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What is meant by cross cultural differences?
Let's start by defining what we mean by the term cross cultural differences, simply put when individuals from more than one cultures meet, then the assumptions and the presumptions that they have in relation to their own and the other's culture's, can be termed as their cultural differences. The people from same culture are usually guided by the same set of values, beliefs and customs.
When we hear the term cross cultural differences, we usually think of the differences across regions, for e.g. the Americans, Europeans, Asians or maybe across the countries, for e.g. Indians, Chinese, French, Italians etc. But these may extend even to the different regions across the country, different religions & even castes; I feel that it also extends to the different sections of the society.
It is a most recognized fact that a foreign language plays a great role in intercultural communication. However, this is misleading as people tend to assume that mastering a foreign language is adequate to communicate with foreigners. In my opinion, it is also necessary to learn certain skills such as the non verbal communications, in order to solve cultural differences, if one is going to communicate with people of another culture because a culture encompasses not only the language but has its own set of values, beliefs and customs.
Over the years the study of the cultures and their differences has been an interesting and intriguing topic for many but in the past decade, due to the globalization and dropping of the trade barriers, it has become even more critical and essential for all to learn about the cultural differences and some basics in managing them; as in today's environment one may have to interact with other cultures at a very short notice and without any formal preparation.
Awareness of Cultural Differences
I personally became aware, at an early age, of the fact that there are some differences between me and my friends, which later I came to know, were labeled under the cultural differences. The first indication was the variations in the festivals that were celebrated and the way they were celebrated, across the different families within our communities. Another was the variations in the food and the eating habits of my friends and families.
These were some of the early sign that taught me that even though me and my friends go to the same school, study, play together still there were some differences in certain aspects, between us, which actually we really enjoyed and looked forward to, especially the different type of foods.
Looking back I realize that one thing about cultural differences is that they become more prevalent as we grow, especially when we are in our teens and our friend circle grows and we come in contact with more diverse cultures and personalities.
Another point that comes to mind was the dilemma on how to differentiate as to whether a certain individual's behavior is due to his personal trait or due to his cultural background. If I recall correctly and as per my observations, when I was in my teens and also during the college days, it didn't matter as to which culture an individual belonged to, what mattered the most was whether I was able to relate to them; or feel comfortable with and above all be able to trust them; And those people usually became my close buddies and confidants, irrespective of their individual cultures. Although one thing I realized during my college days is that each cultural experience that we have also has an individual element to it. Two people from the same culture may have different responses to the same situation; thus I try never to categorize the individual as per their culture.
Cultural Experiences & Learning
The real learning in the cultures, especially at an international level usually starts when one begins their professional careers, as was the case with me. During my early days I had several experiences that made me aware of the fact that I had a long way to go and lots of things to learn on the cultural aspect. Some of the interesting incidents from my professional journey are listed below:
I have had this experience in several forms and varying degrees. And I am sure most of the people might have experienced this in some form. As for me, if I nod my head up or down that would mean a confirmation and if I nod it sideways, that implies no, but I learned that is not the case with everybody. During one of my presentations in a project meeting, I noticed a colleague moving his head sideways on number of occasions. During the question and answer session, I directly asked him, if there was anything he didn't agree with and to my surprise, he replied in negative and went on to add couple of point in support of my presentation.
Another lesson in the cultural differences was brought upon me in rather a nasty way during one of our regular team meetings with our US counterparts. During the discussion at one point the person on the other side said "Ya, Sure". There was a slight pause between the words "Ya" and "Sure". For me, it meant that the person was in agreement, but in reality it was not the case and our experienced project manager, immediately went in to dig deeper. And we found that there were some apprehensions related to the project delivery dates. So, basically, the term "Ya, Sure" from my US counterpart, was not a confirmation but more of question or disagreement hidden in sarcasm.
In one instance, we were to work on a big Japanese onsite project and were given a 6 month Japanese Language course, which also included the cultural differences. One thing that stood out was the handshakes. For me, firm handshakes were a universal phenomenon, but I learned that even here, there is a slight variation, for e.g. in the Japanese society, the handshakes are gentler and people usually bow. And in case of ladies, it is the lady who offers her hand first. I also learned that Japanese were one of the most polite people around; this was in sharp contrast to the culture I come from.
During this time we were also working on another Japanese offshore project, where we used to coordinate daily with our Japanese counterparts. One incident was an eye opener in terms of the emphasis provided to the work, especially a challenge, in the Japanese culture. We were to have an onsite demo to the client and we asked one of our Japanese counterparts help to set up the hardware and the software for the demo, which was schedule after a week. And for this we were coordinating with him till 9PM; then we all decided to go home and continue the next day. Next day when we came in we were surprised to see an email communication at 5AM from the Japanese counterpart informing us of the completion of the setup and moreover he was being apologetic that it took him more time then he had earlier estimated!!! For him it was a challenge and the fact that it took him longer than expected, he wanted to complete the task above anything else, even though he spent nearly 20 hours in office even though there was no urgency to do so.
Before the Japanese project could come, I had to go on an assignment to Canada and it is here that I learned quite a few lessons in the cross cultural differences:
One thing I immediately noticed within the first few days was the difference in the way the people travelled in the trains and buses; everybody was busy in their own world, either busy reading something, playing on the electronic gadgets or just keeping their eyes closed, or some just staring blankly, oblivious to everything around them. And if by any chance you managed to get an eye contact, then there would usually be a quick smile and the person would quickly look away. This was in sharp contrast to that in India, where people usually tend to strike conversation with those sitting around them or usually you would see people sitting in groups, chatting or playing cards.
Another thing I observed where we varied by a degree (some would like to put this as a similarity) was the time factor. In Canada, usually if somebody said 5 pm, then it would mean anywhere between 4:50 pm to 5:15 pm. But for Indians usually 5 pm would mean (in best case scenario) 5:30 pm - 5:45 pm! Actually, personally I prided myself to be always on time. I always took some buffer; whenever I was to meet or visit somebody, I would usually be a bit early. But the times have changed and I have also changed. Now before deciding on the time, I usually consider the behavior/personality of the person, and the occasion; as I have now learned that it is not always prudent to be on time. This point also highlights the fact that the cultural differences are not always constant and they keep evolving.
In India, showing affection in public by kissing on the lips and hugging tightly is not considered appropriate, but in Canada, this was a common sight.
Another aspect of it became evident to me in rather a hilarious way. I had a friend who had migrated to Canada few years back and we hadn't met for a long time. One weekend we decided to meet at a public place and like we usually do in India, especially among friends we gave other a hug and were talking to each other, without realizing that we were still holding handsâ€¦.My friend suddenly realized this and let go of the hand. Although I didn't get the significance of it immediately, but later we had a good laugh over the drinks, as he explained that he had noticed several passerby's giving us the funny looks, as in Canada there is another meaning if the guys are holding hands.
Another thing I noticed was the eye contact, usually in Indian culture, we don't look directly in the eyes, especially to our seniors and elders; it is seen as a sign of disrespect (maybe not now, but in the good old days). But in Canada if you don't look in the eye of your senior, then that might imply that either you are hiding something or not sure of what you are talking about. Fortunately, I had the technical data to back up my response, and was able to manage the situation. But even here there is a slight variation, in Canada if you are out in the streets, especially in the back alleys and had the misfortune of being surrounded by one of the street gangs and while responding you happen to look directly in their eyes, you are in troubleâ€¦.big trouble. One of my Indian colleagues had a broken nose to show for it. So could this mean that this it is not only the culture but something else involved here? Could this be due to the certain do's and don'ts of the environment you are in, i.e. something that is considered appropriate in one environment might be completely inappropriate in the other.
One example to this effect where a certain thing is acceptable in one culture but prohibited in the other is the Bull fighting, which is very popular in Spain and consists of public viewing of the killing of a bull. This act, however, is forbidden in India, where a bull is considered to be holy and any act of harming the bull is punishable by law. There are several other similar examples, if we look at the Arab nations. Without judging these differences on their merit, we should be tolerant and understanding towards these differences.
Another aspect, about which my friend had forewarned, was the conversation topics; I was not to ask any personal questions to my Canadian colleagues, unless they were the one's who initiate the subject and to just keep the conversation around sports and weather. This tip came in quite handy, as it helped me in breaking the ice while interacting with my Canadian colleagues, as they didn't consider me to be meddlesome or interfering in their personal life. This actually helped me in being invited out for social outings with my Canadian colleagues. This was in variation to the Indian culture, where people generally tend to ask personal questions to their colleagues and friends. Asking questions such "Are you married" or "How many kids you have" are not considered rude or invasion of privacy.
Later on, in my career I moved to Singapore and here also I was able to learn more on the cultural aspects. My team members consisted of people from varied cultures and countries and it took me sometime to grasp some of the differences that existed. One such instance was that during the team meeting some of the people were always quite and didn't speak up much; my initial reasoning was that maybe they are by nature reserved, and need more time to open up; also as the team was relatively new. But whenever I used to address them directly for their comments and responses, they always had their inputs; and their responses were relevant and to the point. I realized that maybe it's due to their cultural background where they usually don't put in their opinions, especially to their seniors, unless asked. It took some time but eventually we were able to form a team culture, where everybody was able to freely express their views.
Another cultural aspect was the degree and the way people look at certain things. Some people would feel very offended if you don't agree to their view point. Although I felt that this was more of a personal trait, I found that Asians usually tend to go in this direction in comparison to the Europeans or the North Americans. Another aspect was the weight age that Americans tend to give to their opinions, in comparison to the Asians; Americans tend to be more verbose and confrontational even if they are aware that what they say maybe incorrect, while Asians usually tend to do the opposite.
I also learnt that there is also variations in the way the people from different cultures look at the team event; Europeans tend to look at it as a drinking event, usually self paid; some Asians tend to look at it as a sponsored lunch / dinner or a drinking session. We have worked at making a team event as a partly sponsored sports event followed by drinking session. Alcohol is a great integrator of the cultures!!!
One question that was asked of me repeatedly and quite often in Singapore, was on the topic of arranged marriages in the Indian culture. People from other cultures were unable to grasp the concept of arranged marriages and were eager to learn more about it. And I have had several long discussions on this topic.
Navigating the Cultural Differences
Given above are some of the examples that I took out from my life; there were also several other incidents some good, some not so good but all these encounters acted as a learning experience. Based on my experience, these are the basic points that I usually try to keep in mind so as to be able to successfully address the cultural gaps:
Never assume anything. One of my professors told me to always remember this "ass-u-me", by assuming we make an "ass" of "u" and "me".
Always be prepared. Try to do background research on the cultures you will be interacting with.
In case of uncertainty, it is always better to ask. No question is stupid.
Listen to the other person, we usually hear but don't really understand the feeling behind what is being stated.
We need to observe the other person closely for the non verbal communication.
We should try to have constant dialogue with the individual to be able to understand his behavior, values and assumptions.
Never try to defend our position but be tolerant of the others and be ready to ask for forgiveness. But this should be done in a way so as to not to belittle our own culture and also not being disrespectful to the other cultures.
We might have had our experiences with the different cultures, some good, some not so good. We need to make sure that we never take those impressions with us for the new cultural interactions. Take each interaction as new without any prejudices or expectations.
We need to always keep in mind that each person is an individual and should not be labeled as per his culture. It helps to know certain traits of a culture such as the customs, traditions, beliefs, but behavioral aspects and values may vary.
Have a positive attitude.
It is always easier said than done and that is also the case with the points listed above. It takes time and practice. I try to learn from each cultural encounter and if possible find ways to improve.
One of the incidents in Singapore provided an insight into the fact that today people are more aware about the other cultures and also find ways to relate to them.
One of my Chinese friend who was an avid fan of Indian movies, especially of Amitabh Bachchan, Indian superstar, invited few of her friends for a viewing of one of his movies "Black", at her home and I was invited so as to be able to translate, in case the English translation was not clear to her friends! This is an emotional movie and at the end there were quite a few red eyes. It was very heartening to see people trying to accept other cultures. As for me, I have also watched several Chinese and Korean movies and liked them.
I have listed down some of the cultural encounters that I had and the related problems and how I navigated around them. I was fortunate to have had people guiding me along the way, so as to not to commit any major faux pas. With their help and guidance and also based on my observations I was able to navigate the issues around the cultural gaps. As already stated earlier, I believe that the major issues around the cultural gaps are due to the assumptions that we form for a particular culture and If we are able to keep these assumptions out of the way, then most of the cultural differences would vanish.
In today's world nobody can deny the importance of being aware of the cultural differences and the ability to be able to navigate through them. Especially in a company like Credit Suisse, multicultural teams are a norm, where we interact with people from varied cultures on a day to day basis. In such an environment it helps to be aware of the cultural differences both in the verbal and the non verbal communications. As mentioned above eye contacts, facial expressions, gestures may vary from culture to culture.
I believe that the one universal non verbal communication, which transcends all cultures, and understood by all, is the smile. This facial expression suggests friendliness, kindness and good will; and is always welcomed and accepted by all cultures.
I would like to end with the statement that I have had the opportunity to learn from several cultural encounters and I believe that the cultural conflicts can be avoided as long as people learn to understand and respect each culture, if we are aware of the differences and ready to accept different ideas, we will not have problem in communicating with people of different cultures. This is a continuous learning, as the cultures themselves are also evolving.