Ways of Overcoming Cultural Differences
If these are the symptoms, what is the cure? How can we ordinary people feel at home when dealing with those from other cultures? How can we know what to say and do? How can we pursue business and other relationships with the same relaxation and synergy that we experience in relationships with people from our own culture?
EXPECTING OTHERS TO ADAPT
One way of trying to deal with the problem is to stick to the Be Like Me policy and try to brazen it out. If we come from a dominant economy or culture such as the United States, we can reason that it is for us to set norms and for others to imitate us.
You may think there is something in this. First, a dominant culture may win in the end anyway.2 For example, the English language is becoming the lingua franca of global business and education, and it is increasingly spoken in business and professional interactions all over Europe and in large parts of Asia. Second, many people believe that different cultures are converging to a common norm, assisted by phenomena such as mass communication and the “McDonaldization” of consumption.3 Eventually, they argue, the whole world will become like the United States anyway, and its citizens will think, talk, and act like Americans. Many cities around the world already mimic New York, with the same organizations, brands, architectural and dress styles: why resist the process?
In fact, the evidence in favor of cultural convergence is not compelling. Convergence is probably taking place only in superficial matters such as business procedures and some consumer preferences.4 Also, such convergence robs us of the great gift of diversity and the novel ways of thinking and working that it brings.
UNDERSTANDING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES
Can we solve the problem of cultural differences and seize the opportunity they create simply by learning what other cultures are like? Do we even know, in any organized way, what they are like?
Information about other cultures is easily accessible. Cultural anthropologists have researched many of the cultures of the world and cultural differences affecting specific fields, such as education, health, and business, have also been explored.5 This information has been useful in establishing the behavior or cultural stereotypes of many national cultures, and provides a starting point for anticipating culturally based behavior. Understanding cultural differences between countries and how those
differences affect behavior is a first step toward gaining cultural intelligence. This book provides some basic information on these matters.
However, this basic knowledge is only the beginning of the process of changing cultural differences from a handicap to an asset. Even at their best, experts on cultural difference, who say things such as “Japanese behave in this way and Americans in that” can provide only broad generalizations, which often conceal huge variances and considerable subtlety. A country may have, for example, religious or tribal or ethnic or regional differences, or forms of special protocol.
The laundry-list approach to cross-cultural understanding attempts to provide each individual with a list—“everything you need to know”— about a particular country. Such lists often attempt to detail not only a country’s key cultural characteristics but also regional variations, customs to be followed, speech inflections to use, expressions and actions that might be considered offensive, and functional information on matters such as living costs, health services, and education. Tourists and travelers can buy books of this type about most countries, and some companies take this approach to preparing employees and their families for foreign assignments.
Laundry lists have their place, but they are cumbersome. They have to document every conceivable cultural variation, along with drills and routines to cater for them. For an expatriate, this intensive preparation for a single destination may be appropriate, but for most of us, our engagement with other cultures involves a less intensive interaction with a variety of cultures. If we travel to half a dozen countries, entertain visitors from a variety of places abroad, or interact with a large range of immigrants, must we learn an elaborate laundry list for each culture? If we are introduced to culturally different people without warning and have no laundry list readily available, how can we cope? Even in our own country we may be introduced to a new co-worker whose culture we haven’t encountered before.
Furthermore, laundry lists tend to be dry and formal. The essence of culture is subtler, is expressed in combination with the unique personality of each individual, and is hard to state in print. Formal and abstract knowledge needs to be supplemented by, and integrated with, experience of the culture and interactions with its people. Learning facts is not enough.
BECOMING CULTURALLY INTELLIGENT
A third approach to the problem is to become culturally intelligent.6
Cultural intelligence means being skilled and flexible about understanding a culture, interacting with it to learn more about it, reshaping your thinking to have more empathy for it, and becoming more skilled when interacting with others from it. We must become flexible and able to adapt to each new cultural situation with knowledge and sensitivity.
Cultural intelligence consists of three parts.
• First, the culturally intelligent person requires knowledge of what culture is, how cultures vary, and how culture affects behavior.
• Second, the culturally intelligent person needs to practice mindfulness, the ability to pay attention reflectively and creatively to cues in the situations encountered and to one’s own knowledge and feelings.
FIGURE 1.1. Components of cultural intelligence (CQ)
• Third, based on knowledge and mindfulness, the culturally intelligent person develops cross-cultural skills and becomes competent across a range of situations, choosing the appropriate behavior from a repertoire of behaviors that are correct for a range of intercultural situations.
The model in Figure 1.1 is a graphic representation of cultural intelligence. Each element in Figure 1.1 is interrelated with the others. The process
of becoming culturally intelligent involves a cycle or repetition in which each new challenge builds upon previous ones. This approach has the advantage over the laundry-list method that, as well as acquiring
competence in a specific culture, you simultaneously acquire general cultural intelligence, making each new challenge easier to face.
You have probably heard of the psychologists’ concept of intelligence and its measure, the intelligence quotient (IQ). More recently has come recognition of emotional intelligence, the ability to handle our emotions, and its measure, the emotional intelligence quotient (EQ). Cultural intelligence (or CQ) describes and assesses the capability to interact effectively across cultures.7
In the chapters that follow, we present a road map for developing your cultural intelligence by addressing its three elements one by one.
In Chapter 2 we examine the necessary information base, which includes a secure knowledge of what culture is and is not; its depth, strength, and systematic nature; and some of the main types of cultural differences. This provides a good basic set of tools to give one confidence in any cross-cultural situation.
In Chapter 3 we consider how observation of the everyday behavior of people from different backgrounds can be useful in interpreting the knowledge introduced in Chapter 2. Most people operate interpersonally in “cruise control,” interpreting their experiences from the standpoint of their own culture. We develop the idea of mindfulness8—a process of observing and reflecting on cross-cultural knowledge. Developing mindfulness is a key means of improving cultural intelligence. We then outline how knowledge and mindfulness lead to new skilled behavior. By developing a new repertoire of behaviors, you can translate the understanding of culture into effective cross-cultural interactions.
Cultural intelligence is not difficult to understand but is hard to learn and to put into practice on an ongoing basis. It takes time and effort to develop a high CQ. Years of studying, observing, reflecting, and experimenting may lie ahead before one develops truly skilled performance. Because becoming culturally intelligent is substantially learning by doing, it has useful outcomes beyond the development of intercultural skills. In addition, new cultures are intriguing: learning how to live or work in them or to interact with their people can be fun, with possibilities of new insights, new relationships, and a new richness in your life. This book is the place to start on this journey.
Summary This chapter describes the forces of globalization that are dramatically changing the environment not just for global managers but for everyone.
We are all becoming global participants in our organizations; even those who stay in their own countries have to think in global terms. The essence of being global is interacting with people who are culturally different. Culture is more difficult to deal with than other aspects of the environment because much of how culture operates is invisible. Although we know much about cultures around the world, this knowledge is only the starting point to becoming culturally intelligent. Cultural intelligence involves understanding the fundamentals of intercultural interaction, developing a mindful approach to them, and building a repertoire of cross-cultural behaviors suited to different intercultural situations. For everyone living and working in today’s global environment, interacting effectively across cultures is now a fundamental requirement.