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.

Contracts in China: How Relationship-Based Cultures View Contractual Obligations

When you do business in China, you may come across a common contractual clause.

This clause stipulates that if issues arise, the contracted parties will discuss them and the contract may potentially be redrafted.

China is a relationship-based culture.

Someone from a rule-based culture, like most Western societies, will likely take issue with this clause.

Contracts are supposed to be black-and-white. They are supposed to be unambiguous. They are supposed to regulate specifically every aspect of the business relationship.

Contracts exist to effectively end the negotiation stage and begin working together.

The clause makes it clear that the contractual agreement may be renegotiated at any time. That means, for instance, when the parties do face a dispute, it might not go to court in the city in which the contract stipulates, but rather in a city court where the established law may work in the other party’s favor.

So, why even negotiate a contract in China? If it’s so ambiguous, what does the contract stand for?

Relationship-based Values vs. Rule-based Values

The relationship-based culture of China values a mutually beneficial and respectful business relationship. The contract is symbolic as such.

The contract signifies that personal relationships exist amongst the parties, therefore future disagreements may be negotiated.

While in Western cultures, a signed contract might mark the end of the negotiation process, in China – and in other relationship-based cultures – it marks the beginning.

You might think you’ve nailed down prices, but even those can be renegotiated days or weeks after signing.

Although those from Western cultures might see such a contract as pointless, its signing is still very important in relationship-based cultures.

In fact, it’s so important, that a contract signed with a Chinese company traditionally involves a luncheon or ceremony when making it official.

As soon as a contract is signed, it signifies that the two parties – especially the leaders – are publicly friends and will be respectful of their business relationship.

Relationships-to-Home Life

Relationship-based societies also view work life and personal life as inseparable to the point that “personal relations” and “business relations” are concepts that don’t exist in these societies.

That’s because company rules are dominated by relationships, particularly if an employee’s in-group is their family or tribe.

This means that if you have a conflict with an employee, it can often extend to a conflict with his/her family, kin, or any other member of his/her in-group.

Next week, we’ll discuss how this situation might manifest, along with other conflicts that crop up in business in relationship-based 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.