Working in multiple cultures

Do you know the difference between “now” and “now now” in South Africa?

Do you understand “cancan” and “cannotcannot” in Singapore?

How about the “can also can, cannot also can“?

Last thursday’s TiE breakfast was where I learnt about all those terms, and much more. Not only was Laxmi Chaudhry, from 1 stop HR, incredibly well-prepared and energetic, but also her varied experience all over the world made her a very ideal candidate for exactly the work that she is now doing – teaching companies how to conduct “Effective Business Across Cultures”.

Starting with helping us identify the different ends of the spectrum of work-cultures, from the Asians who never speak up at meetings out of respect to their bosses to the Americans who are the first to speak up (and perhaps not shut up 🙂 ), we examined the different aspects of culture that affect the various aspects of business life.

We learnt how meetings are never for discussions in Japan, but instead only for communication of the decisions. The actual discussions happen over a process known “nominication”, which is slang for “drinking + communication”! (Did I mention I like Japan more and more 😀 ) Contrasting this, the western world uses meetings for discussing the matter at hand, which is why their meetings go on for a long time, without sometimes showing any results!

It was also very interesting to learn how important “face” or “izzat” is in eastern cultures. From our reluctance to make decisions to our inability to say no, a lot is driven by our one desire to not lose face.

At this point, Laxmi turned the discussion around to how important it is to understand someone else’s culture. We realized that what we define as “competency”, or “personality”, or “corporate culture”, are all external manifestations of something much deeper, something much more ingrained in our genes – our home culture. And when evaluating other people’s behaviour, we need to avoid looking at it through our own cultural lens and instead understand the other person’s cultural basis before jumping to conclusions about their competence / personality / etc.

This was when she borrowed an iPad and drew two icebergs, both of which had 90% of their mass below the surface-level. The icebergs are our cultures, she said, and we always see only the tip. Continuing with this analogy, she told us how when we see someone else’s culture, we only see the tip (or the external manifestations of their culture such as dress, language, architecture, food, etc) and miss out on the more important 90% below the surface (history, religion, tradition, etc. ) because we ourselves are viewing it from the tip of our own iceberg! And this is what causes the stress in any cross-cultural exchange, and a break-down of communication.

But the good news is that this problem can be solved, and the first step towards that is acknowledging that we ourselves are sitting on our own iceberg. By understanding our own culture (e.g. whether we are rules-based or relationships-based, whether we like hierarchical or flat organizations, etc), we can better appreciate the differences when we examine other cultures. And more than focusing on the tip of the unknown iceberg, we should make efforts to learn about the base of the iceberg, viz their history and their values.

Another point which came up in the discussion was how culture evolves from generation to generation, as well with the collective experiences of a nation. From a very relationship based society earlier, we Indians have adopted many traits of western cultures. Our culture is still assimilating these new values and continuously evolving.

Laxmi also gave us some techniques to prevent the miscommunication that could occur due to cultural differences, the simplest of which was to create a glossary of frequently used words. Of course, the simplest does not really mean the easiest! Identifying the frequently used words is a task in itself! Some frequently used words could very well escape our notice still. E.g. when we say “It would be GREAT to have this report by Monday”, it is open to cultural interpretation of the word “GREAT”. It would be better if we used “I NEED this report by Monday morning” instead. This bit of extra care taken when defining and communicating deadlines can go a long way in helping avoid conflict.

Ultimately, the most important tips Laxmi left us with would be somewhat like this:

  1. Learn about your own cultural lens.
  2. Avoid making assumptions about other cultures
  3. Take time to establish rapport with the people in the new environment
  4. Recognize and respect the cultural values

For those of you who are still wondering about the phrases in the 1st para, here’s some relief:

  • “Now” means “right now”. “Nownow” however means “later”. Dont look at me, ask someone from South Africa!
  • “cancan” means “allowed”. “Cannotcannot” means “not allowed” in Singapore!
  • figure it out for yourself 🙂