Ethnocentrism and the Workplace: How Our Biases Enter Into Business Relations

We’ve talked about ethnocentrism the past couple weeks and the ways in which it might crop up in cross-cultural research.

But ethnocentrism isn’t just a vague concept that infiltrates research; it often shows up in your average everyday workplace.

Let’s take a look at how and why.

Ethnocentrism in Business Communication

International business ventures require that individuals communicate cross-culturally.

This can either turn into a promising business partnership and even a delightful way to share cultures or into a complete devolution of business relations.

Let’s take a look at one example:

Ted (from the U.S.) sets up a video conference with Saanvi (from India).

“Let’s talk tomorrow at 8 AM, sharp,” he writes.

The next day, Ted logs into the video conference room at 7:45. 8 AM rolls around, and there’s no sign of Saanvi. Ted shoots Saanvi a quick message to let him know he’s there. By 8:10, Saanvi still hasn’t shown up. Ted is growing impatient. At 8:30, Ted sends Saanvi a curt message about rescheduling and then signs off.

Saanvi later responds to Ted, indicating that he did eventually show up to the online conference room. He video calls Ted, and when Ted asks if Saanvi can talk the next day at the same time, Saanvi nods.

The following day, the same thing happens. Ted is livid. Saanvi had confirmed with his nod, after all.

There are a few things going on cross-culturally here, and both Ted and Saanvi would do better to understanding these cross-cultural issues.

Punctuality & Visual Cues

Ted and Saanvi come from two different backgrounds, two different traditions. They possess different values and likely have different approaches to business and methods of communication.

They likely process things from their own cultural conditioning.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. With basic cross-cultural understanding, one might be able to acknowledge and accept this gap. And with an even more specific mastery of the cross-cultural differences between your culture and the other, one might be able to bridge that gap effectively.

With nothing but ethnocentrism, the gap widens and business relations potentially implode.

Why?

Because when the individuals involved do not have a basic understanding of cross-cultural issues, they don’t know that the differences in communication aren’t intentional rudeness or unprofessionalism; they may simply be cultural differences.

For instance, whereas in America, time is money, punctuality is generally taken lightly in India. Even VIPs may show up late to business meetings.

Moreover, when Indians nod their heads, the movement doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes.’ Rather, the nod can be employed simply to show they’re being attentive to what you’re saying.

Instead of understanding the other culture, both Ted and Saanvi refused to acknowledge and adapt at all to their counterparts and instead forced their own ethnocentric business standards upon the other.

In this case, they both look like monkeys in each other’s eyes.

Without understanding and compromising to some degree, ethnocentrism can become a toxic trait, creating chasms in business relations and in cross-cultural workplaces where there should be bridges.

Apples & Oranges: Understanding Adverse Reactions to Culture

Last week, we talked about how important it is to successful cross cultural management to accept the culture into which you are integrating.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you’ll dislike or disagree with certain aspects of the culture. But disagreement doesn’t have to mean disdain.

You can disagree and still respect that this society might see or do things differently than you. And that’s okay.

Why Do We React Adversely?

Any initial adverse reactions to a foreign culture can probably be credited to discomfort.

This new world into which you are entering isn’t familiar and may not offer all the amenities of home (and if they do, they’re likely not packaged the same, so may be hard to find).

Home is easy. It’s familiar. It’s unsurprising.

You might start feeling nostalgic for home, which is part of the natural stages of culture shock.

It’s understandable. You likely know no one in this new world. All your friends are back home. It’s disconcerting to transition into a completely different life without anyone to lean on. Especially when that life and the culture’s norms and values are so different than your own.

When moving to Spain, a Japanese person might dislike the loud restaurants and the encroachment on their personal space when greeting, and in Japan, a Spanish person might dislike the culture’s formal behavior and traditions.

But to move forward and conquer that initial adverse reaction, the foreigner must understand that just because something is different than what he or she knows does not mean it’s bad.

Apples & Oranges

I grew up in Africa. My dad worked there. As a child, the thing I missed most from back home in Switzerland was apples. The fruit on hand was monkey-bread from the baobab.

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Despite missing apples, monkey-bread was still appetizing.

My point is that accepting another culture as it is does not mean you must disavow the things you like back home. But it does mean you shouldn’t categorize things in your host culture as “good” or “bad”; you should make an effort not to compare it with what you know.

Accepting means to refrain from judging the differences and look at them with a clear and open mind. They may be unfamiliar and strange to you, but the sun sets beautifully over the African savannah, just as it does back home.

Adapting

Accepting encompasses all aspects of a foreign culture. But accepting is just the first step of cross cultural integration.

As a manager in a foreign culture, you must also adapt to some of the culture’s behaviors and social norms if you want to integrate successfully. Adapting is specific to the visible parts of culture, the behavioral aspects.

I’m talking the dress code, the way the culture greets each other, what and when they eat. These are just a few examples of how you must adapt, which we’ll talk more about next week.

Step 4 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adopting

Adopting a child isn’t an easy process, so imagine adopting an entire culture.

To adopt means “to take up or start to use or follow (an idea, method, or course of action)” or “to take on or assume (an attitude or position).” So in relation to cultural integration, adopting can be defined as taking on the ideas and methods, as well as the attitudes and positions of a culture.

This may not be easy to do, nor is it absolutely necessary to adequate integration if you are temporarily living in a foreign culture.

However, after Awareness, Accepting, and Adapting, Adopting is one of the final steps to complete cultural integration.

Do I have to adopt the entire culture?

It’s unlikely that you’ll adopt every aspect of a new culture as your own, but as with adapting, adopting some parts of your host culture will enable integration.

It’s up to you to choose which parts of a culture you’d like to adopt. In this way, adopting a culture is unique to everyone.

To University of Illinois Multicultural Communications Professor, Dr. Elaine Yuan, adopting a culture “means to know the local language well in order to express oneself freely, to know the local social psychology and etiquettes well in order to make friends, build social support and feel comfortable in this foreign social environment.”

In the Life Made Simple blog, Yuan – who is originally from Beijing, China – credits communication with locals and the willingness to learn as incredibly helpful to the adoption process.

What types of things can I adopt?

There are so many beautiful aspects of a foreign culture you might choose to adopt.

Some great practices include:

  • The Navajo tradition of celebrating a baby’s first laugh by throwing a party…while the person who made the baby laugh foots the bill
  • The April 23rd celebration in Barcelona called “The Day of the Book and the Rose,” in which women gift men with a book and are given a rose in return…or the other way around, if you’re nontraditional
  • The Finnish custom of providing pregnant mothers with a gift box of essentials – onesies, diapers, bath products, bedding, etc. – which, according to the BBC, is “a tradition that dates back to the 1930s…designed to give all children in Finland, no matter what background they’re from, an equal start in life”

All aspects and practices of a culture are up for adoption. And choosing to integrate these into your own life will make you feel one with a foreign culture.

How do I adopt?

To adopt, all you must do is put another culture’s ideas, methods, attitudes, positions, or traditions into practice. If you live long enough in a foreign culture, doing so needn’t be forced. There’s no method to getting there, but the steps of awareness, accepting and adapting will certainly lead naturally to adopting.

With time and openness, these last steps of integration will develop organically.