Calling strangers in riding gear in the Western US “cowboys”, refusing food in China, letting out the warm water from the bathtub of my Japanese host family – After having lived and worked in diverse countries from the West (USA) to the East (Japan and Hong Kong) I have put my foot into it many times – and very often didn’t even realize it until another person, mainly a knowledgeable Westerner, told me that my behavior was highly inappropriate.
What I learned the hard way was that being interested, open-minded and curious towards other cultures does not necessarily mean that one can act and communicate in a culturally adequate way. On the contrary, such self-perception can even lead to the assumption that “just being yourself” is enough in a foreign environment and can hinder cultural development and learning.
Imagine this scenario: A Swiss company wants to establish business in China. They initiate meetings and set up a project structure that monitors implementation. As there is no concrete opposition, the Swiss delegation assumes that the Chinese agree with the goals and milestones. Soon, however, deadlines are neglected and actions not implemented. The Swiss managers start to become pushier and pushier towards producing results, leading to even more contempt by the Chinese. Eventually the project has to be terminated due to “inadequate behavior by the counter-party”, as both sides declare.
What went wrong?
For me, Bennett & Bennett (2004) provide with their Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity a sound and practical orientation. They differentiate between ethnocentric stages, where people experience their own culture as central to reality, and ethnorelative stages, where their own culture is seen in the context of others. Learning is taking place on different levels and is not always linear. This can also mean that a person in a private context, e.g. when living with somebody from another culture, can be in a stage of ethnorelativity, while jobwise, often oblivious to it, being in an ethnocentric stage at the same time.
If we look at our above scenario, there was some behavior and mindset involved that might have been critical for the failure of the project. Having the viewpoint that “In a project everyone wants the same eventually, and that is to reach the set goal” or even “To get along well is all fine, but efficient project management needs clear structures and adherence to the rules, not just this touch-me-feel-me stuff” is displaying an absence of intercultural sensitivity which very often is not even known to the person – or worse, not even reflected after business relations are discontinued.
To be able to grow in the process of understanding, valuing and integrating diverse views, it doesn’t go without taking many turns, loops and mastering drawbacks – but the price of experiencing cultural versatility, richness and understanding of others is worth it.
Bennett, Janet M, Bennett, Milton J (2004) Developing Intercultural Sensitivity. In: Landis, D., Bennett, J., & Bennett, M. (2004). Handbook of intercultural training. 3rd Edition. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, S. 147-165.
Stefanie Neumann is lecturer and consultant at the IAP Institute of Applied Psychology in Zurich. After 5 years in business development for Asia and ten years in leadership development for a global financial firm she applies her industry knowledge and leadership experience to work with leaders on their intercultural skills. She is also in the lead of a training program on Intercultural Competence for Leaders which is offered in English and German.