Stairs Ascending: How Differing Visual Frameworks Lead to Misinformation

How do you view three dimensions?

How do you view snow?

How does an American view a staircase? Is it different from how an Arabic person views it?

As a matter of fact, yes, it is.

stairs

This depiction of a staircase would likely be viewed by an American as stairs ascending.

For an Arabic person, they’re descending.

Why?

Because of our language and the way we read it.

Americans read left to right, while Arabs read right to left.

This is a difference in our visual framework. For the past few weeks, we’ve talked about how this framework is culturally informed.

So, now let’s ask the question whose answer will make you a more insightful and successful cross-cultural manager: how can the differences in these frameworks be an issue in a cross-cultural context?

Organizational Charts

Taking the example of the Arab versus the American further, consider a chart that shows the different levels of departments in a company, based on their importance.

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As is usual in Europe and the US, the most important position is organized at the top center (or sometimes the top left) of the chart.

This is where our cultures have trained us to view it.

Each descending department is of lesser and lesser status.

A chart in Arabic would be organized the opposite way.

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Here’s another pretty famous example of misunderstandings that can arise from differing cultural frameworks.

Marketing was launched in Japan by a Western pharmaceutical company.

The product? Medicine for upset stomachs.

The advertisement depicted three pictures.

The first illustration showed the patient feeling sick. The second showed him taking the medicine. And, in the last pic, the sun had come out and the man was smiling and healthy.

That’s how a Westerner would read the advert anyway, left to right.

But like Arabic cultures, Japan reads their Mangas (i.e. comic books) from back to front.

So, when they viewed this comic strip within their visual framework, they saw a healthy man taking medicine and becoming sick.

Not at all the message this company wanted to send out to potential customers.

The Bottom Line

When you live, work, or advertise in a foreign culture, you have to wear their visual framework like virtual reality goggles.

Seeing the world through their eyes is the only way you can relate to your clients and to those you manage.

And, the bottom line is, the ability to relate to others is what makes a manager – or anyone working in a multicultural environment – successful.

Different ≠ Inferior: Dropping the Cross-Cultural Superiority Complex

Your culture calls light blue and dark blue simply “blue.”

Another culture has two different words for it.

Your culture crumples its toilet paper.

Another folds it.

Another uses no toilet paper at all.

Your culture bows.

Another shakes hands.

Another kisses on both cheeks.

Cultures are different. But none are inferior. And none are unnatural either.

Here’s why.

Stranger Danger

One of the most dangerous ideas in the history of man has been that different equates inferior.

Why is this thought dangerous?

Well, for one, if you view your foreign counterpart as inferior, it goes without saying that you consider yourself superior to him/her.

And when you consider yourself superior, you may try to impose your ideology on the other. That’s happened throughout history, time and again.

When you consider another inferior, you may also justify treating them as such. Treating them like animals.

You may enslave them.

You may abuse them.

You may slaughter them.

It’s a sad reality, but this idea of inferiority is the catalyst to such horrors in our world.

Many of the most heinous crimes against humanity have been committed because of the prejudice that one’s own culture is superior to another’s.

But it isn’t.

Be Fascinated * Give Life Meaning

Cultural norms are natural to their own culture. And they are often a beautiful representation of that culture.

Seeing cultural differences in this light – as natural and beautiful to the culture – will make you more adaptable and successful in a multicultural environment. Adopting this view will help you manage differences (some of which may appear to you as cumbersome or even incomprehensible when compared with your own norms and values).

If you are living and working in a foreign culture, your success depends upon identifying cultural differences and accepting them as they are.

Do not view them in the positive or negative. Such shades are counterproductive.

Instead, take the view of John Hooker who said in his book, Working Across Cultures:

“I have neither the wisdom nor the desire to pass judgment. For me every culture is a source of fascination, because it must encompass all of life and give it meaning.”

And, as with most life-encompassing meanings, none are “less than”. They are the heart of a people, a culture, and should be respected as such.

Next week, we’ll talk about how cultural conditioning creates these differences.

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness in Action

Awareness of cultural differences creates the capacity to be culturally sensitive.

Note that I didn’t say it will create cultural sensitivity; rather, it will create the capacity to be culturally sensitive.

Cultural sensitivity is a choice, and if you want to successfully work and integrate into a foreign culture, it’s a necessary one. Being aware that you are the monkey will enable you to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and actively Accept, Adapt, and Adopt the ways of your host culture, all of which will ease your integration.

Stages of Cultural Awareness

Not everyone is culturally aware.

Some choose not to be, while some are innately oblivious. Others choose cultural sensitivity, and still, others have become so integrated that sensitivity soon becomes natural to them.

There are four stages of cultural awareness:

  • Unconscious incompetence (blissful ignorance)
  • Conscious incompetence (troubling ignorance)
  • Conscious competence (deliberate sensitivity)
  • Unconscious competence (spontaneous sensitivity)

The unconsciously incompetent doesn’t know he’s the monkey. He is not culturally aware.

The consciously incompetent knows she’s the monkey but doesn’t try to integrate. She is culturally aware but is stubborn to change.

The consciously competent makes deliberate efforts to be culturally sensitive. He is culturally aware and is trying to actively integrate.

And, lastly, the unconsciously competent has fully integrated. Cultural sensitivity becomes natural to her, and she no longer must think about how to act or behave around the host culture. She just does it.

Example 1: Awareness Inaction

I once worked with a conscious incompetent. This individual’s foreign integration was being aided through cultural awareness and language training. When he wasn’t grasping the language as quickly as he wanted to, he became frustrated with the language instructor. In fact, he had a shouting match with said instructor and deemed the culture “inept” during cultural awareness lessons.

Two years later, I met this same man as he was finishing his contract. The entire two years he’d been involved in the program, he’d not advanced his language beyond the proficiency of the initial three-month course, nor had he initiated any projects at site. He blamed his hosts for a lack of interest.

In the end, he only had bad things to say about the host country, the program, the community in which he’d lived, and the colleagues with which he’d worked. And I’m sure they didn’t have too many positive things to say about him.

This is conscious incompetence in a nutshell: an awareness of cultural differences, but a refusal to integrate. And the result is zero self-growth and complete inaction regarding project developments and cross-cultural understanding.

Example 2: Awareness in Action

In that same program, I met a woman who came to the host country with no knowledge of the language. She was active in learning during the three-month language training and was adamant about presenting herself with cross-cultural sensitivity.

She faced similar cultural issues at site as the man had. Sometimes there was a general lack of interest in her ideas and lackluster motivation from her colleagues. But utilizing her conscious competence, she rallied her host site around her, wrote a grant, ran a summer camp, put on a cultural afterschool program, and was extremely active in her community. She also continued to work on her language and, by the end of her term, had advanced to intermediate language proficiency.

She had grown personally, had provided great value to her school and community, and had left a positive imprint in the memories of all those who worked with her. And, by the end of her two-year contract, she’d achieved stage 3 in her cultural awareness and was well on her way to stage 4: unconscious competence. Her cultural sensitivity had become natural; she no longer had to think before acting.

This is the difference between awareness inaction and awareness in action. The key to making your awareness active is to Accept, Adapt, and Adopt your host culture.

We’ll take a look at accepting next week.