less fazed by allegations of infidelity by politicians than other nations. According to the survey, less than half consider extramarital dalliances to be morally unacceptable (compared to 60% in Germany and 84% in the US).
For the French, personal and professional affairs are two distinct entities, and public figures expect the same respect for privacy as any citizen. We can see this in the different ways the French media has approached the story in contrast to the UK and other more conservative nations where maintaining an image of “family values” is essential for political success.
“Private matters should be dealt with privately”, said Hollande when questioned about the incident. And for the most part, his fellow countrymen are respecting his request.
After the magazine Closer published a seven-page exposé on the alleged tryst, most of the French public was offended by the publication’s breach of privacy, more so than by Hollande’s indiscretion. Compare that with the salacious tell-alls by British and American publications, and you’ll immediately pick up on some key cultural differences between the French and their Anglophone peers when it comes to private affairs.
Why might France covet such privacy? The three guiding principles of French culture lie in the national motto: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Of the three, liberté (liberty) is by far the most relevant. It is defined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as follows: “Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights.”
The French hold comparatively liberal attitudes on family, marriage, and sexuality and appear to be unshockable to some outsiders. It’s not uncommon for upper class, educated couples to have families outside of marriage. Holland himself fathered four children with his former common law partner, Segolene Royal — a fact that did not sway his supporters.
The French rarely receive people in their homes and are suspicious of those who are too forthcoming about their personal lives. While few conversation topics are strictly off-limits, most prefer not to discuss their families or romantic relationships. Verbal exchanges tend to be more calculated, and where some cultures will try to fill conversational gaps with small talk, the French use silence to create distance. It is important to consider this should a conversation start to taper. It may be appropriate to politely end the discussion.
There is no faster way to alienate a French colleague than to tread on their privacy or personal autonomy. Even if you’re well-intentioned, refrain from commenting on someone’s private affairs until you know a person very well. Most visitors to France find that as long as privacy is respected, pleasant relationships are easy to maintain with your French peers. Foreigners should also know that despite some initial reticence, the French are warm, hospitable people, and often make excellent lifelong friends once you’ve found your way into their inner circle. The key is to allow relationships to develop naturally and monitor how much information you choose to share.
How do you see the concept of privacy in France vis-à-vis political careers? Does it really not matter to the French, or does it depend on other factors?
Above photo: French President, Francois Hollande pictured with former partner, Valerie Trierweiler.
According to a recent piece in the New York Times, many US families of Asian descent are facing tough choices when it comes to caring for their elderly family members.
“This idea that the younger generation is culturally mandated to take care of their parents is deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture,” says Zhanlian Feng, a senior research analyst at RTI International. But, for the American children of elderly Asian parents, this is often not feasible.
The long-standing Asian tradition of filial piety, or of caring for the elderly at home until death, has eroded: the modern US family is one where both partners work outside the home, many do not live with their extended family and have less free time to care for others outside of the job.
This means that in both the US and Asia, more elderly people are being laced into assisted living or nursing homes. In the US, this brings attention to the need for culturally sensitive care.
Many American care providers struggle with even the basics, e.g. how to address a patient, how to discuss difficult experiences like war trauma and communication expectations around medical care in general. Language barriers present an abvious challenge for elderly patients that long to be in familiar surroundings with elements of their own cultures.
In response to this growing need, Im Ja Choi founded Passi, an organization that trains home health aides who speak a number of Asian languages. The cause is also personal to Ms. Choi. When her own mother developed stomach cancer, she could not bear the thought of “abandoning” her in a nursing home. “That’s the agony of Asian-Americans. They have to work, and their children go to school and their parents remain at home by themselves. They put them in a senior housing complex, and there they are alone,” she said. “I am a proponent for home care because my mother, who everybody predicted wouldn’t live more than two months, lived eight years under my care. That’s living proof.”
Choi is currently working on developing an care facility that focuses specifically on Asian American families. Patients will be able to speak their own language, eat familiar food, receive culturally sensitive counseling and engage in activities tailored to their cultural background.
The challenges Ms. Choi faces along with other children of elderly Asian Americans serve to emphasize the real need for elder care that takes cultural values into consideration, and not just for Asians, but for other immigrant groups as well (the Hispanic community has a similar perspective on the best way to care for aging parents and grandparents).
In your culture, what’s the best way to care for senior members of your family? Do you think culturally sensitive ventures like Ms. Choi’s are viable solutions?
If you’re from a culture that encourages smiles when greeting strangers or service people, or saying hello to strangers on the street, you may need to adjust this practice if you plan on venturing to China. The Chinese do not smile at strangers, foreign or not.
According to this informative and funny piece by China Mike, many first-time visitors to China misinterpret Chinese behaviors as aloof or even rude, according to their own cultural standards. Don’t be offended; it’s really not about you.
Chinese culture, heavily influences by Confucian teachings, emphasize nurturing family bonds and a close web of relationships, not acquiring friends just to have them (see this RW3 post on guanxi for more information). Considering China’s long and complex history of poverty and resource scarcity, this behavior was probably an important tactic in a “survival of the fittest” society where kindness to strangers is more likely to take a backseat.
Today, it all comes down to in-groups and out-groups. The Chinese, in general, learn to see the world in these terms, with a trusted inner circle and “everyone else” on the outside. Westerners should also know that many Chinese find some of their behavior equally as puzzling. For example, many say that Americans, “treat strangers like family and their families like strangers”.
If you’re a foreigner visiting China, you still shouldn’t hesitate to smile at strangers, says Mike. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get a smile in return. Chinese who are more accustomed to dealing with foreigners may understand and even appreciate the gesture. Once the ice is broken, and a relationship buds, you’ll find many Chinese people are generous and friendly.
Have you ever found that your natural instincts fail to support you in China? Which behaviors, if any, did you find were less appropriate?
Photo credit: smilingfacechinese.blogspot.com.
It may surprise you to learn that your culture affects how you remember the past. According to a study by Brandeis University, published on Futurity , when remembering an event like a birthday party, Americans were more likely to focus on details like the color of the decorations and the icing on the cake while East Asians were inclined to remember interpersonal aspects like who served the cake or who danced with whom.
“Your culture influences what you perceive to be important around you,” explains Angela Gutchess, an assistant professor of psychology at Brandeis University. “If your culture values social interactions, you will remember those interactions better than a culture that values individual perceptions. Culture really shapes your memory.”
In the study, Gutchess and her research team tried to determine how culture and memories are related. The performed a series of memory exercises with students from the US and various East Asian cultures and the results were astounding. “Previous studies had shown East Asians were better able to remember background and contextual details but this study showed that’s not always the case,” she says. “This may be because East Asian memory is more focused on emotional context and social detail than visual detail.”
Studies like this could be useful to improving teaching methods in multicultural classrooms or even diplomatic relationships. What do you think of this study? Do you think the results are accurate? Do you think your culture affects how you remember events?
It’s not often we get a window into the past and a glimmer of a person’s inner thoughts, but an article on a regretful leader of the Mao’s Cultural Revolution (International NY Times) allowed us just that insight. Indeed, a public apology to his fellow citizens for past wrongs, in a culture that reveres face and maintaining a public profile of dignity and honor, is a powerful admission.
Chen Xiaolu, a onetime student leader during the Revolution is one of several who have made such a public confession in an effort to move beyond this past blight. It is a remarkable act in his culture; an action taken because many feel the imperative to de-romanticize the past.
Do you think that his confession will create a more realistic view of this time in history? Do you think it says anything significant about face and saving face in China?
In the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Princess Reema Bint Bandar al-Saud, is daring to take on the status quo by actively employing female store clerks in her high-end department store. This is a big deal in a culture where women are restricted from activities that many others take for granted, such as driving and working outside the home.
Just two years ago, only a few women worked at Bandar al-Saud’s luxe Harvey Nichols store in Riyadh. Today, you see several dozen at a time, busily maintaining the displays and mingling with well-heeled shoppers. The Princess isn’t alone in this endeavor. While women now only represent 15% of the Saudi workforce, many other business owners are welcoming a more inclusive staff, not only in the interest of equality but because according to some, hiring female employees is better for a company’s ROI.
“We are promoting recruitment of Saudi women because they have a low level of attrition, a better attention to detail, a willingness to perform and a productivity about twice that of Saudi men,” said a grocery store manager with branches throughout the kingdom. To mitigate concerns of culturally inappropriate behavior between the two sexes, many employers are providing gender specific break rooms and installing cameras to prevent mingling.
Despite cultural compromises by employers, many face resistance in the kingdom’s more conservative regions. One business owner who tried to employ women faced such an uproar that local police intervened and paid the women a year’s salary to stay home, showing just how far anti-women’s rights activists will go to keep women out of the public eye.
Many working women choose to cover their faces and forgo name tags, preferring to remain anonymous. “Their families don’t necessarily want other people to know that their daughter is working in retail,” said Princess Bandar al-Saud.
In a country with a long history that is deeply entrenched with its modern cultural value system, changes to society are incremental, but increasing numbers of women in the workforce represents a huge alteration to the social fabric of Saudi Arabia. What do you think of this development? How many generations do you think it takes to see real behavioral change, e.g. when employers extend equal opportunities to both women and men.
If you’re from the West, you’ve likely heard of Nicki Minaj. The Trinidadian-American rapper is known for her provocative outfits, brash lyrics, and dance moves that can’t even be aired on basic cable. She also has a loyal international fan base and a net worth of at least $45 million USD. Above, American rapper, Nicki Minaj dressed more modestly than usual at a recent Abu Dhabi performance.
Given her outlandish reputation, it might surprise you to learn that Ms. Minaj is one of the most culturally agile Western entertainers in the predominately Muslim Gulf States. According to his article by Al Jazeera online, she drastically changed her image for a recent performance in Dubai – swapping her lingerie-inspired attire for a modest wardrobe and omitting profanity from her songs. The concert was open to all ages and was generally well received by Emiratis.
But despite her best intentions, Nicki Minaj still has a lot to learn about UAE culture. Unaware of the laws prohibiting unmarried males and females from touching, she tried to hug a male police officer and was subsequently threatened with arrest. “I almost got into so much trouble,” Minaj told an American talk show host, “One of the rules is that you can’t hug a man if you’re not married to the man.”
Nicki Minaj isn’t alone in her struggle to navigate the cultures of the Arab Gulf states. Western celebrities have often been reprimanded for being out of synch with local norms and expectations. As recently as October 2013, pop singer, Rihanna was asked to leave an Abu Dhabi mosque while posing for photos. While she did cover her head and donned the requisite head-to-toe modest garb, many Emiratis found her behavior distasteful because Rihanna is not Muslim and therefore, her intentions seemed questionable at best.
While many entertainers are revered in the West for their anti-authoritarian antics and uncensored performances, their inability to adapt to local customs can make them personae non gratae in Arab cultures. “Some Western celebrities don’t have any knowledge of our culture or Islamic laws,” said Suhaila Al Mansoori, an Emirati national, “since they come for business which is to sing or do whatever and get money.”
Unsurprisingly, some more conservative Emiratis view these entertainers as unwelcome Western influence. Regardless, pop and hip-hop continue to captivate UAE youth. As one of the wealthiest regions in the world, it’s no wonder celebrities want to capitalize on these lucrative audiences. In order to do so, they must be aware that some of the attitudes and behaviors that make them popular in the West may alienate and offend Middle Eastern fans, or worse, get them jailed, deported, or banned.
What do you think of celebrities who adjust their performances and image for different cultural audiences? Are they still authentically portraying their image? Have you ever had to change your behavior to avoid offending someone from a different culture?