Country Cultural Stereotypes – Are they out of date?

Bipolar or 3D?

Here is a thought provoking post to kick of the ITC year. If you are prone to strong emotions – you will enjoy this article as there is something for everybody to react to…

I am still surprised to see intercultural diagrams showing bipolar dimensions populated with country flags. The historical starting point for this was the pioneering work at IBM carried out by Dr. Geert Hofstede. His premise was that countries were a valid and useful unit of comparative culture and that, further more, over time they have produced unique conditions that, in turn, shape country cultures. Additionally we were told that country culture is, mostly, a constant and unchanging phenomenon.

collage of people on the phone

Technology is changing culture.

BEFORE

The thoughts and filters of scientists and engineers are subconsciously influenced by their environment. Certainly various conditions present in the 1960’s helped to support early interculture theory.

When viewed from the present day, populations 50 or 60 years ago were relatively sedentary. Air transport was prohibitively expensive and not available to all, the Iron Curtain was in place, China was closed and the technology did not exist to promote affordable multicultural exchange or the viable existence of remote and virtual teams. There were many fewer transnational corporations and, most importantly of all, social ranking represented the status quo and this norm was not questioned or challenged as much as it is today – more on that later.

NOW – while there are many aspects of modern life that disgust us – perpetual war, wealth inequality and massive social injustice, there also exist things that represent forces for liberation and progress. A byproduct of these positive changes is that we can enjoy a more holistic view of culture.

Borders – A hundred year’s ago this May, French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and Brit, Sir Mark Sykes secretly settled the political areas of influence in Asia Minor drawing up a new map favouring government expedience and over cultural sensitivity. This document demonstrated the awesome power wielded by posh white men. The resulting map was to have profound consequences for the Middle East. The effects of its creation continue to be felt today.

Travel – The availability of travel is exemplified by my children. They can match their age with the number of countries visited – It is taken as something like a human right to move and experience geographic contrast. Cheap airlines, airbnb and cash machines facilitate the massive modern movement of people. 2004 and 2014 had profound effects on the movement of people seeking employment within the EU countries.

Technology – virtual videoconference equipment, Skype and Facetime are shrinking the world and giving us access to more experience – instantly. A trivial example happened this Christmas – we had a Facetime call and saw into a German home – with candles lit on the Christmas tree. We even joined in singing. We did not have to leave London to experience this.

Awareness and diversity – the secret and overt revolution that is moving culture training away from sophisticated country stereotypes to something more nuanced and layered centres on diversity. Via education and experience we are moving from acceptance of social rank, to question and investigate both privilege and marginality. We are looking for answers. Pioneering work in this field has enabled a mindful generation to form and own their identity based on more than 70 aspects of diversity thus moving beyond country of origin. In some cases this represents a journey from oppression to deeper community membership. Dogged communication exposing the mechanism and social cost of the old colonial system and historical country power structures is now moving the bar for many, formerly excluded people.

Social media – put simply, the democratic forces of the web can transcend the historic barriers of class, education, wealth or gender oppression. The absence of a dominant country passport is no longer fatal. More are allowed participate via the virtual, connected world.

Group of friends having fun together outdoors

What is possible now?

The FUTURE

So, in the last 60 years we have moved from a rigid white Anglo Saxon Protestant male authored power model with its world of self drawn maps and fixed countries to a richer and multifaceted reality where each individual’s net privilege and marginality combine with other connections and relationships to give access to virtual communities, education and economic possibilities. On offer is membership of something shared and beyond being from a winning or losing country.

The shift from dimensions to a world of 3 dimensions makes bipolar scales look a little dusty, like a museum exhibit.

 

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“Are you for REAL?” Language as a window to our soul – Matthew Hill

bubble of communicationLast month marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Iron Curtain. This year I found myself in many training rooms with people whose parents were most affected by these changes.

A common legacy from those times is an abundance of negative language, even from the mouths of employees in dynamic global companies. I thought it pertinent to revisit negative language and ask, “What’s really going on?”

  1. Stress test

From my time in the Czech Republic a generation ago I finally worked out what the excess of questioning, pessimism and doubtful language really signified. The Soviet context had been one of low expectations, cynicism and a constant diet of untruths disseminated via radio, television and newspaper. When the new country invaders from Germany, France UK and America arrived, their language of promises, short-term sacrifice and future riches must have sounded sickeningly familiar.

Over time it became clearer that the doubting questions, the need for proof and the hesitation were intended to stress test the foreigner’s promises. So the reframe for negative language heard in those times was a simple question, “Are you for REAL?”

  1. Science

Entropy describes the universe in its inexorable journey towards chaos and randomness. Pessimists are often closer to the mark with predictions of the future than their optimistic counterparts. The second reframe of negative language can be to see it as the pure and selfless pursuit of accurate forecasting!

  1. Change

I was working with a large group of people from Central and Eastern Europe recently and, as we began an American open form group exercise, I was hit by a wave of resistant language, critical questions and dire predictions. These individuals were subject matter experts and had been ripped out of their home environment and resettled in downtown London.

The context is important. Their reluctance to perform this random task was a reflection of their hesitation to embrace the change that they faced. They were cautious, fearful and their language betrayed their inhabiting something like a childlike state of not knowing.

  1. A good old moan

There is comfort and a bonding warmth to be found in having a moan, gossiping or whinging about shared circumstances. It is a large part of British small talk and I encounter it frequently when travelling to a new country and meeting a new training group. This seems to be a social attempt to unify diversity through articulating common themes and so building a temporary harmony that fosters the conditions in which a relationship can form. This of course comes with the caveat that it is frequently used for political ends in economically challenging times to unify disparate people to hate one minority, foreigners in general or the government of the day.

  1. Forced positivity

If I were to control your working hours communication with the directive that all of your words have to be optimistic, positive and upbeat, would you comply? For a lot of people this is a reality and their answer is yes. A couple of years ago I used to meet socially with a group of guys from a very famous American pharmaceutical company that pursued this linguistic policy.

What struck me as funny and a little tragic was that, under social circumstances in a Twickenham pub, the other side of their lexicon came out in a torrent. It’s as if, for every forced positive phrase, one negative phrase had to be uttered later to restore their inner peaceful balance.

  1. Permitted negativity.

There are 2 examples that stick in my mind. The first are some famous fictional detective figures that have full permission from society to be grumpy old men. Their surly belligerence is portrayed as a essential part of sleuthing genius and their tortuous ability to always get their man.

The second example is much more dangerous. In my UK trainings it is the overtly racist exchanges between English and French executives or the permitted taunts between groups of men and groups of women. The third horror is to be found in the inter-departmental jibes as, for instance, between sales and marketing.

Under the guise of banter, badinage and permitted cheek, these exchanges seem intended as proof of a trusting in-group bond but feel sadly like a rain of micro-inequities and acts of aggression.

Conclusion

Negative phrases provide a fabulous opportunity to ask, “What lies beneath the surface conversation?” Certainly from my time in the Czech Republic it was possible to separate the human from their words and the human’s intention from their deeper fears.

Rising to the Challenge of the Challenging Delegate Cathy Wellings

Part 4 in the series How to Be an Excellent Intercultural Trainer by Intercultural Trainer Cathy Wellings

This month, Cathy looks at the various breeds of difficult delegate and asks, how can we best manage them during our intercultural training programmes?

Let’s be honest, we have all met those delegates who don’t seem to want to be in the room with us, or who try to dominate every discussion, interrupting their colleagues with their own personal stories or those who say absolutely nothing at all. We can meet these delegates on pretty much any training programme but here we are going to look at some of the challenging behaviours peculiar to intercultural training.

‘Been there, done that, know it all, impress me if you can’

You will meet delegates who have many years of international experience, perhaps they have more experience than you or they have studied cross-cultural management as part of an MBA programme, or perhaps they even grew up in the country you are training on. Most will be humble, keen to extend their knowledge even further and develop new skills and we shouldn’t feel daunted by this experience in itself. However, occasionally these experienced delegates may be waiting for the opportunity to catch you out, disagree with what you say or simply demonstrate their superior knowledge. A key point here is to know and to acknowledge this experience from the outset and to ask for permission to draw on it throughout the day. Make sure you do an individual needs analysis before your training so that you already know what experience you will have in the room and at the start of the training ask each delegate to share what they hope to get from being there so that even the most experienced are pushed to think about gaps they have or new perspectives that might help them. Capitalise on their experience but make sure you also add value through your own expertise – you might also gently challenge some of their assumptions or ask them to think about different approaches to the situations they recount.

‘It depends’

Undoubtedly you will stress the importance of not stereotyping or making sweeping generalisations about cultural groups but you may encounter the delegate who is disinclined to see any kind of cultural norm and can only focus on individuality and exceptions. When asked ‘How might this play out, would this be acceptable, what might be a typical response to this situation in your culture?‘ the response will always be the same: ‘It depends.’ This can be a tricky one to manage as the last thing we want to do is to encourage simplification or over-generalisation but of course when we are talking about culture, particularly on short corporate programmes we do need to make generalisations. Culture is something shared after all. It can help to probe a bit deeper with your questions, to turn them around and perhaps ask what response would be likely when people are stressed or under pressure.

‘When in Rome ok, but this isn’t Rome’

If you are training delegates who work with an international client base or are part of a multicultural workforce but are sat very firmly in their own country you may occasionally hear: ‘Of course I would adapt if I went to visit them in their country but they are here in mine so why should I change the way I normally do things?’ Or perhaps they work for the head office of an organisation that has made an overseas acquisition and feel that; ‘they work for us now and so should adapt to the way we do things.’ It can be helpful to respond to this kind of statement to by asking about desired outcomes. Of course, it’s absolutely fine not to adapt and to do things the way you usually do but what to do you want to get from this particular encounter and how might a slight adaptation in your behaviour help move you both towards a more successful outcome?

‘I’m authentic, take me as you find me’

Sooner or later you will come across the delegate who tells you that it’s much more important to be authentic, to be true to themselves than to try and adjust their behaviour or adapt to the different styles of colleagues or customers from different backgrounds. ‘I prefer to communicate directly, I like to tell it like it is, that’s just me, it’s the way I’ve always been and everyone knows that’s how I am.’   As with the previous example it can be helpful to ask this delegate about desired outcomes and personal impact. Introducing Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity might help them to see the benefits of taking different perspectives.

So be ready for these delegates because at some point you will no doubt encounter them. Allow them space and give them options but if things start to become heated have a private word with them during the coffee break to try and limit their impact on other delegates. Above all else, never take it personally, don’t become defensive and don’t enter into arguments with the difficult delegate.Profile_professional

Ready when you are (CULTURALLY SPEAKING)

A review of “Intercultural Readiness” written by Dr. Ursula Brinkmann and Dr. Oscar van Weerdenburg published by Palgrave MacMillan, May 2014.

Review written by Matthew Hill

 

Intercultural readiness

Intercultural readiness

Does this book constitute evidence of good teamwork, high intercultural competence and the completion of a demanding task in a diverse context? These are the questions that popped into my mind when turning though the pages.

That two people can collaborate based on many year’s work supported by a large body of data and yet manage to compress the resulting output to a tome of 197 effectively written pages may suggest positive answers to at least some of questions above.

Based on the International Readiness Check questionnaire developed by the authors, Brinkmann and van Weerdenburg, detail the premise of their work and make a bold claim – that cultural knowledge, in-group charm and good fortune are not enough to ensure the emergence of healthy diverse teams, the smooth passage of a new company in foreign lands or that a diverse team will outshine a homogeneous one.

Referencing their own cultural experiences and those from their network of associates and telling representative stories from some of the “larger than life” executives they have encountered in the last 20 years, the authors build a case for considering 4 essential cultural competencies;

  • Intercultural Sensitivity – Being mindful – cultural awareness and paying attention to signals.
  • Intercultural Communication – Active listening and adapting communication styles.
  • Building Commitment – Strengthening relationships and reconciling stakeholder needs.
  • Managing Uncertainty – Openness to cultural diversity, tolerance of ambiguity and exploring new approaches.

“Intercultural Readiness” also refers to the reconciliation work of Dr. Fons Trompanaars and moves beyond country etiquette and the dimensions of difference to include leadership, self-development and plenty of business oriented psychological research on culture, teams and diversity.

I smiled as, in a few places, the text resembled a graduate dissertation in psychology with references to a large number of organisational psychologists offering succinct summaries of their findings.

In any short book there is always the temptation to include dramatic stories that illustrate a point, offer a clever corrective intervention and, thus, support  one’s favoured model. These tend to frequently conclude with a positive outcome.

As with many psychological papers, the chosen examples seem to distill a simple answer from the chaotic cloud of international commercial reality.

Balancing this, the authors are up-front about the limits of diverse teams and how, without the management of emotion and interaction, they can easily be less effective than homogeneous ones. There are plenty of warnings included to help the young team leader find a safer path in managing their diverse teams.

Who should read this book?

If you are a tired and jaded HR partner, a habituated intercultural trainer or a coach, this book will lift your spirits with its wit, abundant references and intelligent analysis.

If you are a commercial leader with little regard for statistics you may, however, choose to skim over the more analytical parts in the second half of the work.

This book opens the door on the International Readiness rationale and helps readers to decide upon the merits of this way of thinking.

The book’s key findings are that culturally diverse teams can engender great task accomplishment but that the emotional and relational strains often deter team members from joining forces on subsequent projects. Alleviating this problem can be achieved by including team members that have a developed competence for managing uncertainly. This, it is argued, can prevent the newly formed team splitting into two or more subgroups, from which unity cannot easily emerge.

Also, ratings of personal satisfaction in diverse teams can be much lower than in the cosier environment of a homogeneous team.

With a blue print for things to watch out for within a corporation and when leading a diverse team, this book represents an approach to culture, coaching and competence that is hard to beat for pithy wisdom, peer based analysis and wide referenced sources. Its subtle depth is balanced by an enjoyably readable style.

It is enough to help you continue to believe in your diverse commercial team.

Buy Intercultural Readiness at Amazon; http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intercultural-Readiness-Competencies-Working-Multinational/dp/1137346973/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1402243074&sr=8-1&keywords=intercultural+readiness+brinkmann

The reviewer, Matthew Hill, is an author, cultural facilitator, a past president of SIETAR UK, and founder of the Intercultural Training Channel.

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