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Get Ready for the Culture Clash

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By Terry J. Soto, Author and CEO, About Marketing Solutions, Inc.

In recognizing the changing profile of customers across the country, companies are increasingly seeking to create diverse workforces. Yet, as many take on the exciting challenge of working with people from different cultural backgrounds, they are finding that values inevitably clash and give rise to conflict.

Unfortunately, we are seldom aware of the cross-cultural impact to our organizations because we don't often think about having cultural values or assumptions that are different from others. As the U.S. continues to evolve as a nation of immigrants, culture will continue to be one of the most powerful forces that acts upon us and which we must understand and recognize in our daily operations in order to be as successful with our diverse employees.

Marcelle E. DuPraw of the National Institute for Dispute Resolution and Marya Axner, a Consultant in Leadership Development & Diversity Awareness, point to six fundamental patterns of Cultural Differences that can severely impact how successfully you can train, interact, motivate and retain a culturally diverse workforce. Next time you suspect that cross-cultural differences are at play, review this list. Ask yourself how cultural differences may be shaping your own reactions.

1. Different Communication Styles
The way people communicate varies widely between, and even within, cultures. One aspect of communication style is language usage. Across cultures, some words and phrases are used in different ways. For example, even in countries that share the English language, the meaning of "yes" varies from "maybe, I'll consider it" to "definitely so," with many shades in between.

Another major aspect of communication style is the degree of importance given to non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication includes not only facial expressions and gestures; it also involves seating arrangements, personal distance, and sense of time. In addition, different norms regarding the appropriate degree of assertiveness in communicating can add to cultural misunderstandings. For instance, some white Americans typically consider raised voices to be a sign that a fight has begun, while some black, Jewish and Italian Americans often feel that an increase in volume is a sign of an exciting conversation among friends. Thus, some white Americans may react with greater alarm to a loud discussion than would members of some American ethnic or non-white racial groups.

2. Different Attitudes Toward Conflict
Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, while others view it as something to be avoided. In the U.S., conflict is not usually desirable; but people often are encouraged to deal directly with conflicts that do arise. In fact, face-to-face meetings customarily are recommended as the way to work through whatever problems exist. In contrast, in many Eastern countries, open conflict is experienced as embarrassing or demeaning; as a rule, differences are best worked out quietly. A written exchange might be the favored means to address the conflict.

3. Different Approaches to Completing Tasks
From culture to culture, there are different ways that people move toward completing tasks. Some reasons include: different access to resources; different judgments of the rewards associated with task completion; different notions of time; and varied ideas about how relationship-building and task-oriented work should go together.

A case in point, Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion toward the end as compared with European-Americans. European-Americans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task. This does not mean that people from any one of these cultural backgrounds are more or less committed to accomplishing the task, or value relationships more or less; it means they may pursue them differently.

Consider that you can train employees of various cultural backgrounds on policies, procedures and corporate culture, but how that message is ultimately communicated and received can and does vary dramatically. Anthropologists Kevin Avruch and Peter Black explain the importance of culture this way: ...One's own culture provides the "lens" through which we view the world; the "logic"... by which we order it; the "grammar" ... by which it makes sense. In other words, culture is central to what we see in our employees' behavior, how we make sense of what we see, and how we express ourselves in our communications with them.

4. Different Decision-Making Styles
The roles individuals play in decision-making vary widely from culture to culture. For example, in the U.S., decisions are frequently delegated -- that is, an official assigns responsibility for a particular matter to a subordinate. In many Southern European and Latin American countries, there is a strong value placed on holding decision-making responsibilities oneself. When decisions are made by groups of people, majority rule is a common approach in the U.S.; in Japan consensus is the preferred mode. Be aware that individuals' expectations about their own roles in shaping a decision may be influenced by their cultural frame of reference.

5. Different Attitudes Toward Disclosure
In some cultures, it is not appropriate to be frank about emotions, about the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information. Keep this in mind when you are in a dialogue or when you are working with others. When you are dealing with a conflict, be mindful that people may differ in what they feel comfortable revealing. Questions that may seem natural to you -- What was the conflict about? What was your role in the conflict? What was the sequence of events? -- may seem intrusive to others.

6. Different Approaches to Knowing
Notable differences occur among cultural groups when it comes to the ways people come to know things. European cultures tend to consider information acquired through cognitive means, such as counting and measuring, more valid than other ways of coming to know things. Compare that to African cultures' preference for affective ways of knowing, including symbolic imagery and rhythm. Asian cultures tend to emphasize the validity of knowledge gained through striving toward transcendence. (Nichols, 1976) Recent popular works demonstrate that our own society is paying more attention to previously overlooked ways of knowing.

Anthropologists Avruch and Black have noted that, when faced by an interaction that we do not understand, some people tend to interpret the others involved as "abnormal," "weird," or "wrong." (Avruch and Black, 1993)

DuPraw and Axner propose that this tendency, if indulged, gives rise on the individual level to prejudice. If this propensity is either consciously or unconsciously integrated into organizational structures, then prejudice takes root in our institutions -- in the structures, laws, policies, and procedures that shape our lives. Consequently, it is vital that we learn to control the human tendency to translate "different from me" into "less than me."

Leadership would do well to consider these insights to ensure successful assimilation and the success of diverse employees into our organizations. This is the only way that management will effectively manage today's workforce effectively while minimizing the often polarizing effects of cultural differences.

Terry Soto is CEO of About Marketing Solutions, Inc., a Burbank, California - based strategy consulting firm specializing in helping clients to dramatically improve overall business performance by optimizing their strategies to also succeed in today's diverse U.S. market. Terry is the author of Marketing to Hispanics and Strategic Approach to Planning and Implementing Your Initiative and co-author of Grow With America Best Practices in Ethnic Marketing and Merchandising. Terry can be reached at

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