Frequently Asked Questions
I view a culture as a system of assumptions, values and meaning that is shared by an identifiable group to help them solve the problems that life presents and to give them a sense of identity and purpose. Babies begin learning their culture‘s way of life the day they are born and continue learning throughout the course of their socialization. By the time we are young adults, these lessons have been deeply internalized and we are often unaware of the role our culture plays in our perceptions and behavior.
Language may be the most obvious way that cultures differ, but it is only one of many. Other significant cultural differences that regularly cause misunderstandings relate to nonverbal communication practices, the way we regulate our emotions, the types of social roles that cultures create, the expectations we have of leaders, our understandings of how power should be exercised and much, much more. When we understand how cultures differ and why, we can begin to communicate and cooperate more effectively with people who are different.
If you are working in an American environment, you share a lot of common understandings and assumptions about how to communicate, which makes mutual understanding easier. In communicating interculturally, not only do you not share the same native language, but many of the very assumptions about appropriate communication behavior are different. Unless we are aware of these differences and how they affect our communication style, it is very likely that we will experience difficulties in developing productive and satisfying working relationships.
An English participant in one of my workshops pointed out how even among native speakers of English there are cultural traps waiting for the unsuspecting. He told of the time his American audience was flabbergasted because he told them he had to “knock up his landlady.” In England this would have meant he knocked on his landlady’s door to announce his presence. He was chagrined to learn that in the U.S. this is a common slang expression meaning to get a woman pregnant.
If significant cultural differences exist even between the English and Americans, less similar cultures will be even more challenging. Learning about these differences and how to deal with them can help make you more effective and efficient when working with people from other cultures.
On the surface, Americans and Germans appear very similar. Both tend to be very business-focused and many Germans speak excellent English. In addition, both cultures have a Western mindset and often behave similarly, leading both sides to expect the other side to think and behave similarly in all instances. Interculturalists call this expectation the “Trap of Similarity”. While the differences between Americans and Germans are sometimes subtle, their effect is all the more damaging when they are not expected.
For instance, an American manager at a German multinational company was caught off guard while organizing a Meyers-Briggs workshop for his team. The leader hoped that when team members became more familiar with their personality differences they would function better as a team. Both he and the American workshop leader were blindsided and embarrassed when one German team member adamantly refused to take the test. What they discovered was
- Unlike most Americans, Germans make a strong distinction between their colleagues and their friends, i.e. people they know and socialize with outside of work.
- Many Germans are wary of disclosing any information they consider personal to people they do not consider their close friends.
- Germany has very strong privacy laws that protect individual citizens from having information collected about them.
- There are significant regional differences in Germany. The gentleman who refused to take the Meyers-Briggs test came from the former East Germany. His experience of growing up under a communist regime made him even more reticent than most to sharing private information in a business setting.
Many Germans find American informality, such as addressing one another by first-names and our relaxed style, quite a contrast to their more formal style of interaction. Also, the degree of extroversion and sharing of personal information in the United States, especially during initial meetings, comes as a surprise to Germans who are typically more reserved.
Case studies, critical incidents, films, lectures, group discussions, role playing, individual reflection and coaching are all employed to give participants both cognitive knowledge and an authentic experience of the intercultural working situation. The choice of methods for any given workshop depends on the training objectives, the time available and the composition of the group.
Incorporating training into actual work sessions is highly cost-effective as both an educational and a teambuilding method. In one workshop I did with a global team, we focused on understanding cultural differences as they played out in business meetings. We were able to both discover different expectations that participants had of business meetings as well as develop more understanding and rapport among team members. As a result the team not only accomplished more in that meeting than they usually did, but their team meetings in the future also became more effective and energizing.