Mastering the cultural code; how to handle intercultural employment & work

I hate working with people from other cultures!
I sometimes travel from country to country and work with people from other cultures. I love other cultures, but I don’t like working with people from other cultures. I also don’t like working with Americans. I feel that all cultures are badly configured for getting work done. The Japanese and Germans are much better about their work ethic, but there are difficulties with them too.

Cultural differences are more than just food.
If you work with people form other cultures you will notice many things if you are paying attention. You will observe that some people are very detail oriented, while others are neglectful. You will notice that some people are openly untrusting, while others demand that you trust them. Some people communicate well, while others are more aggressive. These differences can really bother a person, even if they are used to a particular culture, and even if they like that culture.

Adapting to different cultures
Some people think that it is necessary to adapt to a foreign culture if working overseas. They feel that it is necessary to wear a sari upon landing at Mumbai international airport. It then becomes necessary to eat your food with a roti using your hands. Next thing you know we are learning Hindi with a Marathi accent and bargaining with people at the grocery store. The problem with this is that Indian culture is a lot deeper than samosas and chai. Wearing a sari doesn’t make you Indian any more than living in a chicken coop makes you a chicken. There are cultural things that they just don’t teach in books, that you would only pick up on by living in a particular culture for a long time.

When to speak up and when to be quiet.
Sure, you can learn to make rotis and become semi-fluent in Bengali, but do you know when to shut up? In Indian culture, relationships have a pecking order. Sure, there are vast cultural differences between downtown Bangalore and 1.5 Km South of there in the more traditional neighborhoods. But, in India, the boss is generally a sort of a tyrant and his workers bow down to him and never challenge him. You will not learn this by stuffing yourself with samosas every day. You need to be in an environment of real Indians in India to learn this — and not some 3rd generation Indian-American who lives in Chicago who doesn’t like to be stereotyped as someone who likes samosas.

Why can’t they voice their concerns?
It is a common problem for Americans doing business in India that the workers will not speak up and voice their concerns. They will be very timid. When they do voice their concern, it will generally be after a problem has been brewing for a long time and they have been bottling up their upset feelings for several weeks. There are two ways of dealing with such a problem. You can learn to deal with them as an Indian boss would which might be heavy handed. I’m not implying that Indian bosses are always mean, because many are quite nice. But, they are culturally very authoritative, and that is what people are used to. If it were me, I would authoritatively inform them that they are to tell me about any issues in an organized way as soon as possible to avoid any suffering on their part. That way we can solve problems early on and keep everybody happy and a little less awkward.

Enough voicing concerns already!
The next problem in India, is when the workers speak up — that’s even worse. Workers tend to tell me their opinions in a very annoying and awkward way. Their concerns are often valid, but tend to be from a point of view that is very petty from a larger point of view.

The job interview: compensating for being from a passive culture
It is common for people from Asian countries including India to be overly passive at job interviews. If you don’t take the lead, they will just sit there. They will seldom boast about their achievements and answers tend to be shorter rather than longer. Yes, Indians look quite different from their East Asian counterparts and behave differently too, but they have more in common than you think. There have been case studies of people from Asia who tried to overcompensate for their Asian-ness and act too bold in interviews. One gentleman went so far to claim that the boss’ idea was completely wrong in a very important meeting to show his leadership qualities. In American culture, standing your ground, and promoting your worth is important, but as in all other cultures, there is what I call a “range of acceptability” in behavior, and arguing with your boss at an important meeting crosses the line even in America!

Being liked is more important than fitting in
Many people feel that they have to culturally adapt themselves in order to be liked. This is sort of true to a point. It is okay to be different, but not that okay if your differentness clashes with your boss. Even within the same culture, there can be tremendous clash, and the clash bothers people a lot more than others who have different attributes. People might appreciate you due to your different attributes.

A tale of two cultures
Let’s take two opposite cultures: Americans and Thais. Americans generally seem to like Thai people, Thai food, and even Thai Buddhism. Thais tend to like all white people (falang) by definition as well. What two cultures could be more different or opposite than Americans and Thais? If something bad happens to an American they will yell or cry all day while the Thai will be a lot more accepting of their destiny and seek solace in the comfort of the Buddha. Americans are often serious or angry, while Thais are outwardly happy and smile all the time. Americans are in a hurry and talk fast. Thais talk slow in a calming nasal tone of voice. Americans tend to like mild food while Thais like spicy food. American women like to confront men while Thai women are more agreeable. So, how is it that these two seemingly opposite cultures like each other so much? Do opposites attract? That might be part of it. Thais don’t step on people’s toes much. They are normally gentle people. They are seldom rude, although they will be if they really don’t like someone (I have a story about that.) When Americans are with Thais, they appreciate how nice people are. Sure, there are differences, but the differences are not generally seen as bad differences. To date, I’ve never met an American with Thaiaphobia!

Expats in China verses London.
American expats tend to last longer in China than they do in England. Why is this? Perhaps, the expats who visit China are used to the idea that things will be different and embrace the differences. Meanwhile the expats who live in London don’t really want to live in a different culture and can’t tolerate the minuscule differences that confront them in London. On the other hand, Brits can be condescending and rigid, while Chinese are more happy go lucky and bow down to white people. Maybe Americans are treated better by the Chinese and tolerate China as a result even though it is ten times as different as England.

Bottom line — what is important in intercultural work?
Being liked is important. You never know why someone will like you. They might like you for your differences. They might like you because you took the trouble to learn how to make samosas while wearing a selwar kurta. They might like you because you don’t abuse them as much as their regular boss. The possibilities are endless. Becoming similar to the culture you are living in is not always the solution. Sometimes you need to adapt only to a point, but learn how to work positively with your new culture rather than to conform to it. Perhaps it is what is different about you that helps you deal better with Bengladeshis in the work force than their local born boss. Have you ever thought of that?

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