Analogies: Understanding Culture Through Powerful Mental Models

You are a manager in a foreign culture. You look at everything through your cultural lens.

Workplace behaviors are strange. Your colleagues’ habits seem irrational.

You feel like a visitor at the zoo, a spectator observing everyone.

In actuality, you are in their habitat; not the other way around. You are the odd one out, behaving according to your “strange” cultural norms and values in their culture.

You are the monkey in the zoo.

This is an example of an analogy: a powerful image that enables you to adapt your mental model to the reality of your environment or situation.

Last week, we talked about German manager, Marie, and her struggle working in a French office.

It was an analogy – the French office is like a royal court – that assisted her in adapting her frame of interpretation.

Why do analogies work?

Because they familiarize unfamiliar situations, helping us form new mental models to confront the unknown.

Analogies Reshape Mental Models

Schemes, representations, and images form the mental models used to perceive and understand the world around us.

These are largely based on past experience, education, and training.

The mental models we’ve developed provide shortcuts in decision-making, allowing us to make decisions quickly and efficiently without necessarily having all the details at our fingertips.

Because we don’t have all the details, mental models abstract reality; they are biased. They make the real world more simplistic than it actually is.

Despite significant experience or education to back our mental models, at some point, they are usually wrong in one way or another.

What’s worse is mental models are deeply rooted and slow – if not impossible – to change.

Analogies, however, make that change easier.

By “tricking” our brains into seeing something that previously seemed concrete (office behaviors, for instance) in a new light (viewing French companies like royal courts), we are able to draw different connections and conclusions than our previous mental model allowed, thus arriving at new decisions that more adequately address the reality of the environment.

Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

Unknown social constructs are reshaped by analogies into a picture you can comprehend.

The fresh perspective from this corrected mental model will allow you to make more rational decisions relative to the social constructs of the culture.

There are, however, limits to analogies. Like anything, they aren’t perfect.

But a good analogy that accurately represents a cultural dynamic that doesn’t align with your own is always an improvement on the mental model you’ve brought with you from abroad.

Trying to fit another’s culture into your own is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

So, how do you create good analogies?

Next week, we’ll talk about how Geert Hofstede’s dimensions can help.

3 Mechanisms That Bias Our Decision-Making: Anchoring Bias

An anchor prevents a boat from straying from a set point.

When making decisions, managers are starting from their anchor – their initial set point, which is grounded in culturally-influenced values and norms.

A manager will drift from this point until the chain pulls taut.

There, he will reach a final decision, but inevitably, because he is anchored to a set point, that decision is influenced by anchoring bias.

We’ve talked about availability bias and representative bias in the last two blog posts and how each influences decision-making.

This week, let’s take a deep look at anchoring.

Anchoring in North African Souk

Let’s say you’re from a Western culture and travel to Northern Africa as a tourist. There, you head into a souk, and a seller zeroes in on you.

Knowing that your cultural norms and values are anchored in paying top prices for quality goods, the seller asks for a much higher price for a carpet than he might ask of locals.

Assuming your ignorance of the local pricing market, he starts astronomically high when haggling. That way, he can negotiate down to the highest amount you’re willing to pay.

He knows your anchoring bias allows for it.

If you never discover how much locals are paying for the same carpet, you’ll be none the wiser. You might even walk away thinking you scored a real bargain, when in reality, you paid ten times the local rate.

But if you later discover the seller gouged you on the price, you’ll likely feel scammed, which can often strain future negotiations.

This is one way in which markets use anchoring bias to their advantage in cross-cultural business.

Anchoring in Vancouver Housing Market

Sometimes, exploiting anchoring biases can backfire for local communities.

Let’s travel from North Africa to Vancouver.

The ‘90s saw a peak in Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese immigrants migrating to Canada. A large number settled in the Vancouver area.

Hong Kong real estate is notoriously pricey, so when Hong Kongers anchored in Vancouver, they were willing to pay top dollar for property.

The local real estate market exploited this anchoring bias and charged higher rents.

The result was that, like Hong Kong, Vancouver real estate now has a reputation of being exceptionally expensive.

According to MoneySense,

“Data collected by David Ley shows how, over the last few decades, metro Vancouver has become similar to other Pacific Rim ‘gateway’ cities, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Sydney. Each of these gateway cities have rising housing costs that are fueled by high immigration-driven population growth and foreign investors.”

So, when exploiting anchoring biases in cross-cultural business goes South for local communities, how do they re-anchor?

In 2018, the British Columbia New Democratic Party was voted in primarily due to their platform on housing costs. Their goal was to increase the housing supply, slow demand, and dissuade overseas buyers by taxing empty homes and raising the foreign-buyer tax from 15 to 20 percent.

In this way, Vancouver is attempting to re-anchor their housing market to align with their own cultural norms and values.

4 Managerial Styles to Cope with Stressful Decision-Making

You are facing a global pandemic. You must decide the best approach to keeping your business afloat.

How do you protect your bottom line? Do you lay off workers? Can you do mental gymnastics and reassess your business model, making the current economy’s limitations work for you?

The way you cope with the stress of complex business decisions reflects both your personality and your culture.

Four different managerial styles have been identified through research.

We’ll call these styles:

  • The architect
  • The free spirit
  • The expert-seeker
  • The panic attack

You may recognize one – or all – of these strategies in yourself and your management methodology.

Let’s take a look at each.

The Architect

This form, which is most taught in schools of management, considers alternative solutions to complex business decisions through the attentive collection of facts.

This methodology and its application is one in which Western managers pride themselves.

An architect is a planner, accounting for the whole picture and all potential outcomes.

The Free Spirit

Complacency and spontaneity are the main tools in the free-spirit’s managerial toolbox.

No complicated decision-making process is employed; the free-spirit takes the first available practical course of action that presents itself.

In doing so, she may be blind to alternatives with better outcomes.

The Expert-Seeker

Instead of relying on his own managerial expertise, the expert-seeker passes the buck to those more knowledgeable or qualified on the subject.

The expert-seeker might consult a specialist or supervisor in all aspects of an issue in order to direct his decision-making.

The Panic Attack

The last managerial decision-making style is one you should avoid.

This tactic involves succumbing to panic mode and making reckless, ill-advised decisions largely based on hysteria.

Obviously, this decision-making methodology is not recommended.

Personality and Culture Impacts Decision-Making Methodology

Your decision-making process is largely impacted by both your personality and culture.

Although you’ll find all four strategies in every culture, some styles may be more predominant than others.

For instance, you’ll find The Architect methodology is applied more often in Western cultures (e.g. the U.S. and Australia) than in, say, Japan or other East-Asian countries.

That does not mean the chosen strategy is any less rational or effective (unless we’re talking The Panic Attack).

The difference in methodology is based on a different set of cultural norms and values so, rather, a style that is ineffective in one culture may be more effective in another.

As we discussed in past posts, people act rationally within their own culture.

One example:

Intuition and emotion often direct Japanese managerial decision-making.

Due to the collectivist values of the culture, a primary concern will be how the decision might be received by the group and how it might affect the social fabric.

Collectivist societies take stock in the collective view; the welfare of the entire group, rather than simply the individual, is most important.

We’ll talk more next week about other biases in the managerial decision-making process.

The Second Principle of Cultural Acceptance: Accepting Ambiguity

How do you measure greatness?

Last week, we discussed how “the best” nations on Earth may quantify that quality.

Is “the best” measured in dollars? Is it measured in happiness? If so, how should happiness be measured?

The point made is that “bestness” and happiness are subjective and immeasurable.

So, when our views are ethnocentric and judgmental about other cultures as compared to our own, this sense of “better” and “worse” only exists in the context of one’s own cultural values and norms.

What is deemed “good” in your country may be viewed as “bad” in another.

Rather than working to uncover some objective methodology to judge another’s culture, it’s best not to judge at all.

As the great philosopher, Thumper, once said, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

You might use Thumper’s wisdom to improve your thinking processes and become less judgmental and critical when living and working in a foreign culture.

Second Principle

This is where acceptance comes in.

Forget the concepts of “better” and “worse” when working through cross-cultural differences. View conflicting issues, instead, as just…differences.

Some cultures see alcohol as sinful; others think a regular glass of red wine with dinner a few times a week is healthy.

These are just different cultural values and norms.

Queuing is law in some cultures; in others, it’s a mere suggestion.

Again, these are just different cultural values and norms.

Of our “Four Principles of Cultural Acceptance,” after refraining from judgment, we must also accept ambiguity when working in a foreign culture.

Accepting Ambiguity

Uncertainty, confusion, and the unknown are not easily acceptable concepts for the human mind.

Our brains love order and familiarity. We want the puzzle pieces to fit together, so the big picture will emerge.

We want to know what’s going on around us, so that understanding will return.

That’s why, when we are confronted with uncertainty in a multicultural environment, we seek out answers, explanations, or a pattern we can recognize.

Unfortunately, these things may not be there.

This is why coming to terms with ambiguity is essential when in a foreign environment.

In order to accept ambiguity, you must relinquish control. Although a solution may not be guaranteed, clarity only happens when you are not rigid in your own preconceptions and, instead, move out of the way for new connections to emerge.

Accepting ambiguity also means you must allow one question to have many answers. As in life, most everything does.

Next week, we’ll talk about how research has delved into the concept of ambiguity tolerance. Stay tuned.

Margaret Mead: A Study in Scarlet

A kiss isn’t just a kiss.

Last week, we spoke about different kissing traditions in different cultures.

This week, we’ll continue this discussion through Margaret Mead’s in depth research on the subject.

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist who dug deep into South Pacific sexual mores into the ’60s and ’70s.

She wrote a book on the subject called Coming of Age in Samoa. At the time, society and cultural traditions there allowed more sexual freedom than those in Western culture.

Mead argued that this freedom created an easier transition from childhood to adulthood and believed in encouraging broader sexual mores. Her theories were promoted by advocates of the sexual revolution in the ‘60s.

But although this was what brought Margaret Mead’s work to the forefront, this wasn’t her first course of research into sexual mores.

Courting Habits: American vs. Britain

The second world war brought American GIs to the United Kingdom and with this contact came cross-cultural courting.

Margaret Mead studied the conflicting courting habits of the two cultures.

Her findings:

  • American men believed British women were “too easy”
  • British women believed American men were “too fast and direct”

So, both cultures felt pressured by the other’s courting habits.

How and why did these seemingly contradictory conclusions occur?

30 Steps of Courting

Mead categorized the courting habits of both cultures from first contact to sexual intercourse. In doing so, she broke down each process – that of American courting and British courting – into around 30 steps. That’s how long it took for a relationship to progress from casual to intimate on both sides of the Atlantic.

What she found, however, was that though the process clocked in the same number of steps, there was a significant difference in progression.

The French Kiss

The real hitch all boiled down to French kissing.

For the Americans, French kissing was introduced into the mix in around the fifth step, as it was viewed as rather casual. On the other hand, the Brits viewed frenching as intimate, so it didn’t enter into the progression until step 25.

Therefore, if a British woman gave into her American counterpart and accepted his cultural courting mores at step five, she would then accept that the level of intimacy had jumped to the 25th step in her own cultural mores, thereby moving ahead much further than the American was prepared for.

This simple miscalculation created conflict that left Americans and Brits thinking negatively about each other and feeling pressured in their courting and mating habits. All because the other’s cultural values and norms differed from one’s own.

Next week, we’ll further discuss the differences in intimacy and personal distance. Stay tuned.

To Kiss Or Not to Kiss?

A peck on the cheek, locking lips, snogging, necking, playing tonsil hockey.

90 percent of the global population practices some form of kissing or another.

And, yet, cultural values and norms dictate where and when and why and who we kiss.

Last week, we talked about cultural norms and appropriate touching. Today, we’ll discuss one of the most plainly visible cultural behaviors in this realm: kissing.

Greetings

As we mentioned last week, Spanish women often greet with a kiss on both cheeks. Spanish men, however, do not normally greet other men this way. Cross-gender kissing is a greeting strictly reserved for women.

Travel to Eastern Europe, and you’d find there are no restrictions with the cheek kiss; men and women, alike, greet each other as such. A kiss on both cheeks is commensurate with a handshake.

Another cultural greeting comes in the form of the “Eskimo kiss.” This is a kiss that looks like rubbing noses.

The “kiss” is actually a Canadian Inuit tradition called a kunik. However, a kunik is probably not what you think.

Communications Director of the Avataq Cultural Institute in Montreal, Taqralik Partridge, told Esquire:

“Inuit do not touch noses end to end or rub them back and forth against each other. We place our nose over the place we intend to kunik, press our nostrils against the skin, and breathe in, causing the loved one’s skin or hair or any other part to be suctioned against our nose and upper lip.”

The intention with a kunik is to breathe in the smell of your loved one. These norms illustrate the Inuit culture’s values.

Where Kissing is a Crime

Some cultures prohibit kissing in specific circumstances.

For instance, in many parts of the world, PDA is highly taboo. And in some places, kissing in public is not only “frowned upon,” it’s illegal.

You might expect that in cultures with stricter cultural values and norms, like the Middle East or North Africa. But, guess what? Kissing is also illegal (on the books, at least) in some parts of the U.S.

In Hartford, Connecticut, it was made illegal for husbands to kiss their wives on Sundays. And in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a law was put in the books that prohibited strangers from kissing.

And what about unwanted kisses?

Snopes ran an article about English gentleman, Thomas Saverland, who apparently needed to learn that “no means no” the hard way.

In 1837, Saverland forcibly kissed Miss Caroline Newton at a party. Newton wasn’t having it, so she bit off a chunk of his nose.

According to the Bell’s New Weekly Messenger published on April 30, 1837, when Saverland took her to court, the judge was not sympathetic to his case, ruling:

“When a man kisses a woman against her will, she is fully entitled to bite off his nose, if she so pleases.”

These strangely specific instances are obviously regional and are likely not enacted nowadays. But the fact that they ever existed just goes to show how mores can become laws in certain cultures. And it also illustrates how cultural mores can evolve over time.

Sometimes, it takes years and even decades for laws to catch up to changing cultural values. And when values change, norms – like kissing habits – often follow.

Next week, we’ll delve deeper into sexual mores to see how various cultures view the act of locking lips.

How to Deal with Body Contact & Personal Space in Foreign Cultures

Do you bow, shake hands, or hug when you greet someone? Do you kiss on both cheeks?

How much space do you need to feel comfortable on the metro?

What is appropriate touching in your culture?

We’ve been talking about visual frameworks and the way different cultures perceive the world. Aside from vision, all four of our other senses have cultural sensitivities as well.

And touching is one of them.

Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette

When you live and work in a foreign culture, you might find your colleagues are comfortable with a different level of body contact and personal space.

One example: I was relocated to Madrid, Spain when I was a young manager. In Spain, you often find yourself negotiating over long lunches that wind down toward late afternoon.

I’d always know when the “real deal” was going down, because if my arm was resting on the table, my negotiating partner would place his hand on my arm. That gesture typically meant we were getting down to business.

To one who is accustomed to such a level of body contact, this action would be perceived as ordinary.

But for those from a culture with a different perception of touch, the body contact would probably be exceedingly uncomfortable and might even be viewed as inappropriate. Especially in a business meeting.

To Hug or Not to Hug

At around the same time I was being made uncomfortable in my meeting, my wife was taking a Spanish course alongside the wife of a Japanese diplomat.

Japanese culture views body contact of any kind with strangers or colleagues as intimate – even forbidden.

So, imagine her discomfort with the Spanish greeting of a kiss on both cheeks.

Not only do the Spanish kiss; they greet with effusive familiarity. And this woman had not only grown with the primary socialization of her culture, but was also raised in an aristocratic family, who reinforced those strict values and norms.

She explained to my wife how difficult it was to adapt. And it’s easy to understand why.

Do You Adapt?

Imagine you traveled to Zuma (a made-up country), where people – men and women – greeted you by rubbing their chest on you.

Remember, breasts are not viewed as a sexual part of the body in many cultures.

Knowing that, would you be comfortable with this greeting? And the real question: would you adapt to it?

The alternative is to stubbornly abide by your own cultural norms, awkwardly refusing to greet in this manner the rest of your days in this foreign country. But in doing so, you are saying to the locals: “I am the Monkey! I refuse to embrace your ways.”

And in making this choice, your new culture will not fully embrace you in return.

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.

10 Cultural Universals: You Are What You Eat, How Values Become Culture

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what we value is who we are.

We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab.

They define our culture, and they direct our social norms.

This grouping of the 10 Cultural Universals also includes beliefs and rituals, which tie in with values in ways we’ll discuss in upcoming posts.

You Are What You Eat

What we are fed as children – in the forms of both formal and informal education – is, more often than not, what we accept and value as adults.

As Kilroy J. Oldster wrote in Dead Toad Scrolls:

“A great deal of the global stimuli that we view comes to us without major effort. Daily a person scans and screens a wide barrage of solicited and unsolicited material. What information a society pays attention to creates the standards and principles governing citizens’ life. A nation’s discourse translates its economic, social, and cultural values to impressionable children.” 

Our national discourse, what we project and adulate as a society, the meaning and importance we place on certain beliefs, ideals, and attitudes – these are the things our children consume.

We are what we eat. Our children will become what we feed them.

Education vs. Ignorance

“The right to a quality education is, I believe, the perfect path to bridge the gap between different cultures and to reconcile various civilizations…Ignorance is by far the biggest danger and threat to humankind.” – Moza bint Nasser

If we feed children quality food, in the form of education, they will value knowledge, critical thinking, and the ethics and moral teachings therein.

If we feed them garbage, in the form of false narratives, baseless “facts”, and unwarranted prejudice, they will value conspiracies, groupthink, and stereotypes.

A culture creates its own values and also consumes them.

So, remember, whatever values you cultivate within your culture should be cultivated with care. Values are meant to keep society healthy. They’re meant to show what integrity means to you as a people and to show others what you stand for.

What We Eat

Like social norms, the beliefs and rituals of your culture are what actualize our underlying values.

Beliefs are what we eat; rituals are how we eat.

Rituals, especially, are values in action.

We’ll talk about both in the coming weeks.

Cultural Must-Adapts: When Is It Mandatory to Adapt to Cultural Norms?

Do you remember our four groupings of social norms – folkways, mores, taboos, and laws?

If not, then here’s our handy chart to recall how each of these norms applies to culture:

norms

As you can imagine, failing to queue up in Britain would not be looked upon as severely as, say, going topless at a beach in America. And this is due to the severity of the norm groupings to which each of these actions belong.

Folkways<Mores<Taboos<Laws

How strict is each cultural norm group?

Folkways are the softest social norms. While you have a choice whether or not to adapt to folkways, failing to adapt won’t lead to ostracism; it will simply lead some in your new cultural environment to consider you a bit rude.

One example: wearing formal attire in a business environment is a European folkway. A suit and tie in Europe is the uniform of choice for men.

So, when an American male manager walks into a business meeting with his European counterparts wearing a casual polo shirt and wrinkled slacks, while this casual attire is, of course, not forbidden, it may result in a negative perception of said businessman as a cross-cultural business leader.

This is one example of a folkway that you can choose to adapt or not, but in making that choice, consider how it’s perceived.

Mores define right versus wrong within a culture, so there is more pressure to adapt to this type of social norm.

For instance, if a female manager travels to a conservative country, and she comes from one where feminine business attire is much more liberal, she may feel pressured – or even be asked – to alter her attire, as it may be considered inappropriate or revealing, based on the culture’s mores.

This is the difference between “right vs rude” and “right vs wrong”. Again, you can choose to adapt or not, but in the process, you may be considered “rude” or “wrong” by the cultural standards of your new colleagues.

Mandatory Adaptions

When it comes to the last two social norm groups – taboos and laws -, you must adapt.

Remember, taboos define what’s forbidden, while laws define what’s illegal. If these norms don’t align with your own, and you believe there’ll be some “wiggle-room”, simply because you’re a foreigner, then you’re very much mistaken.

“Sorry, I didn’t know; I’m foreign,” might work when breaking a queue, but it certainly won’t work when breaking a law.

You must accept that other cultures have values that you must observe if you choose to live there. And if you can’t accept these deeply entrenched values and norms, then stand by your principles and don’t move there.

Because one thing is certain in building cross-cultural relationships: you should not expect an entire culture to bend to your will.