Friday, September 16, 2005

Cross-Cultural Skills

We spent the entire day in a Cross-Cultural Skills for Business class. It was fantastic.

First of all, our instructor has lived in India, Nepal, and Asia. She was born and raise in Los Angeles, California.

One of the first questions she asked the group was:

"How would you answer this statement: I believe I can live anywhere because I am honest and my intentions are good."

Rate it: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree.

Then she gave her experience of causing a riot in a train station in India.

She administered some first aid to an old man. She was well-intended and sincere. However, the entire station focused on her and what she was doing. It started a fight between two men, then women, then a mob.

The problem? She didn't have the culture knowledge that would have helped her. A six foot five man came up to her and said: "You should not have done that."

One of the key issues is that there are overt culture indicators we can observe by glancing, clothes and language are examples. Then there are semi-covert culture indicators that we observe by looking deeper, by living in the culture we discover deeper reasons for behavior. Finally, the covert culture, the culture you don't and may never understand or see is, in fact, the real motivator of people.

In the train station riot in India, she didn't realize that the man she was trying to help was from a lower cast. She couldn't tell.

Then she focused on the four dimensions of culture.

Rules vs. Relationships

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Hierarchical vs. Egalitarian

Monochronic vs. Polychronic Time

The most frustrating situation is when you are at opposite ends of the spectrum from your teammate/workmate.

The important thing is to assume that there are differences and then look for similarities. Fact is, there will be differences when working with someone from a different culture. Most of the reasons why they do things can't be readily seen. They are often at the "covert culture" layer.

She gave the illustration of sitting on the beach, looking out over the ocean. You may be able to observe some things from your location but if you really want to see the ocean, you have to put on your snorkeling gear. So you jump in and observe fish you've never seen. This is the semi-covert layer. Of course, putting on scuba gear (thus staying longer) will let you go to even deeper levels. At those levels there are big scary things there. At this deepest level is where you really understand what motivates people. Understanding this layer is very difficult unless you speak the language and you've lived in the culture for years.

Before we left for the day we had one last assignment. We had to write something we learned that day in a single sentence that contains only eight, and only eight, words.

One team came up with a Yoda-type lesson: "At the scary fish layer true culture is."

The absurd man is he who never changes. -Auguste Barthelemy (French writer, 1796-1867)