LOS Reflections – My Culture Is Not Me

“That’s not me!  And that’s definitely not me!” Erin Meyer’s version of Americans often distressed me as I read The Culture Map.

I didn’t want anyone putting me in an “American” box. Parts were me,
but many parts were not. I wondered how people from other countries were
reacting to their cultural depictions.

It seemed that the appropriate qualifiers laid out in her Introduction were then undermined by the book. The Culture Map makes it easy to look for the explanation – the
solution – as to why you’re having difficulty with your colleagues
across the ocean, or why last week’s negotiation wasn’t a crashing
success. While you will find many helpful guidelines, you won’t find the
ultimate keys to solving all your problems.

Writing this blog entry was nearly impossible because I have a
million things to say but space for about 0.03. So, here are just a few
observations about making cultural assumptions.

Knowing cultural “whys” is crucial

Communication is sometimes merely mechanical, as with warning signs;
but when humans start depending on one another, and heaven forbid, negotiating, then communication becomes highly interpersonal. The more cultural decoding as to why
we do what we do, the better we fare. Unfortunately, Meyer only brushes
the surface as to why various cultural traits have developed.

Chapter One describes high and low-context countries. It’s true that
the USA is very low-context – for several reasons Meyer barely
describes. From our very beginnings in the 1600s, already a mix of
cultures, we have always defined all people first as equal human beings pursuing freedom.
Searching for religious freedom, early settlers emphasized deep
introspection and pursuit of truth, so “game-playing” in interaction, as
high-context cultures can be interpreted by low-context cultures to
encourage, is avoided.

Of course, Americans also don’t get the luxury of being high-context .
. . but it doesn’t mean we are simple-minded. In a nation of immigrants
from everywhere, survival requires working together, and fast, without
mollycoddling ourselves that so-and-so doesn’t “fit”. We grow up circumventing
cultural barriers by speaking directly and specifically. We are,
nonetheless, quite capable of subtlety and irony; the problem with Ms.
Dulac in Chapter Two was her failure to appreciate American subtlety. In
my experience, the more intelligent and educated, the more unreadable a
person is. Americans are as well-equipped as anyone to hide what’s
really inside or send messages decipherable only by those in the know.

Moreover, business is naturally low-context due to time constraints,
need for tangible results, etc.; this results from the highly
competitive nature of American business, born of our free enterprise
system, undergirded by reliable rule of law, where anyone can disrupt
the equilibrium at any time. This is why Americans are uncomfortable
with the Latin and Asian methods of having successive family or company
dinners during the decision-making process.  Laden with personal
feeling, skewed by casual conversation and alcohol, such interaction
seems manipulative, leading to distortion, deviation, personal
obligation, and corruption. The American prefers conducting business
unemotionally and transparently; if that happens successfully, and if
results show the other party is trustworthy, okay then he may consider moving toward real friendship. Meyer manages a little better on this point.

People are, first of all, individuals

I’ve found a pattern: the less experience a person has working with
various types of people, and the more homogenous the culture from which
he comes (the less immigration and the less acceptance of it), and the
more personal insecurity he feels, the more he conforms to cultural
stereotypes. Conversely, experience with people, having many life
experiences, and most importantly, becoming free from the prison of
one’s ego and ambition and fear make one less culturally predictable.
American businessmen seen by foreigners as “arrogant and superficial”
are often also seen as such by their fellow Americans!

Just like in politics, business attracts certain personality types,
and upward mobility favors certain types, not always for admirable
reasons. A cultural subtype is created, an extreme of national
characteristics. Thus, the behavior of a nation’s business leaders need
not fully reflect the behavior of the nation’s average business workers,
those responsible for actually implementing business plans, those with
whom you may work closely.

Day after day, my four-and-a-half years at McKinsey clearly showed
that human interaction is driven more by personality than by culture.
According to the MBTI, humans fall into one of 16 personality types,
shaped by genetics, family life, life situations and schooling, age
development, and yes, culture. But culture is merely a scent on the
breeze.

Saying, “You do that because you’re an American” or “As an American,
you’ll solve problems this way” is so narrow. According to descriptions
in Chapter Three, on problem-solving and persuasion, I am equally French
and Chinese . . . while actually I’m an American with strong Norwegian
and Danish roots. In reality, I’m the product of being strongly INTJ
(with significant P), being raised in a close-knit, deeply moral family
where long dinner discussions were a daily occurrence, and being
ruthlessly graded by my meticulous Literature and Philosophy teachers. 
And regarding the Brazilian coming late to dinner in Chapter Eight, I
totally sympathize with him! Our family and 90% of our friends follow
“Brazilian” rules of polite behavior.

Dangerous fallacies

A survey of cultural characteristics can reinforce some dangerous
fallacies. First is to assume that culture is arbitrary; in fact, humans
are quite purposeful, and culture is a people group’s best attempt to
achieve social peace and progress. But humans are imperfect creatures of
habit, which means every culture has some bad traits, and there’s
nothing wrong with saying so. Every culture perpetuates certain
behaviors that the world doesn’t need to applaud. So the second
fallacy is to bow and scrape before culture as if it were an
all-benevolent monarch; it may be, in fact, a slave driver. And the
third fallacy is allowing culture to parade as the prime definer of
persons, when in fact we are all products of our personalities,
families, educations, religious and life experiences, which may run
significantly counter-culture.

People are wild cards

Working over a decade in Prague, having only two American friends
with the rest Czech and from many other countries, I saw repeatedly that
the two keys to understanding interaction are, first, personality, and
second, the war of good and evil within every human heart. In the end,
people who want to cooperate, will. People who want to make friends, will. And people who want to
cause offense, misunderstanding, crossed wires, and failure to produce,
will. Difficult people are difficult because they are ruled by
self-love and fear, and they care more about their own ends than about
working together. Cultural adaptation won’t evaporate those problems.

You must treat each person as a unique individual, keeping culture in the back of
your mind where it belongs. Human beings are complex and variable,
creative, flexible, intelligent, and yes, devious. They are predictable
only to a degree – and I’d be afraid to count beyond that.  But that’s
the challenge, isn’t it?

The following material will show how to effectively present things across cultures.

Anne Weston, LOS Consultant