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.

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.

Assessment: Can You Accept, Adapt, and Adopt Across Cultures?

Not all personalities perform well in a cross-cultural environment.

Research finds that managers with the following qualities achieve the best performance:

  • Social initiative
  • Emotional stability
  • Open-mindedness
  • Flexibility
  • Empathy

Transitioning across cultures is not easy, and often managers who are sent to work in a cross-cultural environment are chosen for their business acumen, rather than any inherent cross-cultural skills or adaptability they may possess.

While companies do require managers abroad to know their business, their cross-cultural skills are equally important.

Sometimes successful leadership in one’s home country does not necessarily transfer over to, say, Japan, Germany, or Brazil.

Each of these countries has different cultural values and norms, and if the manager doesn’t have the skills required to accept, adapt, or adopt aspects of the culture, they will fall flat as a foreign manager.

Self-Assessment

Perhaps, you’re not sure if you possess the qualities that are key to cross-cultural leadership.

To self-assess whether your personality is compatible to lead across cultures, read the hypothetical scenario and then answer honestly.

Grief Across Cultures

Grieving processes differ across cultures.

Consider your own culture’s appropriate grieving process.

Do mourners grieve openly and emotionally? Or do they grieve quietly and stoically?

Now, imagine you are from the West, and you’re organizing a relative’s funeral.

The West approaches grief in a somber and communal fashion. Funerals usually involve family and relatives joining either in a congregation or funeral hall, saying prayers, sharing memories, crying. But this is often the extent of the communal grieving process. 

Now, consider that the Middle Eastern partner of your relative invites her family to the funeral.

Middle Easterners show grief by moaning and crying out during communal services.

When they grieve this way at the funeral, do you find their actions disrespectful? As the funeral’s organizer, would you be upset that your own family was perhaps uncomfortable with this demonstrative grieving? Would you attempt to adapt the funeral to accommodate different forms of grief?

If you were to attend a funeral in the Middle East, would you adhere to your own cultural norms when mourning, or would you mirror your hosts and express your grief in a similar fashion?

If you are silent, your hosts might find your solemn behavior as disrespectful. Are you alright with this interpretation?

Do you think you could become accustomed to these behaviors if you lived in the Middle East for a time? If so, would you be open to adopting the behaviors when they became natural to you?

Now, consider other foreign funerary customs. For instance:

  • The Benguet of the Philippines blindfold the departed and seat them on a chair beside their home’s main entrance.
  • The Vaisravana Buddhists of Tibet and Mongolia perform a “sky burial,” ritually dismembering the departed and leaving the body on a mountaintop for vultures to take.
  • The Malagasy of Madagascar exhume their departed every couple of years in an event called “the turning of the bones,” in order to dance with them along to live music.

Would you be able to accept, adapt to, or adopt any of these cultural funerary customs?

The answer to this question will give you an idea about where you draw the line and how you might fair in a foreign environment.

What if the above qualities are not your strengths?

Never fear; next week, we’ll talk about developing the skillset to build these qualities.

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.

Nonverbal Communication Cues in Culture

Physical contact, personal bubble, power distance.

All of these aspects are nonverbal behavior specific to culture.

And they tend to make cross-cultural communication all the more complicated. They may even go so far as to produce misunderstandings.

Power Distance

One example of nonverbal communication that differs from your own culture is another’s power structure.

Culture views authority differently, and you must be able to adapt, as a sense of social ranking and authority enters into communication across cultures.

For example, a culture’s valuation of authority can impact the speed at which a message is delivered and answered, as well as who is the ultimate recipient.

In Sweden, there is a more decentralized authoritarian structure that aims for a participative management model.

But if you are, say, French, with a stricter authoritarian model, coming into this flatter structure would be difficult to navigate.

Your status quo is broken down. Your ethnocentric beliefs are thrown.

In order to thrive, you must be able to move past your own power structure and adapt to another’s.

Let’s look at some other nonverbal behaviors to consider.

Nonverbal Behaviors

What is an acceptable dress code in the workplace?

Is it considered rude to maintain eye contact?

What sort of personal space do you give others?

How about touching? What’s appropriate and what is not?

Each of these things is a nonverbal behavior standard to each culture. In other words, they are the norm.

Due to ethnocentrism, you’re likely comfortable in your own culture’s nonverbal communication norms and, unless the other culture’s norms are a carbon copy of your own, uncomfortable in theirs.

You may even consider another culture’s nonverbal communication cues as distasteful or wrong. And you probably can’t help but instinctively feel that way.

But you can adapt, and here’s how.

Physical Touch

Consider this: you grew up in a family that doesn’t hug often. They were loving and supportive, but they simply didn’t show it through physical touch.

You make a group of friends. They often hug you, but it makes you feel uncomfortable. You allow the gesture, but you’re stiff and formal about it. It was never part of your primary socialization, so you are reluctant to broach another’s personal space in this way and to have yours broached.

Over time, however, this familiarity becomes more and more natural with this friend group. You may start to like the feeling of connection and grow comfortable and accepting of this nonverbal behavior. You may even like it so much that you initiate, despite it not being the norm of your personal identity.

Similarly, when it comes to the norms of other cultures, you may feel that discomfort and reluctance at first to embrace certain aspects of nonverbal communication cues.

Over time, however, who knows? They may become part of you.

Cultural Bias: Using Ethnocentricity to Your Advantage

Ethnocentrismthe evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.

We’ve been discussing this theme for the past few weeks. And that’s because ethnocentrism is innate in all of us. Although it seems like a type of bias only present in uneducated or prejudiced people, even the most “woke” individual, even those who study cross-cultural differences professionally, even those experts who produce management literature are all subject to ethnocentricity.

For instance, Maslow’s pyramid of needs is ethnocentric. The “needs” in question are not universal; they’re the needs of those from western cultures.

So, being that we are all subject to our own innate cultural bias, how do we use ethnocentricity to our advantage?

Overcoming Your Own Cultural Bias

We are programmed through primary socialization and further cultural conditioning to view our way of life as the most logical. We consider other cultures to be “wrong,” while ours is “right” and should be universal.

This is ethnocentricity in a nutshell.

Even when we are well aware of our cultural bias, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

While we may not be able to avoid ethnocentrism completely, in a cross-cultural workplace, it’s essential to accept that our values are not universal, nor are they absolute.

This is the first step to altering our perspective of another culture’s values and norms and adapting our behaviors accordingly.

In order to thrive in a foreign culture, acceptance and tolerance will melt ethnocentrism’s hard edges.

Next, you must adopt the fresh new “rights and wrongs,” standards, and methods of the new business environment.

Doing so may feel unnatural to you, but your willingness to adjust to the other culture’s standards will allow you to succeed in that new culture, as it demonstrates respect.

Play It to Your Advantage

Taking this all a step further, you may use ethnocentrism to your advantage in business.

This is more applicable to specific aspects – like playing to your customer base, for instance.

If you’re opening an American hotel chain in America, for example, you’d likely highlight the new spacious rooms, the modern conveniences, the privacy and security of the hotel, the staff’s professionalism.

But if you were opening that same hotel in Albania, you know that Albania’s hospitality index is through the roof, so you might focus your press release on the personal nature of the hotel’s hospitality, its traditional and homey atmosphere, and its family feel to accommodate Albanian values.

The point is, awareness of your own ethnocentricity – and that of the culture in which you’re doing business – can often help you work, communicate, and promote effectively across cultures.

How Media and Faith Contribute to a Culture’s Locus of Control

How does our locus of control affect our daily lives?

Let’s let our good friends, Ann and Kamal, illustrate the differences.

Ann is of a culture with an internal locus of control – she believes her actions will see results. Control is in her hands.

Kamal is of a culture with an external locus of control – he believes that the environment or a higher power is the director of life. He is powerless to his fate.

What happens when the two worlds collide?

Locus of Control in Healthcare

Kamal is in pain and is prescribed medication by a doctor. Knowing his situation, Kamal’s close friend Ann follows up on his health.

locusofcontrol.jpg

Herein lies the difference between those from an internal-locus culture and an external-locus culture.

The internal-locus, Ann, believes that taking action and following up with a professional and with additional medication will determine the outcome of Kamal’s health issue.

The external-locus, Kamal, arrives at a point in his health where he believes his fate is predestined, and this pain is a part of it. He accepts his painful fate.

Locus of Control in Media

When you look at Western media, you can clearly see the internal locus of control prevalent in everything from self-help manuals to life coaches and therapists.

Glance at any magazine headline or scroll through a Western website, and you’ll see the “top ten ways” in which to improve yourself in one way or another – whether the improvement targets your health, appearance, or habits.

These basic media elements indicate that individual improvement is in one’s own hands. And this internal locus is prevalent in Western values and norms, which highlight independence, self-determination, and individualism.

Godly Values & Norms

When you take a look at a culture’s values and norms, these often prove to be a more direct indicator of that culture’s locus.

For instance, those with an external locus of control – Muslim cultures, for instance – live according to the ideology that life was created for them.

Such a view manifests in the culture’s fundamental traditions and strict rules of law, all of which have been bestowed upon them by God. God directs the course of both individual lives and of all of humanity.

These are the values and norms that drive the external locus of control in such cultures.

Yet, there are some individuals in external locus cultures who possess an internal locus.

Muslim clerics, for example, are considered the vehicles of God’s word, so they instruct their fellow man by directing community and political views.

They, however, attribute this control to God and, in doing so, God is still the eternal director of mankind.

Next week, we’ll talk about how the four building blocks of culture are influenced by ethnocentricity.

4 Types of Cultural Time Orientation & Time Perception

The ways in which individuals in a culture work and how they view time frames are dictated by whether a culture runs according to a polychronic time system or a monochronic time system.

We talked last week about cultures with informal concepts of time, including cultures that view time as exclusively present (not past or future) and those who view time as cyclical.

How is this time-orientation learned? Let’s take a look.

Values & Norms

Just as values and norms are a culture’s learned behaviors, so is time perception.

Time perception is based on a society’s values. As we mentioned in an earlier post, those from monochronic cultures value relationships above all else. So, if they miss a deadline in lieu of putting time into a family matter, it’s a nonissue.

So, just as children learn values – such as the importance of family – during their primary socialization, so they are oriented toward a specific time cognitivism based on those values.

Time Orientation

There are four different types of time orientation.

These are:

  • Past – the past and the present are interchangeable in past-oriented cultures. They often do not fully grasp elapsed time.
  • Time-line – this type of time cognitivity is a detail-oriented linear concept of time. However, time-line cognitivity does not lend itself to multitasking.
  • Present – you might think of a thrill-seeker when you think of present-oriented cognitivity. These are low-risk aversion cultures.
  • Future – the goal-setting, forward-thinking cultures are future-oriented. Those with future-oriented cognitivity look at the bigger picture and follow their plans through to achieve that picture.

What is affected by time orientation?

Communication, particularly the content of what’s being communicated, as well as the urgency and frequency of communication.

Who Belongs Where

Older countries with centuries of history, such as India and China, are generally past-oriented. The broad scope of time in these cultures enables a view of time that judges minutes and hours as inconsequential.

Forget the stampede and the rush to meet goals. The clock doesn’t rule such cultures – or, in fact, industry or infrastructure in such cultures. A train in India will be late, and few will bother. Late trains and missed deadlines are to be expected.

Cultures who live for today, like France, are considered present-oriented. Their values are more often thrill-seeking and pleasure-based, rather than with a view on the future or the past.

Newer countries with an eye on innovation and the future, like the US, are future-oriented. The “American Dream,” for instance, is a quintessential thread in the country’s cultural fabric.

A dream is an ideal to work toward; hence, it’s always in the future. Milestones are often set to achieve this ideal. And the clock is ticking. This leads to a culture working against the clock.

Time orientation combined with a culture’s values dictate much about the way individuals in said societies live their lives.

We’ll talk about how monochronism and polychronism falls into time orientation next week.

When Being On-Time Means Everything: How Important is Punctuality to Culture?

How does your culture value time?

Are they more often punctual or late?

Do people care?

Time is valued differently across cultures. In some places, like Switzerland or Germany, punctuality is important. Tardiness is unacceptable and often viewed as disrespectful.

In such cultures, daily schedules, goals, and decision-making processes are dictated by time.

Some cultures, on the other hand, don’t stress punctuality. They might be an hour late, a day late, a week late.  And that’s a-okay. Time is not ruled by a schedule, and neither is business.

This can lead to huge headaches in cross-cultural business. When one culture’s concept of time is not the same as your own, how do you deal?

We’ll discuss that over the next few weeks. For now, let’s take a look at why time is viewed differently across cultures.

Finding Cultural Equilibrium

Is our valuation of time deeply engrained in our values? Or is it simply a reaction to others’ tardiness?

A 2002 study on punctuality in culture, entitled, “A Cultural Trait as Equilibrium,” concludes that punctuality is largely reactionary:

“…punctuality may be simply an equilibrium response of individuals to what they expect others to do. The same society can get caught in a punctual equilibrium or a non-punctual equilibrium.”

In other words, individuals of a society may collectively habit-form according to punctuality or tardiness, based on what they expect from their peers. Then this habit becomes a cultural norm.

This study suggests that such habits “could be subject to evolutionary erosion or bolstering.” The researchers consider a society’s punctuality/tardiness norm is both a shared social trait and an individual reaction to our expectations of others, adjusting our behaviors to arrive at equilibrium.

This makes sense. After all, have you ever had a group of friends that were perpetually late and, in knowing that, you found yourself arriving for planned meetups later and later than the set time.

“Fashionably late” is a term for a reason. Who wants to be the first one to arrive, the longest to wait? How unfashionable.

The question is, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did society’s general values about time inform the initial tardiness/punctuality that evolved and became a norm? Or did the values evolve as the norm became more, well, normal?

The Clocks Run On-Time…Literally

While cultural studies tend to delve into the intangible nature of cultural attitudes and values to explain behavior, some behaviors may result from very practical matters.

One interesting theory that developed from a 1980 study on punctuality pattern differences between the United States and Brazil is that Brazilian watches were simply not as reliable, which may have led to less stress on punctuality in Brazilian culture.

When researchers studied various watches in the United States and Brazil, they found evidence to support the theory that “public clocks and personal watches [are] less accurate in Brazil than in the United States.”

An interesting hypothesis, and not a conclusion you’d immediately jump to.

Are Swiss more punctual, because their clocks are notoriously accurate? Or are their clocks notoriously accurate, because they value punctuality?

Do German trains run on time, because their tickers do?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss culture and its relation to time. How it impacts everyday life, communication, orientation, and business relations. Stay tuned.

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.