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.
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“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns–things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. Things we don’t know we don’t know.”
I’m not one to quote Donald Rumsfeld much, but from the standpoint of cultural training, this often maligned quote is kind of spot on. As a set of shared behavioral norms, culture reveals itself in ways that are sometimes apparent and teachable: be on time for a meeting in Switzerland, be sure to take a moment to really look at a Japanese colleague’s business card, etc.
The tricky part that intercultural business trainers face is how to convey the invisible yet just as powerful ways that culture influences us.
Keith Chen is a behavioral economist, and he’s discovered something rather alarming. Something that illuminates, in persuasive fashion, the unknown power that culture and language express over our lives. As it turns out, people who speak languages that don’t have a traditional future tense are actually much better at preparing for their future, be it in increased savings for retirement, better health, lower smoking rates, lower rates of obesity, and even safer sexual practices.
For instance, in English we might say, it will rain tomorrow. But in Flemish, Chinese, and several other languages, you would say, it rain tomorrow. And somehow, softening the distinction between events presently occurring with those that will be occurring in the future gives them more immediacy. Confusing? Try thinking of it this way: I will save my money for tomorrow vs. I save my money for tomorrow. By omitting the very idea of will, an entire nation is culturally more inclined to delay immediate gratification for future gain and deal with circumstances, maybe even years down the line with far a greater sense of imminence and urgency.
Very interesting stuff, and a clear sign of the power that language and culture often unknowingly exudes upon our lives. What other hidden aspects of culture have you discovered in the places and people you’ve worked with and how they might express themselves in your life and workplace?
As more businesses look to expand globally, it’s no surprise that high-level executives are increasingly interested in building the skills necessary for scaling companies on an international level. However, while most business leaders are savvy enough to know the importance of following corporate protocols, many fail to realize that knowing and adhering to local cultural expectations can be equally vital to the bottom line of a growing organization.
A recent article in Business News Daily profiles the international expansion of mobile accessories company, Cellairis, which is now opening locations in Jamaica, Mexico, Chile, the UK, and the UAE. CEO and co-founder, Taki Skouras describes his three recommended tactics for international success.
1. Researching the markets, opportunities and threats.
2. Having a dedicated team solely focused on international growth.
3. Staffing with bilingual employees and translators.
There’s no doubt Skouras’ advice is valid but something that he (or the article) doesn’t mention is how important it is to be culturally savvy before embarking on international expansion. Cultural agility is often overlooked when talking about global business practices.
Here are just five of our tips for working across cultures.
1. Learn as much as you can about the countries and cultures you’re working with. Focus on the societies’ cultural norms before you travel or meet with local colleagues, clients or partners. Understand how those norms play a role in the workplace and how you can create an action plan that will allow you to put your best foot forward.
2. Look before you leap. Initially, take a step back and observe how people interact with each other — making no impression is better than making the wrong one.
3. Identify the differences you observe. Compare how the behaviors you observe differ from the ones you expect, and leverage the behaviors you have in common to form strong relationships.
4. Avoid value judgments. There is no right or wrong approach when it comes to cultural norms. Take the perspective of your counterparts to understand how their world has shaped the way they approach business in order to start bridging differences.
5.Stay true to yourself. Remember that you don’t need to change your values or beliefs to do business globally, but you do need to employ a fair amount of empathy to be effective in the local context.
Have you ever underestimated the impact of culture? Based on your experience, what strategies for working interculturally have worked best for you?
Growing up in a small town in rural America doesn’t provide many opportunities to interact with a diverse array of people. Like most North American children, my peers and I were taught by teachers and other well-intentioned adults that people around the world are essentially “the same on the inside” and to admit otherwise was akin to a form of racism. At the time, this made sense — and not having much experience to tell me otherwise — I was content to believe what I was told.
Many people in the West learn about culture and diversity in much the same way. However, according to University of British Columbia professor, Ara Norenzayan, this sort of color or “culture blindness” isn’t helpful for actually understanding people from different backgrounds and in fact, may contain the seeds for a different, more insidious form of racism.
In a recent interview with The Vancouver Sun, Norenzayan details how the desire to avoid stereotyping often leaves people without the ability to navigate diversity. “The problem is that we socialize kids to treat everyone the same — out of fear they would stereotype others,” he says. “Then when they encounter differences in a diverse society like ours, they don’t know what to do and difference becomes a threat. [University of British Columbia] is a microcosm of this issue, where students tend to self-segregate.”
How does culture blindness affect people as they grow into adults with professional careers? With the workforce becoming increasingly global, having an unrealistic, overly politically correct view of culture may result in misunderstandings, embarrassment and even professional failures.
At RW3 CultureWizard, we’re very aware of the risk of stereotyping when discussing how cultural norms impacts the workplace because the two concepts are often erroneously mixed up. A stereotype is a negative characteristic intended to make people feel badly about certain behaviors and preferences. On the other hand, cultural norms don’t carry a value judgment because they describe how the majority of people within a culture behave and the things that they value. There are empirical studies that demonstrate large scale behavioral trends within cultural units, large and small (the GLOBE study is one of them). Anyone can leverage awareness of cultural norms to help understand why people behave in certain ways, and taken a step further, to interact with people from around the world in the most productive ways.
With this in mind, we also know that teaching culture in a practical way requires making observations and generalizations knowing that there are always individual and group differences to keep in mind. While national cultural norms may characterize the majority of people in a given country, individuals within the same cultural cohort can exhibit widely different views on a single topic (e.g. the best way to make decisions within a group or the appropriate way to fashion an email to a boss).
In the end, the most effective approach is to treat everyone you meet as a unique individual, keeping in mind that deeply embedded cultural values often play a role in the behvaiors we encounter in and out of the workplace. Learn about the vast array of cultures that exist around the world (CultureWizard is an online learning platform that can help). You can use this knowledge to avoid confusion or offending people when your intention was always positive. Furthermore, you can build successful relationships based on this mutual understanding.
How were you taught about diversity? How big of a role do you think culture has on values and behavior? Do you believe that all people are inherently the same or are cultural disparities a real-life issue worthy of recognition?
You might not be able to locate Lithuania on a map, which is why it may surprise you to learn that this small Baltic nation is now one of the fastest developing economies in Europe. In fact, the World Bank’s Doing Business 2014 report claims that Lithuania is the 11th easiest nation in which to start a business and ranks 17th overall for ease of conducting business. Considering all of this, it’s no wonder that Lithuania is considered a Baltic Tiger standing on the cusp of greatness.
With a population of just under 3 million people, Lithuania has distinguished itself as a business and technology powerhouse. This is no small feat — especially when you consider the fact that it only entered the free market economy with the collapse of Soviet Union in 1990. Since the early 2000s, Lithuania has experienced unprecedented economic growth and was among the few European nations to maintain a positive GDP during the 2008 economic crisis. In the wake of this economic growth, Lithuania has enjoyed a rapid influx of both start-ups and established organizations looking to expand their reach in the Baltic region.
If you have the opportunity to do business in Lithuania, or in the Baltics in general, consider yourself lucky, but be aware of potential challenges — particularly those that arise from cultural and work style differences. See below for a few useful tips from CultureWizard’s Country Profile for Lithuania for navigating the business culture.
1. Be mindful of formality. Lithuanians are generally friendly to foreigners in business settings, but prefer to keep things formal, at least initially. Be prepared to make introductions in order of rank and use titles and last names until invited to do otherwise.
2. Lithuanians are considered the “Latins” of the Baltics. However, this doesn’t mean they’re emotive speakers. It really means that they’re a little more expressive than their Latvian and Estonian counterparts. That said, they don’t often interrupt others while speaking and consider it rude if others do. Make sure to listen carefully to others when they speak, consider what is being said, and then carefully respond at the appropriate time.
3. Lithuania is somewhat group-oriented. They will often identify themselves first as part of a group, then as an individual. Lithuanians may be uncomfortable if too much focus is placed on them individually. When delivering praise, make sure you include the entire group so as not to make someone feel singled-out or embarrassed.
4. Lithuanians are showing signs of greater risk tolerance. Bear in mind that culture is a living organism that evolves over time. Many of your Lithuanian colleagues may have first hand experience living under a totalitarian regime, and may be more apprehensive about taking risks and the introduction of change in general. Younger Lithuanians do tend to be less risk averse, but perhaps not at levels you’d find in, for example, North America. When presenting changes, be thorough and support your ideas with measurable facts. Demonstrate that you’ve made considerable thought about any changes to policy and show how they’ll improve the team or the business.
Do you have experience working in Lithuania or other Baltic nations? What differences did you experience between Baltic cultures and your own? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.
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.