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.

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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.