It’s All About Perspective: Measuring Your Own Culture By Another’s Yardstick

Imagine you’ve been living in your host country for two years. 

By now, you know a lot about its norms and values. You know what behaviors are viewed as “good” and “bad.” You respect these views and have adapted your own cultural behaviors where you can.

At this point, you may have even begun to appreciate certain values and norms in your host culture. And, moreover, you can see your own culture through your host’s cultural lens.

In doing so, you might be noticing some things about your culture that no longer sit right with you.

Let’s take a look.

The Wisdom of Elders

Many African cultures highly value the elders in their communities.

They may sit on councils that govern these communities or even judge disputes in the village. They are respected and believed to be wise.

Being as such, elders are often cared for by younger generations and live in the homes of their children. Outside help to care for them is not the norm.

Societal health in such cultures is represented by the degree to which the elderly are cared for in society.

So, imagine for a moment the idea of a nursing home in such cultures. The concept of abandoning an elder to the care of a stranger would be, without question, taboo.

Due to this difference in perspective, these cultures are shocked by the way Western cultures treat their elderly. They view these values and norms pertaining to the elderly as a sign of an unhealthy culture.

And having been entrenched in their culture, in some cases, you might start seeing your own in the same way.

Take Pride in Being Different, Not in Being “Superior”

Managing people from different cultures requires that you check your cultural ego at the door. If you don’t, it will get in the way of cultural integration.

So, think about other aspects of your culture and how they might be viewed by your host.

Consider values and norms surrounding family, honor, hospitality, wealth-sharing, etc. 

How might your hosts see these the standards you place on each topic in your country?

Be aware that measuring the “success” of a culture is always measured in terms of one’s own values and norms. The culture doing the measuring will always set the standards of measurement thereby being the yardstick by which to be measured (see ethnocentricity).

Knowing your host’s standards might help calibrate a picture of your own culture against their yardstick. 

This is not to say that one way is superior to the other, and it is important to be proud of your own cultural heritage. But considering your host culture’s standards of measurement will help to keep your own ethnocentricity in check.

Learning Another Culture: A Conscious Process

Do not minimize the importance of cultural integration when expatriating abroad – or sending employees abroad. 

The value of learning how to adapt to another culture not only eases the transition for you and/or your employees, it also impacts your bottom line.

Last week, we talked about the difficulties of cross-cultural integration particularly for Westerners.

Overcoming our own cultural conditioning and ethnocentricity in order to accept another culture’s ways is challenging for those from the West. 

That’s why it’s incredibly important for senior managers and employees who are expatriates abroad to learn how to learn another culture.

This actionable step should be incorporated into an employee cultural integration plan. 

In fact, cultural integration should be a top objective when expatriating employees.

If you’re sending employees who don’t have any understanding of the culture or the finesse of diplomacy, then your business venture is likely to fall flat.

A Conscious Process

Think of the conscious process of cultural integration as similar to learning a new language.

First and foremost, you need to study.

Whether it’s through books or a teacher, you should be seeking knowledge about your foreign host country.

This is Cultural Integration 101. 

And like language training, there’s only so far you can get with books; fluency also requires immersive practice with native speakers

Only then can you strengthen your vocabulary, master pronunciation, learn colloquial phrases, and really delve into the nuances of the language.

The same goes with fluency in a culture.

Books and notes make up the theoretical learning process. This can be done at home.

The immersive process is done through active sharing.

Whether you’re sharing a meal with your foreign colleagues, joining in a sport with your friends, or getting involved with your local community, sharing in the foreign culture hands-on is the way to the heart of its nuances.

Learn to Admire

As we talked about last week, the Colonial Superiority Complex may still be an inherent default for those from Western cultures.

But true integration is only achieved when expats view their host culture as equal to their own, despite any differences in economic, scientific, social, or military advancements, etc., between the two countries.

You can be proud of your own culture, while simultaneously showing curiosity and admiration in another’s.

The bottom line is, you must be able to adopt an objective perspective regarding values and norms in order to manage successfully in another culture.

Next week, we’ll talk more about learning about and admiring the achievements of other cultures.

The Colonial Superiority Complex: Why Adapting to Another Culture is a Struggle for The West

Do you easily adapt to another culture? Do you find value in another’s values and seek to understand norms and behaviors?

For Westerners, in particular, this step in cultural integration is difficult.

And its difficulty has its roots in history.

The Colonial Superiority Complex

Samuel P. Huntington, American political scientist and former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, considers two opposing civilizations as particularly dangerous: the Muslim world and Western civilization.

Why did he consider these two civilizations to be dangerous?

1) Their “superiority complex” in relation to other cultures

2) Their willingness to enforce their values and norms on others

In this case, we’re defining “civilization” as a group of cultures that share history and values.

In his groundbreaking book, The Clash of Civilization, he writes, 

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. […] The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” 

Published in the nineties, a number of Huntington’s predictions unfolded in reality. These two civilizations did indeed come to a head in many conflicts along the “fault lines” and continue to today.

Both Muslim civilization and Western civilization have a history of invading other cultures and universally imposing their rule of law and way of life through violence.

While all civilizations enter into war for access to resources, some in history have notably allowed the local culture to remain without much or any interference.

Others, however, attempt to convert cultures to their own way of life, often buoyed by religion.

Consider this: if your belonging to a civilization is based on race (for instance, Chinese or Slavic civilizations), the culture cannot expand.

However, if belonging is built on behavior, values, and norms, then yes, conquered people can adapt to the lifestyle.

European Colonialism in Africa

A vivid illustration of this lies in Africa.

20th century European colonialism exploited the continent both economically and culturally.

Schools, universities, and churches were built, so Western values and norms could be exported.

The political leaders in the West at that time viewed their culture as superior, so imposing it on others came with the territory.

However, as failed attempts at implementing working democracies in North Africa have shown, an external force imposing culture in this fashion does not work and instead results in civil war and failed states (e.g. Libya, Syria).

Although that’s not to say democracy will never work in other countries, a shift from ethnic culture to national culture is required, and such a shift in mentality takes willingness and time.

The West didn’t allow either.

China in Africa

On the other hand, there’s China.

Without anyone noticing, China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with more than $200 billion in annual goods exchanged.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a million Chinese expats have moved to Africa, largely as traders and laborers.

But the Chinese approach is different than Western colonialism. No attempts have been made by China to promote their culture on the continent.

There are no Chinese missionaries, think tanks, schools, or cultural centers. China is there purely for economic benefit; not to globally expand their culture and civilization.

African culture and political systems are left untouched by their largest trading partner.

This is the difference in approach. And this historical difference is why those from Western cultures find learning and adapting to another culture to be difficult.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to overcome that.

A New Frame of Interpretation: How Analogies Can Help Direct Cross-Cultural Behaviors

Meet Marie.

Marie is a German business consultant tasked with reorganizing a French company.

Excited with the prospect, Marie initially enjoyed her frequent trips to Paris and the directive with which she was tasked. But soon, she faced regular roadblocks that would make the fun project a chore.

The French company she was to reorganize was hierarchical and centralized. Despite this, Marie had difficulty identifying the appropriate decision-makers, as a number of people claimed to be in charge though they didn’t actually hold any power in moving the project forward.

Their interference threw rocks into the cogs of this project, slowing it to a standstill, and the delay resulted in even less support from the French team.

At this point, she wasn’t even able to secure a meeting with management or access the information required to complete her mission.

Marie had two choices: a) abandon the project, or b) find someone who could assist in her cross-cultural understanding of the way a stereotypical French company functions.

The Working Parts of a French Company

Marie was lucky enough to find her Zookeeper at the wedding party of a friend.

Using an analogy, this Zookeeper – a French manager who’d worked for over a decade in Germany – managed to crystalize Marie’s understanding of the hierarchy in the French office and the politics with which it functioned.

The Zookeeper told her, first of all, to abandon her German ideas of how an office should function. Unlike in Germany, companies in France don’t function like well-oiled machines.

Instead, he said, they are more like royal courts, in which the CEO reigns supreme. He is the king, and surrounding him, are his noblemen, knights, servants, etc. – all of whom vie for his attention.

They do this by constructing their own fiefdoms.

As Marie was someone sent in from the outside to manage a project, she should navigate this world like an earl.

As quoted from I am the Monkey, the Zookeeper advised:

“Be humble in the right moment. Be bold in the right moment. Be courteous when required. Be rude when needed. Build your political relationship and network, until you have the ear and favor of the king or one of his important ministers.”

By abandoning her expectations that a French office should function like a German one, Marie would be able to get the job done effectively in this foreign culture.

A Culture’s Office Hierarchy is Often a Microcosm of the Country’s Structural Macrocosm

France, itself, has a thousand-year-old history of strong monarchies. Further, its current politics is centered around a strong presidential state; so much so that President François Mitterand was deemed the “last French King.”

French thinking and the stereotypical hierarchies of French companies have been influenced by this historical structure and the way in which it functions.

In understanding this, Marie was able to adapt her behavior to a new frame of interpretation.

The idea that “French companies are like royal courts” created a firmer, almost visceral blueprint for not only what was expected from her, but for the methods by which she could achieve her goal in this setting that differed greatly from her own back in Germany.

This is one example of how analogies can aid a manager’s understanding of a new cross-cultural environment. We’ll be talking more about creating analogies in the coming weeks.

Seeking the “Why”: How Curiosity Can Assist Cross-Cultural Integration

When working across cultures, stress develops from inconsistencies in values, behaviors, and norms.

Anxiety accompanies culture shock and the changes in behavior required.

Do you handle stress and anxiety well? Then the transition of adapting to your new culture will happen faster and smoother than otherwise.

If you don’t, the next couple posts will show you how to ease the process.

Why Asking “Why?” is Important

A lack of understanding leads to a lack of acceptance.

Without understanding and acceptance, adapting to things you find random or illogical is next to impossible.

That’s why learning the “why” of behavior clears the way for adaption.

Consider you’re the monkey in the zoo. People are chucking peanuts at you, and you have no idea why.

Your handler feeds you often enough, and you’re not hungry. And yet, these humans are surrounding your home and lobbing peanuts at your feet.

“Seems irrational,” you think. “I have all the food I need. Why are these humans throwing more?”

Then again, you might try to see it from the human perspective by asking, “Why?”

Taking a seat to observe the humans, you – the monkey – try to work out the reasoning behind their behavior.

“Hmmm…” you think, “maybe they aren’t throwing peanuts to feed me; maybe they’re throwing them to observe me. I must be boring them by sleeping. They’re trying to encourage me to engage with them.”

As the monkey, through curiosity, you start to understand the rationale of the human; you understand that not all that is unfamiliar is irrational.

Survival Requires Rational Action

Humans are conditioned to act rationally within their environment and time period in order to survive.

Physicist D. Hillis writes in Cause and Effect:

“We like to organize events into chains of cause and effects that explain the consequences of our actions. […] This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The ultimate job of our nervous system is to make actionable decisions, and predicting the consequences of those decisions is important to our survival.”

Since the dawn of time, human beings have been rationalizing.

Society, etiquette, war.

All of these things developed out of some form of rationale or logic.

They were learned.

The question we’ll be asking is how does cultural rationale develop?

And answering that question – and those that follow – starts with curiosity and observation. We’ll talk about that more next week.

Adapting: The Second Step in Cross-Cultural Management

Over the last few weeks, we’ve laid out the first step of cross-cultural management: acceptance.

Accepting another’s culture, values, and norms as different than your own, while foregoing judgment, accepting ambiguity, tolerating actively, and explaining yourself is the best way to get your toes wet in a new culture.

But we have yet to talk about wading into the shallows of the culture in the form of adapting.

If you dig in your heels at acceptance, then your degree of cross-cultural integration is limited. 

Doing so will certainly help you blend into your host culture, particularly as a manager;  however, at some point, you will find that you must adapt to some aspects of the new culture, or you’ll be forever an outsider.

As the German manager did in his Swiss company, taking your integration a step further by altering your behavior will make the culture accept you.

This is called adapting.

Adapting

First of all, how is adapting different than adopting?

Adapting involves changing your behavior but not your values.

For instance, you are being hosted by a country that bows in greeting as opposed to shaking hands.

As a courtesy, you adapt to this behavior. You bow.

But no doubt, your values haven’t changed; shaking hands is still your preferred greeting based upon your values.

Working across cultures, you might choose to accept and adapt those behaviors whose values are valid and do not impose on your own.

After all, a change in values involves a significant life-altering transformation. More often than not, that takes time.

While such a transformation may come, depending upon how long you remain in your host country and how impacted you are by their culture, until that impact happens, small adaptions will show your hosts that you respect their culture and are making an attempt to integrate where you can.

Cost/Value

The bottom line when deciding what to adapt to and what to simply accept is drawn by the personal cost to you versus the value behavioral changes may add to your life in this new culture and your success as a manager.

Does adhering to the culture’s dress code come at a significant cost to you? Does the value of “fitting in” outweigh whatever cost that may be?

Those values and norms which are not in direct contradiction to your own culture’s should be easy enough to adapt and should be what you actively implement first.

Although the behavior may feel unfamiliar (greeting your French colleague by a kiss on both cheeks, for instance), after normal processing, such behaviors will feel more or less natural.

In fact, give it time, and you may not even notice you’ve adapted to another culture.

Next week, we’ll discuss the type of adaptions that you will notice and how to get over that discomfort. Stay tuned.

The Three A’s: Developing Personality Traits to Manage Successfully Across Cultures

Last week, we discussed that managers who lead successfully across cultures often demonstrate the following qualities: empathy, flexibility, emotional stability, open-mindedness, and social initiative.

Does this describe your personality?

If your answer is ‘yes’, then great! You’ll probably make an exceptional leader, no matter what cultural environment you find yourself managing in.

But if you find you’re lacking in some (or all) of these personality traits, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve upon them and succeed as a leader across cultures.

To do so, consider the Three A’s.

The Three A’s

In this blog, we often discuss accepting, adapting, and adopting culture – the three A’s.

Whether or not you naturally possess personality traits that assist cross-cultural integration, abiding by these three A’s will improve your efforts. In doing so, you will avoid Monkey Moments. You’ll also more successfully manage in a foreign culture and generally improve your cross-cultural skills.

Accepting, adapting, and adopting enable you to methodically face cultural conflicts head-on, rather than just winging it and hoping for the best.

Ask Yourself…

The following statements are binary: you may lean more strongly to one side or the other. The stronger you lean toward either side, the harder it will be for you to integrate into a foreign culture.

If you find both extremes to be acceptable, then you are demonstrating cultural competence.

Finding another’s values/norms acceptable doesn’t mean you must find them “right”; it just means you are willing to override your own cultural ethnocentricity, boundaries, education, and convictions, in order to properly accept, adapt, and maybe even adopt another’s.

As with last week’s self-assessment, note to what degree you agree with the following statements:

  • Everyone is responsible for their own actions.” / “Fate determines the outcome of events.”
  • “Asking direct questions is the best method to attain information.” / “It is rude/intrusive to ask direct questions.”
  • “Being vague in your responses is dishonest.” / “Avoiding answering directly/honestly prevents hurt and embarrassment.”
  • “Punctuality and efficiency are virtues demonstrated by intelligent people.” / “Spending time with the people you love is more important than punctuality.”
  • “Being on a first-name basis shows friendliness and familiarity.” / “Addressing people by their first name is disrespectful.”
  • “It is important to maintain eye contact with people who are speaking.” / “Direct eye contact with those of higher status is impolite.”

After reading through these binary statements, do you find either side completely unacceptable? Or is the opposite extreme something you’d not only be willing to accept but to adapt to?

If you’re leaning toward the latter, tune in next week as we discuss more in depth how to accept and adapt to another culture.

The Do’s & Don’ts of Cross-Cultural Management: Unite

Imagine someone from another country was brought in to manage your office.

This manager, instead of adapting to your culture, tries to impose his own.

He enforces rules in the office that make no sense to you; rules which go against your values and norms.

How would you respond to this management style? Would you conform or rebel against it?

Last week, we talked about how social control is exercised through relationships in relationship-based cultures and how rule-based cultures believe in individual autonomy.

This week, we’ll discuss how a little understanding about these cultural intricacies goes a long way in business management.

Rules of Engagement

Successful cross-cultural managers know the do’s and don’ts of cross-cultural environments. Below are the basics.

Do:

Don’t:

  • Divide
  • Try to alter cultural values/norms
  • Be inconsiderate about cultural differences
  • Confront colleagues about these differences
  • Press upon touchy subjects

As with the scenario mentioned in the intro, when you are the monkey, you’re entering a culture as an outsider. Your focus shouldn’t be on magnifying your differences, but rather, trying to understand them. 

Uniting, not dividing.

Just as in the intro scenario, place yourself in the shoes of the worker being managed.

When confronted with a culturally insensitive manager, you wouldn’t appreciate some outsider coming in to change things that have been done a certain way for many years.

Maybe even hundreds or thousands of years.

Step 1 of Uniting: Win Over the Leaders

In a relationship-based society, you manage groups, not individuals.

But that does not mean there aren’t important individuals amongst these groups.

To win over the group, you must win over the leader.

So, the first step is to identify the leader(s).

Next, you must build up your relationships with that leader.

By zeroing in on the important person(s), establishing a relationship with him/her, and cultivating that relationship, you’re essentially doing the same with the entire group in a relationship-based culture. The person(s) at the top of the hierarchy is the most respected and influential.

It’s pretty simple: win over the leaders, and you win the followers.

You can do this by:

  1. Winning their trust
  2. Winning their respect
  3. Motivating them
  4. Inspiring them

We’ll talk more about dealing cross-culturally in relationship-based cultures next week.

When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.

Monkey Moments: What Should You Do When Culturally Adapting is Impossible?

What beverage do you order with lunch?

In the US, you might have a Coke.

In Germany, you’d probably order a beer.

And in France, perhaps a glass of wine.

For those moving to one of these countries, this is a simple enough behavior to adapt to.

But what happens when the behavior is not that simple? What happens when becoming “one of the locals” is impossible?

One of the Locals

Speaking a foreign language. Learning a special set of skills. Drinking unfiltered water.

Due to their complexity or the body’s own limitations, these are the types of behaviors where adaptation may be more difficult.

Learning a language requires patience, dedication, and time. Not everyone who is living abroad has all of these in abundance, especially if living in the foreign country for only a short period.

In regions of Africa, the handshake requires a special set of skills, because it’s rather elaborate. Without practice, the finger-snapping greetings are difficult to master.

And, in certain cases – like drinking unfiltered water in Africa, for instance – your body may simply not allow you to adapt. Although it’s the tradition in a number of ethnic communities in Africa to offer visitors water to drink, sometimes your health must take precedence over local custom.

And refusing to speak, greet, or drink may provoke monkey moments.

Monkey Moments

Although your inability to adapt may not be by choice, but rather by time, skill, health, or any other restrictive factor, this inability may still provoke monkey moments.

(Remember: a monkey moment is when your foreign nature is revealed to everyone through your actions…or, in some cases, your inactions).

How do you overcome these monkey moments?

If the short duration of your stay doesn’t allow you enough time to learn an entire language, learn the local greetings and short phrases. Doing so will show the locals that you are making an effort to communicate.

Don’t have the skills to master the complex local handshake?

Give it your best shot, and the locals will surely acknowledge you’re trying.

Can’t stomach the water?

Declining the customary drink may cause a monkey moment, but you must make clear that your health is the reason that you decline. Any other reason would likely be considered rude or disrespectful.

So, my advice is three-fold: make an effort, explain yourself when you physically cannot adapt, and respect the local culture.

This is ultimately what a successful cross-cultural relationship comes down to. We’ll talk more about respect next week.