The Four Principles of Cultural Acceptance: Becoming Culture-Neutral

Are you having trouble with cross-cultural acceptance when managing or working in a foreign culture?

Coping strategies are necessary to promoting tolerance and helping you move past any cross-cultural hang-ups and ethnocentricity.

Last week, we talked about Acceptance: the First Step in Cross-Cultural Management.

We’ll expand on that step this week by diving into our four principles of cultural acceptance.

The Four Principles

Cultural acceptance strategies involve four key principles:

  • Don’t judge
  • Accept ambiguity
  • Tolerate actively
  • Explain yourself

In the coming weeks, we’ll look more closely at these principles, starting today with judgment.

Why Shouldn’t We Judge?

Cross-cultural management requires you to step out of your narrow ethnocentric tunnel-vision and accept other worldviews as viable alternatives to your own.

It requires you to recognize other cultural value systems and behavioral norms as valid.

And this acceptance inherently means you do not judge. You become “culture-neutral,” not relegating things to boxes of “good” and “bad,” but simply viewing them as facts of life.

Monkeys do not pass judgment in the zoo. They just go about their business, as do the other zoo animals.

While it may seem apparent that passing judgment will get you nowhere as a manager in a foreign culture, you’d be surprised how often we are naturally inclined to do so.

In practice, avoiding judgment is difficult and must, at least initially, be an active endeavor.

This is because the culture you are raised in is the “right” one, the “best” one…at least, that’s what each and every one of us has been taught.

What Is The Best Country on Earth?

When you ask someone, “What is the number one country?” the citizens of every nation on Earth will likely answer, with conviction, that it’s their own. 

Nationalism is a strong byproduct of primary conditioning.

But let’s look at this objectively.

First off, how do you define “number one”?

Some might define it monetarily.

So, looking at the wealthiest countries per capita, you will find that Luxembourg comes out on top, followed by Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, and Iceland:

  • Luxembourg (GDP per capita: $119,719)
  • Norway (GDP per capita: $86,362)
  • Switzerland (GDP per capita: $83,832)
  • Ireland (GDP per capita: $81,477)
  • Iceland (GDP per capita: $78,181)

Does this mean Luxembourg is the best country in the world?

If you’re resoundingly shaking your head “no”, you might believe happiness is the “number one” country criteria. And in judging happiness, you could consider country suicide rates as an indicator of a nation’s overall happiness.

In that case, you’d see the countries with the lowest suicide rates are not the wealthiest:

  • Antigua and Barbuda (0.5%)
  • Barbados (0.8%)
  • Grenada (1.7%)
  • Bahamas (1.7%)
  • Jamaica (2.2%)

In fact, Luxembourg (13.5%), Norway (12.2%), Switzerland (17.2%), Ireland (11.5%), and Iceland (14%) don’t even crack the top 10.

Does this mean Antigua and Barbuda is the best country in the world?

And does this data indicate that happiness does not correlate directly with wealth? If so, what makes a country “number one”? Should wealth be the criteria of what’s “best”? Should happiness? Should either?

Putting everything into perspective like this will encourage you to look past your preconceived notions and avoid passing judgment. Because nationalism might inform you that your country is number one, but the numbers tell another story.

We’ll talk more about this powerful “no judgment” principle next week.

Breaking Down the Barriers of Ethnocentricity: Accepting, Adapting, or Adopting Culture

In the West, particularly in America, equality is highly valued.

Being as such, although gender equality is not exactly level anywhere in the world, when entering into cultures where that disparity is even greater than one’s own (Islamic cultures, for instance), a Westerner’s moral nerve is struck.

In another vein, consider a Westerner entering into a culture with a strictly set social caste system. This, too, strikes a nerve, regarding this value of equality.

When a culture’s values or norms contradict another’s deeply-ingrained values, reserving judgment often proves difficult.

Now, imagine a company wanting to do business in a culture in which their values are opposed.

Last week, we talked about how a culture’s social environment can influence everything from gender roles to social mobility and nepotism in the workplace.

This week, we’ll discuss how to break down the barriers of ethnocentricity.

Morality & Ethnocentricity

When contrasted with your own ethnocentric values, social structures in the workplace can be difficult to get on board with.

Why?

Because, as mentioned above, they hit a moral nerve.

An enormous social divide must be bridged in order for a company to work across cultures of disparate values, and in order for the individuals in these businesses to be willing to overlook their own ethnocentricity and avoid criticizing the opposite culture’s fundamental beliefs.

While the broader company may have an easier time looking the other way, the cross-cultural divide may not be as easy to bridge for the individuals working for these companies.

Although these individuals may not be expected to accept the other culture’s values, succeeding cross-culturally in a business setting requires restraint in projecting one’s own values onto the issues at hand.

So, how to show that restraint when your moral nerve is struck?

Be Aware & Proceed with Caution

As we’ve discussed in this blog, the volume of one’s awareness must be turned up several decibals when working cross-culturally.

Being aware of cultural differences, especially the subtle ones, is essential to breaking down the barriers of ethnocentricity. And that means being aware of both the differences and the nuances behind these differences.

After awareness comes a choice: what reaction do you want to have toward these differences?

Here are the only choices if you hope to succeed:

  • Accept the differences without criticizing or condemning them.
  • Adapt your behavior to the cultural difference.
  • Adopt your host culture’s values.

Needless to say, condemning the differences will get you nowhere. If you are doing business in another culture, you can’t expect that culture to shapeshift around you. The culture may evolve in its own time and become more aligned with your cultural values, but it’s not going to change for you.

With these three choices in mind, next week we’ll talk more specifically about how you can use these tactics to react to cultural differences in a diplomatic manner, avoid breaking an ankle on your own tripwire of ethnocentricity, and successfully work across cultures.

Technology, Social Environments, and the Character of Communication in Culture

Do you view technology as positive or negative in terms of communication?

How does your culture’s social environment dictate aspects of upward mobility and nepotism?

Last week, we talked about nonverbal communication in culture. This week, we’ll discuss how a culture’s technological and social environments direct the ways in which a culture communicates.

Technology

In the West, the ethnocentric view of technology is largely positive.

Workplaces, friends, family. Personal and professional environments are all connected by technology.

Technological implementations and other modernizations gear businesses and societies toward the future. And Western cultures are generally future-oriented, as are their values.

However, visit countries in central Africa, and you might find skepticism about technology. The physical environment, rather than the virtual environment, is more highly valued in such countries.

East Asian cultures typically try to balance both environments equally – the existing traditional environment and the new technological one – as they are considered equally important.

Aside from technology, what workplace factors does a culture’s social environment dictate?

Social Environments

According to a culture’s social environment, various levels of value are placed on:

Each of these plays its role in a culture’s workplace environment.

We’d like to think in Western cultures that it’s not who you know but what you know that gets you hired, as this seems fair and just – justice being a cornerstone value of many Western cultures.

We also know that’s not always the case. Networking can often get a foot in the door more so than one’s own merit. That being said, nepotism is still not favored, due to cultural values of equality.

However, in many different cultures – in Latin America or Africa, for instance – familial ties are often a job qualifier, and there’s nothing wrong with that, even in the case of a better-qualified candidate.

Those cultures who place value on familial ties view nepotism as a demonstration of commitment to family. There is also generally more trust in a family unit than there might be hiring a stranger from the outside.

In those cultures with a low concept obligation to family, social mobility is more accessible by everyone, as those who are willing to actively work toward their ideal career should theoretically be able to climb the ladder of success.

That’s the “American Dream” in a nutshell.

As you might guess, these contrasting views and values can hit a nerve in cross-cultural environments. We’ll talk more about how to lessen the blow next week.

Sociolinguistics: How Do Languages Change Across Cultures?

Cross-cultural barriers.

That’s what you’re facing when ethnocentricity enters into international communication.

You’ll run into every communication barrier imaginable, some variables of which include:

  • Language, itself
  • Nonverbal communication norms
  • Authority ranks
  • Technological environment
  • Social environment
  • Natural environment

Understanding the cultures with which you are working and studying up on these variables will help you combat your own innate ethnocentricity, allowing cross-cultural communication to go infinitely more smoothly.

Let’s take a look at how these misunderstandings arise.

Linguistic Misunderstandings

It goes without saying that language is paramount to communication.

But when you work cross-culturally, you may not speak the same language, which means you and your counterpart will be relying on translators to assist communication.

Hiring a good translator can make or break communication, especially considering, even without a language barrier per se, linguistic understandings can still occur.

Take American versus British English, for instance.

Both cultures speak English, with minor differences in vocabulary, so you might assume communication would be cut and dry. But the culturally-grounded differences in vocabulary, phrasings, and accents have the potential to throw a wrench in communication.

Sociolinguistics

Enter, sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics creates rifts in cross-cultural communications via the social patterning that sometimes distinguishes class, inflates stereotypes, or highlights other national prejudices.

In fact, the differences between American and British English actually stem from class distinction, itself.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British exported the English language to America.

Those who settled in America pronounced the ‘r’ in words, something known as “rhotic speech.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, to distinguish themselves from the commoners, the upper classes began softening their ‘r’s. But the distinction didn’t last long as the masses naturally followed, thus creating a profound difference in pronunciation between British and American English.

The change in spelling and vocabulary was more intentional.

Without standardized spelling, dictionaries were necessary to preserve the pronunciation of words.

Those in the UK were created by scholars in London, while those in the US were compiled by lexicographer, Noah Webster.

According to some, in order to establish cultural independence from the motherland, Webster changed the way American words were spelled (no ‘u’ in colour, for instance), thus creating further differences in the English language across the two cultures.

Minor Details are of Major Importance

Minor details are crucial when it comes to business negotiations, therefore the fine print might be blurred by minor differences in language.

The more minor the detail, the more difficult it is to correct.

For instance, you can spot a major translation error from a mile away. Although correcting such errors may consume a lot of time, look unprofessional, and put stress on negotiations, at least they’re easy to catch.

However, accents, dialects, and cultural language choices can strain international negotiations between two cultures who are, more or less, linguistically on the same page.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

Primary and Secondary Control: How Cultures Control Their Fate

We’ve been talking about the locus of control over the past few weeks.

Specifically, we’ve discussed the external locus – believing outcomes are determined by environmental factors – and the internal locus – believing fate is in our hands.

Regardless of whether someone has an external or internal locus, each tries to control their fate but in different ways and to varying degrees.

They do so by primary or secondary control efforts, the first of which is active, and the second of which is passive.

Let’s take a look at how these active/passive traits unfold in the workplace.

Primary Control

Those from individualist cultures often demonstrate an internal locus of control.

Individualists believe they control their own fate.

Being as such, they demonstrate active primary control.

Primary control is a trait found in those who directly intervene in affairs, in order to command control over his/her environment or standing

For instance, Sally wants a promotion, so Sally does whatever she can to get what she wants. She works late hours, beats deadlines, invests time into learning new skills, meets and exceeds expectations. She may even try to grease the wheels with superiors and use her networking skills to expand her reach.

Sally doesn’t just wait for the job to fall into her lap. She believes success comes with work, and that if she demonstrates primary control over her environment, she will achieve her end goal.

Sally uses primary control to command her fate.

Secondary Control

Being that those with an external locus – most often from collectivist cultures – do not believe they control their fate, you might think they don’t try to at all.

But they do. Passively.

Secondary control is a trait found in those who align themselves with individuals or groups with established power.

Collectivists prefer secondary control, as their cultural values lean hard on avoiding conflict and the submission of personal control.

For instance, Dan wants to be well-regarded within the company. His colleague, Steve, is already well-regarded. Steve is also part of The Elite, an exceptional group within the company.

So, what does Dan do to get a leg-up? Dan befriends Steve. He works on becoming a member of The Elite. In doing so, he is molding relationships and changing the way higher-ups and colleagues regard him within the company.

Although the individual isn’t as active as Sally in controlling his fate, he is still trying to command passive control by building his image and the right relationships that might aid or change his environment.

Whether someone demonstrates primary or secondary control is largely based on the culture within which they live. But both types of control are seen in all cultures.

How Time Orientation & Chronemics Impact Queuing & Workplace Culture

Chronemics, which we described in a past post as the study of time’s role in communication, directly correlates with time orientation, discussed last week.

Knowing that some polychronic cultures view time as cyclical and sometimes don’t even have future tenses in their language, you may have guessed that polychronic cultures are often past-oriented.

Monochronic cultures, on the other hand, are largely future-oriented.

Here are a few ways in which chronemics direct cultural behaviors.

Queuing Culture

queue

Have you ever queued up in a foreign country and been cut in front of?

If you have and immediately thought to yourself, “how rude!” then you’re probably from a monochronic culture. Monochronic cultures are often cultures of law and order.

As this article by Leon Mann, “Queue Culture: The Waiting Line as a Social System,” published in American Journal of Sociology writes:

“Cultural values of egalitarianism and orderliness are related to respect for the principle of service according to order of arrival which is embodied in the idea of a queue. The importance of time in Western culture is reflected in rules relating to ‘serving time’ to earn one’s position in line, and to the regulation of ‘time-outs.’”

Remember, monochronic cultures – like the U.S. – are also cultures where “time is money.” So, essentially, if someone cuts the line, individuals in such cultures might consider this behavior as theft of time and/or money. The offender is essentially saying their time is more valuable than that of those they’ve cut.

Polychronic cultures do not queue orderly, if at all. They crowd and scrap their way to the front of the line. In fact, cutting in line is almost a sport in such cultures.

Although even some of those who are of polychronic cultures might get upset when cut, the queueing culture (or lack thereof) is, more or less, accepted.

Actions & Their Consequences

Another way in which chronemics and time orientation impact cultural behavior is the consequences of certain actions at work.

The chart below highlights some examples:

workplace.jpg

Monochronic cultures are deadline-driven and task-oriented regarding both negotiations or projects. And, more often than not, the hierarchy within the organization is enforced.

For polychronic cultures, a deadline is just a suggestion, and negotiations don’t end until an agreement is made. Even then, the contract is amendable.

Moreover, organizations are interaction-oriented, rather than task-oriented, and the hierarchy within the organization is not as rigidly enforced if one even exists.

We’ll look at these ideas in action next week.

The Difference Between Polychronic & Monochronic Time Systems

Sara starts dinner at 6, finishes at 6:30, and washes the dishes at 8. She walks the dog at 8:30 and arranges to run some errands the next morning at 9, while organizing her schedule that evening. She answers emails immediately in the morning and responds to phone calls at a set point in the day, when each of her pre-scheduled tasks has been completed in an orderly fashion.

Sara runs on a monochronic time system.

Shannon washes the dishes while cooking, walks the dog while running errands, loosely arranges her schedule while answering emails, takes phone calls while finishing up her daily tasks. She doesn’t have a set schedule defined by time. She simply has a to-do list, and things will get done as they do.

Shannon runs on a polychronic time system.

Polychronicity

The multi-task culture of a polychromic time system involves undertaking multiple tasks or activities simultaneously.

Instead of working on one individual task at a time, those who prefer a polychronic time system often have several things going at once, and they work towards accomplishing each task fluidly and in their own time.

Polychronicity is preferred in cultures that are not overly concerned about deadlines and precision. Latin American, Arab, African, and South Asian cultures tend toward polychronicity. These cultures also tend to value relationships, traditions, seasonal cycles, and community over the completion of tasks in an orderly fashion.

Monochronicity

As you may have guessed, monochronic cultures are quite the opposite of polychronic cultures.

In monochronic cultures – like those of the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, and Turkey, to name a few – time is divided strictly into specific tasks.

Business schedules are essential, as “time is money.” A manager’s agenda is pre-arranged and precise.

Many other idioms involving time have been coined in such cultures, such as the phrase “killing time,” which means you have time to waste. Or “take your time,” which means there is no deadline. “To work against the clock” suggests you have deadlines to meet and are competing with time to meet them.

These are just a few examples in which the monochronic valuation of time has eked into language.

There are also characteristic differences between the two cultural types.

Characteristic Differences

Shared in the conference paper, “Everything is about time: does it have the same meaning all over the world?” a number of qualities and values between the people of polychromic and monochromic cultures differ. Here are a few:

Polychronic Monochronic
Do multiple things at once Complete one task at a time
Are subject to interruptions and distractions Concentrate on the task at hand
Time commitments are flexible Deadlines and schedules are strict
Are relationship-focused Are job-focused
Often alter plans Are plan-oriented
Consider the relationship when prioritizing time Time priority is emphasized
Build life-long relationships Build short-term relationships

We’ll talk more about why these differences in time perception sprang up between polychronic and monochronic cultures next week.

Time as a Measurable Substance: What are Chronemics?

Daily life is dictated by time. And time is dictated by daily life.

Both vary across cultures.

You can set your watch by a Swiss train, but to do so in India may very well put you in a different timezone.

Cross-cultural expectations in the workplace are impacted by how cultures conceptualize time.

A breach of expectations in meeting deadlines or appointments can be detrimental to cross-cultural relations, particularly regarding countries that are time-sensitive.

So, how do you even begin to understand another culture’s time expectations?

You start out with the basics.

Concept of Time

Time is a measurable substance. If you think of time in linear terms, it is portioned in intervals, based on activities.

That’s why “time lines” exist.

At any point along the line, one activity has ended, and another has begun.

But not all cultures measure time with the same yardstick.

And the measurements that they use can influence everything from their lifestyles to the speed of their speech.

This is why a firm understanding of a cross-cultural business partner’s measurement of time will allow managers to account for these differences in expectation.

Knowledge of the culture’s time etiquette enables managers to plan accordingly.

For instance, when you make an appointment, understanding the other culture’s expectations about punctuality or tardiness will direct you to behave according to their concept of time – or at least prepare you to allow for their cultural norms without feeling disrespected.

And these norms are largely dictated by whether the culture is polychronic or monochronic.

Chronemics

Chronemics is the study of time’s role in communication – particularly non-verbal communication.

What does chronemics cover?

It evaluates a culture’s:

  • Perception of time
  • Structure of time
  • Time values (i.e. punctuality)
  • Response to time frames (i.e. patience in waiting)

The perception of time, itself, is like a cultural time capsule. Cultural norms in relation to time encapsulate so many aspects of a culture, you can almost sketch out a general idea of their cultural baobab, simply from their concept of time.

Chronemics is divided into two different time systems: monochronic and polychronic. We’ll discuss both at length next week.

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.

Rule of Law in Culture: Are Laws More Important Than Relationships?

A hypothetical scenario:

Your best friend is picking you up to head out on the town. As you head into the city center, you notice your friend is driving quite fast; 40 mph in a 20 mph zone down a crowded street.

You see a pedestrian take a step off the sidewalk ahead of your friend’s car. “Look out!” you shout. But it’s too late. Your friend accidentally hits the pedestrian.

An ambulance is called, paramedics try to save the victim, but he doesn’t make it. He dies on the way to the hospital.

Weeks later, you are called to court as a witness to the fatal accident. You know your friend was driving well over the speed limit, but if you tell the truth, he’ll go to prison. If you lie for your friend, he’ll walk away.

Would you lie? Or would you tell the truth?

Survey: Venezuela vs. USA

This was the exact scenario given in a survey sent to 46,000 managers in 40 different countries in a study by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner.

As a preface, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions define the US is a rule-based society; Venezuela is a relationship-based society.

Knowing this, which society do you think would choose to be truthful in this matter? And which do you think might lie to protect a friend?

As you can see below, the results were exactly as you’d expect.

additional_charts_CMYK-02

96% of American citizens surveyed said that, when confronted with this situation, they would tell the truth and abide by the law. Only 34% of Venezuelans agreed.

The majority of those from the relationship-based society of Venezuela would protect their friend above the law, while the overwhelming majority of Americans would put their societal responsibility before their friend’s fate.

Everyone is Equal in the Eyes of the Law

Western cultures are largely rule-based or “universalist.” Generally, they believe that, in order to be just, established rules and laws should be applied universally.

According to the purest form of justice, all people – friend or stranger, rich or poor, black or white – should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. And, with that perspective, most people in a law-based society would strive toward the rule.

Rules and laws are also seen, more or less, as a black and white matter.

A red light at a pedestrian crossing illustrates the seriousness of law in a rule-based culture.

In Germany or Switzerland – both strict rule-based cultures – place a foot out of line when the pedestrian crossing light is red, and you will see the reaction. Those around you will make it clear – albeit, likely with only a frown – that they’re not happy with your disobedience, albeit likely just with a frown. Even if it’s 2 in the morning.

Laws in a rule-based society are also considered essentially permanent.

For instance, a law that is a law today is unchangeable; it will be the same tomorrow (unless, of course, it’s changed through an often lengthy democratic process that involves party votes and public opinion).

Not even the highest office in the country has the right to change the law in an instant; neither is this highest office immune to the laws.

Beyond the Individual

While rule-based cultures often align with a high degree of individualism, relationship-based cultures walk hand-in-hand with collectivism. This results in a different prioritization of social norms in individualist vs. collectivist cultures.

One Confucian ideal puts this in perspective: care for one’s parents/grandparents comes first; then comes care for one’s children; then, for oneself.

Collectivists see human existence as reaching beyond the individual; rather an individual’s existence is a symbiotic relationship with extended family, the tribe, the village, society. One’s connection to others is part of his/her existence. Existing apart from this is a form of death.

As such, relationships are highly important; oftentimes, more important than rules. The alternative is ostracism which is, again, death.

Imprisonment is a form of ostracism. Should you confess that your friend broke the law, thereby sending him to prison, you are virtually putting him to death.

In this way, you can see the stark and dramatic difference the truth would make in this matter.

In this way, you can see the difference in perspective between relationship-based and rule-based cultures.

In this way, you might begin to understand motivations across cultures.