The Second Principle of Cultural Acceptance: Accepting Ambiguity

How do you measure greatness?

Last week, we discussed how “the best” nations on Earth may quantify that quality.

Is “the best” measured in dollars? Is it measured in happiness? If so, how should happiness be measured?

The point made is that “bestness” and happiness are subjective and immeasurable.

So, when our views are ethnocentric and judgmental about other cultures as compared to our own, this sense of “better” and “worse” only exists in the context of one’s own cultural values and norms.

What is deemed “good” in your country may be viewed as “bad” in another.

Rather than working to uncover some objective methodology to judge another’s culture, it’s best not to judge at all.

As the great philosopher, Thumper, once said, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

You might use Thumper’s wisdom to improve your thinking processes and become less judgmental and critical when living and working in a foreign culture.

Second Principle

This is where acceptance comes in.

Forget the concepts of “better” and “worse” when working through cross-cultural differences. View conflicting issues, instead, as just…differences.

Some cultures see alcohol as sinful; others think a regular glass of red wine with dinner a few times a week is healthy.

These are just different cultural values and norms.

Queuing is law in some cultures; in others, it’s a mere suggestion.

Again, these are just different cultural values and norms.

Of our “Four Principles of Cultural Acceptance,” after refraining from judgment, we must also accept ambiguity when working in a foreign culture.

Accepting Ambiguity

Uncertainty, confusion, and the unknown are not easily acceptable concepts for the human mind.

Our brains love order and familiarity. We want the puzzle pieces to fit together, so the big picture will emerge.

We want to know what’s going on around us, so that understanding will return.

That’s why, when we are confronted with uncertainty in a multicultural environment, we seek out answers, explanations, or a pattern we can recognize.

Unfortunately, these things may not be there.

This is why coming to terms with ambiguity is essential when in a foreign environment.

In order to accept ambiguity, you must relinquish control. Although a solution may not be guaranteed, clarity only happens when you are not rigid in your own preconceptions and, instead, move out of the way for new connections to emerge.

Accepting ambiguity also means you must allow one question to have many answers. As in life, most everything does.

Next week, we’ll talk about how research has delved into the concept of ambiguity tolerance. Stay tuned.

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.

Technology, Social Environments, and the Character of Communication in Culture

Do you view technology as positive or negative in terms of communication?

How does your culture’s social environment dictate aspects of upward mobility and nepotism?

Last week, we talked about nonverbal communication in culture. This week, we’ll discuss how a culture’s technological and social environments direct the ways in which a culture communicates.

Technology

In the West, the ethnocentric view of technology is largely positive.

Workplaces, friends, family. Personal and professional environments are all connected by technology.

Technological implementations and other modernizations gear businesses and societies toward the future. And Western cultures are generally future-oriented, as are their values.

However, visit countries in central Africa, and you might find skepticism about technology. The physical environment, rather than the virtual environment, is more highly valued in such countries.

East Asian cultures typically try to balance both environments equally – the existing traditional environment and the new technological one – as they are considered equally important.

Aside from technology, what workplace factors does a culture’s social environment dictate?

Social Environments

According to a culture’s social environment, various levels of value are placed on:

Each of these plays its role in a culture’s workplace environment.

We’d like to think in Western cultures that it’s not who you know but what you know that gets you hired, as this seems fair and just – justice being a cornerstone value of many Western cultures.

We also know that’s not always the case. Networking can often get a foot in the door more so than one’s own merit. That being said, nepotism is still not favored, due to cultural values of equality.

However, in many different cultures – in Latin America or Africa, for instance – familial ties are often a job qualifier, and there’s nothing wrong with that, even in the case of a better-qualified candidate.

Those cultures who place value on familial ties view nepotism as a demonstration of commitment to family. There is also generally more trust in a family unit than there might be hiring a stranger from the outside.

In those cultures with a low concept obligation to family, social mobility is more accessible by everyone, as those who are willing to actively work toward their ideal career should theoretically be able to climb the ladder of success.

That’s the “American Dream” in a nutshell.

As you might guess, these contrasting views and values can hit a nerve in cross-cultural environments. We’ll talk more about how to lessen the blow next week.

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.

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.

The Hospitality Index: A Hypothetical Example of Ethnocentricity

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’91, I traveled as a journalist to a region near the former Yugoslavian border of Albania. In many of the remote, mountainous villages to which I traveled, I was the first foreigner seen by locals since the Germans of WWII.

As I explored the region, one of the impressions I had about the people was that they were unconditionally hospitable. They treated this stranger, this foreigner, as an esteemed guest, preparing generous meals for me, despite not having a lot themselves.

One village had only three sheep, and they killed one of them to serve me, though I attempted to discourage such a sacrifice on my account.

Hospitality exceeding no bounds was their cultural norm.

Not only did this manifest in the meals they served, but also in the accommodation. In each house, there was a guest room, fitted with a bed to welcome visitors at any time.

While this region isn’t alone in this cultural norm, as I’ve been so graciously treated with such hospitality in other parts of the world as well, one conclusion that I’ve come to in my travels is this:

Hospitality is best wherever there is no telephone.

Lack of Connection Improves Quality of Connection

People often arrive unannounced to places with no telephone. This may be one reason cultural norms require those who live in remote places to be prepared to accommodate at any time.

The pop-in is inevitable (Seinfeld would hate to be a member of these cultures). Hosts must provide guests a place to stay and a bite to eat last-minute because they have nowhere else to go. And these hosts are more than happy to.

In such open-door cultures, active hospitality – and lavish hospitality, at that – is adopted and valued.

Ethnocentricity’s Bias in the Reverse

Last week, we talked about ethnocentricity: the innate bias we have about our culture being “right” and another being “wrong” and evaluating cultures according to our own values.

My personal example is one case in which ethnocentricity’s bias might work in the reverse.

Sometimes, we see other’s values and norms as more “right” than our own. This may be one of those cases.

Most Westerners would never think to invite themselves over to a neighbor’s home, nor would they expect to accommodate a stranger. Even showing up on an acquaintance’s doorstep without a moment’s notice would be questionable.

Some Westerners might even choose to stay at a hotel rather than with family or friends when they’re visiting. Not only because they don’t want to impose on another’s space, but likely because they’d prefer their own space and privacy.

But most Westerners would surely see the value in such open-door hospitality. It’s universally a beautiful thing.

In Albania – and in other world regions that are less connected – there is no imposition and space is not valued as it is in the West. It would be a dishonor to the people if you rejected their hospitality.

Ethnocentricity in Albania

As I’ve highlighted, hospitality is a deeply entrenched value in these regions.

With that bit of background in mind, imagine Albanian researchers studying cross-cultural differences.

The researchers, no doubt, would consider the hospitality-index as an important cultural categorization.

Generosity and accommodation are the glue that holds society together in their minds, allowing communal ties and free travel.

Should they research other country’s hospitality norms and values, they would find other’s hospitality doesn’t meet the same standard as theirs.

They might see that in some countries unconditional hospitality is restricted to those one knows well. Strangers can find somewhere else to eat and sleep.

In other countries, only family members are provided with hospitality.

And in some, forget it. You have to find your own accommodation.

During their research, the Albanians might then conclude that their own country is on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to the hospitality index. And they would view this as a positive thing, as their values are validated.

This is just one example of how ethnocentrism might influence research. It comes naturally to most. Even professional researchers and experts in the field, no matter how objective they attempt to be, will inevitably reveal their own values when evaluating other cultures.

Ethnocentricity: When Subjective Bias Enters Cross-Cultural Research

Culture has a four-corner foundation.

To recap, the four main building blocks are:

These four categories, in particular, will not only aid your understanding of cross-cultural differences, but they’ll allow you to adapt your managerial methods when leading across cultures.

Below is an overview of these four building blocks.

monkey_charts_CMYK

 

As you can see, countries are scattered across the scale from left to right, accordingly. But one of these countries remains in place.

The United States.

The US always appears on the far left of the scale.

Why?

Because of ethnocentricity.

What is Ethnocentricity?

Ethnocentricity involves judging other cultures based on the values of your own.

Even great researchers, like Geert Hofstede, haven’t managed to design a purely objective framework in their studies on cross-cultural differences.

Their own cultural heritage inevitably appears in their research via charts like this one and through constant comparisons (and often biases) between their own culture and “the other.”

Simply put, the values and standards we find most important to our own culture are often what we deem worthy of study and comparison.

Religion, norms, language, customs, ideology – these are the attributes we compare in order to understand cultural identity. And, whether or not the intention for bias is there, those conducting the study determine their culture to be “right” and the other to be “wrong.”

Although ethnocentrism may sound wholly negative, it is psychologically innate.

The US vs. China

Let’s look at an example.

When cross-cultural research is done from an American viewpoint, individualism is often a highly valued criterion.

Moreover, the future-oriented, rule-oriented, and self-determined United States swing their bias of time valuation, personal vs. societal responsibility, and locus of control in the relative directions.

These “typically American” values force the U.S. to the far end of a spectrum of the four building blocks of culture, as these are important values to Americans and are highly considered when categorizing cross-cultural research.

If, say, China was conducting the same research, their spectrum – and where they landed on the spectrum – would undoubtedly differ.

China would evaluate other cultures according to their own valued criteria.

These criteria would likely have roots in collectivist, rather than individualist ideology. The way other cultures relate to their own values would form the subjective and ethnocentrist results that cross-cultural research often takes on.

Next week, we’ll delve more deeply into ethnocentrism and discuss how it directly manifests in cross-cultural research.