I’m BIG on birthdays, I believe wholeheartedly in celebrating mine and I always make a fuss of other people on their birthdays. Unfortunately – for me, anyway – not everyone shares my enthusiasm and this often leads to me feeling a little disappointed.
So, is this my problem – or theirs? Clearly, the old saying about accepting what you cannot change applies here and yet…I want them to change, not just so that I am made to feel more special on my Special Day but because I fundamentally believe that they are missing out, that birthdays really should be celebrated and that – frankly – my way is better.
You may be starting to get an inkling of how this birthday stuff is connected to culture, as we often go through much the same thought process when we start working with people from a different cultural background to ourselves. We hopefully will receive some cultural training to prepare us, but usually that alone can only start to persuade us that ‘their way’ could ever be just as good as ‘our way’. We can often come to appreciate and respect their way, but sometimes we are never persuaded, never won over, we just get better at dealing with it and perhaps at hiding our disappointment and frustration.
Cultural training can really help, however, in two specific ways:
- Firstly, by encouraging self-awareness, people understand what drives them and makes them feel engaged. They think about how they would like to be managed, what they need to be motivated, made to feel part of the team, rewarded and so on. They start to think about what it would be like for them not to have these prompts and hopefully also start to think about what it would be like for their new colleagues not to receive their ‘prompts’.
- Secondly, if they then learn how things are done elsewhere and that their version of ‘normal’ is not ubiquitous, they are far less likely to take it personally when things happen differently. They go into the job with more realistic expectations and far better equipped to both manage others and to be managed themselves.
Cultural differences impact us on a daily basis
There are of course many, many cultural differences and some will have a far greater impact than others. Below however are just a few matters of more personal ‘office etiquette’ which are handled very differently in different cultures and have the capacity to be taken very much to heart. Differences in sales techniques, relationship building and negotiation styles require a blog of their own!
- Giving Praise. In the USA, praise and public recognition is sought after – being Employee of the Month is literally a badge of honour and a boss who doesn’t demonstrate their appreciation may struggle to motivate their team. In the Philippines, however, people don’t want to be Employee of the Month, as this sets them apart from their colleagues and potentially causes jealousy and division. (Pakikisama is a Tagalog word which means ‘maintaining smooth relations’ and in a country where this is so important that they have a special word for it, you don’t want to be the one who disrupts the harmony). In France it is different again; praise is rarely offered by French managers, who see it as simply what is to be expected of someone who is being paid to do a good job.
- Breaking Bread. If you come from France, Italy, China, Japan, India and many other countries, you are almost certainly someone who has always enjoyed what you see as a ‘proper’ lunch break – away from your desk, in the company of colleagues who are also friends and not talking about work issues. Eating a sandwich at your desk while continuing to read your emails, as many Britons, Australians and Americans do, does not seem like a lunch break at all but more like an in-flight refuel and it denies newcomers the opportunity to get to know their colleagues in a more holistic way. While it might not seem that critical, it is often one of a number of issues which when added together can ‘break the camel’s back’. This very issue was cited recently in an article about cultural tensions between France and Australia.
- Accessibility. As a manager, is your door always open? In some cultures, the manager may not even have a door, but instead is hot-desking it with the rest of the team. In many African and South-East Asian countries, however, this would not suit at all, as big desks and huge offices give a clear indicator that this person is VERY IMPORTANT and they are not open to a spontaneous “have you got 5 minutes to talk about X?”. In Japan, it is uncommon for anyone except another senior manager to even share an elevator with the CEO, so imagine the confusion for a young Japanese intern posted to Australia, when the CEO not only gets in the lift with her but asks her which footy team she supports. The degree of accessibility expected also impacts information sharing and inclusivity – if you are used to being told the whole picture, it is both frustrating and perhaps humiliating to suddenly find that information is only given on a ‘need to know’ basis.
- Making the Right Impression. The success of Terri Morrison’s series of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands? books gives an indication of how confusing etiquette can be. It’s not just the greetings that differ, it’s the exchange of cards, the form of address, the amount of eye contact, the importance of a gift and the standing distance too. In my own book, Cultural Chemistry, I talk about all the things that can go wrong in the first five minutes and can make it difficult to make the great impression you hoped for. In Brazil, for example, standing close to someone and clasping their arm from time to time indicates your emotional involvement – but would scare many Korean people away! And Andy Molinsky in his terrific book Global Dexterity tells a story of a Russian man failing a job interview in the USA because he was completely unable to participate in the exchange of smiles and small talk which the American interviewer expected. For some people it’s very easy to be ‘too friendly’ – many senior German and French clients of mine have initially been insulted by Australians at all levels addressing them by their first name – and for others, being too deferential can convey a lack of confidence and a lack of interest.
Clearly, it’s a minefield, but at least there is some guidance to help you to navigate your way through it. And like my birthday was for me, with its pleasant surprises (messages from people I was very surprised to hear from) and its disappointments (underwhelming response from people I expected to sing and dance), anyone venturing into new cultural encounters will experience both highs and lows. The secret to keeping positive is not just to do your research, but to focus on what you ‘won’ and what you got right – but to remember what you got wrong, so you don’t do it again!
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