Some people are better than others in terms of adjusting to cultural differences. That doesn’t mean that these other people can’t learn how to adjust. But what often happens is that people are simply unaware of their weakness in this regard, or that they have reached a point in their lives in which they unconsciously believe that their culture is superior to others.
We have to keep in mind that only 3.2% percent of the world’s population live in countries other than their home country, as this report by the Atlantic states. And, as the famous quote goes, we don’t know who discovered water, but we do know it wasn’t a fish. So, these people who have never lived in a different cultural environment before, are less likely to be aware of their own cultural habits, not to speak of the cultural habits of people from other countries. Unless they have been growing up in a very multicultural environment.
We can not expect others to adapt to our culture, so it is our duty to adapt to theirs
Despite that, especially if we want to build a team that is characterized by diversity, we should do our best to communicate our own culture to those around us. This is certainly not an easy task, but it is possible. So let’s look at some strategies of how we can help others to understand our own culture. To do so, we’ll look at some theories by Lee Lefever, who has written the book “The Art of Explanation“. His ideas may not be directly related to intercultural communication, as they are mainly developed to explain products, services, and ideas, but I believe that some aspects of what he proposes also can help us in our understanding of communicating our culture to others.
One of his core messages is that “explanations answer the question “why?””. First of all, let’s put that into perspective. When we try to explain other what our culture looks like, we tend to focus on behaviours. For example, someone from the United Arab Emirates might say “when we greet each other, we shake hands, and keep the handshake for quite a long time”. Even that explanation is probably more than we would usually get. Yes, handshakes in the United Arab Emirates might take far longer than Western people are comfortable with. It often seems endless. So the more likely answer would probably be: “when we meet each other, we shake hands”. And with that, we would assume it to be same like what we are used to in the west.
But back to the point. We have told the other person what greeting behaviour in the Emirates looks like. If we then don’t explain to them why its done this way, why they are shaking hands so much longer than us, then at best they think “oh okay”, and at worst they think “mhh… that’s weird”. What’s really important is why we are behaving the way we behave – what the values are behind that behaviour. I this case, for instance, you could say that people from the Emirates strongly value relationships, and that a long handshake is a sign of developing trust.
Similarly, Germans have very structured meetings and are go from one discussion point to another, because they value time and efficiency, while people in Indonesia spend a lot of time having small talk during meetings, because they value building relationships more than they value efficiency.
To explain the ‘why’, we still need to give the other person enough context
The fact that Indonesians don’t value efficiency as much as the Germans doesn’t mean that they don’t value efficiency at all. Likewise, of course Germans also value relationships. Its just that different cultures place different priority levels on each value. So what we do need to do is to place the behaviour, and the corresponding value, into the right context. We need to create something we both can agree on. For example, when a German complains to meet that meetings in Indonesia are so inefficient, because people don’t directly address the problem, because people go round and round until they finally talk about the real problem, what do I say?
Yes, the Germans are right. Meetings in that way are indeed less ‘efficient’. But that completely misses the point here. Because both parties value something different, they are comparing apples to bananas. A question to ask here could be: ‘do we agree that maintaining positive relationships is important’? Of course, the answer to that question is a yes. Nobody hates relationships.
To continue, you can say: ‘People in Indonesia value harmony in relationships more than people in Germany. If they would address a problem directly, this would mean that someone would need to take the blame for that problem and therefore lose face. I agree with you that this way decisions may take longer. But since at the end there is a consensus about how to solve the problem, nobody feels alienated, and nobody will sabotage the outcome. Therefore, in the end, something is also won by applying the longer process’.
With that, you have provided the other person with a context which explains why it is important for Indonesians not to bluntly state all the problems during meetings, but to use more indirect ways. In this way, to communicate your own culture to others becomes much easier, and more effective.