Collaborating effectively across cultures – Part 2

Collaborating effectively across cultures

By Jai Thade, Head of Content

Part 2: ‘What standing in a line can reveal about cultural differences’’

This is the second part of a series where we will explore key concepts and principles that will allow us to work with people from different cultures more effectively.

In the first part, we explored the principle of reflecting on how our culture shapes us. You can read that piece here.

This article will turn our gaze outwards with our second principle: observing others’ culturally influenced habits and behaviours.


Understanding the ‘macro’ by observing the ‘micro’

To build cultural competence, we need to understand how culture impacts others. One of the ways we can do that is by paying conscious attention to the culturally influenced ways of thinking and behaving that others engage in automatically and unthinkingly.

In our last article, we examined a few aspects of our own culture worth paying attention to so that we better understand it, aspects such as:

  • How direct is communication? To what extent are things clearly underlined, and to what end are they implied and understood?

  • Are there implicit rules about how to communicate with authority?

  • Do people engage in spirited debate? Does this have any bearing on the way they feel about each other as people after?

  • How overtly friendly can one be to strangers?

  • What tone of voice do people employ during regular conversations?

These are aspects we can also observe when it comes to other cultures as well. There are, however, a few things to consider when observing other’s cultural habits and behaviours.

In his amusing and thought-provoking TEDx talk, cross-cultural expert Pellegrino Riccardi illustrated how cultural differences can be embedded in something as mundane as standing in a queue.

The UK-born Riccardi joked how those in the UK are “world champions of queueing (and) waiting in line”. For instance, people queueing at a supermarket will generally have an orderly and considerate way to re-queue if a new cash register opens. He contrasted this with his experiences in Norway, where individuals would instead make a free-for-all dash to a new cash register so that they are first.

He reflected how a country’s culture is reflected in such a seemingly inconsequential behaviour. In Norway, there is more emphasis placed on equality. This manifests as a more laid-back attitude regarding dressing at work and job titles. Their “first come, first served” approach to queueing was also about this same cultural value of equality.

How many cultures are at the centre? (N)One.

Another aspect worth noting was his knee-jerk reaction to seeing a different way of queueing and behaving than he was used to: he was shocked and caught himself thinking negatively about Norwegian customs. In cultural situations where we feel uncomfortable or irritated, we tend to jump to negative conclusions about another culture.

We resort to a type of thinking which we can call “ethnocentric”. The ethnocentric view involves evaluating another culture with an underlying assumption that one’s own culture is “better” or “superior” to other cultures. A positive view of one’s culture is combined with a negative attitude towards another culture.

This “ethnocentric” perspective can be contrasted with the perspective of “cultural relativism”.

So, what is “cultural relativism”? Let us pose another question to illustrate: Is Brazil as a culture more hierarchical or more egalitarian?

Some may say that it’s more hierarchical, and others may say the opposite. But what’s the correct answer? The correct answer is – it depends. It depends on where your culture is situated relative to Brazil and which sub-culture of Brazil you’re talking about. You may find not only international differences but also inter-city differences and differences between urban, rural, and semi-rural/semi-urban areas.

The lesson in this question is that we need to think less about cultures in terms of absolutes, or we may be thrown off and surprised. Instead, we need to think about the relative position of our culture to the other. This is precisely what “cultural relativism” refers to.

Overcoming ethnocentrism: the how and why

It is helpful to check oneself when we think ethnocentrically and to try and refrain from judging or evaluating another culture as a whole. This isn’t a moral directive; it’s a practical tip. The longer we can stay nonjudgmental about another culture, the more curious we will remain. And the more curious we are about a culture, the more information we are likely to take in and, therefore, the deeper the understanding we’ll eventually arrive at.

One important way to catch and overcome ethnocentrism is to try to understand the context underlying a particular cultural belief or practice that you find unusual. As we saw in the earlier example, the behaviours and beliefs a culture encourages tend to have some grounding in a particular group’s history, unique context and values. For instance, you may find that the other culture is possibly less likely to engage in consensual decision-making because its large population makes it unfeasible to consider most people’s opinions.

Operating from an ethnocentric perspective is likely to create other problems in the workplace as well. For instance, researchers Burcu Subaşi, Wendy van Ginkel and Daan van Knippenberg looked at a very interesting variable in their research –information sharing.

In their survey of nearly 200 employees, they found that in workplaces, employees tend to trust and attribute a higher status to co-workers whose cultural backgrounds are similar to their own. This holds true regardless of whether these peers belong to a majority or minority group. On the other hand, they share the least information with those with the most cultural differences.

This clogged information flow will lead such individuals to perform poorly, not reach their full potential, and ultimately hurt the entire team’s performance in the long run.

Cultivating cultural humility

Another concept that is relevant here is the idea of cultural humility. This is a process where we use reflection and non-judgmental observation of other cultures to understand cultural differences better. The motivation behind doing this is to improve how all individuals are treated. It recognises that the more we are exposed to cultures different from our own, the more we are confronted with the realisation of how little we understand about cultures (including our own). This is where humility comes in, and ideas of ethnocentrism or racism are abandoned.

This sense of humility modulates relationships with individuals and groups from diverse cultures. Not just that, the presence of such a quality in a person seems to modulate their ability to impact the lives of others positively they work with.

Cultivating a sense of cultural humility helps us not to overextend based on our existing level of cross-cultural knowledge and competency. It allows us to remain open-minded and constantly learning, which helps us hone our cross-cultural competency even further.

Concluding thoughts

In this article, we saw how culture is embedded not just in broad beliefs but in small day-to-day behaviours that often go unnoticed. To truly understand and adapt to another culture, we must pay attention to not only the former but the latter. When observing other cultures, it is important not to fall into the pitfalls of ethnocentrism but to instead view the other culture and our own with a spirit of cultural humility.

Here’s your next read on employee disclosure rates and why they matter for workplace inclusion.

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