Cross-Cultural Research: How to Leverage the Benefits and Positive Dynamics of Cultural Differences

Are we Debbie Downers when analyzing cultural differences in cross-cultural management research?

That is, do we look at the negative side of these differences over the positive to our own detriment?

That’s what researchers for this paper determined.

Authoring, “The upside of cultural differences: Towards a more balanced treatment of culture in cross-cultural management research,” the team of researchers encouraged scholars to “explore how cultural diversity, distance, and foreignness create value for global organizations.”

And this is what they discovered.

The State of Cross-Cultural Management Literature Today

More often than not, CCM literature looks at the negative when discussing differences in culture and management.

The paper highlights regularly used terms in such research, like “foreignness,” “cultural distance,” and “cultural misfit,” saying they reflect this emphasis on the negative.

These terms suggest incompatibility, conflict, and friction.

To counter this, the authors suggest an emphasis on the upside of cultural differences, instead seeking the “positive role of distance and diversity across national, cultural, institutional, and organizational dimensions.”

Endeavoring to seek out the positive, they argue, will balance the treatment of culture in CCM research, the goal being to leverage the benefits and positive dynamics of cultural differences in various contexts.

So, how does one do this exactly?

International and global businesses reap the benefits of cross-cultural labor and management, so the authors suggest the focus in CCM research and literature can be placed on those benefits.

A Double-Edged Sword

One example outlined in the paper is the following research submission:

Pesch and Bouncken’s paper, “The double-edged sword of cultural distance in international alliances,” shows how examining positive outcomes of cross-border interactions can benefit international businesses. 

Their findings suggest that the positive effects of cultural differences involving knowledge combination and task discourse outweigh any issues with trust-building that can occur by perceived distance. 

Moreover, cross-border alliances lead to improved innovation and joint product development. 

The research submission clarifies that these positive effects occur mainly in non-equity alliances, whereas M&As or joint ventures might run into more cross-cultural conflict, due to communication issues and social categorization processes.

Still, the above benefits are often overlooked in CCM research.

The authors conclude:

“Explicitly considering positive phenomena can help better understand when and how cultural diversity, distance, and foreignness can enhance organizational effectiveness and performance at multiple levels.”

The paper also took a look at Hyun-Jung Lee’s interview with renowned cognitive social psychologist, Richard Nisbett, who authored The Geography of Thought.

We’ll dive into that next week.

World Central Kitchen: How Chef José Andrés Uses Culture to Address Rapid Food Response

During the devastation of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, the blast that destroyed Beirut, the bushfires that tore through Australia, all the way on through the Covid-19 pandemic, World Central Kitchen has made efforts to address food crises all over the world.

Last week, we talked about Hurricane Katrina and how different communities responded to the trigger crisis.

We also discussed how a community or country’s culture can predict its response and how this can be used by organizations to address such crises.

This is what Chef José Andrés has done with his organization, World Central Kitchen.

To Andrés, Hurricane Katrina was a tipping point.

The disastrous response regarding food relief during the natural disaster – especially what went on in the super dome – is one of the reasons he and his wife, Patricia, sought a way to address rapid food response in the wake of a disaster.

Andres told Anderson Cooper on CNN that when it comes to leadership, the most important thing in a crisis is the ability to adapt

This is because not all crises are the same and not all cultures are the same

Being prepared, with a plan in place, is essential. But even more essential is the ability to be flexible.

The Cons of Airdropping

Many organizations and governments supply humanitarian aid in the form of airdropping food packages, but this tactic has long been criticized by aid workers.

Some see it as a public-relations stunt that serves only as a temporary bandaid to a food crisis.

Moreover, this response can put lives at risk.

When the US government air-dropped emergency rations into Afghanistan in 2001, aid workers called the stunt dangerous.

An article in The Guardian reports,

First, because the food will never get to those who really need it. More dangerously, those who run out to retrieve the packets risk being blown up by landmines.”

Additionally, although the food packets served vegetarian meals in line with Muslim dietary law, according to some, the contents showed a level of “cultural ineptitude.” 

The first humanitarian airdrop into Syria by the UN’s World Food Program in 2016 reiterated the limitations of this type of aid.

According to an article by Vice, there was no accountability for the airdrop.

It was uncertain as to where the 21-ton package landed, into whose hands it arrived, or how it would be distributed.

Food is Comfort

World Central Kitchen addresses these issues and more, not only in the face of natural disasters but in the face of war.

Andrés and his team of local and international volunteers are currently on the ground in the war in Ukraine.

One of the most effective aspects of the organization is its focus on the micro – on “locally-led solutions” to crises.

In World Central Kitchen’s story, Andrés writes,

We don’t just dump free food into a disaster zone: we source and hire locally wherever we can, to jump-start economic recovery through food.”

Andrés’ understanding of the importance of food in culture is what has made his organization such a success.

He explains that after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, he joined local cooks to help feed displaced Haitians at a camp.

He recalls:

I found myself getting schooled in how to cook black beans the way they wanted: mashed and sieved into a creamy sauce.”

Andrés sees that food culture is comfort. 

He knows that comfort in a crisis is paramount to a community’s morale. 

Food can feed that sense of hopelessness and instability that results from displacement and disaster.

He writes:

Food relief is not just a meal that keeps hunger away. It’s a plate of hope. It tells you in your darkest hour that someone, somewhere, cares about you.

This is the real meaning of comfort food. It’s why we make the effort to cook in a crisis.”

Following Andrés lead, other nonprofit organizations should consider losing the umbrella approach and taking up his template.

Adopt an adaptive outlook and address crises on a local level with consideration of culture.

Culture in Crisis, Part II: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

We’ve discussed how cultural values can predict how a community will respond to crisis.

In a continuation of last week’s post, we’ll look at the conclusion of the 2007 study by Melinda Rene Miller, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions.”

Hurricane Katrina

With the crisis of Hurricane Katrina as the backdrop, the study looked at two communities within the disaster area and their responses to it.

The values of the New Orleans Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast communities differ, and the study sought to draw strong correlations between these preexisting cultural values and corresponding reactions to determine if community crisis reactions can be predicted based on culture.

The study examined each communities’ demographics, communication styles, association with authorities, relationship to the environment, group unity and community roles, amongst other aspects, to infer their values regarding each category.

Key Differences in Response

The study found key differences in response to Hurricane Katrina between Louisiana’s Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Let’s look at Louisiana’s Ninth Ward:

  • Community Roles Analysis: A community roles analysis showed preexisting beliefs in the inefficiency of leaders, which led to internal disputes and an inability to make unified decisions. This resulted in mixed messages, distrust, confusion, and an inability to execute a crisis plan. Additionally, many police and emergency services officers reportedly abandoned their posts.
  • Demographic Analysis: Evacuation plans failed to include segments of the population, including the ill, those with pets, and those without vehicles or places to go. The demographic analysis showed 30 percent of the Ninth Ward was disabled and over 30 percent didn’t own a car. Many lived below the poverty line and so had no emergency savings to evacuate. Further, personal relationships (even with pets) and fear of change were ingrained in Ninth Ward culture. The paper deems that the culture in the community was “every man for himself”; the onus was on the government to fix things and building back the community together was not considered a personal responsibility.
  • Communication Style Analysis: Many in the ward ignored the evacuation order. The communication style analysis showed that though the community values orders to some degree, having been repeatedly given this evacuation order before unnecessarily, they did not believe authorities and thought the storm would blow over. They also feared looters more than the storm.

Those in the Mississippi Gulf Coast:

  • Community Roles Analysis: Although the government response to the Mississippi Gulf Coast community was equally slow, the people began cleanup on their own. Their values include a can-do attitude, resulting in community rebuilding that was 21 percent more expedited than in the Ninth Ward.  The police force and firefighters were on duty around-the-clock, as dictated by the local government.
  • Demographic Analysis: In the study, there is little mention of the impact of demographics on the response. It would be interesting to see these differences fleshed out, as the wealth and health of the community significantly impacts its ability to respond.
  • Communication Style Analysis: To prevent looting, the local government controlled supplies and resources, in order to distribute them equally to citizens. In rebuilding of the area, the government asked the community to be mindful of elevation maps and received support and excitement about the restructuring rather than the resistance experienced in the Ninth Ward.

The study explains why knowledge about cultural values is valuable in this context:

“Being able to make the claim that a community’s culture has a greater effect on the public’s reaction to a crisis trigger event than the event itself, will aid future research in focusing more on creating a list of cultural aspects that match with crisis response strategies.”

The Way Forward

The conclusion drawn from this study is that knowing a culture and its values provides a wealth of information that can be applied to a crisis response strategy customized to that culture’s values. 

Consider the most recent global pandemic.

Culture influenced the various outcomes of different countries and communities around the world during the COVID crisis.

The reactions to supply rationing, the degree of adherence to face mask rules and social distancing, the acceptance of or reluctance to vaccination – and the resulting outcomes of such actions/inactions – all of this has roots in each nation’s culture and its values.

Cross-cultural research into the varying cultural responses and their outcomes to the COVID crisis, and other similar large-scale crises, could greatly aid organizations and governments in creating more effective response strategies customized to different cultural pockets in a nation – and to the nation as a whole.

Culture in Crisis, Part I: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

Fight, flight, or freeze: these are three common human responses when one is under threat.

Each individual will respond to crises in a different way.

But does our culture influence how we, as a community, respond?

Think NYC’s response to 9/11 or Japan’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

From terrorism to natural disasters to global pandemics, communities and nations often respond in different ways to trigger events, based on their own cultural values.

Let’s take a look at one example.

The Amish

A school shooting occurred in an Amish community on October 2, 2006. Five young girls were killed.

Amish values include forgiveness, living righteously, and hating the sin and not the sinner, and this was reflected in their response to the trigger event. 

As Melinda Rene Miller’s paper, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions,” notes, revenge is not a part of Amish culture.

In mourning the victims of the tragedy, the community also mourned the shooter and embraced his family

They donated money to the killer’s widow and children and attended his funeral.

Sociologist Donald Kraybill who co-authored a book on the tragedy spoke on the power of Amish forgiveness, saying, 

“Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance [at the killer’s burial service], and they hugged the widow and hugged other members of the killer’s family.”

Other cultures might respond to this type of crisis with a need for action, through new laws or regulations; a need for revenge or justice, through an investigation and public trial; and/or a plea for monetary donations for the community to recover.

None of these approaches would have lent themselves to the values of Amish culture.

The response of unity and emphasis on religion and humanity’s purpose on earth correlated with their values.

Behavioral and Attitudinal Reactions

As mentioned in the intro, everyone reacts to crises differently. 

Miller’s 2007 study set out to determine if, and to what degree, cultural values impact group response to trigger events.

The paper’s abstract proposes:

“While each individual person within a given community will react to a potential crisis situation in their individual ways, as a whole, their reactions will never vary too greatly, as their behaviors and attitudes are largely based upon their learned cultural values.”

Next week, we’ll delve into the results of this study, surrounding varied outcomes in communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Scientifically-Proven Tips on Learning a Second Language

Learning a language can be difficult.

But it will rewire your brain.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve discussed how the brain grows when learning a second language.

We’ve talked about how the left and right hemispheres process language and how the best approach to learning a language with an old brain is by dropping perfectionism.

This week, we’ll go over some practical tips and tricks for learning a language and improving your memory.

Vamos!

Sleep On It

Language learned just before bedtime ensures better long-term retention, according to a 2016 study in Psychological Science.

The study took two groups, each studying a foreign language 12 hours apart.

One group learned foreign vocabulary – practiced to perfect performance – in the morning and again in the evening.

The other group learned the new vocabulary in the evening, slept on it, and relearned it in the morning.

The study found that not only did the second group demonstrate better retention, but the amount of practice required was reduced by half.

The study concluded:

“Sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but sleeping between two learning sessions is a better strategy.”

Spaced Repetition 

Online language learning sites, like Duolingo and Memrise, are so successful due to their algorithms involving spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is a memory-strengthening method by which words or phrases are learned at intervals ideally spaced for retention. 

The intervals are small to begin with, reviewing new words several times in a single practice session until they become familiar, and reviewing them again the following day, mixed in with newer words and phrases.

Then, a day, a few days, a week will go by, and you review the word or phrase again.

Soon, you won’t forget them.

Research has proven that spaced repetition can lead to “a nearly threefold improvement of vocabulary learning gains.”

Now, that’s worth repeating.

Test Comprehension Through Content

When you’re comfortable with your basic language skills, incorporating some content into your learning will boost your abilities.

This can be anything from watching a movie in the foreign language to listening to a podcast or reading a news article.

A 2008 study published by Cambridge University Press showed that learning content in a foreign language, as opposed to strictly learning the language itself, can significantly improve the speaking part of language learning.

The study followed two groups – the control group, which studied French via traditional methods, and the experimental group, which studied a civilization course in French – and looked at four aspects of language learning: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

While the experimental group outperformed the control group in speaking, the control group outperformed the experimental group in writing.

So, if speaking is the area you want to target, mixing in some media in the foreign language you’re studying will enhance it.

Learning Language with an Old Brain: Leave Perfectionism Behind

We all know that language learning ability deteriorates with age.

Early language learning is ideal, as we’ve discussed in past posts, because of the plasticity of the brain in infancy.

A baby’s brain maps out language with greater ease, making it more effortless and pliable in these early stages of life.

Old brains are generally more stubborn and rigid.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn a foreign language, even with age.

Let’s take a look at a couple studies that show how we might help our old brains learn.

First Rule of Older-Aged Language Learning: Don’t Be a Stickler for Rules

The best way to learn a foreign language as an older person is NOT to be a stickler for rules.

Grammar and punctuation should take a backseat to communication.

This is largely because as an older person, you’ve long passed your peak language learning abilities and shouldn’t expect to achieve native fluency.

This level of fluency actually ends as early as 10 years old, according to an MIT study.

Boston College Assistant Professor of Psychology Joshua Hartshorne, who conducted the study, explained:

“We don’t see very much difference [in native-like knowledge of English grammar] between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that.”

However, the study also found that adolescents remain skilled at learning grammar up to the age of 17 or 18.

After passing this critical period, your focus should be placed on “accomplishing something” rather than on rules.

Leave Perfectionism Behind

Many older language learners focus on the wrong things when learning a language, which can easily make one frustrated.

Lycoming College Assistant Professor Andrew Stafford advises that his French students focus more on a hands-on approach to language learning, rather than on grammar.

In an article by Albert McKeon in NOW, Stafford is quoted as saying:

“In the end, language is used for communication. Whether it’s perfect pronunciation or grammar, if you get your meaning across, you’ve accomplished your goal.”

Considering the plasticity of your old brain, communication should be the ultimate goal of learning a language.

So, leave your perfectionism behind, and have fun with it!

Part II – Left Brain or Right Brain: Which Side Gets More Exercise in Language Learning?

Both sides of the brain contribute to language learning and expression.

Last week, we found that the left side helps produce speech.

So, what does the right side do?

Let’s take a look.

Right Brain Activated

The left side of the brain is considered the language processing hub.

But when someone suffers a stroke or another injury that impacts the language center in the left hemisphere of the brain, something amazing happens: the right hemisphere takes over.

This made scientists curious as to how much each side of the brain is actually responsible for language processing and production.

This is what they found.

Processing Sounds

Studies have shown that the right hemisphere is specifically triggered when differentiating between sounds.

A study by the University of Delaware taught Mandarin Chinese to 24 native English-speaking adults.

Looking at the students’ brain scans during language acquisition, the study found that the right hemisphere of the brain took center stage when focusing on acoustic details while learning Mandarin Chinese.

Being that the right hemisphere of the brain has been largely overlooked in past language research, University of Delaware cognitive neuroscientist Zhenghan Qi believes these findings can help us understand language learning.

While the right side’s role in language diminishes as the student progresses, in the beginning stages, the right is crucial to pronunciation.

Qi explained:

“It turns out that the right hemisphere is very important in processing foreign speech sounds at the beginning of learning…We found that the more active the right hemisphere is, the more sensitive the listener is to acoustic differences in sound. Everyone has different levels of activation, but even if you don’t have that sensitivity to begin with, you can still learn successfully if your brain is plastic enough.”

Qi explained that adults can train themselves to “become more sensitive to foreign speech sounds.”

Another aspect of right-brain involvement in language was uncovered in the study by cognitive neuroscientist Kshipra Gurunandan, analyzed in last week’s post. 

The study found that the right hemisphere was most active in reading foreign language, followed by listening.

Researchers there also found greater right hemisphere involvement in adults who’d learned more than one language in early childhood versus monolingual adults.

So, while right-brain learners might think they don’t stand a chance at learning a second language, due to the stronger left-brain involvement, these studies tell a different story. 

Left or Right Brain: Which Side Gets More Exercise in Language Learning?

Are you a right-brain thinker? Or a left-brain thinker?

In other words, are you a creative, innovative type (right-brain)? Or are you logical and analytical (left-brain)?

And which side is a stronger language learner?

Never fear: both sides of the brain assist language learning, according to research. 

But to different degrees and in different ways.

Let’s see how.

Left Side Activated

The left hemisphere of the brain stores some 90 percent of our native language.

This is why it’s long been thought that left-brain thinkers may have a better capacity to learn a second language.

The left frontal lobe – specifically Broca’s area – activates the production and articulation of speech.

The left temporal lobe – specifically the Wernicke’s area – influences language comprehension and development.

This does not mean language learning only involves the left side of the brain; both sides work together in the learning and production of language.

Various parts of the brain are activated to degrees, depending on what aspect of language one is learning, whether it’s the lexicon (words), the sounds (phonology), or the syntax (grammar).

Speech

Studies have found that speaking a foreign language largely activates the left side of the brain.

A study by cognitive neuroscientist Kshipra Gurunandan, of the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language, looked at brain scans from Spanish speakers who were learning English or Basque.

Each group performed language tasks, involving reading, speaking, and listening in their native and foreign languages.

No matter the language level of the speaker, the left hemisphere of the brain was primarily activated during speaking tasks, while reading and listening were variable. 

Gurunandan explained:

“In the earliest stages of language learning the native and new languages tended to activate the same hemisphere, while in the more advanced learners they activated different hemispheres. And the switch from the same to the opposite hemispheres was largest in reading, it was slightly smaller in listening and it was non-existent in speaking.”

The researchers believe this left-brain focus during speech specifically is due to the specialized circuits in this hemisphere which control speech production.

The conclusion we draw here is that left-brain learners will have a greater propensity for learning how to speak a second language.

Next week, we’ll discuss where right-brain learners may have an edge.

Immersion Learning & Brain Growth: What Your Brain Looks Like When Speaking a Foreign Language

What happens in our brains when we speak a foreign language?

Do we think in that language?

Do our brains “Google translate” from our native tongue?

Through MRIs and electrophysiology, researchers took a look at the brain to see what visual effects manifest with foreign language learning.

They also analyzed what these effects can tell us about learning a language.

Brain Growth

In an article by Alison Mackey, an MRI study took a look at two groups: young military recruits with a propensity for language and a control group of medical and cognitive science students.

The language groups studied Dari, Arabic, and Russian, while the control group studied other intensive topics but not language.

Taking MRI scans of both the language students and the control group found that certain areas of the brain grew in size for the language group, while those of the control group did not.

Those in the language group who experienced more brain development in the hippocampus of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in learning and memory) demonstrated superior language skills to those who experienced more brain development in the motor region of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in speaking words).

The ease with which a language student learned, understood, and spoke the language saw a direct correlation with the areas of the brain that grew.

And brain development directly correlated to performance.

Immersion is Key

Another study, noted in an article by Guy Brockless on Bilingua, explored the inner workings of the brain via electrophysiology.

Completed by Professor Kara Morgan-Short at the University of Illinois, the study used an artificial language to identify the differences in the brain’s function when experiencing immersion learning versus rule learning.

Both groups learned the language, but the immersion group learned it via processes similar to native speakers, which is ideal if your goal is native-like fluency.

Morgan-Short said about the study:

“This brain-based research tells us not only that some adults can learn through immersion, like children, but might enable us to match individual adult learners with the optimal learning contexts for them.”

Both studies inform our understanding of how our brains work when learning a second language.

They also indicate that while not all brains work or develop the same during the process, that data can allow language learners to tailor and customize the best methods of language learning for their own personal growth.

Second Language Learning Improves One’s Command of Native Language

Those who fluently speak a second language (or more) are gifted with the opportunity to communicate with many different people and cultures.

But that’s not all.

Studies have shown that learning a second language also improves one’s command over their native tongue.

We’ve examined how language is learned in infancy and, for the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed how second language learning can improve our cognitive learning and creativity.

While we’ve mainly looked at younger, elementary-school level students when analyzing the effects of second language learning, the positive impacts continue into adolescence and adulthood.

Let’s see what happens.

Greater Academic Success

A 1984 study by Robert Skelton examined the differences in academic achievement between college students who didn’t study a foreign language in high school and those who did.

Both groups of students had the same level of intelligence and the same socio-economic background.

And yet, the foreign language group showed superior academic achievement overall in college than those who had no foreign language experience.

The study concluded:

“Statistical analysis, reason, and the experience of generations force us to the conclusion that the study of foreign language does improve one’s command of his own language, thereby enhancing one’s control of subject matter in the fields in which language is the vehicle of instruction.”

Latin is Best

A further study by Patricia Davis Wiley, published in 1985, explored the same hypothesis and arrived at the same conclusion.

Wiley’s study, too, found a correlation between high school foreign language study and achievement in higher academia. 

High school students who studied Spanish, French, German, or Latin went on to perform better at a college level than their peers of equal academic ability.

In fact, those students who studied Latin proved to achieve the highest levels overall in college success, measured by GPA, and in freshman English grades specifically – possibly because over 60% of English words have Greek or Latin roots.

A 2001 study by Amedeo D’Angiulli of Italian/English bilingual students, ranging from 9 to 13 years old, also showed higher word-reading and spelling skills than their monolingual counterparts.

Do all of these positive aspects of second language learning make you want to become bilingual?

We’ll talk about how to learn a new language next week.