Tag Archives: perception

Cultural awareness starts with yourself

The Unmixed View of the World

Many articles or even workshops on cultural etiquette and ‘how to do business in X country’ become a list of dos and don’ts, a little tickbox exercise of everything that is different or ‘quaint’ about the other culture.  I suppose there are good reasons for that: time constraints, word limits, or the unwillingness to dig deep within yourself.

However, I do profoundly believe that the first step in understanding other cultures is to become aware of  your own values, assumptions and -dare we say it? – foibles.  Only when you understand what you are made of, can you begin to grasp and appreciate what others are made of. 

Some of these assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we are unable to distance ourselves from it or even to see it.  So, in my workshops or coaching sessions, I will often throw in some provocative statements or questions to reveal some of these cultural blind spots. 

For instance, when I have a predominantly British audience in the room, I will ask them what they think that foreigners find most puzzling or annoying about living in the UK.  Typical answers include the weather or poor customer service, but in fact these are the things that annoy British people most.

So what is the answer?  Simple:  unmixed taps and carpet in the bathrooms.

When I finally give the answer, expat audiences laugh or give a groan of recognition, while the British usually are completely mystified.  Why would anyone pick up on these trivial points?  Surely carpet is softer and warmer on your feet when you come out of the bath?  And just what is wrong with unmixed taps anyway?  (If you are still baffled, pick the nearest Continental European and ask him or her about this.)

Yes, these might be innocuous examples of mild irritation, but do not underestimate their effect on a long-term relationoship.  What else might be annoying our foreign colleagues, employees, partners?  What else makes perfect sense to us but  could be causing them embarassment, unease, anxiety?  Shed some light on your blind spots and, who knows, you might even change your taps!

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It only took 3,000 years…

It sounds like a joke, but 3,000 years is really very quick indeed, in fact the fastest genetic change ever observed in humans.  What am I talking about?

In the latest issue of Science, researchers comparing the DNA genomes of Tibetans and Han Chinese found that it took only a few thousand years for Tibetans to develop gene mutations that enabled them to cope better with the high altitude, low oxygen environment they live in.

This is the random sort of information that I love, because it gets me thinking about time and our perception of it.  It’s a well-known fact that some cultures are more focused on immediate results and are short-term thinkers, while others prefer the long-term view.  But which culture would think 3,000 years is ‘incredibly fast’?  Oddly enough, it is the culture of science, if I am allowed that seeming contradiction in terms.

Science has progressed at such a rapid pace in the last century – and, in fact, seems to be accelerating every decade – that it feels strange that it should also be the one that thinks of 3,000 years as being extremely fast, or that our solar system is so young.  But scientists realise something that perhaps only parents are aware of:  you can’t rush nature.  You have to let things run their course and then, when it’s over, when the kids grow up or the gene has mutated, it feels like it was all over in a flash.

Meanwhile, economists, social scientists, managers and CEOs try to rush human nature.  It’s understandable – they want to see results now, not in 3,000 years.  But the short-term results may not be predictive at all of the long-term.

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What is it about small nations?

Let’s continue for just a few seconds with the World Cup theme: and how the ‘small’ footballing nations (I say small in quotation marks, because by no stretch of the imagination can the US or Australia be considered small nations other than in footballing history) have upset the established giants of this tournament.  How is that possible?  Have all the favourites become too complacent?

Dejected German fans after match with Serbia

One of my friends suggested, somewhat cynically, that players from lesser-known countries have to demonstrate their skills so they can get a lucrative contract with a club abroad.  That is true, but it’s part of the bigger picture, namely that the ‘underdogs’ have little to lose and always something to prove.

This holds true outside the world of football, of course.  If you come from a small nation like the Netherlands or Romania, and no one can speak your language, you take great pride in the fact that you are able to speak several.  If you are a Chinese student in the US, you work doubly hard to prove that you are equal or better than the Americans.  You delight in confounding expectations and stereotypes.  ‘Think I am lazy or corrupt or unpunctual because I am Italian or Greek or Lebanese (insert adjectives and country names as you see fit)?  Well, that will show you, huh!’

You have a chip on your shoulder.  In a good way.  And it’s easier to be agile and surprising when nobody sees you coming.  Because sometimes the reassuring ‘big nation’ in your background is a lumbering elephant that brings with it overwhelming expectations and knocks down trees.

Have you ever felt the ‘big nation’ or ‘small nation’ presence in your life?  Have you tried to confound expectations?  Share your experiences here, I’d love to hear them.

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The British in a Nutshell

Continuing the theme from last week about how playing to stereotype can sometimes be advantageous, I will summarise how the English (and it is the English that foreigners mean when they discuss the ‘Brits’ more generally) are perceived by those new to the country.  If you are English and disagree with this perception, please comment (as you should know by now I am not a big fan of stereotypes).  If you have moved to the UK from elsewhere and can confirm or add to these perceptions, please do so.

I should add that yesterday I heard a cross-cultural coach, Katherine Barton http://www.bartoninsights.com/  speak at the Oxford Summit of Leaders conference http://www.ebaoxford.co.uk/index.html about the cultural challenges of doing business in the UK.  Katherine had the unenviable task of condensing thousands of years of development of national character into 20 brief minutes, but she mentioned three key elements to understanding the English:

1) Being reserved, ill at ease socially, which is not the same as being cold or unfeeling.  However, displaying emotions is feared and widely regarded as unprofessional.

2) Desire to avoid confrontation and fear of giving offence can lead to excessive politeness and vagueness.  For instance, ‘a little bit of a problem’ probably signifies quite a major disaster.

3) Quite structured and planned, scheduling everything far ahead and sticking to the agenda, the English can be inflexible once they have planned their workload and are not keen on surprise interruptions.

Some other key characteristics that spring to mind (and were mentioned by some of the other speakers at the conference) are:

4) Honesty and integrity in business dealings, incorruptible legal system, keeping their promises, sticking to deadines

5) Democratic, fair, transparent systems that favour personal merit over personal connections

Interestingly enough, each of the characteristics above can be reversed once you delve a little deeper into the national psyche (without even taking into account regional or class differences).  For example:

1) Mass display of grief and outrage at the death of Diana, kidnapping of Madeleine McCann etc.

2) British managers viewed as too blunt in their feedback in Latin American and Asian countries.

3) Big building projects are rarely completed on time and within budget.

4) MP expenses scandal

5) Old boys’ network still alive and kicking

So what is the truth, other than considerably more complex than the stereotypes? Is this because business culture is quite different from the ‘mass culture’?  Or are we focusing too much on exceptions rather than the norm?  Or is the national character changing?

All of the above, in some way.  I also believe that perceptions of another culture invariably tell us more about the ‘assessor’,rather than about the people being assessed.  The British are punctual, honest, incorruptible, professional and polite to most East European countries, for example, because that is what we aspire to be.  And an excellent starting point for discussion, mutual understanding and collaboration.

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