We live in a globalized world. Interacting with different cultures all the time. And it is becoming more and more important to be able to deal with this. Cross-cultural competence is what HR calls it in employment ads. What they mean is, you should be able to successfully collaborate with others from different cultures. And no, telling them what you want, is certainly not the right way. It’s way more complicated than that…
Let’s start at the beginning. We use the term culture all the time, without knowing what it actually means. As usually with these fuzzy terms, it’s easiest to distinguish them from others that appear similar. A society is a group of people with a shared and very specific goal. The culture is their way of interaction with each other.
Hence a country can have its own culture as well as a village or a family. Companies have their separate culture and friend-circles. Social psychology shows that we behave differently when in different groups. We act according to the resident culture, follow the standards. It’s easy to think of something that would be perfectly normal for you to do among your friends that would be completely off limits for your family.
With these differences in mind, each of us is able to adopt to certain cultural changes. Context-dependent you stop swearing, wear different clothes or learn to treat you organization’s superior differently. This however works only within limits. If the cultural gap is too big, we have issues adopting. This is what we call the cultural shock.
A culture shock typically comes in four stages (Oberg, 1960). When moving to a different, your new host country, first you enter the honeymoon stage. Everything is exciting and special, you’re fascinated and virtually in love with this new world. But then, as soon as you have to deal with the real circumstances, you hit the crisis stage. The differences and problems these cause result in a feeling of insecurity and quite often react with some form of aggression against the host country. In this stage people usually hang out with others from their own country. But eventually, you learn your way around, learn how to deal with the situation and how to communicate with people. This is the recovery stage, resulting in a less critical position towards the host country. Finally you might enter the adjustment stage, in which you adopt the host culture and feel comfortable being a part of it.
Often people are getting stuck in one of the stages though. Many foreign students make a comfortable being in crisis mode, surrounded by many different foreigners themselves. Differences are not always easy to overcome.
A European coming to Asia, for example (or vice versa of course), has a lot to process. Food and traffic are very obvious examples. But it’s far beyond that. The way to approach other people might be more subtle, but varies a great deal across different cultures. Communication is a key distinguisher. Germans often complain, that Americans are shallow and too extensively polite. Americans often complain that Germans are very rude.
The background for this is what we call ethnocentricity, which means basically, that we judge people by our own standards, ignoring that they might have other standards. Understanding that each of us have very specific cultures means understanding that other people have different cultures.
It’s naturally for us to judge people if they don’t follow the rules of our culture. This is how the rules are being reinforced. Social psychologists call this group dynamics, a fundamental aspect of human evolution. We need this grow as a tribe, to identify people who are not helping the society we’re in. When the prehistoric humans were hunting and someone in the tribe would not follow the order of who gets to eat when, this might put the survival of the tribe in question. This behavior helps us to asses whom to trust.
In a cross-cultural setting, this is more complex though. Because of globalization, suddenly very different cultures collide. All the time. Everyone has their own cultures. And everyone thinks theirs is the right one. Insisting on this means disqualifying the other cultures as being wrong and discriminating or distrusting the people following them. That’s ethnocentricity.
When seeing that cultures are different, the question pops up, what do they have in common? And what might be universal? So, that it’s common for all cultures. That is a complex field. Think about it, even very basic concepts might not be universal. Intelligence for example. A highly intelligent person according to northern European standards, will probably be understood as a weak idiot in the African savanna, hardly able to survive.
Instead of finding universal aspect, Geert Hofstede (1980) put together defined 4 cultural patterns, specific aspects to describe a culture:
- Power Distance: How people view power relationships among each other.
- Individualism: How much people are integrated into groups.
- Masculinity: Differentiates between heroism and cooperation tendencies.
- Uncertainty Avoidance: How tolerant people are towards ambiguity.
- Long-Term Orientation (this pattern was added later): How people deal with traditions.
There are stereotypes for each of these across the globe. Germans tend to avoid any form of uncertainty and hence are extensive planners. In the US we can find rather high individualist culture, focusing on the self, and not so much on the collectivism. In large parts of Asia we can see a very high power distance, meaning that people are not only okay with their bosses having a lot of more power, but even expecting steep hierarchy in organizations. In Russia we can find a very masculine culture, in which the people expect their leaders to take over responsibility. In cultures with high long term orientation the “fear to lose one’s face” is very tangible.
With Stereotypes, it’s important to understand that they help us categorizing the world around us. They make our life easier. It’s simply impossible to start understanding every individual from scratch. Hence we use patterns that have a certain truth behind them. That’s good enough for the general day to day business. The prehistoric humans needed this to survive. And everyone in an international context can tell you that laughing about stereotype together can be real fun.
However, we’ve come a long way. We’re intelligent enough to understand that Stereotypes do not tell anything about the person. Play with them, and use them as preparation or for orientation. But don’t judge people based on them. That’s when the trouble begins…
Cross Cultural Collaboration
So, having all that read, how do I have to behave in a cross-cultural context? The most crucial aspect is keeping an open mind. Understanding the other side and making an effort to do so is the crucial first step (Franke, 2010). Because if you don’t, you will experience alienation, resulting in a lack of understanding, followed by distrust, which ultimately will lead to a conflict and escalation. But if you try to keep an open mind and think about why the other people might be behaving the way they do, you will reach understanding. That leads to trust and trust will result in unity.
The latter, called the collaboration path is the only way to reach efficiency in a cross cultural collaboration. And the good news is, it can be trained. Before starting international communication, make sure you’re aware of the cultural differences and approach them with respect. It’s more complicated, but research shows that diversity results in more effective and innovative solutions. And in happier people.
So next time, someone has a strange way to communicate, has a weird way to organize themselves or shows an odd reaction towards something you said or did, think about this. Maybe you’re experiencing a clash of cultures. And remember, all cultures are perspectives. Not one is more correct than the other.
Franke, R. (2010). Kooperationskompetenz im Global Business. Berlin: Logos.
Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments. Practical Anthropology, 7(4), 177–182.