Overcoming Cultural Blindness

In his book “The Korean Way in Business“, Boye Lafayette De Mente describes the Korean concept of wiom, which literally translated means “dignity”. According to him, wiom is “a type of stylized behaviour that included keeping emotions under control, maintaining an outward calm that concealed thoughts and protected “face”, using the correct form of speech to whomever was being addressed, bowing and conforming to other types of body languages dictated by the circumstances”.

Although I neither have much experience with the Korean, nor with the Latin American culture, I can imagine very vividly what problems Latin American expatriates are facing in the Korean cultural environment. Being one of the most emotionally expressive and warm cultures, people from Latin American cultures are very likely to frequently hurt the behavioural codes of wiom.

Based on my understanding, arguments are accompanied by very strong emotional expressions among Latin Americans, which is commonly accepted behaviour in their culture. In Korea, however, this would be the equivalent of not having any dignity whatsoever, and therefore lose both the Korean partner as well as the Latin American expatriate to loose face.

For Koreans, who place a very high value on “keeping emotions under control” such behaviour is likely to be perceived as aggressive and immature.

This scenario is a good example for what is commonly referred to as “cultural blindness”. Since we are only familiar with what is within the limits of our own experience, we judge all behaviour of foreigners based on the standards of our own culture.

If we fall into the trap of our own cultural blindness, we inevitably fail to see the positive intentions behind the people from another cultural environment and consequently dismiss it as morally unacceptable. While every human being is susceptible to this trap, local people who have no experience in terms of living abroad are more likely to do so compared to those who have a stronger awareness that different cultures can have completely different perceptions of the world.

Since local people are within their own cultural environment and since they are not exposed to cultural differences on a regular basis, you as the expatriate are the one responsible for ensuring that cultural misunderstandings like the one described above do not destroy the relationship between the two of you. In order to do so, there are two important steps you have to take:

1. You have to put yourself into his or her perspective and adapt your behaviour accordingly

This doesn’t mean that you have to completely assimilate into the different cultural environment. However, it does mean that you understand the basic assumptions and philosophies of the locals. If you are moving to Korea for instance, this means that you have a thorough understanding of the concept of wiom, and that you are acting in ways that do not violate these principles of dignity.

In the end, this will require you to determine under which circumstances it would be appropriate for you to display the emotional expressiveness which comes so natural to you. While I must admit that I do not understand either culture strongly enough to give any real tips in that regard, I suspect that the in Korea typical informal gatherings with colleagues after work hours in which it is common to drink and go to karaoke bars might be a much more suitable environment to express your emotional self.

2. You have to seek clarification actively

Essentially, here too it should be the responsibility of both parties to seek clarification for potential misunderstandings. However, since we are not able to control the behaviour of those around us, again I believe that it is our own personal responsibility to seek clarification if we believe that any misunderstandings might have occurred.

There are two different situations in which seeking clarification becomes necessary. The first is that somebody acts in ways that makes you feel uncomfortable and which seems inappropriate based on the standards of your own culture (your own cultural blindness).

The other occurs when you suspect that your behaviour might be judged by somebody from a different cultural environment as inappropriate (his or her cultural blindness).

Under either circumstances, it is of crucial importance to start engaging in a process of active listening. What are his or her values or beliefs that are hurt by your behaviour? Why is he or she acting this particular way? In which ways are the two standards based on which you are judging the world different? How do both of you have to change your behaviour to make both parties feel comfortable with the situation?

In one of my previous posts I have written about Dharma – or the responsibilities of each individual. Every human being in this world has different responsibilities or duties based on his or her own unique situation. When it comes to expatriates, however, I believe that it is always their responsibility to take action order to avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Have you taken responsibility and made sure that cultural blindness doesn’t destroy your relationships?

Tim

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