Acceptance: The First Step in Cross-Cultural Management

The first step in bridging any conflict is acceptance.

Acceptance does not necessarily mean approval; it just means you are not whipping out your red pen and labeling something “bad” or “wrong” before engaging with it in a thoughtful manner.

Acceptance means tolerance.

When you’re no longer actively butting your head against something unmovable, you are demonstrating your willingness to engage with that with which you are unfamiliar or may not inherently agree.

And to work in a cross-cultural environment, you will have to engage in various ways. Change is inevitable.

So, how do you relinquish judgment and accept another culture’s values and norms?

Good vs. Bad; Right vs. Wrong

Cultural values define what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong, making each of us innate judges of other people’s behavior and character.

This judgment becomes even starker in another culture when the people aren’t playing by the same rules. Their “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are not the same as that of the foreigner who is passing judgment.

In a sense, when managing in a foreign culture, you are entering a world of moral ambiguity.

How do you navigate it?

Morality in Question

You aren’t likely to encourage debates of morality in a professional setting while working abroad. But that doesn’t mean your conscience won’t awaken when faced with another culture’s values.

We’ve discussed some of the differences across cultures in our self-assessment over the past couple weeks.

These profound conflicts of conscience might affect you outside of the workplace or inside it.

For instance, you might face the following questions:

  • Does the culture in which you are working consider gifts bribes?
  • Are your competitors circumventing the tax laws in this country? And does that mean you should follow suit, so as not to be at a competitive disadvantage?
  • Are women treated as inferior to men in the company?
  • What is the dress code like? Are public-facing jobs expected to dress professionally…and what does that even mean in this culture?
  • What if your company is manufacturing a product that directly conflicts with your cultural values (drugs used for executions, for instance)?

Here’s the thing: as a foreign manager in another culture, you aren’t going to click your fingers and change the societal values and norms by acting against the grain.

Nor should you completely abandon your convictions, because your values and norms are a substantial part of you.

All you can do is cope, which comes in the form of accepting, adapting to, and adopting the culture wherever you can.

We’ll expand on the four principles of cultural acceptance 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.

Step 2 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Accepting

Last week, we talked about awareness. Awareness of culture differences throws a fork in the road: once you’re aware of differences, you can either tolerate or be intolerant toward cultural values and norms.

This is where acceptance comes in.

Acceptance plays a huge role in your cultural integration. To be successful, you must accept the culture into which you’re integrating. If you reject it, then you will ultimately fail in this foreign culture.

But, then again, there will be things you willingly accept and things you morally reject.

What Must You Accept?

A myriad of cultural values and norms must be accepted if you want to integrate into a culture. Some will be easy; others will be hard. Here are some examples.

Easy to accept:

Hard to accept:

Whether it’s adapting to the time management mantra of “it will get done when it gets done” in cultures like Nepal or India or accepting that South Koreans eat dog meat or that the French eat horse meat, you must accept that things are morally sound in some countries, even when they’re unsound in your own.

How Do You Accept Something You Morally Reject?

If you have ethical issues with the cultural norm, you can draw the line at accepting another’s culture instead of adopting it.

For example, let’s talk about headscarves. Women from Western cultures often morally reject the idea of wearing the Muslim hijab. Some see it as oppressive and as a way to control women and their human rights.

As reported by Independent, in 2016 an entire Air France cabin crew refused to fly to Iran when they were ordered by the airline chief to wear headscarves upon disembarking the flight in Tehran.

When venturing into a country like Iran or Saudi Arabia, not only might a Western woman feel uncomfortable wearing the hijab, but she might feel as though she’s complicit in what she views as oppression of women by following this custom.

If they reject this custom, then they won’t be able to do business in this country, as happened in the case of Marie Le Pen, France’s far-right presidential candidate, when she refused to wear a headscarf on her visit to Lebanon in February.

According to The Washington Post, “Marine Le Pen walked away from a meeting with Lebanon’s top Sunni Muslim leaders after she refused to wear a headscarf. The move sparked an outcry across the Arab world.”

The question is: is it worth it to spark an outcry?

You Draw the Line

As with most things, it depends on the situation and your own personal standards. YOU draw the line between what you culturally accept, what you adopt, and how far you choose to integrate into a culture.

You may come to accept things as small as greetings and time management, but those that touch upon a moral obligation will be harder to accept or adopt. It’s up to you to draw that line for yourself.

I’ll tell you how I drew my own line next week.