Apples & Oranges: Understanding Adverse Reactions to Culture

Last week, we talked about how important it is to successful cross cultural management to accept the culture into which you are integrating.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you’ll dislike or disagree with certain aspects of the culture. But disagreement doesn’t have to mean disdain.

You can disagree and still respect that this society might see or do things differently than you. And that’s okay.

Why Do We React Adversely?

Any initial adverse reactions to a foreign culture can probably be credited to discomfort.

This new world into which you are entering isn’t familiar and may not offer all the amenities of home (and if they do, they’re likely not packaged the same, so may be hard to find).

Home is easy. It’s familiar. It’s unsurprising.

You might start feeling nostalgic for home, which is part of the natural stages of culture shock.

It’s understandable. You likely know no one in this new world. All your friends are back home. It’s disconcerting to transition into a completely different life without anyone to lean on. Especially when that life and the culture’s norms and values are so different than your own.

When moving to Spain, a Japanese person might dislike the loud restaurants and the encroachment on their personal space when greeting, and in Japan, a Spanish person might dislike the culture’s formal behavior and traditions.

But to move forward and conquer that initial adverse reaction, the foreigner must understand that just because something is different than what he or she knows does not mean it’s bad.

Apples & Oranges

I grew up in Africa. My dad worked there. As a child, the thing I missed most from back home in Switzerland was apples. The fruit on hand was monkey-bread from the baobab.

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Despite missing apples, monkey-bread was still appetizing.

My point is that accepting another culture as it is does not mean you must disavow the things you like back home. But it does mean you shouldn’t categorize things in your host culture as “good” or “bad”; you should make an effort not to compare it with what you know.

Accepting means to refrain from judging the differences and look at them with a clear and open mind. They may be unfamiliar and strange to you, but the sun sets beautifully over the African savannah, just as it does back home.

Adapting

Accepting encompasses all aspects of a foreign culture. But accepting is just the first step of cross cultural integration.

As a manager in a foreign culture, you must also adapt to some of the culture’s behaviors and social norms if you want to integrate successfully. Adapting is specific to the visible parts of culture, the behavioral aspects.

I’m talking the dress code, the way the culture greets each other, what and when they eat. These are just a few examples of how you must adapt, which we’ll talk more about next week.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting

Do chopsticks seem illogical to you? Is squatting to use a toilet too unfamiliar to fathom? Have you ever felt your worldview being threatened while traveling or living abroad?

You’re not alone. These thoughts arise when you’re living in a foreign culture. As you start to see how culture shapes our world, accepting behaviors that seem oddly shaped is the first step to integration.

Just as you wish to be accepted by your foreign colleagues, you must accept them. And that means accepting their culture. This is the foundation of successfully leading in a foreign culture.

More than simply accepting, you must also adapt. This is the application of your acceptance, where you begin to integrate foreign behaviors into your daily routine and foreign ideas and attitudes into your thought processes.

How Do You Adapt?

Say, you’re from the UK. You normally take dinner anywhere from 6:30 to 8:30 PM, right after you get home from work. You’re used to this schedule.

Your work relocates you to Spain. Your colleagues invite you out to dinner regularly, but they don’t eat until 9 to 10:30 pm. By then, you’re ready to chew your arm off.

Would you get hangry and call off dinner? Or would you adapt the Spanish eating schedule?

Well, first, you might try and understand why the Spanish eat so late.

According to donquijote.org, lunch is the most important meal of the day in Spain, and it’s also when many take their 2 to 4 pm siesta. This pushes the end of the workday to a later hour, because when they return from lunch, they stay until 8 pm. Then, they usually have a merienda, which is a light snack until dinner is served.

In order to integrate into Spanish culture, eating late is certainly something you can accept and adapt as your own. This will help you become part of your colleagues’ culture, and they’ll start to accept you as one of their own too.

Do My Values Change When I Adapt?

You might be afraid that you’ll lose yourself if you adapt too much of another’s culture. But remember the following:

Adapting requires a change in behavior, not a change in values.

That’s not to say you won’t adopt foreign cultural values at some point. You may consider new ideas, behaviors, or philosophies valid and even truer to yourself than those of your own culture. That’s when you’ll adopt.

But such significant transformations are not fast, easy, nor are they painless. They will take much longer than simply changing your eating schedule. We’ll cover this topic in a later post.

Step 2 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Accepting in Action

There are things about foreign cultures you won’t be able to accept. As we covered last week, behaviors or beliefs that cross a moral or ethical line are the most difficult aspects of a culture to embrace.

That’s where YOU draw the line.

But in order to be successful across cultures, one must integrate as much as possible. To an extent, you must accept the culture as it is. This means you shouldn’t judge the local culture, you should accept ambiguity, you should actively tolerate, and you should explain your monkey moments.

Four Key Steps to Acceptance

  1. Don’t Judge – Be “culture-neutral.” Don’t view differences as good or bad. Viewing a culture as “different” instead of “wrong” will allow you to warm up to their ways. Finding fault in another is often due to fear that you are the one who’s wrong. As Charlyne Blatcher Martin writes for global business protocol, “It is safe to say that our fear or insecurity is often the breeding ground for casting a suspicious eye at ‘the foreigner.’”
  2. Accept Ambiguity – You’ll find that many processes and behaviors of other cultures are ambiguous to you. You must relinquish control and accept this ambiguity. Doing so will allow room for fresh connections to be made. You’ll see that you don’t always have the “right” answer; there are many answers to the same question.
  3. Practice Active Tolerance – To be actively tolerant means to allow for other opinions and points of view, while still standing firmly behind your own. You don’t have to agree, but you should accept that others have differing opinions.
  4. Explain Yourself – Undoubtedly, you’ll make a fool of yourself and have a monkey moment or two during your integration. Instead of hiding behind a tree branch, talk about them with your hosts and explain why your behaviors and views differ from their own.

Accepting Inaction

“The locals are always late! So disrespectful!”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something along those lines in cultures where time is valued differently than in the Western world.

In some cultures, being late is not a problem. But to Westerners, it’s a waste of time, money, and is a mark of disrespect.

Yelling and berating the locals for their culture valuation of time isn’t acceptance; it’s accepting inaction.

Accepting in Action

Instead of pulling your hair out, someone who is looking to integrate into a culture where the trains don’t run on time must go with the flow.

Relax.

I know many travelers who’ve accepted another culture’s valuation of time but still follow their own internal clock. This is accepting in action. I also know many who’ve adapted to and adopted it, themselves.

We’ll talk about adapting next week.

 

Step 2 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Accepting

Last week, we talked about awareness. Awareness of culture differences throws a fork in the road: once you’re aware of differences, you can either tolerate or be intolerant toward cultural values and norms.

This is where acceptance comes in.

Acceptance plays a huge role in your cultural integration. To be successful, you must accept the culture into which you’re integrating. If you reject it, then you will ultimately fail in this foreign culture.

But, then again, there will be things you willingly accept and things you morally reject.

What Must You Accept?

A myriad of cultural values and norms must be accepted if you want to integrate into a culture. Some will be easy; others will be hard. Here are some examples.

Easy to accept:

Hard to accept:

Whether it’s adapting to the time management mantra of “it will get done when it gets done” in cultures like Nepal or India or accepting that South Koreans eat dog meat or that the French eat horse meat, you must accept that things are morally sound in some countries, even when they’re unsound in your own.

How Do You Accept Something You Morally Reject?

If you have ethical issues with the cultural norm, you can draw the line at accepting another’s culture instead of adopting it.

For example, let’s talk about headscarves. Women from Western cultures often morally reject the idea of wearing the Muslim hijab. Some see it as oppressive and as a way to control women and their human rights.

As reported by Independent, in 2016 an entire Air France cabin crew refused to fly to Iran when they were ordered by the airline chief to wear headscarves upon disembarking the flight in Tehran.

When venturing into a country like Iran or Saudi Arabia, not only might a Western woman feel uncomfortable wearing the hijab, but she might feel as though she’s complicit in what she views as oppression of women by following this custom.

If they reject this custom, then they won’t be able to do business in this country, as happened in the case of Marie Le Pen, France’s far-right presidential candidate, when she refused to wear a headscarf on her visit to Lebanon in February.

According to The Washington Post, “Marine Le Pen walked away from a meeting with Lebanon’s top Sunni Muslim leaders after she refused to wear a headscarf. The move sparked an outcry across the Arab world.”

The question is: is it worth it to spark an outcry?

You Draw the Line

As with most things, it depends on the situation and your own personal standards. YOU draw the line between what you culturally accept, what you adopt, and how far you choose to integrate into a culture.

You may come to accept things as small as greetings and time management, but those that touch upon a moral obligation will be harder to accept or adopt. It’s up to you to draw that line for yourself.

I’ll tell you how I drew my own line next week.