A German, Lebanese and Nederlandse walk into a bar…

Nathalie (Dutch, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in the UK) sends an email to Ronald (German, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in New Zealand) and Charles (Lebanese, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in Beirut) about a cross cultural issue. All three are academics at local universities.

Nathalie, London 09/10/2010

A cross cultural issue:

We teach our classes in London, Hong Kong and Dubai. These are partner campuses, in the sense that when students obtain their degree it says ‘British University’ without an indication at what location. We have always been instructed that English standards apply. In practice this means that content and assignments need to be of equivalent level (although do not necessarily need to be the same).

Today we were told that Dubai students complained that they had to do an assignment that involved the analysis of the performance of companies that produce alcohol. They felt that this was insensitive to their cultural norm.

It was suggested that we adjust the content to local needs.

I have huge reservations. First, it’s analysis of a company, I am not making them drink the stuff. Secondly, the university’s aim is to expand world-wide. We now have campuses in Mauritius, China, India, Dubai, Sri Lanka etc etc. Adjusting content and assignments to each culture is just not feasible.

Some people have argued that we teach from a Western-centric perspective. We expect students to be independent learners, who are critical thinkers, which for some other cultures may be challenging. As a UK university, are we selling a UK product or is the university a multinational that should adjust it’s product to local needs?

What do you think?

Ronald, New Zealand 09/10/2010

hahaha this is too funny. sorry, but those complaints i can’t quite take seriously.

if people are too ideologically narrow to care about stuff like that, just change the name of the product. maybe make it landmines or deep sea oil drilling machinery or male underwear something like that :p is this a serious complaint or just somebody trying to act important?

Nathalie, London 10/09/2010

A serious complaint, presented today by the Dubai representative (English national), who urged all module leaders to change the content to Dubai norms.

Ronald, New Zealand 09/10/2010

i leave it to charles to reply to that.

what happened to good old educational standards, first practiced and perfected in those areas that seem to have some problems with content these days (according to this complaint).

i guess the university needs money, so you should change all your course content now. immediately.

Charles, Beirut 10/09/2010

🙂

Well, I’d probably side with the Dubai request on this one. The issue is not really about alcohol for me, but about teaching effectiveness…

The inclusion of Alcohol in the example becomes a distraction from the actual exercise as students are focusing on this “forbidden” or “unfamilar”

object rather than on the point of the exercise. This is not about critical thinking. What if the exercise was turned to “the company that publishes Mein Kempf wants to increase its sales, blab la” sent to UK or German students. it will irk some people and distract from the main purpose of the exercise. In my personal opinion, exercises need to use examples that are meaningful and recognisable by students for them to be most effective. No point giving camel trading examples to British students, or referring to superior Japanese efficiency to Chinese participants. 

However, we would have a problem if Dubai authorities request removing “sexism” or homophobic discrimination from the curriculum, or decides that some psychological concepts are inappropriate. Then we are dealing with actual content.

That’s my two cent worth of thoughts.

Ronald, New Zealand 10/09/2010

i still believe that the alc example is hypocritical though. i have not been to dubai, but i have been told that you can buy alc and many men appear to drink. so it is a superficial political reaction rather than a sacred value type kind of problem. i am sceptical about religiously motivated requests, but i understand that it might deeply offend and motivate certain groups of people. but at the end of the day, deeply religious people are often quite tolerant and these issues are used for political purposes.

my one cent.

Nathalie, London 10/09/2010

I thought about this some more and sent email last night via iPhone: On 2nd thoughts, if even working on a case on alcohol represents an acknowledgement of something abominable hence it is a problem (like a case on pedophilia discussed as a norm) then this may make sense.

I do not agree, however, with Charles’ comment that we cannot agree with homophobic issues. If by law homosexuality is not allowed, I don’t see the difference between that and alcohol, which is also forbidden by law. Thus, if it concerned a legal case of Smith vs Kramer, where Kramer was the defendant and it was related to dismissal of work due to sexuality and Dubai would complain about that… then isn’t that the same argument?

What this highlights is that our Western minds are rarely exposed to situations where we have to write about something we find disgusting (e.g., a case study of the success of a company that makes utensils for female clitoral removal). Hence, we jump through the political correctness hoop and LEARNED that issues related to alcohol are problematic, however, we do not truly understand the sentiment, we cannot empathise. I certainly didn’t, and felt that Dubai should get over it.

I understand now. It conjures up all sorts of questions. It makes me realise that the gap between cultures is magnificently huge and that debates about land, etc may be more rational but debates about these norms and values are emotional and difficult to comprehend. If people are not willing to explore, research to try to understand (and instead do the PC thing or the f*** off thing) then we’re not getting anywhere really.

My two pennies.

Charles, Beirut 13/09/2010

Feels like a conversation … : )

The example of alcohol is not similar to homosexuality, even if they seem to have a  common denominator in “laws and regulations”.

Consuming alcohol or not has no implication towards discrimination, and is a matter of choice (to drink or not to drink). This is not the case in homosexuality or gender or race. These you are born into, and all humans are equal in the eyes of Allah 🙂 (ergo the theological argument).

So, if the retrograde government of one country or the other would like to enforce homophobic legislation, it doesn’t mean we have to bend to it. I live in a country that supposedly considers homosexuality illegal, yet I talk about it openly in class even if some ears do not like to hear what I say. This is not the same as preferences and choices (e.g. to ban CFC aerosol or not :)).

Nathalie, London 13/09/2010:

I see your point. But then this too is up for debate because you say one is born into homosexuality, whereas others may argue it isn’t. It then comes back to opinion and my opinion is that, I am not asking the student to drink the stuff, I am asking him/her to evaluate a Cross Cultural Case study on a beer company. If anything, the international MBA student should’ve highlighted the cultural issues related to this product (and get an ‘A’!).

After note: The case study was changed to a different kind of assignment before this discussion happened. This particular case study on teaching a controversial product will now be used in the introductory lecture at Under Graduate and Post Graduate level as it can be apply to the context of marketing (a controversial product), advertising, shipping, producing etc. To me, this example has highlighted the complexity of cross cultural management. When a conflict occurs, the challenge is to empathise truly, i.e., understand the beliefs and emotions. This then doesn’t mean that something has to change perse. That depends on ultimately what is deemed to be in the benefit of the organisation/individuals involved.

Continue Reading

“I tolerate you”

Tolerance is a much used, socially desirable value across the Western world. It sounds attractive because it reflects values such as the ability to live side-by-side those who are different and to restrain oneself. Yet, tolerance as a value can be interpreted in different ways, and possibly therefore it is so attractive for a political usage.

For example, unlike with the American melting pot, the Dutch did not require immigrants to integrate or assimilate. They were merely tolerated as a different community. Yet, tolerance indicates a power relationship, with those who tolerate as the more powerful. For example, to say that ‘I will tolerate you’ at a personal level reflects this power difference clearly. Yet, it seems acceptable rhetoric at the national level, even if the meaning is the same and is not, as also commonly thought, a concept of inclusivity.

In fact, Wemyss (2006: 215) argues that tolerance is not a positive national aspiration as it is in fact ‘the conditional withholding of force by those at the top of a ‘hierarchy of belongingÂ’. Secondly, tolerance indicates acceptance and benevolence for the greater good, which, over the years, has become synonymized with a social and liberal political view. Therefore, using the word ‘toleranceÂ’ is indicative of an implied power relation as much as it supports the idea of a multicultural society.

Proponents of pluralism, like the enlightened Gentili, assume that the nature of human beings is as such that they can (be taught to) live side by side without caring what the other thinks, or who they worship. Pluralism, then, is a possibility provided that people acknowledge and suppress their urge to invade, segregate, and dominate. It requires a shift from an individualistic approach to politics to come towards an ethical, inclusive form of governing, as argued by Amin (2010):

 

One reason for a turn to a politics of ethics – the desire to link moral and political

philosophy – is the belief that rationalism, utilitarianism, consumerism and individualism have diminished the role of ethics in social organization and human interaction, and that credos such as liberalism, socialism, religious society and nationalism have legitimated harm, including ethical harm, towards those believed to be on the outside (Appiah, 2006; Parekh, 2000).

 

In the UK, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion published the ‘Our Shared Future’ report, which indicated that there was a sense of shared values across the individuals and communities consulted.  In an independent report advising the commission, Buofino and Thompson (2007: 15) argued that ‘good mental health, satisfying and secure work, a secure and loving private life, freedom, moral values and a secure community were found to be the main factors affecting happiness’. The Commission concluded that their expectation that communities clash in terms of values was not found to be true but warned that ‘if the discrimination experienced by some groups within our society continues, we will not be able to achieve the goals we set out in this report for building integration and cohesion’ (Commission on Integration and Cohesion, 2007: 27).

In the Netherlands, the report called ‘The Drama of Multiculturalism’ (Scheffer, 2000) shook the establishment on its foundations. The author argued that multiculturalism had failed and that, due to the pillarization ethos and because Dutch society is void of strong nationalism, immigrants were not required to integrate. This left them confused in terms of their identity as SIT and SCT would have predicted. Furthermore, Scheffer (2000) argues that for multiculturalism to work, the Dutch should not eschew conflict in order to come to a resolution. He concludes[i] (translated from Dutch):

 

We have had an exceptional time, when a relaxed and wealthy society let go of the reigns. The illusion of invulnerability was strong and it seemed as if freedom and forbearance stabilised autonomously. Those years are over. At the moment, citizens obtain less justice security, social protection and cultural acknowledgement from the State. Now that the cornerstones of our contented nation are moving, many turn against the government that constantly relativises itself. The political upper-layer, who used to possess a clear civilization mission, now doubts itself and loses more and more grip on the societal reality.

 

Then one can understand the refusal by the cabinet and parliament to face the, for everybody visible and often high-lighted, problems surrounding ethnic minorities in the Netherlands. A parliamentary study in to the immigration and integration policies is necessary, because now whole generations are signed off under the veil of tolerance. The current policy of generous admission and limited integration enlarges the inequality en contributes to a sense of estrangement in society. Tolerance moans under the weight of outstanding maintenance. The multicultural drama that unfolds then is the largest threat to societal peace.

 

 Instead of taking heed of Scheffer’s words, by voting for the PVV, the Dutch elected for a full immigration ban on people from Moslim countries, a tax on Moslim women wearing a veil and for The Netherlands to leave the EU if Turkey joins. Wilders’ PVV party and other similar parties in Europe reject multiculturalism because they are unwilling to be tolerant even. Statistics generated by so called voting indicator software that advises the public on a representative party of their viewpoints based on questions show that PVV’s program is popular; It is argued that they represent what people think but feel they cannot say (Kanne & de Beer, 2009).

It is the management of the complexity of the modern personÂ’s sense of belonging and security within conflict situations that requires further study. Identity negotiation between layers of identity by definition leads to conflict. The current negotiation between the higher order national identity (American, Dutch, European), and smaller subcultures (e.g. Muslim, gender, or gay subcultures) is a case in point. Additionally to negotiating oneÂ’s own identity, people are required to interact with others with often very different values. This diversity in experience and background can be a platform for success (van Ameijde, Nelson, Billsberry & van Meurs, 2008) but it may also cause misunderstandings (van Meurs, 2003; van Meurs & Spencer-Oatey, 2007). We have to acknowledge this challenge: the human fear of uncertainty vs. the human capacity for compassion.



[i] We hebben een uitzonderlijke tijd achter ons, waarin een zeer ontspannen en welvarende samenleving de teugels heeft laten vieren. De illusie van onkwetsbaarheid was sterk en het leek alsof de vrijheid en verdraagzaamheid zich als vanzelf bestendigden. Die jaren zijn voorbij. Burgers ontlenen momenteel minder rechtszekerheid, sociale bescherming en culturele bevestiging aan de staat. Nu deze hoekstenen van onze tevreden natie zijn gaan schuiven, keren velen zich af van een overheid die zichzelf voortdurend relativeert. De politieke bovenlaag die vroeger over een duidelijke beschavingsmissie beschikte, twijfelt aan zichzelf en verliest meer en meer zijn greep op de maatschappelijke werkelijkheid.

Zo kan men de weigering begrijpen van kabinet en parlement voor iedereen zichtbare en vaak gesignaleerde problemen rondom etnische minderheden in Nederland onder ogen te zien. Een parlementair onderzoek naar het immigratie- en integratiebeleid is nodig, want nu worden hele generaties onder het mom van tolerantie afgeschreven. Het huidige beleid van ruime toelating en beperkte integratie vergroot de ongelijkheid en draagt bij tot een gevoel van vervreemding in de samenleving. De tolerantie kreunt onder de last van achterstallig onderhoud. Het multiculturele drama dat zich voltrekt is dan ook de grootste bedreiging voor de maatschappelijke vrede (Scheffer, 2000)

 

Continue Reading

On a blogroll

With Stephan, colleague and friend from Middlesex University, I had a conversation about blogs – how to advertise them (via Twitter, apparently) and how to manage them. I sometimes wonder if I am writing to a non-existent audience in an ocean of fellow bloggers but no readers. Stephan’s blog is specifically professional, whereas a blog from another friend, Patricia, is decidedly more personal, although she too writes about her professional life. Obviously, the two types of blog have very different functions and therefore audiences.

One blog I like is ICCI Blog, mainly because it’s the cognitive bit of culture that ruffles cross-culturalists. I strongly believe that many academics live in silos, where they only preach to the converted and refuse to consider alternative hypotheses. So, it’s good to read an opposing view once in a while. Just like I sometimes expose myself to Fox News or the Daily Mail. 🙂 For this reason I read Ann Coulter’s blog too some years ago (Did Philip Pullman call the ice mother in His Dark Materials ‘Mrs Coulter’ on purpose??)

I have two more blogs listed among my many bookmarks. I checked – one is a feminist blog, which I should read and the other is a political blog, which looks interesting although I am currently unsure why I bookmarked it specifically.

I like blogs because, unlike Wikipedia or news sites, I like to read behind the ‘facts’ and learn what is going on in people’s heads when they write. Second, I encourage students to think critically but also to be reflective so to become aware of any bias that they may have – blogs also allow for the space to do this. Coming to think of it, it may be a good type of assessment that is different from standard essays or case studies. Similarly, should blogs be considered an academic output? We’d need them to be peer reviewed. Academics, prepare to be thwarted by tweets in the future.

Continue Reading

Hup Holland Hup!

It’s the World Cup final and I am very excited because Holland (or Netherlands as they’re now referred to in this tournament) are playing!

From my living room in London, I followed all the games and when they won from Brazil the buzz really started. I wasn’t the only one – the media, the players, the people of the Netherlands had overcome a threshold that Friday – Holland won from Brazil. The Dutch are not known for their national pride (which in fact has been mentioned as a problem for integration – why join the majority if they don’t care themselves?). Anyway, after the game, Holland suddenly felt a million miles away. Although I am usually not that bothered about being an immigrant in the UK (noticed that for the Middle Classes this is called ‘being an expat’), that evening I needed to drink a biertje and sing in my native language. So my boyfriend and I took the tube to the Dutch bar De Hems. There, very tall people clad in orange were dancing ‘De Polonaise’ and I stood on the periphery.

I am unsure why this surprised me – it is not necessary to feel of mixed identity through socialisation (as opposed to being biologically of mixed heritage). Yet, if you’d ask me on any day, I am full Dutch but integrated into English society. To the point that when I travel back to The Netherlands, I experience a little culture shock each time.I feel 60% Dutch, 40%English.

But when Holland won from Uruguay and Germany lost against Spain, I found myself trailing the internet for flights to the Netherlands. Suddenly, my identity became 100% Dutch again. I could read via the internet that the Dutch media was all about orange and the Dutch boys in South Africa and I heard from my family that the streets were being painted orange back home. Was this a once in a lifetime opportunity? Should I be standing there among1000s of fellow Dutch on a square in Amsterdam and watch the game on a big screen? I checked the usual expat sites and saw that I wasn’t alone – posts on Facebook and forums indicated that other Dutch people in the UK (with British partners) had found themselves sitting on the couch alone and wanted to know where they could watch the next game. A certain fever got hold of me. Donning an orange t-shirt I went to work and phoned my father – what’s the plan?

What I didn’t know was that my brilliant friends here in the UK had planned to come over on Sunday to watch the game with me, after my boyfriend sent them a text saying I had felt very homesick. So, from Oxford, Buckinghamshire, Slough and London they will come, including one Colombian friend, who will be supporting Spain. This morning, as I was putting up the orange garlands, I realised that I am home away from home and that I’d rather sit in my living room with 10 good friends from all over the world watching what will be a very exciting game than standing among 1000s strangers who happen to be Dutch too. Our sense of identity and belonging is a complex thing – now where’s my orange vuvuzela?

World Cup 2010

Continue Reading

Why do sheep swing?

The results are out – the Dutch elections took place last week and the VVD (right wing, liberal) won by a small margin. Second is PvdA (socialists), third… PVV (nationalistic, anti Islam). I voted none of the above and am now wondering how the parties are going to put their coalition together. According to the votes, the Dutch want a right wing government: VVD, PVV and ? (CDA – Christian Democrats – declined).

As a Cross Cultural Psychologist, I am interested in several questions. First, according to the polls, PVV would not win seats with such a margin. So why did the Dutch defy the predictors and vote for Geert Wilders’ party?

Secondly, in Belgium for the first time in 180 years a party (N-VA) that wants to split Belgium into two (Flanders en Wallonia) has become the most popular. Although this party is not like PVV in terms of the anti-Islam policies,  one Dutch broadsheet is now wondering if it’s intellectually acceptable to vote nationalistic (NRC http://weblogs.nrc.nl/expertdiscussies/zijn-nationalistische-partijen-salonfahig-geworden/)

Some may argue that the smaller countries are fed up with people coming in, unsettling an established culture in a country that has been occupied by foreign entities in the past and thus likely to be allergic to those who impose their views that deviate from the ‘tolerant’ norm. Hence, is there a need for the basics as per Maslow’s pyramid, to be satisfied? Lock the doors,  send a strong message to the established parties that Joe and Jane Bloggs want to be heard and sort out nationalistic interests? Interesting, but the Dutch are not known for their nationalism. At the most the Dutch would don their orange and support ‘Holland’ during the football (2-0 against Denmark, since you asked).

However, while I was in the Netherlands in April, I was intrigued to view a tv documentary on the BNP that exaggerated the support for this party among Britons. The media in the Netherlands was telling the Dutch that the British would vote BNP. They didn’t, but was this media hype enough for the Dutch to think, I’ll vote PVV since everybody else is too and I am fed up with the current politically correct climate? Certainly, things aren’t so simplistic, but my point is… why this swing? Why did the Dutch and now the Belgians vote nationalistic? Why follow each other like sheep but why did the British abstain from voting for the BNP?

I’m digging around the World Value Survey data to find out. Me thinks its something to do with pragmatic pluralism…

Continue Reading

No (wo)man is an island: Discussing self serving bias on Saaremaa.

The title of this blog isn’t even a metaphor. For a consultancy project I travelled to Tallinn in Estonia, where we boarded a bus to travel a further 4 hours to an island off the coast called Saaremaa. The 2-day session of the Virtex project (http://www.aeht.eu/en/european-projects/virtex) brought together educators from Estonia, Turkey, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Spain and the UK. As an outsider, I observed their discussions on how to best assess students on their abilities in the hotel and tourism industry. It was interesting to watch videos that showed off the students’ language abilities and the ways that they interacted with their guests. It made me remember that people in their late teens/early twenties have guts – some move to another country without knowing much about the customs or language, having to organise a place to stay, a bank account, etc.

I talked about this project on this blog back in March and it’s interesting to be able to reflect back on the session now. The topic of cultural differences elicits mixed reactions – people either firmly believe in globalisation (i.e., we’re pretty much the same and differences cause little concern) or they believe that there are cultural differences and they do cause concern sometimes. My aim was to provide the teachers with materials that can be used to help the students understand the ‘why’ of cultural differences before they start their internship. Facts can be obtained from the CIA website (www.cia.gov) and do’s and don’ts are also available on websites such as wikipedia. Mind, websites like these are not without bias. As is proven by the brilliant uncyclopedia (http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Estonia)

As a consultant, it is important to select your materials carefully as illustrative videos depicting differences can generate a debate on the reality of the cultural prototypes that are displayed, rather than have a fruitful discussion on the ‘why’ behind these differences. Also, I don’t think it’s in the interest to show a student a video on the do’s and don’ts of the country they’re about to visit – prototypes quickly become stereotypes. Secondly, none of these materials are relevant if the student isn’t aware that he/she isn’t neutral and that the first step may be to consider how others perceive them as visitors/guests/employees.

I was reading Jeanne Brett’s Negotiating Globally during my time away. Interestingly, she mentions that international negotiators forget to consider their opponent’s BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and focus only on their own needs and perceptions. The message is clear: we humans suffer from a self-serving bias. It’s probably innate. And, by Brett’s account, even happens to Harvard educated MBA students. Education may make students aware of this bias, however, so I hope that the training I developed may help some of the students of the VIRTEX project to feel a little bit more confident when they’re abroad.

My time on the island and in Tallinn was invigorating, by the way. All the members of the team that I met were kind and, rightfully so, very proud of their students and curriculum. Estonia’s Nordic calm, boundless nature and stoic friendliness was a welcome change from busy London. As a Dutch person I felt strangely at home…

Continue Reading

Yes, but no, but…

I met Kerstin, consultant for GPiPartner (www.gpipartner.com) at South Kensington station and we walked to the V&A museum to have lunch in the beautiful piazza and talk about cultural differences, identity and globalisation. It is always good to talk to someone who shares the same interests. Time flies, your brain goes a 100 mph and, I apologise to Kerstin, so many thoughts and ideas come up we hopped from topic to topic. One of the main questions that silenced me for a moment is the challenge for those of us who are direct in their communication to interact with those who are indirect.

Kerstin told me that her clients sometimes struggle when, due to globalization, a team in, for example, the UK needs to work together with a team in, for example, India or China because the latter colleagues may say ‘yes’ to a timetable or a way of executing a  project but mean ‘no’ or ‘maybe’. It is the one issue I’ve heard about when I speak to people about their work, whether it’s those in my network who work for large companies like IBM or Barclays, or those who are training a small team when they’re sent overseas as an expat. I agreed that we face the same challenge in education when we teach students from countries like China, Vietnam, India, etc.

Hall called it high context vs low context, Kim called it conversational constraints, Ting-Toomey and Gudykunst called it ‘positive and negative face’. Although these concepts give the problem a name, the solution is not that straight forward. Now, Kerstin’s example may be because the Indian team wants to maintain harmony (Kim), save face (Ting-Toomey) or come from a culture that is high context (Hall). The problem is, what do you do as a team manager from a (business) culture that does not work that way?

It left me wondering if people from high context cultures who prefer communicating indirectly view those who communicate directly? Is it easy for them? Do they view the other as rude and obnoxious? Then, I pondered how two indirect/high context/save facing teams work together. Have they learned to be more perceptive of others’ body language? Do they know what questions to ask? We agreed that it’s key to ask the right questions. If you’re someone who likes direct communication, don’t ask ‘Can you do this project?’ but instead ask ‘How will you do this project?’. Don’t ask ‘Will it be finished by X deadline?’ but ask ‘When will you finish the project?’.

Furthermore, as I mentioned before in my blog, be aware that your not working from a neutral perspective. Being direct does not equate ‘being right’. Having some cultural self awareness is a key skill for any global manager.This includes remembering the historical relations between the countries where your teams/business is located. For example is there a colonial history? Then be careful about being informal too soon, as a director for a UK company shared with me. When he said ‘come on boys, let’s get started’ to his Indian colleagues he was curtly informed that this familiarity was not appreciated. Having this kind of insight can be priceless for any organisation going global.

Continue Reading

Being a misfit at work or within the community: The importance of belonging

Managers are usually well educated (university of life included). For this reason, they have strong ideas about what works and how they should manage effectively. What often clouds our judgement is having the time and space. Despite our years of experience, we sometimes have the inability to take a moment and think why the other is so ‘difficultÂ’, ‘stupidÂ’, or ‘unableÂ’. We assume everybody does ‘organisational professionalism’ and speaks ‘business English’…

It takes two to tango. When we interact, we are dealing with someone else who may perceive the situation differently. Therefore, weÂ’re dealing with a (mis)match. You may find that in books, workshops and other media different terms are used for disagreements in perception: e.g, (non) allignment of practices, value (in)congruence, person-organisation (mis)fit, harmony/dissonance in cross-cultural interfaces.

 (Mis)Fit

When we asked people to talk to us about their perception of their ‘fit’ with the organisation, it generated
several domains: Work-Life Balance, People (team, supervisor), Organisation (mission, values, reputation), Employment (conditions, personal development), Job (nature, own skills and achievements) (Billsberry et al., 2006). In several workshops, when I repeated the exercise, some people realised there and then that they were a misfit according to their own assessment of how they fitted in (or not) (van Meurs, 2007). The exercise identifies areas for development or a need for change.

          An American approach to fitting in is known as ‘Person-Environment Fit’ or ‘Person-Organizational Fit’. Researchers looked at the average ratings of work values by people within the organisation and compared that to the ratings by another set of people or, for recruitment purposes, one individual. Sometimes they fit, which is considered desirable, sometimes they don’t, which is indicitive of a bad recruit. This has caused some controversy, and I believe that such measurements and results may be helpful for research but should be discussed on a one-to-one basis in real life. In fact, any psychometric test, especially those assessing personality traits, should be used as a diagnostic tool only. Differences can be a wealth that should not be underestimated, as creative stagnation may occur if only clones are recruited.

               That said, fitting in and our sense of belonging are important within organisations but
also within society. ‘Us vs. Them’ talk is powerful because we are social animals and it makes us happy to belong to a group made up of people who think similarly to us. Yet, this is deemed as politically incorrect and we are told we should be someone who can live and work peacefully within a community that is diverse. In a discussion about mixed neighbourhoods, an executive told me that he used to live in a diverse neighbourhood that was friendly and cooperative, ergo, arguing that people from different backgrounds can get on with others different from themselves. This is a nice example, because it is likely that, despite the differences in national and ethnic backgrounds, the people in this community were like-minded about how to create a good community, which became the core feature of their common identity.

It doesnÂ’t matter where you came from, but it does matter where you think youÂ’re going and that, together, you have this common goal in mind. Teams within Google and other modern companies are made up of people from different backgrounds, however their common cosmopolitan identity is highlighted, which gives them a sense of belonging and advances GoogleÂ’s success. It may be unreasonable to expect people to supress a core human trait such as wanting to belong to a group similar to ourselves. It may be time to drop the political correctness manuals and be mindful that, with good communication, education and training, diverse communities and work teams can establish a common goal without denying anyone membership based on their cultural or biological background. This way, diversity enriches but the acceptance of it is not enforced.

Continue Reading

Saying sorry

Saying sorry is closely related to identity (image) management. It also so happens to have been a theme in my personal and working life this week, hence the blog entry.

In the course of my work related to cross-cultural differences and conflict management, I’ve been particularly interested in perception. My PhD thesis evaluated not only how managers perceived their own conflict management strategies, but also those of the other party. On average, they’d evaluate themselves as problem solving and the other as more dominating (out to win). Obviously, if both parties feel this way, there’s a dissonance in the interpretation of a situation. There are a few key questions that have kept me occupied throughout the years since my PhD research. If there’s a conflict,  whose interpretation of the situation is correct? And if you didn’t intend to upset the other but he/she obviously is, then should you apologise for your actions or for the fact that they’re upset? Moreover, if you find you’re constantly apologising, what does this imply about the relationship?

At a global level, there are many historical conflicts for which a government may choose to apologise, sometimes decades later. The case in point is Russia’s apology this week for Katyn’s mass murder of 20,000 Polish officials, including generals, teachers, diplomats and artists.  Although Russian leaders have acknowledged the issue, an official face to face ‘sorry’ had not taken place. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8606126.stm

On the other hand, the media has covered the Catholic church’s response to the child abuse scandal. Although many Catholic priests and officials apologised for what has happened, Pope Benedict XVI ignored the issue in his Easter Day address. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article7087269.ece Such a tactic has been employed by other leaders too, who refuse to acknowledge mistakes, perhaps viewing it as a sign of weakness or perhaps because they’re ashamed.  Or it could be a move to manage one’s image by covering up for mistakes and then denying or ignoring them when these mistakes have become public.

On a personal level, we may have encountered the situation that someone made a mistake and then, in the aftermath, regrets talking about it. ‘I should’ve not said anything’ could be the response to the hurting party’s anger about a confession. That reaction is a bit like a teenager who admits to crashing his mum’s car and then thinks that next time they’ll just shut up instead of owning up when they get berated. The act of telling becomes the issue, not the actual offence. Or, they’ll stare at the floor, mumble a “yeah, I’m sorry, whatever”, which leaves mum feel unheard and disrespected.

As adults, we’re supposed to know how to manage guilt and deal with apologies.  Some of this is cultural,  for example, in Britain saying sorry is the norm, even for acts that are not your fault. Walk along a British high street and if you bump into a Brit, they’ll likely say sorry. Question is whether the act of saying sorry then becomes meaningless. As a society, we take remorse very seriously: criminals guilty of the same offence may get different punishments depending on the level of regret shown. Much of being able to apologise is personal. It’s indicative of a level of (emotional) intelligence because you are able to acknowledge the other’s upset, even if you a) didn’t intend to upset them or b) don’t quite understand why they’re upset.

Both point A and B are important. As a Dutch person, in my communications I can be very direct, for which I’ve learned to apologise if I see the signs in the other person’s face (usually raised eyebrows and a wry smile). Sometimes though, I tire of this and feel I just can’t get it right. Ironically, when I travel back to Holland I can be quite perturbed about people’s rudeness! It seems that when and to what extent we’re offended or hurt is thus socialised and changes over time.

In terms of learning to manage apologies, the apologiser needs to be ‘forgiven’ and this can be as simple as a ‘thanks, that means a lot’. A hurt party must be wary of playing the victim role continuously and sometimes ‘needs to get over it’ to get things moving along. If you find yourself constantly apologising for yourself, would you consider leaving that relationship if changing it is not possible?

Perhaps this is a controversial viewpoint, but this can also apply at a cultural level. If there’s not a ‘fit’ between your ways and the ways of the group, would you consider leaving if no compromise can be established? I’ve been observing the dynamics between groups of people with differing values and norms – such as strict religion vs secular humanism. On a personal level, I’m intrigued why one would choose to live in a community that does not represent one’s values. I’ve travelled to many places and also lived in a few and in some I feel at home and in others I don’t. I am quite happy to adjust to the ways of a place when I visit it (my friend C and I were appalled at the insensitivity of some European visitors in Zanzibar, seemingly completely unaware that a cropped tank top, bare feet and mini skirt was inappropriate in a restaurant). But if I choose (again, being able to choose is the operative word here) to make a place my home, harmony would be important. Van Vianen and colleagues found that expats adjusted better in terms of interaction when they have Self Transcendent values (universalism and benevolence), which, according to the theory, is in direct opposition to Self Enhancement (power and achievement).

The power of an apology, when sincere, can be tremendous, even after decades after the offence.  Saying sorry is not indicative of a weakness, moreover, it shows maturity, intelligence and character. However,  those on the receiving end of a sincere apology should accept it graciously and express that it makes them feel respected/heard/acknowledged. Finally, if you find that being apologetic has become (part of) your identity, and the other is not acknowledging this passive power trip, would you say it may be time to move on?

Continue Reading

Baseline, benchmark, bottleneck: Why cultural self-awareness is crucial.

I just had a chat with a Dutch teacher to discuss the materials that I will present to a team of European teachers at a workshop for the Virtex4all project in Estonia in June 2010. The aim is to give them some ideas that they can pass on to their students about cultural differences. During the briefing conversation, she mentioned that it’s not so much about a list of do’s and don’ts but about awareness of cultural differences.  I agree but think it’s more than that. It’s about awareness of our own culture and identity and understanding that we use these (subjective) norms to evaluate a situation and decide what to do next

 

how often does someone look up the ‘why’ of their own way of doing things before they travel for business or pleasure?

Being aware of your culture is key to understanding the other 

 

Cultural self awareness sounds psychological, which may put some people off. This is unfortunate, because even basic business, sales, good management and governance is all about psychology. Social psychology deals with the behaviour of people in social situations. By default, management (be it in business, governmental, non-governmental sector) concerns dealing with people; i.e., social situations. It pays to know your psychology.

As much as weÂ’d like to view ourselves as superior intelligent beings, we are only human and with that come certain behavioural and cognitive traits. For example, we learn how to do certain things (like eating with knife and fork) and take that with us on journeys. We may learn to eat different things in different ways, but, on average, we have a preference to which we stick. I once asked my Chinese students how they eat (with chopsticks) and what they eat (Chinese food). To the question ‘Do you eat European food?Â’, the answer was ‘yes, but with chopsticksÂ’. It had not occurred to me that the tool is separate from the substance. It’s a nice example that indicates that our reality is seen through cultural lenses that are part of our identity, but with which we also evaluate someone else.

 

Continue Reading