Culture clash


Unless you’ve been living in a cave lately, you’re probably experiencing considerable anxiety about the economic condition of the United States. This emotion is immediately followed by further panic when recruiters or employers are asking you to “go global” to make yourself more marketable. That’s if you still have a job.

How and when is all this supposed to happen? Is this a form of outsourcing? I mean, it’s not like you’re ever really going to live or work outside the United States, right? So, why should going global concern you?

It’s Official: Wake Up and Smell the Outsourcing
With the stunning realization that America’s financial crisis is the world’s crisis, the biggest misstep an American woman can make, is to think that fluttering of her entrepreneurial wings does not affect the rest of the world. Or the reverse, that what is happening around the world, doesn’t affect your business. Today, when one country sneezes, very often we all catch a cold.

The other mistake is to not have a passport and think that it’s unlikely that you’ll ever have to work, travel, or live in another country. According to the State Department, although the number of passports issued to Americans has risen, because of post 9/11 homeland security measures, to the tune of about 74 million in 2008, most Americans still view them as just another form of identification.

No Culture Is Foreign, It’s Just Different.
But there is a great deal of fear that comes with going global and things “foreign”. How can you deal with it? One way is to reframe the issue of what is “foreign”. How you frame, or name, what you speak about, determines how to think about it. If you change the semantics, you change your perceptions. With a “clear lens” cultures become less foreign and more familiar. You can also readjust how you think about your place on the earth. You’re part of the global village. You breathe the same air as 4 billion fellow inhabitants. You are not separate from them. In any way. No matter who you are or where you live. Calcutta. Copenhagen. Cincinnati. All. The. Same. Therefore, you, as an American business woman, are a part of the global community. The term international doesn’t refer to those people “over there”. Reframing the way you refer to your place in the world will help you get more comfortable in it. For many Americans, who are like coming of age adolescents, it’s time to get down to business if we are to compete up in the 21st Century global economy.

Multicultural Manners: Handle With Care
As women business owners, the statistically fastest growing sector of the economy, it is incumbent upon us to look ahead to the all the trends that affect our businesses and embrace them with education and an awareness into multicultural manners, in order to do great global business. Because even if you don’t speak another language, as you will find many other people around the world do, it’s wise to know the soft skills that will make your professional, hard skills sing if you are involved in:

  • Intercultural Business: In a position to manufacture your scarves in China? You’re going to need to pull guanxi (pronounced gwan-SHEE) or make the right connections before you begin the deal
  • Diverse Teams or Intra-Office: Is the new team member on your design project, from India, but you don’t know why he seems unenthused about your concept. Maybe it’s because he is waiting for his boss to tell you.
  • ExPat: Have you been assigned to work for an upper management ExPat (Ex-Patriot) who’s just returned from a two-year stint in Prague, but can’t understand his moodiness?
  • Relocation: Is your finance background an asset to a firm in Portugal? Do you find yourself upending your life to work there for a year, but unable to cope with the preparations?

These are just a few of the typical examples that require cross cultural professionals to help you do global business, better.

What Makes Them Tick
Of course it’s important to know how to handle ourselves in another culture, but what’s more important, is how we’re being perceived by the other culture. And which behavior on our part will make a good impression. The following chart is actually applicable to many other cultures, with a few tweaks here and there.

Understanding the cognitive behavior — how people process information, or what makes them tick — is the key to giving your business dealings traction, and therefore revenue. Here are some key personality traits that delineate between Western and Eastern national character.

After setting my cultural compass, one way to continue to bridge the cultural gap is to focus on making personal connections, when the time is right. It’s not just these national values one should learn, but also our shared personal interests that can create deeper, more harmonious relationships. After the foundational elements are addressed – whether to kiss, bow or shake hands – you can progress to a more sophisticated level of communication with the help of topic starters. A positive “point of entry” to socialize, conduct business, and create personal relationships.

I find that point of entry through film. You may find it through food, music, or some other conversation starter other than the usual off limits topics like religion and politics. But it’s usually a popular cultural topic that will “speak” to you. Before I travel, I relish in conducting pre-travel homework by starting with a trip to Barnes & Noble. Combing the stacks to find that travel perfect guidebook. Some are linear; others are more contextual. I prefer the contextual ones like the Insight Guides and the Rough Guide because I can understand the story of a culture through literature and film, which gives me a human interest story to relate to. And then of course, there is nothing like researching on the web. Cultural Detective has some really good tools called the Values Lens that have dozens of country specific guides. But no matter where in the world you come from, it’s good to know where you’re going and how to act once you get there, because a little local knowledge goes a long way.



At the same time, the more unaware we are about where our cultural GPS is positioned, the greater the likelihood that we may expect everyone else to be just like us. Failure on the part of someone else to be like us leads one to conclude that something's wrong with those Arabs, or those Americans or those French. Then, we complain: why can't they be like us? Or why can't they just do it my way and by my rules? When the other guy doesn't play the game "my way" we might say, "you're either with us, or against us" and the unintended consequence is likely to be mutual, puzzled frustration, misunderstandings, if not outright anger between people and countries that often leads to war -- in short, a failure of cross-cultural understanding.

Take for example the life or death situation I faced in the American hospital when my father was gravely ill. When it came to dealing with my father in that context, I knew what was expected of me and how to act. Or so I thought. In fact, the way I was about to handle his wishes according to my role with all the rights and responsibilities I believed I knew, were wrong, especially in the context of an American hospital. I was not taught that in death we assign sacred roles and responsibilities to strangers with whom we have not built trusted relationships. As a Pakistani, I do not have an advocate at the hospital bed in a life or death situation. It is understood that I am that person. We don't have to go through the patient privacy issues with children or parents.

I learned that when it comes to health in the American context, Americans defer either to the spouse or an outside expert, like an attorney. In fact, Americans often turn to outsiders for help like talking to therapists regarding for personal problems; lawyer to settle their disputes. This is a reflection of two more dimensions of culture at work beneath the iceberg: American Individualism versus Collectivist (about 80 percent of the rest of the world, including mine) and Transactional (deal-based) culture (US) as opposed to mine which is Relationship orientated.

Do we think about who will call the shots about a gravely ill parent if we are not a native? I never thought I didn't understand the cultural laws of my adopted home (America). I did very well in building my career and by adopting the Western mindset and life style. And however much I am a product of both the Eastern and Western mindsets, when it came to a life and death situation that involved my Dad, my Pakistani mindset kicked in and, to my surprise, American laws circled right around me to his legal next of kin, which is considered his wife, even if she's not his first wife or his children's mother.

Although I successfully brought my Dad home from Yemen in good health to Washington D.C., the authority I had "over there," did not apply "over here" in America. I couldn't advocate for my Dad's health without his prior written consent to appoint me. This time, as he was headed for major surgery, Dad and I both realized that according to American law, his (second) wife was considered his legal guardian and next of kin, with complete authority to make decisions, not me. 
My father opted for an arranged marriage after my mother passed away in 1995. According to Pakistani custom and Islamic laws, this second wife has rights but they do not exclude existing children from their rights. Now she was in complete charge of my father's health which made me feel culturally, emotionally and psychologically, powerless.

Conscious Competence

The cultural insecurity I felt, coupled with the shift in my role about my Dad's health care, made for a situation that was ripe for misunderstanding. I realized that not only was cross-cultural training an absolute necessity, but that even if we think we have some degree of intercultural competence, we can't know all that we do not know.

Even if we are aware of how to culturally "style switch" and to "relate, regulate, and reason" synergistically, with the adopted culture, our psycho-social-emotional IQ must also be "fit." Together they form a holistic approach for handling situations. (We get the word "manner" from the Latin word for hand or "mano.")

My Dad died in September 2012. This was the most poignant moment of culture shock for me because even though I have lived in America for 25 years, I was shocked to learn that I was powerless to make decisions that may have yielded a different outcome for my Dad. He may or may not have lived. I cannot bear to think what may have been. This reflection is not about the laws or customs of one culture being better than another. My Dad may have not lived no matter which country he was hospitalized in. That's something any child would have to deal with. We all do the best we can.

But I can't help but wonder, as I look back on across my landscape of loss, could this tough cultural lesson have been easier? Perhaps, if I was more aware of the unseen dimensions of our humanity at work, like culture, personality, and emotion things might have turned out differently. Maybe not, but I do see now, with the gift of hindsight, how each one profoundly influences behavior in ways I could hardly imagine.

It's an understatement to suggest cross-cultural training become a requisite to immigration -- anywhere, not just in the USA. With this knowledge base for immigrants and expats, no matter where in the world they intend on living they can embracing the full power and magnitude of their influence on our behavior, and navigate the tricky roads that lay ahead, such as the implications of what is custom versus law. Perhaps we can "re-engage more directly in a new democratic bargain as opposed to being trapped by systems that are too big to control," as former Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou suggested in his recent TED Talk at the 2013 Global Summit.