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How to Deal with Body Contact & Personal Space in Foreign Cultures

Do you bow, shake hands, or hug when you greet someone? Do you kiss on both cheeks?

How much space do you need to feel comfortable on the metro?

What is appropriate touching in your culture?

We’ve been talking about visual frameworks and the way different cultures perceive the world. Aside from vision, all four of our other senses have cultural sensitivities as well.

And touching is one of them.

Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette

When you live and work in a foreign culture, you might find your colleagues are comfortable with a different level of body contact and personal space.

One example: I was relocated to Madrid, Spain when I was a young manager. In Spain, you often find yourself negotiating over long lunches that wind down toward late afternoon.

I’d always know when the “real deal” was going down, because if my arm was resting on the table, my negotiating partner would place his hand on my arm. That gesture typically meant we were getting down to business.

To one who is accustomed to such a level of body contact, this action would be perceived as ordinary.

But for those from a culture with a different perception of touch, the body contact would probably be exceedingly uncomfortable and might even be viewed as inappropriate. Especially in a business meeting.

To Hug or Not to Hug

At around the same time I was being made uncomfortable in my meeting, my wife was taking a Spanish course alongside the wife of a Japanese diplomat.

Japanese culture views body contact of any kind with strangers or colleagues as intimate – even forbidden.

So, imagine her discomfort with the Spanish greeting of a kiss on both cheeks.

Not only do the Spanish kiss; they greet with effusive familiarity. And this woman had not only grown with the primary socialization of her culture, but was also raised in an aristocratic family, who reinforced those strict values and norms.

She explained to my wife how difficult it was to adapt. And it’s easy to understand why.

Do You Adapt?

Imagine you traveled to Zuma (a made-up country), where people – men and women – greeted you by rubbing their chest on you.

Remember, breasts are not viewed as a sexual part of the body in many cultures.

Knowing that, would you be comfortable with this greeting? And the real question: would you adapt to it?

The alternative is to stubbornly abide by your own cultural norms, awkwardly refusing to greet in this manner the rest of your days in this foreign country. But in doing so, you are saying to the locals: “I am the Monkey! I refuse to embrace your ways.”

And in making this choice, your new culture will not fully embrace you in return.

Stairs Ascending: How Differing Visual Frameworks Lead to Misinformation

How do you view three dimensions?

How do you view snow?

How does an American view a staircase? Is it different from how an Arabic person views it?

As a matter of fact, yes, it is.

stairs

This depiction of a staircase would likely be viewed by an American as stairs ascending.

For an Arabic person, they’re descending.

Why?

Because of our language and the way we read it.

Americans read left to right, while Arabs read right to left.

This is a difference in our visual framework. For the past few weeks, we’ve talked about how this framework is culturally informed.

So, now let’s ask the question whose answer will make you a more insightful and successful cross-cultural manager: how can the differences in these frameworks be an issue in a cross-cultural context?

Organizational Charts

Taking the example of the Arab versus the American further, consider a chart that shows the different levels of departments in a company, based on their importance.

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As is usual in Europe and the US, the most important position is organized at the top center (or sometimes the top left) of the chart.

This is where our cultures have trained us to view it.

Each descending department is of lesser and lesser status.

A chart in Arabic would be organized the opposite way.

Advertisement

Here’s another pretty famous example of misunderstandings that can arise from differing cultural frameworks.

Marketing was launched in Japan by a Western pharmaceutical company.

The product? Medicine for upset stomachs.

The advertisement depicted three pictures.

The first illustration showed the patient feeling sick. The second showed him taking the medicine. And, in the last pic, the sun had come out and the man was smiling and healthy.

That’s how a Westerner would read the advert anyway, left to right.

But like Arabic cultures, Japan reads their Mangas (i.e. comic books) from back to front.

So, when they viewed this comic strip within their visual framework, they saw a healthy man taking medicine and becoming sick.

Not at all the message this company wanted to send out to potential customers.

The Bottom Line

When you live, work, or advertise in a foreign culture, you have to wear their visual framework like virtual reality goggles.

Seeing the world through their eyes is the only way you can relate to your clients and to those you manage.

And, the bottom line is, the ability to relate to others is what makes a manager – or anyone working in a multicultural environment – successful.

Visual Framework: How Culture Fashions Our Worldview

Do you see the world around you the way a Spanish person sees it? A Russian? A Korean?

Do you see it the way a Koyukon sees it?

Last week, we talked about optical illusions and how different cultures view three-dimensional objects on paper.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion about how our visual world fits into the framework presented by our culture.

Reality + Interpretation = Visual Framework

Our visual framework is defined by two equal parts:

  • Reality
  • Our Interpretation of Reality

And our interpretation of reality is largely defined by our culture…which means that visual frameworks vary as greatly as cultures do.

As we saw with the 10 Cultural Universals, everything from transportation to our homes, the geographical landscape of our region to our art, illustrates just how starkly our cultures differ.

These differences also show how each culture interprets the world around them, and how their worldview is fashioned by their experiences, values, and norms.

Our visual framework and what we place importance on, culturally, is often exhibited through language

One example comes in the simplest form: snow.

Western Snowflakes

How do Westerners view snow?

Many view it in one form: just, you know, that white powdery stuff…snow.

Westerners who are avid skiers might describe different variations of snow.

Hard.

Fresh.

Packed.

Powder.

But beyond a handful of adjectives, Westerners view snow pretty narrowly.

The Koyukon, on the other hand…

Koyukon Snowflakes

This indigenous group from northern Alaska lives along the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers.

Being that they literally live in snow for a good part of the year, their visual framework of the crystals is much more complex. We’re talking sixteen variations-complex.

Here are the Koyukon language‘s sixteen terms for snow, for which each has a distinct separate word (similarly to the Russians regarding dark and light blue):

  • snow
  • deep snow
  • blowing snow
  • falling snow
  • hard drifted snow
  • heavy drifting snow
  • earliest crusted snow in spring
  • snow on the ground
  • granular snow beneath the surface
  • snow thawed previously and then frozen
  • snow caught on tree branches
  • thinly crusted snow
  • snow cornice on a mountain
  • snow drifted over a steep bank, making it steeper
  • fluffy or powder snow
  • slushy snow on the ground

Just Imagine…

Now, just imagine it: you’re Koyukon. You look around your winter wonderland, and you see all these distinct variations of frozen water.

Put yourself in their moccasins and view the snowcapped world with this visual framework.

Wouldn’t the differentiation make snow in all its unique forms so much more important to you than the simple view taken by Westerners?

Seeing the world in another’s visual framework helps in understanding and empathizing with another’s culture.

Next week, we’ll talk about how ignoring this framework can result in some pretty major cross-cultural misinterpretations.

Cultural Conditioning: How Does Our Culture Influence the Way We See the World?

figure1

Look at this figure. Study it. Memorize it.

Now, take out a blank sheet of paper, turn your screen away, and draw the figure from memory.

Return to your screen.

Did you draw it accurately?

For more than a decade, I’ve given my classes this test, and I’ve yet to have a single student be replicate this picture from memory.

Why does this simple figure baffle us so?

Three-dimensional Conditioning

In Western culture, we are taught to recognize three-dimensional projections on paper as real object replicas.

In all actuality, this drawing when taken in two-dimensional pieces is only three circles, six horizontal lines, three diagonals and one vertical line.

But when we see this figure through our Western lens, our brains start doing mental gymnastics, trying to interpret a two-dimensional figure as a three-dimensional one.

This happens with other like-figures. M. C. Escher’s infinite staircase based on Penrose Stairs, for instance.

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Or the triangle of Penrose.

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Because we have been trained and socialized to see three-dimensionality on paper, we have a much harder time replicating these impossible figures.

Absence of Three-dimensional Conditioning

Zambian children with no academic education were presented with the same exercise by J. B. Deregowski, author of Illusions, Patterns, and Pictures.

How did they do?

You probably guessed that they were much more successful at reproducing the figure above.

However, if you asked the same students to give you directions using a two-dimensional map, more than likely, they’d be unable to transpose the map against reality’s three-dimensional surroundings.

Why?

Because they weren’t taught to see three-dimensional figures on paper. Three-dimensionality is not important to their culture, thus, to them, there is no optical illusion.

It’s that simple.

90°

Right angles are another example of differing cultural perceptions.

People who live in traditional societies with arched doorways, arched ceilings, round huts are known to have a “circular culture.”

They are not able to perceive 90° angles, because right angles don’t appear in nature. They don’t exist there, so they don’t exist in the architecture or elsewhere in these cultures.

Conditioning

The color research we’ve talked about over the past couple weeks demonstrates that our perception of the world through our senses is influenced by cultural conditioning.

For instance, we mentioned that Russian culture differentiates between dark blue and light blue with language, defining them as totally different colors.

The British, on the other hand, don’t define them as two colors, but as two shades of one color.

Brit and Russian optics have the same functionality.

But, for some cultural reason, the distinction between light and dark blue isn’t of great importance to the Brits, while it is to Russians, according to their language.

Why is that?

Next week, we’ll talk more about how our visual framework influences our interpretation of reality.

Different ≠ Inferior: Dropping the Cross-Cultural Superiority Complex

Your culture calls light blue and dark blue simply “blue.”

Another culture has two different words for it.

Your culture crumples its toilet paper.

Another folds it.

Another uses no toilet paper at all.

Your culture bows.

Another shakes hands.

Another kisses on both cheeks.

Cultures are different. But none are inferior. And none are unnatural either.

Here’s why.

Stranger Danger

One of the most dangerous ideas in the history of man has been that different equates inferior.

Why is this thought dangerous?

Well, for one, if you view your foreign counterpart as inferior, it goes without saying that you consider yourself superior to him/her.

And when you consider yourself superior, you may try to impose your ideology on the other. That’s happened throughout history, time and again.

When you consider another inferior, you may also justify treating them as such. Treating them like animals.

You may enslave them.

You may abuse them.

You may slaughter them.

It’s a sad reality, but this idea of inferiority is the catalyst to such horrors in our world.

Many of the most heinous crimes against humanity have been committed because of the prejudice that one’s own culture is superior to another’s.

But it isn’t.

Be Fascinated * Give Life Meaning

Cultural norms are natural to their own culture. And they are often a beautiful representation of that culture.

Seeing cultural differences in this light – as natural and beautiful to the culture – will make you more adaptable and successful in a multicultural environment. Adopting this view will help you manage differences (some of which may appear to you as cumbersome or even incomprehensible when compared with your own norms and values).

If you are living and working in a foreign culture, your success depends upon identifying cultural differences and accepting them as they are.

Do not view them in the positive or negative. Such shades are counterproductive.

Instead, take the view of John Hooker who said in his book, Working Across Cultures:

“I have neither the wisdom nor the desire to pass judgment. For me every culture is a source of fascination, because it must encompass all of life and give it meaning.”

And, as with most life-encompassing meanings, none are “less than”. They are the heart of a people, a culture, and should be respected as such.

Next week, we’ll talk about how cultural conditioning creates these differences.

Maybe She’s Born with It: Genetic Versus Acquired Behaviors

Last week, we talked about the evolution of color perception.

Why were traditional societies without the color “blue” in their vocabulary? Was it due to their culture? Or their genetics?

That’s exactly what researchers Paul Kay and Brent Berlin set out to investigate.

Inferiority

As discussed in our last post, the scientific community previously assumed that the so-called genetic inferiority of “primitive” societies resulted in a lack of color perception – and thus a lack of color language.

It was only in 1969 that Kay and Berlin took a deeper look.

In researching the languages of twenty ethnic groups, they collected the groups’ color descriptions, using twenty different color chips. In this way, they systematically compared these groups’ color vocabulary.

Their Findings

Primary colors were identified across nearly every culture, which suggests that color language is unrelated to retina development or genetics.

Evolutionary research also confirms that the eyes of Hebrews and ancient Greeks possessed the same color vision as they do today.

What Does This Mean?

This means that color language is a cultural norm; there is no difference in our genetics, our vision or our perceived color spectrum.

The difference is only in the language. And while some cultures differentiate distinct separations between certain colors, others don’t.

One example: Blue

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Take a look at this color spectrum.

In the Russian language, what English speakers call “light blue” qualifies as a different color from “dark blue.”

“Goluboy” and “siniy” in Russian, respectively.

Both light and dark blue are the same color in English, just two different shades of that color.

In fact, Russians may be more on point than the Brits on this differentiation. The wavelengths of light and dark blue differ as much as light blue and green.

So, equating dark and light blue makes as much physiological sense as calling light blue green and vice versa.

Now, consider early Russian scientists or linguists studying the English language.

The absence of vocabulary between what they saw as two distinct colors – goluboy and siniy -would certainly have made the English language – and, therefore, the British – seem primitive and uncivilized.

The Russians may have viewed their lacking color vocabulary as a lack of color perception and, therefore, genetic inferiority.

Civilized/Uncivilized

So, does color vocabulary (and the assumed “color perception” that accompanies it) make one culture more civilized than the other?

Of course not.

Whether your language lumps light and dark blue together or it differentiates between the two – or whether you have the color “blue” in your language at all – no color vocabulary is inferior to the other.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

Coloring the World: The Evolution of Color Perception

What colors do you see here?

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What about here?

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Here?

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Here?

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It might surprise you to know that in Homer’s famed works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, he described the sea as wine-dark.

He described sheep’s wool as violet.

And the color of honey? Green.

All of this seems to imply that either the world’s color palette has changed…or, more likely, the human perception of color has.

Old Testament Eyesight

We assume that our world has and will always appear visually the same to everyone. In fact, that is not the case at all.

Guy Deutscher explains in his book, Looking Through the Language Glass, why the world looks different in other languages. 

Deutscher highlights philologist Lazarus Geiger’s 1867 discovery of strange color descriptions in old text.

Along with Homer’s descriptions, listed above, the Old Testament also describes faces that turn green with panic, red horses, and dove feathers in green gold.

These color descriptors are unusual today, and that may not be due to artistic license; rather, the evolution of eyesight may be at play here.

Evolution of Eyesight

Color perception and evolution walk hand-in-hand, according to one of the first research theories into what links the two.

As color perception became more important in developed civilizations (like the ancient Greeks), the human eye’s color sensitivity enhanced across generations.

Take blue, for example.

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The color blue was absent in early text (see the wine-colored sea above). Yet, the color red was everywhere, as distinguishing red was paramount to survival.

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Why?

Red=blood = danger.

Red appears in most old languages and has long appeared in garment dyes. Blue, on the other hand, has always been rare in nature and difficult to manufacture, thus our unnecessary sensitivity to it and its description.

Absence of Color

“The more delicate cones of the retina, which impart the higher color-sense, have probably developed gradually only during the last millennia.”

– biologist Ernst Haeckel, 1878

Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, agreed with Haeckel. He said in 1877 that our “perception and appreciation of color” was a recent acquisition.

When researching language of color in traditional cultures – like that of the Klamath Indians in Oregon and the Nubians in Africa – scientists found similar color descriptors used as in old scriptural languages.

At the time, many in the scientific community assumed this similarity in language between old scriptural color descriptions and those used by what they called “primitive societies” was due to the assumed physical and intellectual inferiority of these groups (a popular belief at the time).

But they would soon discover they were very wrong to assume. Tune in next week to find out why.

Assuming Sameness: How Cross-Cultural Exchanges Can Go VERY Wrong

Tom walks into his potential new Japanese office.

He’s never opened a book on cross-cultural business (I am the Monkey! would be a great start), hasn’t learned anything about the culture, and barely put his shoes on the right feet this morning.

He enters the conference room, dressed casually, and goes to shake hands all around. The Japanese colleagues bow, and Tom bungles through, half-bowing, half-hand shaking.

When this exchange is over, they each present their business cards to Tom in turn. He accepts them with one hand and shoves them into his pocket. He forgot his back at the hotel.

Clearly, Tom was ill-prepared. And he didn’t get the job.

What did he do wrong?

Well, for one thing, he assumed sameness. And by that, I mean, he assumed Japanese culture and business etiquette was the same as his own.

What is “Normal”?

With the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about sameness in a way: all the general themes cultures have in common, from language to politics, from transportation to the arts.

Now, we’re going to talk about the dangers in assuming cultures are all the same.

First off, it’s completely natural to assume that other cultures fall in line with our own.

For one thing, from the time we are children, we’re taught a limited scope of what’s expected and accepted by the society into which we’ve been born; we’re taught our own culture’s values and norms.

We see this scope as “normal.” And when another culture falls outside our limited scope, their actions or ideologies are viewed as abnormal.

So with this implicit assumption that the rest of the world is normal like us, anything different feels wrong.

But, the more we are exposed to, the more our scope of “normal” evolves and grows. If we’re open to it, we learn that “normal” is not a universally fixed concept.

Abandon Assumptions

Success in a multicultural environment begins with abandoning assumptions. You can do this in five steps:

  1. Assume you know nothing
  2. Shed foundational views of right vs. wrong and normal vs. abnormal
  3. Know that you’ve been exposed to a microscopic worldview
  4. Admire the cultural diversity that paints the complex mural of humanity
  5. Recall the Baobab Theory of Culture and connect the dots from the roots to the branches, in order to understand cultural differences

Done Differently

Knowing all this, after abandoning assumptions, what should Tom have done differently during his Japanese meeting?

  • Read a book on cross-cultural business
  • Read up on Japanese business etiquette
  • Dressed formally
  • Bowed, instead of shaken hands (or both, if the Japanese counterparts offered a handshake)
  • Been prepared with business cards, as this exchange is routine in Japan
  • Accepted others’ business cards with both hands
  • Read and memorized the name and important information on each card
  • Placed the card carefully into a business card holder, instead of directly into the pocket

Respect is essential etiquette in Japanese business culture. Anything less is insulting.

By assuming sameness, Tom insulted his potential colleagues and cut short his success across cultures.

Next week, we’ll talk more about acquired and genetic perception and how they form our culture and our understanding of others.

10 Cultural Universals Wrap-Up

Over these past few months, we’ve talked about the 10 Cultural Universals.

These are the ten themes that every culture has in common.

Let’s run through these themes one more time and sum up what we’ve covered.

Geography

From the geography of the Inca culture and how it impacts all other aspects of life in the Andean Mountains.

Language

To the way words and language can color our world – like it does for Russian culture in shades of blue.

Family

From the varied family structures in collectivist and individualist cultures.

Food, Clothing, Transport, Shelter

To the dignity of food with Anthony Bourdain.

From fashion, its trends, and social movements that advance culture.

To how transportation can shape a city and its embrace of greener alternatives.

From how shelters tell stories of culture to the stories told by the nomadic homes of Mongolian yurts.

Values, Beliefs, Rituals

From how we become who we are through the values we consume.

To how cultural beliefs can impact everything from gender roles to healthcare to education.

From how rituals can make death a celebration.

Economics

To how cultural values can influence economic output and shape government for better or worse.

Education

From how educators serve as the front-line in disseminating our culture’s values to our children.

Politics

To how “collapsing events” in politics can inform those very values and provide context to the evolution of our culture.

Technology

From how social media movements are being used as a vehicle of change across the world.

Cultural Expression

To how art, literature, dance, music, sport, and other forms of creative expression have always been used as vehicles of sharing and understanding both the familiar and the foreign.

What’s So Beautiful About These Universals?

The fact that each and every culture around the world has these themes in common.

Regional surroundings help define culture, language and cultural expression communicate to others who we are, politics provide culture structure.

Although from East to West, individuals, societies, governments, and their values are different – very different – we all share these ten aspects of culture in common.

And sharing commonalities is as beautiful a thing as appreciating our differences.

Next week, we’ll talk about the dangers of assuming sameness. Stay tuned.

10 Cultural Universals: Cultural Expression

When talking about culture, this is the 10 Cultural Universals category that first jumps to mind.

Art, music, literature, sport, and any other vivid representation of culture falls under the category of cultural expression.

As one of the loudest and most dynamic parts of culture, expression is the paint pallet that brings the picture to life.

Art.

blog53-2Where would Mexican muralism be without “the big three” – David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco?

The Mexican Revolution spurred artworks with a political and social message. Beginning in the 1920s, the Mexican muralism movement lasted more than fifty years.

Artworks were often commissioned by the government, itself, and were mainly large and colorful storytelling pieces, celebrating Mexico’s rich history, coupled with the moral degradation of imperialism, dictatorships, and war.

This form of cultural expression illustrated the importance of history and politics to the Mexican people in this era of change. The bold colors and lines of their pieces also showcased the artistic and cultural aesthetic.

Music.blog53-1Flamenco music and dance in Spain is one of the liveliest representations of an already lively culture.

The dance, which is one full of controlled movement, intense facial expression, and dramatic costume, experienced its golden age from 1869 to 1910 but is still very popular today.

Along with evocative singing, the Spanish guitar, hand drums, and the Flamenco clap, known as Palmas, the experience of Spanish music and dance draws the emotions of the performers and the audience into one powerful crescendo.

Literature.

blog53-4Nikolai Gogol. Anton Chekhov. Leo Tolstoy. Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The Russian soul is best expressed in the works of its greatest writers.

Literature is a canvas of cultural self-reflection. Many of the greatest authors of any given time or place know just how to record and express what their culture is in that moment…and across the ages, as well.

Dostoevsky said the Russian soul was a dark place, and Alexei K. Tolstoy captured that place in one beautiful quote:

“It is sad, yet joyful, on a silent summer’s night, in a voiceless wood, to hear a Russian song. Here we find unlimited sadness without hope. Here, also is unconquerable strength and the unalterable stamp of Fate; here, also is iron predestination, one of the primitive foundations of the Russian national identity, through which much can be explained which seemed inexplicable in Russian life.”

The great literary masters are able to articulate the very essence of what it’s like to be Russian.

And if that isn’t the power of cultural expression in a nutshell, then I don’t know what is.

Creative expression is the living and breathing spirit of a culture. It breathes life into society, explodes onto the canvas, and serves as a monumental representation of who we are as one.