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Intercultural encounters in the world of work

Intercultural encounters in the world of work

An essay written by Salifou Siddo in the Financial Mail of May 11 2001 prompted the topic for this month’s lead article. Salifou Siddo is head of communications for the South African Parks Board. In the article, he states "a recent survey of SA CEOs on what they consider critical managerial issues, managing diversely ranked dead last!" Whether or not these perceptions are accurate, nothing can be further from the truth for senior and middle managers who are paid to work with the daily realities of managing intercultural encounters in the work place as an integral part of their roles as leader-managers. Almost all leader-managers (in contrast to CEOs) will tell you that how these cultural realities are handled, can make or break one’s success as a leader-manager.

Siddo also points out "diversity training to date has been based on the premise that the dominant Anglo-Afrikaner (white) employees mostly need to become aware of the ways their behaviour affects other employees. The truth is that training needs to identify specific behavioural skills that everyone, irrespective of their background, must acquire and use in day-to-day intercultural encounters.

In this month’s article, we examine ten cultural realities that ‘govern’ how people react to one another in the workplace. How these variables crop up in 3 of the most critical roles a leader-manager is required to play (whether you are a White, Black, Coloured, Asian, Male or Female manager) – managing meetings, building multicultural teams, and performance appraisals will be covered in the second part of this article in July.

The best way to get across an understanding of the various aspects of culture in action, is by means of comparing differences in cultural programming between the previously dominant Anglo-Afrikaner business cultures with the ‘new’ ways of doing business that is fast becoming a reality in the multicultural workplace in South Africa today. However, this article does not set out to create a whole new set of stereotypes, but to create ‘handles’ with which to get to grips with the very slippery concept called ‘intercultural management’.


# 1: Sense of self and space

'Too close for comfort’, and 'Get out of my space’, are common expressions that deal with the issue of space. The dominant culture teaches us to stay about l to 3 feet, or an arm's length, from people with whom we are talking in a business or friendship relationship. Any closer is reserved for more intimate contact with family, romantic relationships, or very close friends.

Maintaining greater distance signifies a desire to stay aloof or protect oneself. When someone steps into your space, you'll probably move back to maintain a comfortable distance. Other cultures have different norms. In the Middle East, people stand close enough to be able to feel your breath on their face and to be able to catch your scent. On the other hand, people in Japan maintain an even greater distance than those in South Africa. As for greeting, Japan it's a bow; here it is a hearty handshake; for Blacks it is a softer handshake, sometimes disparagingly referred to by the dominant culture as a ‘wet fish' handshake.

These physical aspects of the way we respect an individual's sense of self and space also have a less tangible counterpart in the degree of formality we expect in relationships. Many languages (German, Afrikaans) have two forms of the word you-the formal and the familiar .In these cultures, the familiar form is reserved for children, family members, close friends, and those below you in the social hierarchy, such as servants. English long ago dropped the familiar thee and thou, so we are left with one pronoun, you, for all relationships, whether we are talking with the president, a boss, or a spouse. Let's not stand on ceremony, is the dominant culture's response to what most consider stuffy formality. New acquaintances, bosses, and older individuals are commonly called by their first names. In other cultures, formal introductions using Mr., Mrs., and titles are expected as a sign of respect for both parties.

Since many other cultures are more formal than the dominant business culture, you are safest if you err on the side of formality. Trying to be buddy-buddy with a staff of people from other cultures that expect more formal behaviour from a boss is apt to make workers uncomfortable and embarrassed. In business relationships and discussions, keeping a more reserved tone also tends to send the message that you respect the individual with whom you are meeting.

++ Suggestions for managers

- Make sure you say good morning and good-bye to each employee every day.

- Introduce new employees to their co-workers formally, taking the individual around to meet each new colleague. - Be careful in using first names, especially with older workers. - Ask people what they prefer being called. - Guard against being overly familiar. - Learn to listen and create an atmosphere of trust where you can learn about other’s needs.

# 2: Communication and language

It is clear that language differences often accompany cultural differences. However, more is involved than just the specific language an individual speaks. It is a fact that over half of our communication is non-verbal, indicating the significance of gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, and intonation patterns.

The most obvious of the non-verbal signals is eye contact. All cultures use it to send signals or messages. The difficulty comes when the signals are misinterpreted. "Look, I am talking to you!", when we were told by our parents when being reprimanded as children. We break eye contact when we want to end the conversation with a bore that has cornered us at a business function. Not making eye contact is easily seen as a sign of deceitfulness, non- assertion, or disinterest. However, in many cultures, averting one's eyes is a sign of respect and the proper behaviour in the presence of an older person or authority figure.

Gestures are another non-verbal communicator, one we often depend on when there is a language barrier. Yet gestures can get us into trouble in multicultural groups. The OK sign, for example, made with the thumb and forefinger is an obscene gesture in Greece and some parts of South America.

Smiling, often considered an international gesture often, is another non-verbal cue that can be misinterpreted. A smile is seen as a welcoming, friendly gesture in Anglo cultures. In Asian cultures, it may be a sign of embarrassment, confusion, or discomfort. In the Middle East, a smile from a woman to a man can be construed as a sexual come-on. In Germany, smiling is reserved for friends and family.

Perhaps the difference that causes the most difficulty in communication is the subtlest. It has to do with the degree of directness or in-directness, or the amount of information that is stated rather than implied. In African culture, for example, communication is very indirect, depending on subtle contextual cues in contrast to the "Don't beat around the bush" dictum of an Anglo culture, which favours a very explicitly stated message. When these two approaches collide, problems can result. The Japanese, for example, are often exasperated at what they see as Americans’ "irresponsibility" when they interpret literally an off hand comment such as "I’ll give you a call" or "I'll get on that right away." On the other hand, Americans are just as frustrated when they miss the instated clues that their Japanese counterparts automatically pick up. "How was I supposed to know I had to wait until the boss left? Why don't they just tell me?"

++ Suggestions for managers

- When there is a language barrier, assume confusion. Don't take the nod or yes to mean the individual understands or agrees. Watch for tangible signs of understanding such as immediately beginning the task and doing it correctly.

- Consider that smiles and laughter may indicate discomfort or embarrassment. See if you can identify what is causing the difficulty.

- Avoid smiling when giving directions or when having serious work-related discussions with employees, especially when giving feedback or when conducting performance reviews.

- Be careful not to think out loud. Employees hearing you may take your off-the-cuff comments literally and may even act on them.

- Watch for subtle clues that may be speaking volumes. A comment about another worker's frustrations may be telling you about a work-group complaint. Hints about family members moving in might be couching a desire for a raise.

# 3: Dress and appearance

Although we have been taught not to judge a book by its cover, in an Anglo culture we do. The problem is that each culture has different rules about what is appropriate. Not only does dressing for success, mean different things in different cultures, but also within a society rules differ.

Dark-suited executives dress very differently from their Africanist counterparts in some of the trade union and political movements, who wear very informal or colourful clothing.

A bright silk dress or a dark gabardine suit? Which is the best choice for a job interview? It depends on which group you ask. In some cultures, clothing is a sign of social class; hence, much money and attention are spent on dressing expensively. In others, clothing offers a chance to express one's personality and creativity, so the brighter and more decorative, the better.

In still others, clothing is just a necessity of life, neither a status symbol nor an individual statement.

What are the workplace implications of clothes in South Africa today? An example of what an Anglo interviewer may consider ‘abnormal’ will be for a Black male applicant from a township setting, who is applying for a mid-level management position to be wearing flat pointy shoes, white socks, and trousers that show just too much socks. Hair can also be an appearance hot spot. Turbans, dreadlocks, Afros, ponytails, and Mohawks are just a few of the different hairstyles that raise eyebrows. Many mainstream companies, and in the army hair for men must be above the collar. In other cultures the rules are different. Hindus believe the hair should never be cut, and the men wrap their heads in turbans. Orthodox Jews wear forelocks, while their wives cover their hair in public. In many cultures, hair is a symbol of virility for men, femininity for women, and individual dignity for all.

Prisoners, for example, are often shorn, thereby striping them of their individuality and humanness. Probably one of the most uncomfortable areas to deal with regarding grooming is body odour. The dominant culture has a near fetish on this topic. We have a deodorant for almost every part of the body. In polite society we react very negatively to the smell of another human being. Body odour, whether, from a lack of deodorant use or from diet (as in the garlic-laden food eaten by many Asians), can cause real problems in work teams when people find each other's odours offensive.

++ Suggestions for managers

- Before reacting to another's appearance, stop to consider the meaning attached to appearance by the individual.

- When making assessments about job applicants, consider their cultural norms regarding dress.

- Consider the job the individual will be doing, and the people with whom he/she will be interacting when determining appropriate dress.

- Teach individuals the cultural rules required in your organisation regarding dress and grooming.

- Remember that body scent is not necessarily a sign of lack of cleanliness.

- Consider uniforms as a way to eliminate differences and build common ground.

# 4: Time and time-consciousness

When asked about the hardest adjustment they have had to make when working in Africa, or the Middle East, Americans invariably talk about the differences in time consciousness. The so-called ‘Africa Time’, and the ‘lnshallah’ of the Arab world clash with the ‘time is money’, and ‘the early bird gets the worm’ Anglo view of time.

Time in Anglo terms is seen as a commodity to be used, divided, spent, and is linear and finite. However, in other parts of the world, such as in many parts of Africa or the Middle East, time is considered more elastic and more relative. Time is used not just to accomplish tasks but also to develop relationships and enjoy oneself. When things happen depends on not just a schedule, but also on other priorities, and events. The phrase just now, does not always mean later on, but can mean any number of things depending on other additional life priorities.

People driven by deadlines are understandably frustrated by what may appear a lack of motivation, efficiency, or honesty when encountering the just now or "Inshallah" approach to time. The Anglo or American, on the other hand, may be seen as always in a hurry, or only concerned with tasks more than with people.

++ Suggestions for managers

- The differences in time consciousness are cultural and are not a sign of laziness.

- Make it a point to spend some time each week with each employee.

- Explain the reasons for deadlines and schedules.

- Explain the part promptness plays in assessment of performance and work habits.

# 5: Relationships

In the dominant Anglo cultures, hiring relatives is considered nepotism and is, in fact, prohibited in most organisations. Yet, in most other parts of the world, hiring kin is not only common, but also expected. Not to do so would be considered abdicating one's responsibility to one's family.

Furthermore, while family usually means the nuclear group of one's parents and siblings, in other cultures it involves a large network of extended family members-cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and in-laws. Loyalty is expected toward one's kin, and obedience and respect are paid to older family members. Organisational rules or directions that require employees to go against these norms will be circumvented or disobeyed. You might experience an employee who hides the fact that his "friend" is really a relative, for example, or an employee who takes extended leaves to go back to his home village during the holidays.

In most other cultures, families are not egalitarian democracies. There is a definite hierarchy of status, with age being the determiner of power and respect. A definite pecking order exists, for example, with an older brother having authority over a younger one or a grandmother having matriarch status. An employee from such a family would not think of making a work-related decision such as seeking a promotion or accepting a transfer without talking it over with the "head of the family". This same sense of respect may transfer to the work unit, where employees apply a similar hierarchy within the group.

++ Suggestions for managers

- Recognise that family responsibility and loyalty to kin will be a prime value of many workers. Consider this when identifying rewards and motivators for staff (e.g. hiring relatives and giving time off for vacations and holidays).

- Allow employees time to discuss important decisions with family members before they give you a final answer.

- Recognise the informal leadership older members may hold in the work unit. Consult with them, seek their co-operation.

- Show respect to older employees by addressing them first and giving them authority when appropriate.

- Recognise that, as the boss, you may be seen as the "head of the work family", Employees may come to seek your advice and counsel about problems in and out of work.

# 6 Values and norms

One of the cornerstones of Anglo societies is the doctrine of individual freedom.

The South African Bill of Rights goes further in specifying the extent of our individual freedoms. The promise of freedom has attracted many newcomers to this country.

In recent times, the idea of personal entitlement has pushed the ideas of individual freedom even further. Not so in many more traditional cultures, where conformity to the group, unions, political party, family, and larger society is the norm.

Related to this group orientation is another difference: the competition versus co-operation dichotomy.

The competitive spirit is an underpinning of much of the capitalist economic system.

However, competition upsets the balance and harmony valued by cultures that prefer co-operation and collaboration.

Another cultural difference that emerges in the workplace regards privacy.

To many newcomers, discussing personal matters outside the family is seen as embarrassing, and opening up to someone outside of one's own cultural group is rare.

Thoughts, feelings, and problems are kept to oneself in most groups outside the dominant business culture. Off -the-cuff thinking, shooting from the hip, and giving an immediate response to a question from the boss would be difficult for someone raised with this cultural norm.

Loyalty is still another value that is differently displayed from culture to culture. Most Anglos are taught loyalty to such abstract principles and justice and believe none is above the law. Middle Easterners, on the other hand, are loyal to individuals rather than to abstractions. That personal allegiance might mean breaking a rule to help a friend or covering up for a relative's infraction. Employees feeling this personal attachment also tend to give their allegiance to the boss rather than to the organisation.

Finally, we get to an issue critical to all human beings-respect or UBUNTU.

While all of us want to be treated with dignity and respect, we define and demonstrate respect differently. Loss of face is important to avoid in all cultures. In Africa, in the Middle East, and to some extent in Latin America, one's face is to be preserved at all costs. In fact, death is preferred to loss of face in traditional Japanese culture, hence the ritualised suicide, hara-kiri, as a formal way to restore honour.

Any embarrassment can lead to loss of face, even in the dominant culture. To be criticised in front of others, to be publicly snubbed, or to be fired would be hard to swallow in any culture. However, inadvertent slights can cause serious repercussions in intercultural relationships. In Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, for example, the separation of the individual from the behaviour is not so clear. "I am my behaviour and my behaviour is me" might be the motto. Criticism of performance may be taken as a personal insult.

++ Suggestions for managers

- Consider giving rewards and feedback to the whole work group rather than to individuals.

- Structure tasks to require teamwork rather than individual action.

- Give workers time to think about and formulate responses to input requests.

- consider face-losing potential of any actions you are planning. Seek out ways to achieve your objectives while avoiding diminishing employees.

#7 Mental processes and learning

Do you prefer getting directions in words or with a map? Do you learn best by listening and taking notes; by being involved in experiential activities; by seeing models, diagrams, and graphs; or by taking part in lively discussions? Do you attribute your successes to your hard work and tenacity, or to luck and fate? We all have preferences in learning and thinking styles, and some of these preferences are cultural. For example, what games can be used to best contrast the United States and Russia? The games that best represents the thinking style of the United States is poker, while that of Russia is chess. These two games represent very different styles of problem solving and thinking. Such different approaches may show up on your staff.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in problem solving has to do with the perception of human control. The dominant business culture professes a "fix-it" approach to problems, one that assumes that we have the power to control our world. Problems are seen as obstacles to be overcome, and success in doing so depends on our actions. Progress and change are often seen as ends in themselves. In most of the rest of the world, the view is different. Problems are viewed as situations to which one must adapt and the changes required by problem solving are seen as a threat to order and harmony. In addition, fate and luck play a great part in determining the outcome of ventures. Cause-and-effect relationships are less emphasised in this kind of thinking.

Anglo cultures also have a preference for logical analysis, while other cultures may bring more intuition and holistic thinking to a problem. Another difference is in learning style. Teaching and learning are generally much more didactic, formal, and one-way, from teacher to student. There is also more dependence on written information. Therefore, staff from other cultures might feel lost in typical training seminars that emphasise experiential activities and role playing, which require the learner to draw conclusions. Participants may also want copies of all information presented by a facilitator-trainer.

++ Suggestions for managers

- Explain cause-and-effect relationships when getting staff members involved in problem solving.

- Ask staff members what they suggest be done about the problems and complaints they express.

- Use non-linear problem-solving methods such as brainstorming that capitalise on lateral thinking and intuition rather than logical analysis.

- Ask troubleshooting questions such as "What would happen if...?", in order to get staff to think about possible consequences.

#8 Work habits and practices

'The devil makes work for idle hands' exemplifies the Protestant work ethic, a cornerstone of Anglo societies .In this view, work is seen as more than a means to survival. It is a divine calling, a 'vocation'. In today's vernacular, we talk about satisfaction, finding one's magnificent obsession, and creating a career that brings joy, esteem, and achievement. Work is not always held in such high regard in other cultures. In fact, it may be seen as a necessary evil. The type of work one does may also be seen as a sign of status. In this culture, take distinctions between blue-collar and white-collar work, manual labour and professional work. In many cultures, such working with one's hands has lower status than doing professional work. This may explain why workers balk at certain jobs or prefer one kind of work over another.

An area critical to understanding if you are trying to get motivation and commitment from staff is the reward structure. What an employee considers rewarding is in the eye of the beholder, and that eye is cultural. A promotion to management might be considered a reward to one individual and a punishment to another; a bonus for a job well

Done might feel like a pat on the back to one employee and an insult to another. Paying attention to what individuals consider rewarding is important in any work group, but in a diverse group it may be more difficult to figure out. If you know that an employee has family responsibilities outside of work, allowing a more flexible schedule with staggered hours might be more of a motivator than a promotion would be.

Taking initiative and being self-directed are other work habits not universally taught. In many cultures, workers are not expected to exercise independent judgement, make decisions, or initiate tasks without being directed to do so. When you notice employees waiting for direction, do not immediately assume these employees are unmotivated or lazy. They may be waiting for you to exercise your leadership role.

++ Suggestions for managers

- Get to know your employees and find out what place work plays in their lives. Find out what gives them satisfaction on the job.

- Be sensitive to employees' perceptions about the status of certain kinds of work.

- Explain the reasons for each assignment and its importance in the bigger scheme of things.

- Talk to employees and find out what is rewarding to them.

- Understand that taking initiative and making independent decisions may be difficult for some employees. Take time to coach them in this direction.

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


C: +27 (0)82 416 7712

T: +27 (0)10 035 4185 (Office)

F: +27 (0)86 689 7862

Website: www.workinfo.com
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