Assuming Sameness: How Cross-Cultural Exchanges Can Go VERY Wrong

Tom walks into his potential new Japanese office.

He’s never opened a book on cross-cultural business (I am the Monkey! would be a great start), hasn’t learned anything about the culture, and barely put his shoes on the right feet this morning.

He enters the conference room, dressed casually, and goes to shake hands all around. The Japanese colleagues bow, and Tom bungles through, half-bowing, half-hand shaking.

When this exchange is over, they each present their business cards to Tom in turn. He accepts them with one hand and shoves them into his pocket. He forgot his back at the hotel.

Clearly, Tom was ill-prepared. And he didn’t get the job.

What did he do wrong?

Well, for one thing, he assumed sameness. And by that, I mean, he assumed Japanese culture and business etiquette was the same as his own.

What is “Normal”?

With the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about sameness in a way: all the general themes cultures have in common, from language to politics, from transportation to the arts.

Now, we’re going to talk about the dangers in assuming cultures are all the same.

First off, it’s completely natural to assume that other cultures fall in line with our own.

For one thing, from the time we are children, we’re taught a limited scope of what’s expected and accepted by the society into which we’ve been born; we’re taught our own culture’s values and norms.

We see this scope as “normal.” And when another culture falls outside our limited scope, their actions or ideologies are viewed as abnormal.

So with this implicit assumption that the rest of the world is normal like us, anything different feels wrong.

But, the more we are exposed to, the more our scope of “normal” evolves and grows. If we’re open to it, we learn that “normal” is not a universally fixed concept.

Abandon Assumptions

Success in a multicultural environment begins with abandoning assumptions. You can do this in five steps:

  1. Assume you know nothing
  2. Shed foundational views of right vs. wrong and normal vs. abnormal
  3. Know that you’ve been exposed to a microscopic worldview
  4. Admire the cultural diversity that paints the complex mural of humanity
  5. Recall the Baobab Theory of Culture and connect the dots from the roots to the branches, in order to understand cultural differences

Done Differently

Knowing all this, after abandoning assumptions, what should Tom have done differently during his Japanese meeting?

  • Read a book on cross-cultural business
  • Read up on Japanese business etiquette
  • Dressed formally
  • Bowed, instead of shaken hands (or both, if the Japanese counterparts offered a handshake)
  • Been prepared with business cards, as this exchange is routine in Japan
  • Accepted others’ business cards with both hands
  • Read and memorized the name and important information on each card
  • Placed the card carefully into a business card holder, instead of directly into the pocket

Respect is essential etiquette in Japanese business culture. Anything less is insulting.

By assuming sameness, Tom insulted his potential colleagues and cut short his success across cultures.

Next week, we’ll talk more about acquired and genetic perception and how they form our culture and our understanding of others.

Viewing Others Through Your Own Culture-Tinted Glasses

It’s human nature to consider yourself and your culture “normal,” and others as strange or foreign. Because they are just that – foreign to you.

But believe it or not, you are not “normal.” Not necessarily, anyway.

Normal behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and ways are relative to culture. Culture shapes our world and our worldview. What is considered normal or preferred in one culture will be viewed as abnormal and odd in another.

The following three tips will help you view others without judgment, even while looking through your own culture-tinted glasses.

Tip 1: Remember YOU are the Monkey

In my book, I am the Monkey, I break down what it means to integrate into a new culture through a zoo analogy.

When you enter a foreign culture, you may feel like the spectator in the zoo – the human, not the animal. You might believe yourself normal and even superior to the culture around you, while considering your colleagues all odd ducks. But, in reality, you are the monkey. You’re the “abnormal” one.

While you judge the culture into which you’re integrating, it’s important to remember that you’re in their territory. They’re the normal ones here, and you are the monkey that’s out of place.

Remind yourself this, as you don your culture-tinted glasses: whenever you’re a guest in a foreign land, you are being judged according to their cultural values and norms (which we’ll discuss later on in this blog).

Tip 2: Take Baby-steps to Integrate

A monkey who starts learning how to get around isn’t likely to be swinging from limb to limb like Tarzan straight away. Don’t get frustrated by this, and don’t lash out at your host country’s culture.

That’s easier said than done. You will get frustrated at times – with yourself, with your hosts, with the culture – but don’t allow that frustration to become a brick wall to successful integration.

Make an effort to learn the language and customs. These are the first baby-steps to learning the culture and viewing it without judgment.

Tip 3: Remove Your Culture-tinted Glasses

Once you’ve begun the process of integration, it will soon be time to remove your culture-tinted glasses. And that’s what this blog is all about: helping you to live and manage across cultures by integrating to the point that you start to see the culture through its own eyes, instead of your own near-sighted bias.

You can do this through the five steps outlined in my book:

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I’ll talk about these steps in greater detail over the coming weeks.