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.

Acceptance & Explaining Your Cultural Behavior & Beliefs

While adapting or adopting another culture’s behaviors or beliefs will help you integrate, you may instead choose to stop at acceptance through active tolerance.

When actively tolerating a foreign culture’s values or norms, you don’t necessarily have to take the next step.

However, remaining in acceptance means remaining a monkey in the foreign culture.

Although you don’t condemn their beliefs, you retain yours, which means you are different. And your odd behavior will be noted by locals.

Some might even view your conflicting behavior and values as offensive. Then again, you are entering their culture, so you cannot expect them to adapt to you.

But choosing not to adapt comes with a caveat: you must explain yourself.

Otherwise, a monkey moment might derail your success across cultures.

Monkey Moments in Language

A “monkey moment” is an encounter of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

When you choose to continue in your own cultural behavior while practicing active tolerance, explaining yourself to your cross-cultural counterparts is key to diplomacy and respect.

Don’t ignore the disconnect; explain why your behaviors or perspective differs from theirs. Building bridges of cross-cultural understanding allows you to be a monkey without all the negative connotations that come with it.

One specific example involves language: the formality of “you” in some cultural environments.

Consider the Swiss and the German, for example.

Germans are more formal than their Swiss neighbors, which means they use the formal, “sie,” for a longer period of time in workplace settings than the Swiss. Swiss move on to the informal, “du,” much sooner, even with their higher-ups.

For those who come from cultures without this distinction, using “sie” is like using someone’s last name, while using “du” is like being on a first-name basis.

When a German financial manager moved to Switzerland, he insisted on using the formal, “sie.” In doing so, he formed a cultural barrier between him and his team.

The more formal language made him appear less approachable and even arrogant.

Cut to a couple years later: the German manager wanted to enroll his executive team in a Swiss bike race as a team-building exercise.

Though the team excelled in the race, they weren’t remembered for their success: they were remembered for their use of the formal, “sie,” amongst themselves. Some viewed the strange usage as similar to a team captain insisting on being called “Mr. Johnston” by his teammates.

Not only did this tarnish the CEO’s rep; it tarnished the company’s image.

The Explanation

When the CEO finally understood his monkey moment after four years of working with his senior executive team, instead of simply switching to “du” unexpectedly, he explained his behavior to them and his rationale.

Describing how he’d grown up in a traditional German family, he explained that informal language always sounded inappropriate to him in a professional setting. He also expressed that it wasn’t that he wanted to be formal; rather, he wanted to communicate respect to his colleagues. However, being that Swiss culture didn’t view the informal “you” as disrespectful or inappropriate in a work environment, he proposed that from that point on, they would switch over.

Although in this situation, he chose to adapt to the culture’s approach to language, he would have avoided misunderstanding straight off had he explained himself from the beginning.

Still, in the end, his explanation made him a stronger leader and managed to bring his team together.

When Being On-Time Means Everything: How Important is Punctuality to Culture?

How does your culture value time?

Are they more often punctual or late?

Do people care?

Time is valued differently across cultures. In some places, like Switzerland or Germany, punctuality is important. Tardiness is unacceptable and often viewed as disrespectful.

In such cultures, daily schedules, goals, and decision-making processes are dictated by time.

Some cultures, on the other hand, don’t stress punctuality. They might be an hour late, a day late, a week late.  And that’s a-okay. Time is not ruled by a schedule, and neither is business.

This can lead to huge headaches in cross-cultural business. When one culture’s concept of time is not the same as your own, how do you deal?

We’ll discuss that over the next few weeks. For now, let’s take a look at why time is viewed differently across cultures.

Finding Cultural Equilibrium

Is our valuation of time deeply engrained in our values? Or is it simply a reaction to others’ tardiness?

A 2002 study on punctuality in culture, entitled, “A Cultural Trait as Equilibrium,” concludes that punctuality is largely reactionary:

“…punctuality may be simply an equilibrium response of individuals to what they expect others to do. The same society can get caught in a punctual equilibrium or a non-punctual equilibrium.”

In other words, individuals of a society may collectively habit-form according to punctuality or tardiness, based on what they expect from their peers. Then this habit becomes a cultural norm.

This study suggests that such habits “could be subject to evolutionary erosion or bolstering.” The researchers consider a society’s punctuality/tardiness norm is both a shared social trait and an individual reaction to our expectations of others, adjusting our behaviors to arrive at equilibrium.

This makes sense. After all, have you ever had a group of friends that were perpetually late and, in knowing that, you found yourself arriving for planned meetups later and later than the set time.

“Fashionably late” is a term for a reason. Who wants to be the first one to arrive, the longest to wait? How unfashionable.

The question is, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did society’s general values about time inform the initial tardiness/punctuality that evolved and became a norm? Or did the values evolve as the norm became more, well, normal?

The Clocks Run On-Time…Literally

While cultural studies tend to delve into the intangible nature of cultural attitudes and values to explain behavior, some behaviors may result from very practical matters.

One interesting theory that developed from a 1980 study on punctuality pattern differences between the United States and Brazil is that Brazilian watches were simply not as reliable, which may have led to less stress on punctuality in Brazilian culture.

When researchers studied various watches in the United States and Brazil, they found evidence to support the theory that “public clocks and personal watches [are] less accurate in Brazil than in the United States.”

An interesting hypothesis, and not a conclusion you’d immediately jump to.

Are Swiss more punctual, because their clocks are notoriously accurate? Or are their clocks notoriously accurate, because they value punctuality?

Do German trains run on time, because their tickers do?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss culture and its relation to time. How it impacts everyday life, communication, orientation, and business relations. Stay tuned.

How Do Canadian Social Norms Reflect Their Cultural Values?

Say, you and your friend, Canadian Jim, go for a coffee.

You arrive at the Tim Horton’s door at the same time.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, as he jumps ahead to open the door for you.

“Sorry?” you think. “What is he apologizing for?”

Canadians are known to be polite and to apologize for the slightest infringement. This is their social norm.

In fact, a McCaster University geo-linguistic study regarding the differences between American and Canadian language on social media found that Canadians are much more upbeat and polite in their language even online.

For nine months in 2015, PhD Candidates Daniel Schmidtke and Bryor Snefjella compiled upwards of three million tweets. Aside from “hockey and “eh”, “disproportionately ‘Canadian words’ included ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘favourite’,” while most of the American favorites were unprintable and/or negative, like “‘hate’, ‘hell’, ‘tired’, ‘hurt’ and ‘annoying’.”

This begs the question…

Why Are Canadians Polite?

What is at the root of their behavior?

The values of kindness and courtesy are.

The director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto, Nelson Wiseman, theorized why these values are so embedded in Canadian culture:

“John A. Macdonald called Canadians a subordinate people. That’s in part because we’ve had a strong tradition of centralized regimes, with the French, and then as a British nation.”

European settlers, particularly the conservative British Tories, imparted these values unto their ancestors.

“Although Canada is no longer a British nation,” Wiseman said, “these tendencies replicate and perpetuate themselves like a gene.”

The non-confrontational tradition carries on. Apologizing before things get out of hand – even for nothing approaching insulting, like failing to open the door for someone – is the visible part of their culture (a baobab branch), while common courtesy and conservatism are the invisible parts (the roots of the baobab).

The fact that Canada doesn’t have the same imperial history as America may also factor into why Canadians are considered friendlier when compared to those south of the border.

Understanding the Cultural Baobab

When you enter into a culture that is not your own, familiarizing yourself with their cultural baobab will always help you come to terms with differences. The norms that you see are often deeply rooted in values that lie below the surface.

And it’s only when you examine the components of this tree of life that you start to understand the rationale of a culture.

You may not agree with it.

You may not like it.

But in understanding it, you may accept the culture’s values as they are.