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Cultural DNA

Michael Gates
Richard D Lewis

When Wal-Mart announced a few years ago that it was pulling out of Germany, losing $1 billion along the way, critics said it failed to understand the culture. Its attempt to introduce 'greeters' to every store, with orders to smile at every customer, is said to have been particularly unpopular.

As we become more global the skill of seeing things from other cultures' points of view is becoming vital. Not just for the success of corporations but also for individuals to pursue careers and, for those moving abroad, to lead happy lives as expatriates.

People are moving to live and work abroad at record rates according to UN figures. And even those who do not actually move, are coming into contact more and more with other cultures. But while this may make logical career and business sense, human beings defy logic.

By the age of seven or so we have silently absorbed different values - or prioritised them differently - from other cultures. So while a toothy grin may create a positive climate for business in the USA, in Germany it may be seen as a suspect intrusion of privacy.

The challenge is that we acquire our own culture so early we don't realise we have it. And our behaviour reflects this: all we do and say sends out unintended messages to our new colleagues, acquaintances and neighbours.

A personal defining moment was on moving to Finland nearly 25 years ago when a "How are you today?" was met with the stony "You asked me that last week".

We typically assume the worst and accuse the host culture of unfriendliness or irrationality. But we have to tease out the values beneath to know what is really going on.

In this Finnish case privacy, ("why should I tell you how I am if I hardly know you?"), and honesty ("if I say 'fine, thanks' and I am not, then I am lying…").

We should also know our own values and where they may cause misunderstanding and loss of trust. Most of all we must realise that we are not normal. What is 'normal' anyway? We must also appreciate why we are as we are.

This requires us to consider our attitudes to time, space, truth, individuality, authority etc. and where they came from. Comparing how parents interact with children in the host and our own culture is not a bad place to start.

In the USA children are generally taught to speak up for themselves and assert their individuality. Small wonder they develop into confident adults who believe 'a fight is communication'.

And what are the origins of culture? What in our climate, history, religion and language made our ancestors start thinking and behaving differently?

It's a fascinating voyage of discovery: like working out where your children's physical and mental traits have come from. The difference being that this is not genetic but cultural DNA - something we have learned and share with other members of our cultural group.

Interest in cross-cultural issues has been growing, as increasingly we come into contact with people different from us. There are now some great books to help us see ourselves as others see us.

But how can we cope with the inevitable cultural differences we will come across?

First, it's useful to get to grips with a general theory before trawling through lots of disparate trivia about different cultures. There are over 200 national cultures in the world, and we can't hope to know everything.

One useful theory is the Lewis Model of culture, behind the CultureActive programme. Richard D Lewis classifies cultures into three main types - linear-active, multi-active and reactive - described in detail in the book When Cultures Collide. Other well-known models are by the authors Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars. But the ultimate key has to be the ability to adapt how we communicate.

I was once on a Lufthansa flight where we suddenly experienced turbulence. The captain spoke first in German with an explanation of the cause; of the action he would take, and what he would do if this failed. He then gave relevant technical specifications. The Germans visibly relaxed.

There were also Brits and Americans on board. The captain changed into English and simply announced: "We're on a bit of a roller-coaster, so just belt yourselves tight, sit back, and enjoy the ride!" We smiled and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

That's what I call culturally-competent communication.

Michael Gates was a Scholar of St. Catherine's College Oxford, where he gained an M.A. in English Language and Literature. He worked for five years in radio before he helped establish the Finnish office of Richard Lewis Communications, who give cross-cultural, communication skills and business language training world-wide

This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph

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30 October 2011
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