The non-neutrality of culture

Culture is not neutral. When any group of people starts spending time in the same place, over time they develop norms of behaviour. Some of those norms are helpful, healthy, creative and show interesting ways to see the world, take initiative and build emotional bonds between people. Other norms are hurtful, oppressive, unhealthy, destructive and tear others apart.

Usually we don’t see either the good or the bad in our own culture because we are immersed in it like fish swimming in a pond. The fish might feel happy and healthy in a clear ecosystem surrounded by water, or the fish might feel unhealthy and sluggish surrounded by toxins and predators, but the fish doesn’t question the pond in which it swims, it just lives there. That is how culture develops everywhere: people fall into certain ways of interacting with each other and anyone who doesn’t conform is considered to be lacking in social skills.

Of course there are always thinkers, prophets, artists, poets and politicians in every culture who influence the cultural development. These cultural outliers have the perception, mindfulness or mission to show the culture how it can do better, get out of its difficulties and have happier lives. But the fish of that culture generally can’t even imagine what these outliers are trying to promote because they themselves have never been outside their own pond.

Let’s say you are one of those fish. Then one day you find yourself transferred to a new pond – maybe a new workplace pond, a new city pond or a new country pond. You realize you have been swimming in different waters than you are now and, to make some sense of the changes, you start to compare. You ask yourself what is identical, what is similar and what is different. Before you know it, you are making moral judgments about the culture of that new pond you now find yourself inhabiting. Fish here are lazier, or they are all suspicious. Maybe they don’t seem to be able to speak their minds, or they are not friendly – certainly not like the fish back home in the old pond.

Why you are not the god of culture

But the problem is you are not the god of culture. There are inside and outside influences to culture and there are also crises, wars and disasters that also influence the culture and its growth. You, individually cannot wave your magic culture-fixing wand and proclaim what must change in someone else’s cultural norms, history, language and religious beliefs. Cultures evolve mostly unconsciously and do not take well to having their hidden belief structures challenged. You can try to challenge them, and there are times when this is a very good idea. Other times challenges just make everyone avoid you and your socio-cultural influence immensely lessens among the group you now find yourself a part of.

There are a few stages in cultural awareness that increase your ability to work across difference: they will help you to develop increased cultural awareness and that will enable you to see which cultural battles are worth fighting. Let’s take a look at these stages:

Stage #1: Observation

The key to mastering Stage #1 is to notice that you have culture, other people have culture and somehow you are going to have to figure this out. Usually in this stage people feel very self-righteous about what “should” be different in the new place. It can be a really uncomfortable feeling.

Stage #2: Acceptance

Next you realize you have to live in this new pond and so you start to take action – usually in the same way you would have done in your previous pond. Here you come to accept the fact that since you live here, you might as well start doing the things that fish do in ponds.

Stage #3: Learning – the hard way

Now that you are attempting to “fit in,” you will make some terrible mistakes in that new cultural pond. For example, if you are a marketer, you might run a marketing campaign like this:

“…an American TV ad campaign for deodorant, showing an octopus applying the product under each arm, flopped in Japan. The manufacturer later learned that in Japan, octopuses do not have arms, they have legs.” [1]Who knew that the new pond had octopuses with legs instead of arms? After that kind of a costly mistake, you start paying closer attention to the nuances of the culture in which you now find yourself and begin seeking answers to your questions.

Stage #4: Inquiry

Those mistakes from Stage #3 are invaluable because they enable you to start asking the right questions.

“Wait a minute,” you might ask: “I didn’t ask any questions earlier; was that my mistake?”

Well, actually you did ask a question, and it was always the same one. Your previous question was, “Why don’t people here do things the right way, the way MY folks do things?” Which was, obviously, not getting you to any helpful answers.

When you are in Stage #4 you begin asking questions like, “Can you explain to me how this works here?” or “In my (last job, contract, country, pond) we did our hiring this way, is that similar to how you do it here or different?”

Stage #4 is a place of humility where you seriously seek to learn because you seriously lost some of your judgmental and superior attitude after making that marketing mistake and you are now ready to learn! In this stage you see the good things about your new pond, and you are more interested in finding ways to truly belong here. It doesn’t feel at all comfortable to be on the outside of a social circle, so you begin to make some adjustments to find your new groove.

Stage #5: Making it work

After some time in Stage #4, you learn a few things, make a few adaptations, the other fish get used to you, some friendships develop, and you start to feel better about swimming in this new cultural pond. But, unfortunately, your troubles are not over. In Stage #5 you will face more problems. This stage is more complex, so we’ll look at a few examples that will help you find the cultural clues you need to look for. Then, we’ll see how to navigate Stage #5 without losing your mind, your sense of dignity, your values, or your cultural roots from the first pond you came from.

When you run across a difference in cultures (and let’s assume that there is no prejudice colouring the situation – that’s another issue entirely), these cultural differences are usually not problematic until there is a perceived values clash. Here is the main issue: cultural beliefs, attitudes and behaviours are not consistent and people generally pick and choose the things that suit them without actually thinking about it. People can hold wildly dissonant cultural beliefs and do not seem to be bothered by them. To make it even more confusing, some cultural values trump others and you usually don’t discover this until you are in the middle of a conflict.

Here is a Japanese/American example:

In an American subsidiary of a global bank in Japan, a few Japanese female workers complained to the management that their older Japanese male bosses were being disrespectful to them. Upon questioning by the human resources manager, every Japanese woman reported this as a problem but none of the American women did. Confused, the HR manager questioned the Japanese men about it. The Japanese men explained that they knew American women expected to be treated respectfully but that in Japan it was “normal” for men to speak this way to Japanese women[2].

Certainly, there are some obstacles that make it hard to get through Stage #5, but naming and deconstructing them will enable us to circumvent their negative influence.

Obstacle #1: Cultural dissonance

Culture can be maddeningly illogical.

For example, in many Latin American cultures friendliness is a strong cultural value, yet you would never know it when you walk into a bank or a government office. In these settings you will likely be treated with strong disdain and discourtesy. Why the difference? Colonialism. The culture’s history created this impact in institutional settings – places of finance or politics – and thus the cultural value of friendliness gets trumped by power, distance and formality.

In Canada people expect you to give them clear answers to questions and that your communications are direct and open. But, if there is a perception that there could be a conflict between two people, Canadians become very evasive and indirect. Why? Because the cultural value of risk avoidance in Canada is higher than the cultural value of clarity and openness.

Obstacle #2: Personal dissonance

As if cultural dissonance isn’t confusing enough, individuals often do not make sense in the ways they behave and the attitudes they hold. Here is a common work place example:

In individualistic societies like North America, people all say they believe everyone is free to live as they please, hold their own beliefs and make their own choices. But, if everyone goes to the bar after work and one person doesn’t drink alcohol, the rest of the team is quite likely to make continuous snide remarks about the person who didn’t drink and try to force that person into conformity with the group.

Here are a few more irrational individual/group behaviours. You may:

  • Say you are a rational person but constantly lose your temper
  • Believe that women and men are equal but choose a wife who is quiet and submissive because “it will be easier to get along”
  • Strongly state that people should not marry across races and cultures but be thrilled that your white daughter is having a baby with her African black boyfriend
  • Complain that people are not including you, but only associate with people from your own ethnic group
  • Emphatically state you are a cooperative, team player but only be comfortable when you are in charge, calling all the shots

Obstacle #3: Deep values clashes

Sometimes in a multicultural workplace you will find yourself in a deeply divided values situation. It feels like a deep canyon of estrangement just opened up between you and the other person, when previously you thought you were both on the same page.

To further explain, I was once in a conflict resolution and peace seminar with a very diverse group over a period of three weeks. We were assigned to a work group that consisted of the same three or four people and we met every day to deal with various workplace conflicts and to develop a workplace inclusion project. I thought the second group were my closest friends and really enjoyed their company. One was a woman who had taught for years in isolated Northern communities and was very committed to helping First Nations children succeed. The other was a Somali man from a business background who had negotiated many cultural conflicts and was working on a graduate degree in management.

We presented our project about inclusivity in the workplace, and received rave reviews. Then we sat down for our final discussion. The teacher said she was upset because her son had married a woman from Korea and they just had a baby. She didn’t believe people should mix across races and explained that she had cut off her relationship with her son as a result of his “poor choice.” She refused to look at pictures of the baby because in her words, the child was a “mutt.”

I was completely shocked by this and asked her about the inclusivity project, her dedication to First Nations children’s school success and how that matched her personal beliefs. She said they were entirely separate – people could certainly work across cultures, but they should never marry and have children together. The Somali man agreed with her and said that he would even go further because he wouldn’t let his children play with anyone who was not Somali and would never eat in the home of someone who was not from his culture.

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So do you see the difficulties of negotiating Stage #5? How do you get past cultural dissonance, personal dissonance, and deep values clashes when you are working in the same place? Can you get the job done if you can’t see past the canyon of separateness that keeps people apart from each other?

What to do, what to do? How to get past the cultural divide

You may be thinking by now that it is hopeless to try to work across difference and that all the hype about diversity increasing creativity, innovation and problem solving is an unrealistic marketing ploy. The good news is that this is an amazing opportunity to learn. Learn about yourself, about others and about how to be a mature, thinking and empathetic, culturally flexible person in a world that is increasingly borderless and mixed. Because learn we must if we want to reach the potential we have as a human race. So what follows is your roadmap to negotiating the clashes between schools of fish in your new international workforce pond. Onward!

#1) Develop an awareness of your own emotional state, then manage it

The most uncomfortable part of cultural clashes is that they induce a negative emotional state. People get upset, hurt and angry. They feel they are not heard and that they are being judged – all likely true! To get past this first obstacle start with naming your emotion at the time of the clash:

FIRST: Get in touch with how you are feeling. Don’t lash out at the “bad character” and “flawed thinking” of the other person, go into your own emotion and ask, “What am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling this way; what could be the trigger?” This is a way to gain some detachment from your own process so you don’t do or say something you will regret later.

SECOND: Refuse to allow yourself to be caught in the trap of blaming the “bad character” of the other person. Remember that it is a natural, but not permanent, reaction to always see oneself as good and competent while blaming others for their poor character. Instead ask yourself, “What could be the thinking that led to this belief? How can I find out?”

THIRD: Allow yourself time to process the clash, to live with the sense that, “this has gone wrong; it feels off track” for a few hours or a day…probably a night as well. Ask yourself, “Do I think less of this person now that I know this about what he/she believes? What did I like previously, how can I get back to that sense of ‘like?'”

#2) Build questioning skills that allow you to learn more

FIRST: Remember that people always have some kind of reasoning behind their attitudes and behaviours. If you can’t see it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. To move away from your emotional reaction and into the thinking of the other person find ways to ask questions that show you are really interested in understanding the other person. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to accept it. The goal is to understand where it comes from, that’s all.

SECOND: Get curious and ask questions. Try some variation of: “Where did you get this idea from? Who do you know who thinks the same way? Where did they get their ideas from?” If it seems wise, consider asking “What could be the consequences of this line of thought?” (A famous example comes from Mahatma Gandhi who is quoted to have said, “If everyone takes an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth when they are angry, the whole world will be eyeless and toothless. Is that what we really want?”)

The point is to find ways to ask questions to find out more and to find ways of asking that are to seek understanding, not to blame. If you can do that, even if you say, “I just can’t agree with that” after your discussion, you will still be friends. The other person will feel the sincerity of your desire to understand and to listen, which is a very healing experience.

This skill is called “suspension of belief”. It means you hold your own beliefs in the background long enough to be able to really hear and learn from the other person. When you have listened without prejudice, you can go back to your belief, or you may find your belief has changed. To share a personal example, I had the experience of being stood up by a family member, waiting for an hour in the cold in a strange place, and furious. Then I found out that my family member had been in an accident. At that point my belief that the family member was an inconsiderate jerk turned to deep concern for his well-being.

#3) Getting back to the good

FIRST: Embrace that everyone has some good in them. Once you are in the habit of checking in with your own emotional state and with learning to suspend your belief long enough to sincerely seek to understand, you need to get back to the place where you think the other person has some positive qualities. I find the best way to do this is to think about the virtues the other person has (helpfulness, quick thinking, organized, etc.) and to make myself focus on them rather than focusing on the negative.

SECOND: Get specific about others’ virtues. Name them, and stop your own negative thinking by replacing it with a virtue affirmation. For example say, “He is a great group facilitator and is a really loyal employee,” instead of, “He is a disorganized manager who doesn’t know how to give clear directions.” Keep telling yourself this so you keep the horizon of your relationship open to goodness. If you don’t choose to identify the virtues, you shut the person into a box of behaviour and will only see the bad things no matter what the other person does. Remember to “get back to the good.”

THIRD: Find your zone of values proximity. Think about areas where you can both agree to share values; don’t dwell on the values that are in opposition. An example of this is my neighbor who clearly has an opinion of women that is in opposition to mine. He is however very devoted to his community and does a lot to help his ethnic community advance. When I focus on that, we have lots in common. If I focus on our difference of values on gender equity, we can’t speak to each other. Over time, my neighbor has even told his relatives that if they need a capable and smart woman to get the job done they should come to me. Clearly we have been able to build a friendship in spite of our differences.

#4) Decide where you can’t be flexible and know why

Here’s another quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi:

“I want the windows of my home open to the breezes of all people and all cultures. But I don’t want to be blown down by any of them.”

It is important to define the areas where you are not going to be inclusive, not make efforts to join in or learn about differences, and be clear with yourself why this is a values choice for you.

In my case I am not going to play golf with the other executives. I have discovered that men do not make deals with women on the golf course and it is a waste of time. I will not go to the bar with my colleagues, and I am not going to swear like my male counterparts. I don’t have to say or do anything that would challenge their behaviour, but I’m not going to join in. These are clear boundaries for me and they are in line with my values. I will also not try to be friends with the person on my team who is always talking about others behind their backs. After numerous attempts to have a friendly conversation with her and being unsuccessful, I have decided to be courteous but not to initiate any unnecessary conversations.

When it comes to cultural differences in the workplace, we all have to make these decisions. In some groups we will naturally belong. In others we will be influencers, others team players, others followers. In some groups it will be difficult to make connections and in others close to impossible. Knowing this allows me to make appropriate and sincere efforts to learn from others and to be a part of the team, but I don’t need to change who I am or act in ways that are contrary to my values.

#5) One more time: don’t condemn, instead ask questions and suspend judgment

The final skill is to be careful not to confuse individual cultural dissonance with personality differences. Sometimes when people have a values clash, they attribute it to a culture with a broad stroke of judgment. It is common to think that “everyone” from that culture has that trait, when in fact it is a personality issue, not a cultural issue. If someone acts like a jerk, no matter what culture he or she comes from, it is acting like a jerk: it isn’t cultural. And if the dysfunctional behaviour appears to be a cultural trait, consider that this likely comes from a historical perspective you don’t know and that it is best to focus on the positive.

Key Takeaways

To conclude, culture is not neutral and we can have some pretty strong negative emotions towards each other when we experience cultural values clashes. But there are ways to get past this if we remember to:

  1. Develop an awareness of our own emotional state and be mindful about managing it
  2. Build questioning skills to learn more
  3. Get back to the good
  4. Decide where you can’t be flexible and know why
  5. One more time: Don’t condemn; ask questions, suspend judgment

I’ll leave you with two quotations to consider, the first from Judith Lindenberger in her article “Diversity and the Workplace:”

“Diversity is no longer just a black/white, male/female, old/young issue. It is much more complicated and interesting than that…”

And, now from Harris Sussman in “The Future of Diversity and the Word Ahead of Us:”

“Diversity is about our relatedness, our connectedness, our interactions, where the lines cross. Diversity is many things – a bridge between organizational life and the reality of people’s lives, building corporate capability, the framework for interrelationships between people, a learning exchange, a strategic lens on the world.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Enjoy the new pond little fishies: it is about to get really interesting!

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[1] Mary Connerly. Correct on February 26, 2013.[2] Adapted from: Lindenberger, Judith. Diversity and the Workplace. Correct on December 2, 2016.