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Things you didn’t know about cultural differences: deep layers of culture.

Imagine that you, as an employee who stands out from the crowd, were invited to a new and interesting project for Jim, a client from the US. During the video conference last Friday, you were presented with Jim’s objectives and plans but most importantly with the vision of the whole enterprise. 

It all sounded very logical and interesting, so you kept listening to Jim with engagement and curiosity. At the end, when you were asked about your opinion or questions about the project, you answered that you liked the idea and plans were very clear for you. You were so enthusiastic that you spent the whole weekend thinking about the new project. Your manager asked you on Monday for a conversation during which you were informed that Jim had asked your manager to discuss your motivation. Jim wasn’t one hundred percent sure if you were interested and motivated enough for this project. It comes as no surprise that you were taken aback by this information – “How come? I am very interested and I even told him that!.” When you were thinking about any reasons for Jim’s reaction, it turned out that Jim was surprised that you hadn’t asked him any questions and as he put it “your reaction on the project was quite indifferent”. There must have been some misunderstanding…

As it turned out, the behavior alone (listening to Jim and concluding with “I like your idea. No questions. It’s all clear to me”) had sent a totally different message and meaning to both of them. For you, it was a sign of interest and a full support for Jim’s idea and a confirmation that you are fully aware of what you have to do next. Jim, on the other hand, interpreted this as lack of interest, engagement or enthusiasm about ideas you were presented with.

Such situations are very common in intercultural communication.

Objectively, the same behavior or message can be subjectively interpreted by people from different cultures – so, intentions of the speaker can be considerably different from the listener’s interpretations.

Until the issue applies to misunderstandings only at this level and there’s enough space to come to realization about these differences (eg. “When I did X, it wasn’t my intention to do Y” and “When you do X, I interpret it as Y”), it is quite easy to find cooperative solution and draw conclusions helpful in the future cooperation. What if, the issue of cultural differences gets more complicated? Cultural differences can go beyond disparities regarding different interpretations of the same behaviors.

Most commonly, what is behind different interpretations are very deep layers of culture (and our identities as well) – values and beliefs.

So, neither your interpretation of that had happened nor Jim’s, wasn’t just a random “morning illumination”, but it rather resulted from more or less aware attitudes, beliefs, and values that each of your cultural circles would have shared.  When it comes to Jim, it would have been American values such as success, faith in one’s strength, proactivity, and unconditional optimism. You, on the other hand, were driven by the rule of politeness toward the older and the higher ranked people and keeping emotions in check and avoiding exaggerated optimism.

It gets very difficult when the cultural values ( implied behaviors as well) are so different, and even contradictory, that it leads to a conflict and one of each parties (or both of them) feel the need to make another one share their values. It is worth realizing then, that trying to convince or make someone change his or her values is like trying to change one’s identity or reality. Values cannot be valued, so there is no basis for claiming that values of culture A are better than values of culture B.  There is no solution to the conflict of values on the same level at which it aroused.

There is still a practical question: how to cooperate effectively? My advice is to, apart from conscious and mature decision about investing your time and energy into knowing and understanding values and needs of another party, looking for cooperative solutions regarding behaviors and communication – that is mutual search for a „third way” which is a new way for us and for others which doesn’t compromise or violates our values. Therefore, if you can’t stand the idea of big enthusiasm, optimism and expressivity put in everything you do – as Jim expects more signs of your engagement and interest – a longer feedback e-mail once a week could have been a great solution for both of you.

In this e-mail you could enumerate advantages of the project and any questions or doubts you have. Where there is enough space for openness, willingness to cooperate and a genuine interest in willingness to know another party’s needs, there are usually new, great and creative options.

How much do you know the cultural background of people you cooperate with on a daily basis? How can you know them better? What cooperative solutions can you come up with when you’re thinking about cultural conflicts in your work environment?