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Decode cultural patterns. What to bear in mind?

Jerome Berrard

While our direct environment gets global, we come across and mingle with people from other cultural backgrounds. And while we watch them behave, do we easily spot what's individual and what's from a cultural belonging? What's a culture after all? And which conclusions can I draw that make me communicate efficiently with people from other cultural backgrounds? By the way, does that make any difference if I know how to disentangle what, in behaviours I don't fully understand, is up to culture, individual, corporate or other belongingness?

Well, that does make a great deal of a difference! When you interpret a behaviour, you deduct rules and form beliefs to generalise your interpretation to similar contexts. In a different cultural context, you simply risk that misintepretation will lead to unhelpful deductions and generalisations.

As illustrated with the picture of 6 that is a 9 depending from the viewing angle, every communication is a story of perspective. To comprehend the world around us quickly and efficiently, we execute a 3-step neurological process: perception → interpretation → evaluation. Such process induces a behaviour. Back to the Stone Age, we learnt to execute 99% of processes in a fragment of a second to stay alive. We can't ask ourselves the question from scratch again and again every time that we encounter a similar situation. To react quickly, we use a preconstructed neural reading grid made up of high-level values (e.g. freedom, self-sufficiency, health) and low-level values: evaluation criteria. To go to the point quickly and display an appropriate behaviour, our brain is filtering what we see, hear, feel, touch or even smell with 3 filter categories: selections, distortions and generalisations. Selections: because we chose to remember certain things and leave out some others. Distortions: because we do mind-reading, "X means Y" equivalences, causal relations "if X then Y" and assumptions. Generalisations: by universal rulings, generalisation adverbs (always, all, never, no one) as well as generalisation rules applied to oneself (as a Frenchman, I can't talk about money...) or to others (as they are Americans, they don't hesitate to talk about money...).

Then, the question it: how's that different in a cross-cultural context? Once I got passed the language barrier, don't I face the same neuronal mechanisms and filters regardless of the person I talk to: my partner, my neighbour or a foreigner?

In fact, a cross-cultural context will play the role of a blank slate. Much of what you learnt contextually over the years is of no help here. Once you realise it, you also become aware of the misinterpretation risk to categorise as "cultural" most of the behaviours that you don't understand with people from a different cultural background.

To avoid the misinterpration trap, it is essential to distinguish whether the behaviour that you don't understand is of cultural essence or individual. In fact, the challenge is even to discriminate which components in the behaviour are individual or cultural, as it is likely that every behaviour is blending those categories.

By the way, culture is a catch-all word, isn't it? In a foreign environment, it is an enticing option to lump it all together in the "national" culture pot: "Chinese are like this", "Italians behave like that". But have you ever been to a hospital? I guess that if you did, you noticed that there coexist an administrative/clerical culture and a medical one. What about, within medics, the culture of caregivers and that of medical doctors? By the way, among doctors, can't we talk about cultures for visiting and resident physicians, emergency physicians, hospital pharmacists?

In a usual context, everyone of us developped helpful selections, distortions and generalisations... tried out and verified over time. But in a cross-cultural context, let alone abroad, it's all too tempting to get rid of the problem by tagging every behaviour with the "cultural" label. However, it is very likely that it won't help at all to make the right decision when it comes to communicating efficiently.

Then, do I have to know everything about the country and the culture of my interlocutor to have a successful communication? The answer of course is: no. The first thing you need is to acknowledge your own personal selection, generalisation and distortion processes so that you ask yourself the right questions:

- Do I miss a relevant information? Aren't the pieces of information I have too vague?

- What makes me think like this? Which evidence do I have that X means Y? Could X mean something else?

- "Never" really? Really "all" ? When was that ever different? Are there alternative cases?

Let me provide you with a personal case.

I worked 3 years between 2011 and 2014 in Tokyo, as an executive officer in the subsidiary of a Japanese company with 5,000 employees. I was tasked with international business expansion working with a team of 11 Japanese direct commercial reports. Being used to sales team management in Europe and believing in my criterium that an efficient business person has to be at the customer place, I was left bewildered when I noticed that sales persons would return to the office between every external customer visit, making it technically virtually impossible to visit more than 2 customers a day. What did I deduct? That Japanese sales persons are inefficient? The real question is "how did I reach my deduction" ? Did I generalise? Do really all sales persons return to the office between 2 visits? Are there days when they wouldn't return to the office? Before I conclude anything out of it, am I sure that I am not missing an important piece of information? What are the sales persons actually doing when they are in the office and what's the relation to their job? In the context, what makes me think that the fact that sales person are a lot in the office is actually inefficient? On the contrary, did I try hard to understand what they do in the office and how that may prove to be important for their job?

Another way to address the matter would be to straightforwardly tell you why it is more important for Japanese salespersons to be often in the office than it may be for, say, Germans or Britts. But there are downsizes in this way:

- you will not be able to replicate the learning in a different context, because the outcome itself is limited to the Japanese corporate context and not adapted to other contexts;

- I would fall into a risky generalisation bias because what I experienced in a specific context might even be irrelevant in another Japanese corporate context, for instance in another company, in another part of the country.

That's why it is essential to first work hard to acknowledge your own cognitive and emotional processes, your values and beliefs, your main criteria and distorsion, generalisation and selection bias to reach efficiency in a cross-cutural context.

Find out how you do just that with the help of PCI International Consulting.

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