Most of us have encountered situations in the workplace where conflict or misunderstanding seems to arise from cultural difference. A boss who grew up in a distant part of the U.S. or overseas exercises authority in ways that subordinates find demeaning or confusing. The coworker in a neighboring cubicle speaks too loudly or uses a different language when talking on the phone. You reach out to shake the hand of a new client and she bows.
Most of us are aware of the fact that people in different parts of the world, or even just in different organizations, display distinct values and ideas about how they should work together and interact. And in many cases those differences can generate annoyance or outright conflict between individuals or groups, which inhibits communication and understanding.
The phrase, “well, their culture is different” often does little more than create boundaries that block our ability to understand and empathize with the behaviors of others.
The biggest problem with culture is that, although most of us talk about it routinely, it is actually quite difficult to define and identify. Is the behavior of my cubicle neighbor a product of cultural differences? Or is it just that he’s an insensitive jerk?
Our cultural influences are so deeply embedded in who we are that it is difficult for most of us to recognize them in our own behavior. As a result, we don’t think much about the cultural information expressed in many of the things we do or the fact that the vast majority of our behavior is shaped by our cultural surroundings. We just think of what we do as being natural.
When you put out your hand to shake with a client, you are putting culture into action and conveying a set of ideas about connecting with others that, in the case of a handshake, emphasize human touch as a way to strengthen relationships. Of course, not everyone does this–there are plenty of other ways to accomplish the same goal, such as bowing. But these behaviors are so deeply engrained that we usually do them without awareness that they convey meaning based in values and ideas of the culture we happen to inhabit. And those meanings are being read and interpreted by others either consciously or subconsciously.
Because we don’t usually notice the cultural content in our own behaviors, nor do we think about how they might affect others, it’s easy to become annoyed with the behaviors of others that seem very different from what we perceive as natural and normal. Awareness of this gives us a basis for responding to cultural differences in a rational way.
Anthropologists try to understand other cultures by learning about and exploring what we call the emic perspective, or the perspective of the native of a particular cultural context. We ask questions like, how do observed behaviors and explanations for behaviors fit into patterns of logic that people use to interpret their social surroundings?
To get at the emic perspective, you need to focus on listening and observing. When confronted with conflict or differences, try to find an underlying logic that may be shaping the attitudes and behavior of those involved.
Even with things that seem irrational at first, there is an underlying logic and set of values that shapes behavior. And when that logic becomes observable, it can help explain many aspects of behavior that may have seemed odd, confusing, or annoying on first sight.
The easiest way to improve awareness of the cultural influences of behavior is to observe oneself carefully. When confronted with behaviors or attitudes that seem alien or annoying, try to listen carefully for cues that point to underlying assumptions and values that may form a coherent framework for dealing with others. A bad reaction to a more authoritarian approach to management style may be a product of deeper assumptions and values you hold related to social status or the value of titles and power.
At the same time, it’s important to also observe others. This tends to increase self-awareness of the assumptions and values that shapes one’s own ideas about what is natural and normal and that influence behavior and decision-making. With careful observation of the cultural patterns that shape behavior in both oneself and others, one can learn to see things more easily from the perspective of others and respond to behaviors that seem different or even annoying in a calm and rational way.
These techniques for becoming sensitive to cultural differences can be applied at various levels of human social grouping. They can apply to what anthropologists culture writ large, or the differences that exist among nationalities and ethnicities. And they can also apply to the micro-cultures created by particular organizations like companies.
In the end, learning to be a good observer of the logic and values that shape the behavior (in other words culture) is a key tool in good leadership. And it requires a lot of work, particularly when it comes to becoming astute at recognizing the assumptions and values that motivate one’s own behavior and are interpreted by others.
Cultural conflict is usually a product of the inability to not only recognize the ways culture shapes the actions of others, but also our own ideas, attitudes, and actions.
—John Traphagan, PhD is a professor of Religious Studies and Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. A cultural anthropologist by training, John has spent several years pursuing research in Japan, where he is currently engaged in a study of entrepreneurs building businesses in depopulated rural areas. John is the author of Rethinking Autonomy: A Critique of Principlism in Biomedical Ethics.