Ethnocentrism and the Workplace: How Our Biases Enter Into Business Relations

We’ve talked about ethnocentrism the past couple weeks and the ways in which it might crop up in cross-cultural research.

But ethnocentrism isn’t just a vague concept that infiltrates research; it often shows up in your average everyday workplace.

Let’s take a look at how and why.

Ethnocentrism in Business Communication

International business ventures require that individuals communicate cross-culturally.

This can either turn into a promising business partnership and even a delightful way to share cultures or into a complete devolution of business relations.

Let’s take a look at one example:

Ted (from the U.S.) sets up a video conference with Saanvi (from India).

“Let’s talk tomorrow at 8 AM, sharp,” he writes.

The next day, Ted logs into the video conference room at 7:45. 8 AM rolls around, and there’s no sign of Saanvi. Ted shoots Saanvi a quick message to let him know he’s there. By 8:10, Saanvi still hasn’t shown up. Ted is growing impatient. At 8:30, Ted sends Saanvi a curt message about rescheduling and then signs off.

Saanvi later responds to Ted, indicating that he did eventually show up to the online conference room. He video calls Ted, and when Ted asks if Saanvi can talk the next day at the same time, Saanvi nods.

The following day, the same thing happens. Ted is livid. Saanvi had confirmed with his nod, after all.

There are a few things going on cross-culturally here, and both Ted and Saanvi would do better to understanding these cross-cultural issues.

Punctuality & Visual Cues

Ted and Saanvi come from two different backgrounds, two different traditions. They possess different values and likely have different approaches to business and methods of communication.

They likely process things from their own cultural conditioning.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. With basic cross-cultural understanding, one might be able to acknowledge and accept this gap. And with an even more specific mastery of the cross-cultural differences between your culture and the other, one might be able to bridge that gap effectively.

With nothing but ethnocentrism, the gap widens and business relations potentially implode.

Why?

Because when the individuals involved do not have a basic understanding of cross-cultural issues, they don’t know that the differences in communication aren’t intentional rudeness or unprofessionalism; they may simply be cultural differences.

For instance, whereas in America, time is money, punctuality is generally taken lightly in India. Even VIPs may show up late to business meetings.

Moreover, when Indians nod their heads, the movement doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes.’ Rather, the nod can be employed simply to show they’re being attentive to what you’re saying.

Instead of understanding the other culture, both Ted and Saanvi refused to acknowledge and adapt at all to their counterparts and instead forced their own ethnocentric business standards upon the other.

In this case, they both look like monkeys in each other’s eyes.

Without understanding and compromising to some degree, ethnocentrism can become a toxic trait, creating chasms in business relations and in cross-cultural workplaces where there should be bridges.

Contracts in China: How Relationship-Based Cultures View Contractual Obligations

When you do business in China, you may come across a common contractual clause.

This clause stipulates that if issues arise, the contracted parties will discuss them and the contract may potentially be redrafted.

China is a relationship-based culture.

Someone from a rule-based culture, like most Western societies, will likely take issue with this clause.

Contracts are supposed to be black-and-white. They are supposed to be unambiguous. They are supposed to regulate specifically every aspect of the business relationship.

Contracts exist to effectively end the negotiation stage and begin working together.

The clause makes it clear that the contractual agreement may be renegotiated at any time. That means, for instance, when the parties do face a dispute, it might not go to court in the city in which the contract stipulates, but rather in a city court where the established law may work in the other party’s favor.

So, why even negotiate a contract in China? If it’s so ambiguous, what does the contract stand for?

Relationship-based Values vs. Rule-based Values

The relationship-based culture of China values a mutually beneficial and respectful business relationship. The contract is symbolic as such.

The contract signifies that personal relationships exist amongst the parties, therefore future disagreements may be negotiated.

While in Western cultures, a signed contract might mark the end of the negotiation process, in China – and in other relationship-based cultures – it marks the beginning.

You might think you’ve nailed down prices, but even those can be renegotiated days or weeks after signing.

Although those from Western cultures might see such a contract as pointless, its signing is still very important in relationship-based cultures.

In fact, it’s so important, that a contract signed with a Chinese company traditionally involves a luncheon or ceremony when making it official.

As soon as a contract is signed, it signifies that the two parties – especially the leaders – are publicly friends and will be respectful of their business relationship.

Relationships-to-Home Life

Relationship-based societies also view work life and personal life as inseparable to the point that “personal relations” and “business relations” are concepts that don’t exist in these societies.

That’s because company rules are dominated by relationships, particularly if an employee’s in-group is their family or tribe.

This means that if you have a conflict with an employee, it can often extend to a conflict with his/her family, kin, or any other member of his/her in-group.

Next week, we’ll discuss how this situation might manifest, along with other conflicts that crop up in business in relationship-based cultures.