Stairs Ascending: How Differing Visual Frameworks Lead to Misinformation

How do you view three dimensions?

How do you view snow?

How does an American view a staircase? Is it different from how an Arabic person views it?

As a matter of fact, yes, it is.

stairs

This depiction of a staircase would likely be viewed by an American as stairs ascending.

For an Arabic person, they’re descending.

Why?

Because of our language and the way we read it.

Americans read left to right, while Arabs read right to left.

This is a difference in our visual framework. For the past few weeks, we’ve talked about how this framework is culturally informed.

So, now let’s ask the question whose answer will make you a more insightful and successful cross-cultural manager: how can the differences in these frameworks be an issue in a cross-cultural context?

Organizational Charts

Taking the example of the Arab versus the American further, consider a chart that shows the different levels of departments in a company, based on their importance.

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As is usual in Europe and the US, the most important position is organized at the top center (or sometimes the top left) of the chart.

This is where our cultures have trained us to view it.

Each descending department is of lesser and lesser status.

A chart in Arabic would be organized the opposite way.

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Here’s another pretty famous example of misunderstandings that can arise from differing cultural frameworks.

Marketing was launched in Japan by a Western pharmaceutical company.

The product? Medicine for upset stomachs.

The advertisement depicted three pictures.

The first illustration showed the patient feeling sick. The second showed him taking the medicine. And, in the last pic, the sun had come out and the man was smiling and healthy.

That’s how a Westerner would read the advert anyway, left to right.

But like Arabic cultures, Japan reads their Mangas (i.e. comic books) from back to front.

So, when they viewed this comic strip within their visual framework, they saw a healthy man taking medicine and becoming sick.

Not at all the message this company wanted to send out to potential customers.

The Bottom Line

When you live, work, or advertise in a foreign culture, you have to wear their visual framework like virtual reality goggles.

Seeing the world through their eyes is the only way you can relate to your clients and to those you manage.

And, the bottom line is, the ability to relate to others is what makes a manager – or anyone working in a multicultural environment – successful.

A Conflict of Conscience: Acting Rationally Within Another’s Cultural Baobab

Most people act rationally within their cultural baobab. But it’s much harder to do so when you’re the monkey in another’s tree.

What do I mean by this?

Last week, we discussed Canadian social norms and how they reflect the nation’s cultural values. Politeness is one of these norms. It’s tied to the values of courtesy and non-confrontation, possibly imparted by the British Tories who settled there.

So what if a dude from a not-so-vocally-polite culture immigrated to Canada and was brazenly “impolite” by Canadian standards?

He would be acting rationally within his own cultural baobab, but not within theirs.

This type of social norm is easy enough to correct: if you want to adapt and integrate into Canadian culture, just throw in a few “please and thank you”s and try to be more courteous to people.

But what if a foreign culture’s values touch a nerve in your own and lead to a conflict of conscience?

Revisiting Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann

Do you remember our friends Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann?

When Ahmed helped Khalid cheat on an exam, Ann was upset, as this didn’t fit into the rationale of her culture.

But it did fit into the rationale of Ahmed and Khalid’s culture.

Absent of strong familial support, individual members might not cope on their own in a third world country. So, Ahmed was only helping his cousin succeed, which is harmonious with the roots and branches of his cultural baobab.

Ann, as well, was acting rationally according to her own baobab. Her culture teaches that an individual should succeed of his own volition; cheating isn’t tolerated and reflects poorly on the individual. Not only that, but the results don’t accurately reflect his abilities.

One problem, however: she didn’t consider that she was viewing the incident from her tree’s perspective, rather than that of the culture she was integrating into.

In pushing Ahmed (and Ahmed’s parents) to conform to her own cultural baobab, she was attempting to make them grow a new branch in a day.

Impossible. And probably unnecessary.

In the end, cheating wouldn’t help Khalid succeed in an individualist society…but he was living in a collectivist one, where knowledge is shared, not exclusive to those smart enough to obtain it.

Do Values Ever Change?

Values are deeply rooted. They’re very difficult to pull up and regrow in any cultural baobab.

Cultures only change through introducing and cultivating values below the surface that eventually sprout new branches and new leaves – the social norms that are watered by society.

In the end, Ann hurt both Ahmed and Khalid. In accusing them of cheating, she publicly stated that Khalid was not smart enough or capable of succeeding, while also accusing Ahmed of being dishonest.

Ahmed felt the sting of losing face, so much so, that he asked to be transferred to a different school near his grandparents’, where no one would look at him negatively.

He lost out on a strong education at a better school, while Ann lost the trust and respect of the parents. No one in this conflict of conscience was better off. And neither the individual’s values, nor the culture’s changed because of it.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk about next week.

How Culture Shapes Our World

You woke up this morning and ate a breakfast of eggs and toast without consciously realizing that breakfast was culture.

You dressed, got ready, did your hair, suited up without realizing that style is culture.

You went to work by metro, jostled in between a man in sneakers and sweatpants and a woman in a pantsuit, both on their smartphones, without realizing that mode of transportation, personal space, and gender equality are culture.

You sat in on a morning meeting, putting forth your ideas, your boss nodding along, without realizing that business and hierarchical structures are culture.

You chatted with your colleagues about the latest episode of Game of Thrones without realizing communication and entertainment are culture.

Although culture can appear in the form of tangible things – fashion, entertainment, food, etc. – our own culture is, for the most part, invisible. We don’t often say, “Hey, look – there’s culture!” We breathe it without thinking about it.

And, yet, culture shapes everything in our world.

The Not-So-Invisible Shapes of Culture

Being that culture is so alive and vibrant, it’s not so much that you don’t see culture or know it’s there. The thing is, you’re often blind to your own culture, until it’s contrasted with others.

For instance, here are a few cultural differences. Consider your own culture’s preferences in contrast with those below:

  • Greetings – a handshake in America, a kiss on both cheeks in Italy, a bow in Japan
  • Breakfast – a croissant in France, bread and honey in Morocco, fried noodles in China
  • Common mode of transport – a car in Los Angeles, the Underground in London, a bicycle in Amsterdam
  • Punctuality – extremely punctual in Switzerland, very late in Thailand, punctual in business/not so much in personal matters in Chile
  • Sports – hockey in Canada, cricket in India, football basically everywhere else in the world

These are just some of the ways in which cultures differ. Now, imagine yourself trying to integrate some of these foreign cultural preferences into your life.

Cross-Cultural Understanding

Most of the things around you are culture, from what you eat to what you watch to what you wear, from how you get around to how you think and speak. Apart from your genetic material, culture is everything that shapes who you are and how you view the world.

Knowing all this, in order to integrate into another culture, you must make an effort to stop Viewing Others Through Your Own Culture-Tinted Glasses.

Next week, I’ll provide tips on how to do just that. Stay tuned.