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

LOS Reflections – Off The Map

LOS Reflections – Same Language, Different Cultures

LOS Reflections – We Are All Human

LOS Reflections – Connecting & Learning Across Cultures

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