Colliding Cultures – How To Avoid Cultural Faux Pas At Work

October 31, 2012

According to an article in The Washington Post, the Afghan Defense Ministry has published a guide for their troops to help explain Western customs. This guide was necessary because NATO troops have been inadvertently doing things that cause grievous insults to Afghan army members, such as blowing their nose in public, patting them on the back for a job well done, and showing the soles of their feet when crossing their legs or putting their feet up on a desk.

Most people reading this are probably laughing at the absurdity that such minor cultural faux pas could cause any kind of tension. Yet this is no laughing matter. “Fifty-one coalition troops have been killed this year by their Afghan counterparts. While some insider attacks have been attributed to Taliban infiltrators, military officials say the majority stem from personal disputes and misunderstandings.” What this situation highlights is the need to foster cultural understanding and tolerance in the world – before issues arise.

A Lesson in Cultural Understanding

Cultural differences can also create tension in our careers, but if we make it a point to notice cultural differences and openly discuss them, positive benefits can be derived. Earlier in my career, when a Dutch company acquired the American company I was working for, cultural differences seemed to spring up all around. One big difference was in decision-making styles.

This stood out for me during a global marketing meeting where the Americans wanted to “agree to disagree and move on” whereas the Dutch wanted to spend time discussing the topic from all angles and only move on once group consensus had been reached. This cultural difference caused a big rift in the meeting. After stopping the meeting for a break, we re-convened by having the two groups explain their country’s decision-making style. This was followed by an open discussion about the pros and cons of the U.S. style (fast-paced, individualistic, low level of consensus required) and the Dutch style (slower paced, group oriented, high level of consensus required).

A Dutch marketing manager suggested it might be helpful if we took the current topic and tried using the Dutch style, as a way for the Americans to try this process. About three and a half hours later, the group reached a different conclusion on the topic as well as designed a completely different implementation plan. The Americans, while initially frustrated because of the feeling of a lack of progress during the analysis of the topic from all angles, actually felt better with the final outcome. Both groups agreed that the final conclusion and implementation plan ended up being better than it would have been if created by only the Dutch or only the Americans.

Seek to Understand Differences

Later in my career, when I was managing a large, multi-national pricing project, German and American team members were having difficulty working with French colleagues. “I couldn’t even get past the first ten slides!” complained a team member after a presentation. “They kept asking so many questions that it stalled the entire presentation and I couldn’t get to the really important information later in the slide deck.”

The solution? I scheduled a conference call and asked the French team members to provide the rest of the team with a ‘cultural primer’ to explain typical ways the French work. This helped the rest of the group realize that the French asking lots of questions (thus stalling the meeting) wasn’t meant to be rude, it was merely the way the French process information internally, through an extensive logic analysis and talking things through with others. The rest of the team also came to understand they were not likely to gain commitment from the French during meetings – because the French hate being rushed and rarely make decisions during a meeting. Wrong behaviors? Nope, just different behaviors than what the Americans and Germans were used to.

We eventually made a game out of noticing cultural differences during the pricing project. Someone would point out a difference, discussion would take place, and team members would gain an in-depth understanding of how a certain culture did something as well as why they did it that way. From the start, the group knew (because I told them) they were going to encounter many cultural differences during their time on the project team and this process of seeking to understand the differences right when they occurred made sure no one took a cultural faux pas as a personal slight or direct insult.

Bottom Line: Learn to celebrate cultural differences by seeking to understand them. Cultural differences are not meant to be an insult to another culture. Serious situations only arise when someone misinterprets a cultural difference and then does not take the time to learn about it. Put aside feelings of anger and personal insults and instead, seek knowledge and wisdom through tolerance and compassion. For my favorite book on understanding cultural diversity, check out “When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures” by Richard D. Lewis.

~ Lisa Quast

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Photo credit: Microsoft Free Clip Art

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