Do not overestimate the importance of culture!

Here is one of the key pieces of advice that I hear most frequently given to people who are thinking of relocating abroad or starting a partnership with a foreign company: ‘Do not underestimate the cultural differences.’  I have repeated this myself, like a mantra, particularly for those who believe they will be operating in nearly identical cultures (UK and US, for instance, or US with Australia).

Always culture...

However, sometimes we can fall into the other extreme.  Blame everything on culture! 

  • No wonder they didn’t laugh at our jokes and we couldn’t create rapport, they come from a culture where humour is not appreciated. 
  • Typical, I can’t believe a word that person says, he comes from a culture where they never say exactly what they mean. 
  • We failed to get the contract because they asked for too many facts and figures, they are too detail-oriented.

Isn’t there a danger there that we are slipping back into stereotypes?  I have suffered from that stereotyping myself, even though I don’t really fully belong to any culture.  And I believe a good many of us nowadays are the products of multiple cultural influences.   I myself have never met or spoken to Hans Average German or Ms. Everyday Russian (despite their frequent appearances in James Bond films).    It is reductionist, over-simplistic and, to be frank, rather insulting to believe otherwise!  We are always establishing a relationship with an individual, rather than a nation.

Besides, isn’t cultural difference sometimes just a convenient excuse for us when we don’t do our homework? 

  • Perhaps our humour did not work because our jokes were actually not very funny. 
  • Perhaps that person is saying exactly what they mean but we don’t want to hear what they are saying. 
  • And perhaps we did not get all our facts and figures straight and just waffled on pointlessly.

Can you think of any other examples where you blamed culture for misunderstandings but ultimately discovered it was a personal thing?  Do share your experiences with us (I’ve got a couple of good anecdotes myself).

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Filed under Business cultur, Globalization

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