Sharing Culture: Why Local Friends Are Important to Foreign Managers

You work for an international company that relocates you to Beijing, China.

Having never been to China and knowing little about the culture, you feel like a fish out of water.

Nothing is familiar to you; the lay of the land, the crowds, the language on street signs.

You think of home – your family/friends, your favorite haunts, your favorite foods – and you immediately feel homesick.

But you know your success in this foreign country depends on building your own home here, even if it’s temporary. 

It depends on your ability to integrate.

And to aid that integration, you begin your friend-finding mission.

Expat Community

The first people you meet are, of course, your colleagues, some of whom are expats from your own country.

You join them for trivia night at a bar that caters to foreigners, and they introduce you to the broader expat community.

This community makes you feel immediately comfortable. 

They laugh at your jokes, understand your references – they understand YOU.

The group is familiar. It’s home. 

It’s easy to choose comfort and familiarity over differences that may generate potential conflict.

With people of your own culture, you’re not navigating a cross-cultural minefield; you generally know where the mines are and you avoid them.

But if you want to truly integrate into a foreign culture, you cannot self-segregate, sticking to your own flock.

You must migrate into unknown territories.

Cross-cultural Friendships Over Comfort

This is not to say you shouldn’t make expat friends.

In fact, these friendships often evolve into lifelong friendships and are also helpful to your cultural integration.

But when you avoid making local friends altogether, you’re losing out on an important part of living in a foreign culture: sharing.

Sharing culture not only allows you to better understand your employees and direct reports, as you better understand the culture you’re managing in; it also shows them that you care.

Without respect and a genuine interest in the culture and its people, you won’t connect with your local colleagues and employees. 

They will note that you haven’t sought out any significant cultural experiences in your new home.

They will note that you don’t bother with the language, the customs, or anything else.

They will note that you stick to your own flock and don’t show interest in making friends or sharing culture with the locals.

As with anything, you’ll only get out of your experience abroad what you make of it.

You can choose to stay in your bubble and never expand your comfort zone.

Or you can choose to share in a new culture, meet new people, appreciate new ideas and traditions, and ultimately broaden your horizons.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three types of expatriates, and you can decide which category you want to fall into.

The Simplest Way to Clear Up Cultural Conflicts: Ask a Local

My wife and I moved to Spain in my early days as a CEO.

We wanted to bond with locals to better understand the culture, ease our integration, and, of course, make friends.

Sharing time with local friends will allow you to learn about both the visible and invisible parts of the cultural baobab.

Whether it’s local cuisine, festivals, customs and rituals, greetings, dress codes, body language, taboos, etc., a local friend will always be better able to explain to you the values and norms of their culture, often better than any textbook can.

This is what my wife and I were looking for – a respectful and open encounter between two cultures.

And Spain seemed the perfect place for just such an encounter, as the culture is warm and open, easy to connect with, especially in comparison to my more reserved native Swiss culture.

The Invitation

So, we decided to throw a dinner party, and we invited friends over to our place.

We prepared everything; cooked an elaborate meal, arranged our table, and watched the clock, waiting for our special guests to arrive.

The time came and went. Nothing.

No one showed up.

We double checked the date to see if there was some sort of misunderstanding. Nothing seemed out of line.

After debating what might have happened, we chalked it up to forgetfulness on their part and, later, invited another group of friends over.

They didn’t show up either.

And a third time. Again, no one.

Were we social pariahs?

Cultural Etiquette

Fortunately, we weren’t. We just didn’t know what social etiquette in Spain commonly dictated of a host.

On the third no-show, we finally did what we should have done the first time: we asked one of the invitees why he didn’t come.

His response?

“You didn’t call to confirm the day before, so I assumed dinner was canceled.”

This baffled us. 

It’s typical in Switzerland for plans to be made far in advance without necessitating a confirmation.

You could set up a dinner date half a year in advance with friends, and the guests would show up right on time.

We had assumed sameness and the result was crossed wires.

This is the missing link in most cross-cultural conflicts: a piece of social etiquette that you weren’t aware of or didn’t quite understand.

We learned a lesson that day.

If faced with any cultural conflict, simply ask (the first time) when you are confused by something.

Usually, the conflict will be cleared up straight away with no hard feelings…that is, if you can dredge up a bit of cross-cultural understanding. 

Learning a Culture: From Scholastic Learning to Experiential Learning

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how important learning the language, religion, and history of your host culture is.

This conscious, and often scholastic, learning process requires time, energy, and discipline in ways that may make you feel like you’re back at school.

It can oftentimes be a tough process, requiring many studious hours logged. After all, you’re investing in educating yourself about an entire culture.

But don’t worry, not all cultural learning will require you to dust off the books. Some of it – and some might say the most important part of it – is experiential.

Learning Through Sharing

You are not going to learn the power and emotion of Spanish flamenco watching it on YouTube.

You are not going to learn the colloquial idioms of Portuguese by memorizing by rote.

You are not going to learn how to make Italian pasta by hand without getting your hands dirty (or flour-y).

Learning culture is an experiential process and, without learning by sharing, you’ll be missing out on all the warmth of learning culture.

Cultures are not two-dimensional. They are living and breathing; they must be experienced in-the-round.

Immersion for Integration

“Instead of having 100 rubles, it’s better to have 100 friends.”

That’s what a Russian proverb says.

And foreign friends will be so much more valuable to you than rubles, as they will be able to show you their cultural behaviors, tell you their history, and teach you their traditions better than any book can.

Making friends is an investment in your cultural integration, as it allows immersion learning.

This type of learning involves sharing time and food and language with local friends.

Whether you’re an expatriate living in your host country or an international manager traveling abroad often, local friends will make learning fun rather than book work.

Not only will local friends make you culturally savvy, but they’re likely to expose you to local entertainment and opportunities that you wouldn’t have been privy to on your own.

And, even better, you’ll build life-long relationships in the process.

9/11 Interpreted: Discovering Culture Through History’s Depiction in World Textbooks

From the North and South’s view of the Civil War to those of China versus Japan of WWII, interpretations of history differ wildly across the world.

When you enter your host country, knowing their historical perspective can help you better understand myriad aspects of their culture.

It can also help you avoid stepping on any landmines that might lead to a Monkey Moment.

History is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

So, what “truth” do we choose to believe?

And what does it say about us?

Recent History in Textbooks

While distant history can still smart a bit, recent history often stings more.

9/11 is but one of those events.

The case of how 9/11 is presented in various textbooks across the globe shows how history isn’t necessarily skewed with time; it’s biased even in the moment, as originally reported by historical textbooks.

Graduate student, Elizabeth Herman, returned to her old high school about a decade after the tragic event had unfolded and discovered the school’s new history textbooks already detailed 9/11 and its aftermath.

She was curious how these events appeared in other school history textbooks around the world.

Interpreting 9/11

For her university thesis project, and later for research under a Fulbright scholarship, Herman analyzed textbooks from thirteen different countries to examine the differences in how this attack was being taught.

What she found:

  • American textbooks highlight the tragedy using volatile language and emphasize how the country came together after the attack
  • Pakistani textbooks call the assailants “unidentified terrorists,” omitting their identity
  • Turkish textbooks omit their extremist Islamic faith
  • Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian textbooks emphasize the “reckless” actions taken by the U.S. post-9/11 in their illegal war in Iraq
  • Chinese textbooks also interpret 9/11 as a sign of the decline of American authority on the world stage

So, considering all these selective details and interpretations of history, what exactly is “the truth”?

The Truth

As we’ve previously discussed, from a cultural context, there is no One Truth – at least none that we’ll ever know, as bias will always exist, in the writing of history and in the reading of it.

But what these interpretations can teach us is how different cultures view the world, how they view themselves, and how they hope to shape future readers’ perceptions of it all.

You might say, “If no one’s telling The Truth, then history is useless.”

But that’s not the case. A country’s interpretation of history allows us to understand their rationale, to seek the “why,” and that’s the whole point when you’re trying to accept and adapt to a foreign culture.

As Herman said on the results of her thesis:

“If you hand a student thirteen different ways of looking at 9/11 from thirteen different countries and ask them, […] Why do you think it’s different? Why do you think that Pakistan tells this story one way and Brazil speaks about it a different way? I think that that’s the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event.”

The Heroes of Our Own Story: How Cultural Bias Enters into the Teaching of History

We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

And with this desire comes bias.

When entering a new culture, learning to read between the lines of what is taught about the culture’s history will help you better understand their cultural perspective

You may still agree with and believe in the historical interpretation of your own culture, but getting to the roots of another culture means getting to know their view of themselves, which is never more apparent than in their teaching of history.

This knowledge will give you insight into the “why” of cultural norms, values, and traditions in your host country.

To gain this knowledge, learning what is taught is important; but, sometimes, learning what is expressly not taught is even more so.

Russia and North America

“Back in the USSR…”

While it’s obvious that Russian and Western cultures view things differently, what may not be so obvious is their extraordinarily different interpretations of history.

North Americans often view their liberal values of freedom and individualism with pride, and that is reflective in their teaching of history.

They view Marxist ideals and communist values as restrictive on individual liberties and enterprise.

Russian history, however, is taught from a Marxist viewpoint.

It teaches that the American working class – and overseas labor from American corporations – is exploitative.

Like Americans, their view of their own history is also one of pride.

They present their communist system as more egalitarian, distributing wealth more fairly amongst the working class.

While American historians present Russia as oppressive, so do Russian historians present America.

And from an outsider’s perspective, if you’re being honest with yourself and viewing these arguments and their history objectively, you can see truth in both…however, you’re probably more biased toward the history that aligns with your own values and norms.

Japan and China

Japan and China are two other examples of nationalist takes on history.

The Japanese take pride in their long and glorious empire. However, the tragic recent history of WWII and the events surrounding it is often deemphasized in classrooms.

Mariko Oi, a Japanese teacher who studied abroad in Australia, puts this into perspective:

“Japanese people often fail to understand why neighboring countries harbor a grudge over events that happened in the 1930s and ‘40s. The reason, in many cases, is that they barely learned any 20th century history. I myself only got a full picture when I left Japan…” 

According to Oi, only 5 percent of her Japanese textbook (19 out of 357 pages) dealt with the recent history of WWII and the events that led up to it from 1931 to 1945.

A single line was dedicated to the Rape of Nanjing (also known as the Nanjing Massacre) which occurred during the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 when Japan invaded China. That war too was given but a single page.

On the other side of the East China Sea, Chinese students are taught in detail about Japanese war crimes and about the Rape of Nanjing in particular.

And as for other WWII enemies, the subject receives different treatment in American textbooks versus Japanese textbooks. 

The Manhattan Project is often heroically emphasized by American historians who detail the justifications for dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Mariko Oi’s Japanese textbook again, a single sentence is dedicated to this event.

Cultural Bias in Ourselves

The point of all this is that a nation tends to have a specific view of itself. 

And, in doing so, that nation will cast itself and its history in the best light while deemphasizing certain aspects that today bring shame. 

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize within ourselves. We’d like to think we’re “above” it.

But in the end, we all want to be “right”; we want our values to be right, our norms to be right, and our version of history to be right.

We want to be the heroes of our own story.

History is in the Eye of the Beholder: Why There Is No “One Truth” When It Comes to Culture

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – or so the saying goes.

And so is history.

History may be “written by the victors,” but in most cases, the “victors” don’t permanently wipe out all other perspectives (thankfully).

Opposing views of history co-exist and, if you’re doing business in a new culture – or living in it – an awareness of that culture’s perspective of history, particularly its own, will help you succeed…and avoid some serious cultural faux pas.

How?

UPS in Germany

Consider this: when UPS tried to introduce new business in West Germany in 1976, the company didn’t consider the historical roots of brown uniforms there.

UPS’s recognizable “brown shirts” were reminiscent of Hitler Youth uniforms to locals.

Tensions arose due to this serious oversight, and UPS was forced to introduce green employee uniforms instead. 

But cultural insensitivity was their first impression.

This could have all been avoided with a little bit of historical knowledge and common sense.

Moreover, another important thing to remember about history is that, when it comes to cultural understanding, it’s open to interpretation.

Interpreting History

Although there may be one truth, no one will ever know it.

Historical events can be perceived differently by opposing cultures and are subject to interpretation.

Knowing that, when introduced to your host culture, look at their history not only through the lens of your own culture, but through their own.

If you look at another’s history only through the framework of your culture’s historical perspective of it, that singular interpretation of the facts likely won’t provide the same view.

In the sense that you’re trying to understand the perspective of another culture, that interpretation is pretty useless to you.

While we hope for objectivity in history-telling, the reality is that subjectivity colors history writing a great deal.

Historians often write within the biased framework of their culture’s own national and political interests.

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize, particularly coming from academics or historians, whom we’d like to believe are “above” bias.

But nationalist tradition often enters into historical interpretation, and cultural preconceptions and stereotypes are extremely resistant to facts.

Only when faced with foreign opposition of said facts may any sort of bias be detected.

We’ll illustrate this contrast of opposing historical views next week.

When Religion Meets History: Confucian & Communism in Chinese Culture

“If you can revive the ancient and use it to understand the modern, then you are worthy to be a teacher.” – Confucius

History. Religion. Language.

We’ve been talking about these cornerstones of culture the past few weeks, taking them one at a time.

But what happens when they meet?

And how can you, as Confucius says, understand the modern by reviving the ancient?

Welcome to the Beijing Olympics

It was 2008. Beijing, China. Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“Friends have come from afar, how happy we are.”

A quote by the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was presented at the fore.

Later, the Bird’s Nest was invaded by 3,000 Confucian disciples. The performers held bamboo slips, upon which some read the ancient Chinese character, “He,” which means harmony.

The religious philosophy of Confucianism was present at the international ceremony, as the great philosopher represents the Chinese mind.

Alive from 552 to 479 BC, “The Uncrowned King” remains today, 1,500 years later, Chinese history’s most influential person.

He is so influential that his traditional ideas and teachings remain a part of modern Chinese thought.

A Culture Influenced By Religion and History

Although Confucius was once deemed “The Number One Hooligan Old Kong” by Mao’s Red Guards, the Communist Party realized that the great philosopher might be useful for their agenda.

Only, instead of true harmony in the way Confucian taught, the Communist Party Confucius emphasizes obedience and loyalty. He bucks Western ideals and pushes for authoritarian rule.

“Harmony” – a Confucian concept – is used a lot by Communists; harmony, meaning no dissent.

The true Confucian take on harmony, however, is one in which each person in a society works together toward prosperity. 

A research paper entitled, “The Relevance of Confucian Philosophy to Modern Concepts of Leadership and Followership,” explains Confucius’ views as follows:

“Confucius observed that because society is a weave of relationships between individuals, a healthy community depends upon an attitude of human caring among its members.”

By cherry-picking and restructuring Confucian values, the party is able to create a version of a modern political system that it can say is based on the traditional past.

In this way, Chinese history and religion tell us why a nationalistic central government, guided by moral individuals who have the people’s best interests at heart, is the way China chooses to be led – and to become a major world power.

History and religion tell us why a democratic Western political system does not sit well culturally in China.

This demonstrates that, in the end, to truly understand the ways and mentalities of your host country and its people, you must study its history and religion – and also the ways in which that history and religion might be politicized in the modern world.

Why Learning History is Important to Cultural Integration

History can tell you a lot about the present reality of a culture’s values and norms.

Understanding the rationale in a culture’s roots – the “why” – is often traced to history’s distant past.

Traditions, customs, and behaviors, as we saw last week, have their roots in language, religion, and, lastly, history.

For instance, due to largely voluntary European immigration and forced African immigration, American culture, for instance, became a “melting pot.”

On the other side of the pond, European history has been shaped by multiple major wars.

Languages were spread worldwide through colonization, with English becoming the primary language of Australia and the U.S., while Spanish and Portuguese were spread through Latin America.

China, Japan, Russia – their societies have all been shaped by influential dynasties.

While this common knowledge is useful to have, it barely scratches the surface in regards to learning and understanding a foreign culture.

Respect and Genuine Interest

A deeper knowledge of your host culture’s history demonstrates your regard and respect for that culture.

National pride is an element of every culture; it is part of a group – and an individual’s – identity.

When I moved to the U.S. in early 2000, I viewed the American Civil War like I did that of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, in that it was remote and distant, left in the deep realms of the past.

Due to the volume of European wars, that’s how many Europeans view battles and wartime periods that took place prior to the first and second world wars.

From this perspective, I didn’t think it necessary to study up on U.S. history beyond the broad culture and recent past. 

I knew the basics about the American Civil War – that it was fought between the North and South over the abolition of slavery – but beyond that, I knew not much else, nor did I consider the war to carry much direct relevance (beyond racism and prejudice) in present-day America.

When I relocated to Richmond, Virginia, I realized I was mistaken.

Richmond was the southern secessionists’ capital, and the Civil War is still very much a part of the “recent past” there.

Some view Abraham Lincoln – widely considered one of the United States’ greatest presidents – in a negative light and the Civil War, in general, as “when the North attacked America.”

In 2003, when a Lincoln statue was unveiled in the center of Richmond, it was received with protests by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

You can see why knowledge of the past – and the different perspectives of this shared history by various regions of the United States – would be pertinent to your cultural integration.

Cultural sensitivity about topics that are considered controversial in some areas is necessary to developing and maintaining positive business and personal relationships wherever you set down roots.

Learn History to Learn Culture: Hungarian Toasting Customs

“Here’s to joint success in our current venture!” you say cheerfully to your Hungarian colleagues, as you hold up your beer pint for a clink at a Budapest bar.

Instead of getting a “here, here!” or the expected return, you are on the receiving end of blank stares.

You’re oblivious to the fact that you’ve just made yourself the monkey.

If you’d done a little research into the history of the culture and its traditions prior to being relocated to Budapest, you may have avoided this “monkey moment.” 

You may have learned how to toast in proper Hungarian fashion.

Learn History to Learn Culture

As we’ve discussed over the past couple months, learning language and religion inherently teaches you about culture.

The last of the trio – history – tells an important story about the beginnings, the evolution, and the present reality of any great nation.

Activist and journalist, Marcu Garvey, once said: 

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” 

The roots of cultural baobabs – aka, the invisible parts of culture – impact the behaviors and norms that we do see aboveground.

History is a major part of these roots. 

It defines us – our customs, mentalities, and traditions; it shapes our identity.

Nearly every modern country teaches its history in schools. It’s often a watered-down version, but it’s a historical framework nonetheless. 

Data indicates how institutions, subcultures, and entire nations are created and how they evolve. Such data allows us to infer how cultural norms and values are formed.

Hungarian Tradition

Back in Budapest, you’ve read up on your Hungarian history.

You learn that, according to legend, during the rule of the Habsburg Empire, Austrian executioners shared in a clink of their pints whenever a Hungarian general was killed during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

When the revolution was defeated, it is said that this is how the Austrians celebrated in Vienna.

This has led to the Hungarian no-clinking tradition during toasts with beer, which strays from most other European countries’ cultural toasting customs.

While you might have just accepted the norm at face value and abstained from clinking in the future, taking the extra step of educating yourself about your monkey moment did you a favor.

Understanding helps clear up cultural ambiguity and uncertainty and gives you a solid footing in a foreign culture.

This is just one bit of proof that learning a little history goes a long way to learning a culture. We’ll offer more next week.

Religion & Culture: Individual Vs. Cultural Behavior

During the 1994 World Cup, Heineken took center stage…and not in a good way.

In a bid of inclusion, Heineken printed the flag of every country participating in the Cup on its beer bottle.

Unfortunately, this included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which holds a holy creed, “There is no god but the God; Muhammad is the Messenger of the God.”

Islam, of course, forbids alcohol, so the blunder led to major hostilities in the Muslim world.

Heineken was forced to recall and discontinue this promotion, leading to loss of revenue and a bruised public image.

This is one example of what can happen when a business does not account for religious cultural norms.

Personal Faith Versus Cultural Behaviors

Religion influences both individuals and entire cultures.

Individual behavior is impacted by personal belief, while cultural behavior is often impacted by religious practices and norms.

A Christian attends mass every Sunday.

A Muslim prays in the direction of Mecca five times a day.

A Jew dons a Kipa.

All of these are religious behaviors based on individual convictions. That is, they may not impact an entire society or culture.

So, what types of behaviors do influence entire cultures?

One might differentiate between a cultural behavior and a personal one by identifying whether or not religious norms and values impact even non-believers..

Christmas & Easter

One glaring example of this is religious holidays.

Christmas and Easter are holidays that have become ingrained in Western culture; even those who are not of Christian faith celebrate said holidays.

In such cultures, holiday rituals – like decorating a Christmas tree, exchanging gifts, or even attending church – are often observed by those who do not practice religion.

Despite embracing these holiday rituals which are grounded in religion, those same celebrants may not necessarily routinely attend mass or celebrate any other elements of Christianity.

Particularly in Europe, attending church is often a personal conviction, rather than a cultural one.

The South

Visit the South in the U.S., and you might view mass attendance differently.

In some states or regions, going to church is a cultural expectation. It can improve both your social life, your professional life, and even your political life.

In this way, religious behavior is a cultural element in the South, meaning it is conditioned by the culture rather than by religion itself.

Why Must You Know This Distinction

When living and working in a foreign culture, this distinction between religious individual behavior and religious cultural behavior is an important one.

Behaviors based in personal belief can be disregarded without major repercussions; but those based in cultural belief simply cannot.

Preparing to accept, adapt, and adopt pervasive religious cultural beliefs is an important step in cultural integration.