Individual differences and cultural diversity

Like so many people who work internationally, my client seemed to be oblivious to the impact the different cultures he was in contact with were having on him and the way he was carrying out his business.

It did not seem to be unwillingness on his part or animosity towards other cultures. It was ignorance or a refusal to recognise their existence; it boiled down to a lack of awareness, although he had travelled to several European and American cities for his work.

There was another interesting side-effect: wherever he went he did not have a problem. He seemed oblivious of cultural differences and was in a constant state of ignorance.

His ethnocentric attitude, common to a lot of people, made him see these culturally diverse people through his own cultural lenses, reducing any differences or the cause of any problem arising to the individual himself, stripping him/her of their culture and extracting him/her from the group they belong to.

When challenged on his ethnocentric approach to culture, he made a strong case arguing that he did not want to fall into the trap of stereotyping individuals into boxes of cultural groups; he respected the individual too much for that sort of categorisation.

His argument made sense. Cultural groups, whether national, regional or professional, are not homogeneous. Nevertheless, it would be misleading to isolate each individual from the environment that has shaped him/her as an individual, and to which he/she belongs.

Communication is partly an exercise in interpretation. We receive a message and we interpret it according to the rules we have inherited from our culture. If the message is sent by an individual from the same culture as ours, the risks of misinterpretation and therefore misunderstanding are greatly reduced. If the message is sent by an individual from a different culture, the meaning given to that message by the sender may not be the one we give it as recipients in our interpretation through our cultural lenses, creating misunderstandings.

A video clip I use in my training illustrates the point. In a real situation, managers from a Western branch of the group and those from the Asian branch discuss a project. The Westerners discuss freely, sometimes cutting across and interrupting each other. On the other hand, the Asians are rather quiet, not intervening very much. After the meeting, each group was asked separately how they thought the meeting went. The Westerners thought it went well, but were puzzled by why the Asian did not speak much; did they not have anything to say? The Asian group, on the other hand, were disappointed: they could not get a word in edgeways. They were waiting, as is customary in their culture, for the pause between exchanges for the next person to start talking; given the non-stop exchanges in the Western group, they did not stand a chance.

Each group interpreted the other’s behaviour through its own cultural ethnocentric view, leading to misinterpretation and misunderstanding that could lead finally to a breakdown in communication.

The lack of intercultural training may manifest itself in missed opportunities and breakdown in relationships that can be costly in human and financial terns; this can be seen all too often in international mergers and acquisitions, one of the more spectacular ones being the Chrysler-Daimler-Benz disaster.

Such disaster can be avoided. If you are interested drop me line here.

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