Cultural Ambiguity & Uncertainty: Following the Line of Logic to Understanding

One of the most difficult parts of managing across cultures is a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty when it comes to rules.

Those from rule-based cultures, thrust into relationship-based environments, likely find the rules ambiguous, and vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, the rule-based US culture professes a fundamentally rule-based management theory, decidedly offering straightforward advice regarding successful management.

Take “ad res” versus “ad personam,” for example.

Ad Res vs. Ad Personam

hierarchychartAmerican universities teach an “ad res” organizational theory, in which organizations are structured in a chart adapted to the business. The names can be altered in the chart, as the organizations are indifferent to the people who fill the roles.

However, this differs from how relationship-based cultures view organizational structures. In these cultures, organizations consider “ad personam” to be correct, which is quite the opposite of “ad res.”

With “ad personam” organization, the individual people come first.

Vagueness Leads to Misunderstanding

This is just one example of the way a culture’s values shape their management theory and structures. Just one more reason to clarify any cultural ambiguity or uncertainty in order to better manage within another culture.

Uncertainty stems from vague values, norms, and behaviors, which lend themselves to wrong assumptions.

When things are uncertain or ambiguous, the first step is always to seek understanding.

As we talked about early in this blog, finding the rationale behind the values, norms, and behaviors of your cross-cultural counterparts is essential to clarifying uncertainty and ambiguity.

And the first steps in seeking understanding are to:

  1. Identify the conflicting issue – pinpoint whatever it is that’s rubbing your own values and beliefs the wrong way.
  2. Look at the issue from the other culture’s baobab tree – keeping in mind what you’ve learned about the culture, try to see the issue from their perspective, their standpoint, their worldview.
  3. Seek out the advantages in their perspective – when you approach the issue from your own baobab, you’ll probably see the other’s perspective in a negative light; but from their baobab, a spotlight is shone on their train of thought, allowing you to see more clearly.
  4. Find the line of logic – while seeking understanding may not bring you in line with the other’s ideas of personal and social responsibility, finding their line of logic will lead you to a place of clarity. And with clarity comes understanding.

What Are Their Advantages?

When faced with conflicting cultural behaviors, values, norms, and management methods, ask yourself these questions:

What are their baobab’s benefits?

Why and how are their methods successful in their culture?

When you seek understanding instead of discriminating; when you start looking at another culture through their own lens, you may just discover significant advantages to their methods and values.

In doing so, you may also see the disadvantages and limitations of your own culture and ways you can improve your own culture. In fact, you may adopt certain behaviors, values, or norms that you appreciate.

Next week, we’ll take a look at one of the limitations that the individualistic West has started to improve on: corporate social responsibility.

Love, Honor, and Smell: How Scent is Viewed in Other Cultures

When you think of the five senses, how would you rank them, superior to inferior?

You might instinctively say that sight is the superior sense. Next, you’d probably go with hearing or touch, followed by taste or smell.

This ranking makes objective sense to you somehow, but it’s likely that social and cultural prejudice of certain senses comes into play.

Language & the Lower Order

Last week we talked about how scientists once perceived smell as of a “lower order” than all other senses. This was because, at the time, rationality was in vogue, and scent was linked with emotion.

This scientific attitude toward our senses led to less research into scent. Even our language followed suit.

Think about it.

  • When someone is impressive, we might call them a visionary.
  • When someone is athletic, we might call them dexterous.
  • When someone is a curator, we might say they have good taste.
  • When someone is musically talented, you might say they have a good ear.

But you never compliment someone’s nose or smelling abilities, and the terms for nose in our vocabulary are often derogatory (schnoz, snout, snooty, snotty, etc.).

There is no positive equivalency for the sense of smell as there are for our other four senses.

Cross-Cultural Views on Scent

The thing is, other world cultures do appreciate the power of scent. Some even hold it in the highest regard, above all others.

One example is the Onge of the Andaman Islands. This tribe defines everything primarily by smell.

For instance, seasons are named after a particular scent, largely depending on what types of flowers or fruits blossom. Their calendar is literally run by the nose.

They also personally identify according to scent. If talking about oneself, one touches the tip of his nose, which means “me” or “my odor.”

The scent-centered culture appears expresses their focus on the nose in their language.

Consider the Onge greeting:

“Konyune onorange-tanka?”

This is the English equivalent of “How are you?” But it literally means, “How is your nose?”

Greeting & Scent

The Onge are not the only ones to hold scent in such esteem.

In Algeria, the nose – called “nif” – is synonymous with honor.

In India, greeting someone by smelling them on the head is equivalent to a hug or a kiss in the West.

Moreover, one ancient text in India reads:

“I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love.”

So, it appears that, in some cultures, the link between scent and emotion makes the sense of smell even more powerful than all others.

Next week, we’ll continue this talk about culture and scent preferences.

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.

Norms & Mores: Right vs. Wrong

Are you able to talk back to your grandpa?

Is your culture gay-friendly?

What is your society’s stance on pre-marital cohabitation?

Can women in your culture go topless at the beach?

The answers to these questions relate to your cultural mores. Mores are the strongest social norms, because they’re based on the moral judgments of the society in which you live.

Mores inform society how to behave, and this is all based in the moral values of the culture. Do not kill, do not commit adultery, respect your elders. In many cultures, mores are tied closely with values, just like folkways…but they are different than folkways.

Mores vs. Folkways

How do mores differ?

As shared by Puja Mondal in yourarticlelibrary, according to Giddings and Halt (1906), “a practical distinction between folkways and mores is that violation of a folkway is generally met with laughter.”

However, the social ostracism that someone who crosses a mos (mores, singular) might meet can be much more severe.

For instance, whereas someone who always cuts the queue in the UK would simply be an irritation to those around him, someone who goes nude at a non-nudey beach in the UK would be violating a mos.

Cohabitation

Depending on your culture’s dominant religions – and the degree to which these religions dictate societal norms, values, and behaviors – some mores may be determined by religious doctrine.

One example is cohabitation. A number of religions prohibit moving in with a partner before marriage. If you come from a culture with strict mores on the subject, others may look badly on you, tell you off, or even ostracize you for moving in with your partner.

The behavior is considered immoral and, therefore, a stain on the soul, and the reactions by the transgressor’s friends and family are meant to shame the behavior and make the individual alter it accordingly.

In a number of Western cultures, it is, for the most part, acceptable to cohabitate with a partner before marriage, unless one is brought in a strict religious family. In many Arab nations, it’s unacceptable and, therefore, uncommon.

This is what decides a culture’s mores.

Public Nudity

Another example is public nudity. American culture finds public nudity sexually-provocative and offensive, so most would be shocked if someone showed up at a beach in his birthday suit.

In a number of European countries, however, public nudity is much more lenient. Men might swim in the nude, women might go topless. And in Asia, women and men are often publically nude at their separate spas or saunas.

Even in traditional Africa, where sexual mores are strict, a woman might go topless. This is because breasts are not considered sexual or indecent. Their primary use is functional – for feeding babies – and so is looked at as such.

Right vs. Wrong

Unlike folkways, which distinguish between what is “right” and what is “rude,” mores distinguish between what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

And mores impact our society to a much higher degree than do folkways. As thoughtco puts it: “Mores exact a greater coercive force in shaping our values, beliefs, behavior, and interactions.”

Think about your own cultural mores and how they shape your behaviors.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk 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.