Get Ready for the Culture Clash – Part 1

Discussion
Jan 24, 2006

By Terry J. Soto, President & CEO, About Marketing Solutions, Inc.

(www.aboutmarketingsolutions.com)


In recognizing the changing profile of customers across the country, companies are increasingly seeking to create multicultural workforces. Yet, as many take on the exciting challenge of working with people from different cultural backgrounds, they are finding that values inevitably clash and give rise to conflict.


Unfortunately, we are seldom aware of the cross-cultural impact to our organizations because we don’t often think about having cultural values or assumptions that are different from others. As the U.S. continues to evolve as a nation of immigrants, culture will continue to be one of the most powerful forces that acts upon us and which we must understand and recognize in our daily operations in order to be as successful with our diverse employees as we expect to be with our multicultural customers.


Marcelle E. DuPraw of the National Institute for Dispute Resolution and Marya Axner, a Consultant in Leadership Development & Diversity Awareness, point to six fundamental patterns of Cultural Differences that can severely impact how successfully you can train, interact, motivate and retain a multicultural workforce. Next time you suspect that cross-cultural differences are at play, review this list. Ask yourself how cultural differences may be shaping your own reactions.


1. Different Communication Styles

The way people communicate varies widely between, and even within, cultures. One aspect of communication style is language usage. Across cultures, some words and phrases are used in different ways. For example, even in countries that share the English language, the meaning of “yes” varies from “maybe, I’ll consider it” to “definitely so,” with many shades in between.


Another major aspect of communication style is the degree of importance given to non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication includes not only facial expressions and gestures; it also involves seating arrangements, personal distance, and sense of time. In addition, different norms regarding the appropriate degree of assertiveness in communicating can add to cultural misunderstandings. For instance, some white Americans typically consider raised voices to be a sign that a fight has begun, while some black, Jewish and Italian Americans often feel that an increase in volume is a sign of an exciting conversation among friends. Thus, some white Americans may react with greater alarm to a loud discussion than would members of some American ethnic or non-white racial groups.


2. Different Attitudes Toward Conflict

Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, while others view it as something to be avoided. In the U.S., conflict is not usually desirable; but people often are encouraged
to deal directly with conflicts that do arise. In fact, face-to-face meetings customarily are recommended as the way to work through whatever problems exist. In contrast, in many
Eastern countries, open conflict is experienced as embarrassing or demeaning; as a rule, differences are best worked out quietly. A written exchange might be the favored means
to address the conflict.


3. Different Approaches to Completing Tasks

From culture to culture, there are different ways that people move toward completing tasks. Some reasons include: different access to resources; different judgments of the rewards associated with task completion; different notions of time; and varied ideas about how relationship-building and task-oriented work should go together.


A case in point, Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion toward the end as compared with European-Americans. European-Americans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task. This does not mean that people from any one of these cultural backgrounds are more or less committed to accomplishing the task, or value relationships more or less; it means they may pursue them differently.


In Part 2: three more fundamental patterns of Cultural Differences.



Moderator’s Comment: What are the challenges companies may be facing as a result of increasing workplace diversity?
How are companies managing cultural differences today?

Terry J. Soto – Moderator

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9 Comments on "Get Ready for the Culture Clash – Part 1"

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Kai Clarke
BrainTrust
The history of the U.S. is that of a diverse nation. Our diversity gives us the background and ability to develop and grow, while thriving in a unique atmosphere of acceptance. However, we are still a nationalistic society which believes that the rest of the world depends upon our perspective, instead of taking a more global view which would reflect our position as one of many “spokes” in the “global wheel” rather than its hub. Despite this, we are a pragmatic workforce, and our acceptance of diversity in the workplace is a reflection of the growth and acceptance of diversity in our society. Consequently, this reflects a position which does not embrace a culture clash in our workplace, but instead an increased acceptance of sharing our differences. Even in the post 911 world, we continue to embrace our differences rather than use them to divide our efforts. Increased communication, better understanding of diverse cultures, and the flexibility of our value system all lead the way in this position. I disagree with the author on their position (although their article has great tips). There is not an inevitable culture clash, since businesses focus on common goals, understanding, and communication to develop… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

The challenges have already been listed. Changes in workforce diversity should come naturally and not be forced. Forced change never works. Diversity should result from necessity and not from political correctness. HEB is a perfect example. They have a strong Hispanic culture resulting naturally from their Tex-Mex roots.

Bernice Hurst
BrainTrust

The basic premise, that cultures inevitably clash, strikes me as overly pessimistic and potentially obstructive. The very fact that companies are hiring people from a range of backgrounds should scream out that they are leading by example and demonstrate that they recognise the value of diversity. The next logical step is the recognition that sometimes leadership and training can be beneficial within team environments. Again, I would prefer to assume that if a company hires a wide range of employees in the first place, they are sufficiently enlightened to be seeking a wide range of skills and experience which may need some direction to make sure that people are cooperating rather than competing or conflicting. I would hate to think that we are dwelling on a situation that is already being handled admirably and stimulating problems that don’t actually exist.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
11 years 6 months ago

I think we have to rethink the value of “clash.” It is viewed as a negative to be avoided at all costs. But without “clash,” we wouldn’t have the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup…OK, it’s a joke…but the point is that the combination of peanut butter and chocolate comes from the premise that creativity is where distinct ideas collide. Diversity drives creativity. It comes with the tension of differing viewpoints and values. Those who benefit from it are those who understand how to allow the clashes to happen productively rather than destructively. Usually, this means that sides are not taken…that one value or way of doing things is not viewed as intrinsically superior/better than the other. Usually these are not clashes of right and wrong, but of your way and my way. If leadership can help navigate these bumpy waters, then the clash is really more of a spark that brings the best and brightest ideas to bear.

Gwen Kelly
Guest
Gwen Kelly
11 years 6 months ago

For me, the author’s position, but also the comments of Kai and David, address the core of where we should keep sharp focus. And that is continually seeking how to harness the best strengths of those who come to form teams in our companies. Team members come from not only diverse backgrounds but diverse experiences, as well. And that acknowledgement says that at the end of the day, it’s important; the truth being it is an important driver in impacting the business i.e. who has greater or increased market share and who is best serving the consumer.

Race Cowgill
Guest
Race Cowgill
11 years 6 months ago

I have some research that I want to share on this topic with everyone, but I would like to wait until the further information that may be in part 2 of this topic. In any case, let me whet everyone’s appetite: the cultural conflicts are a small part of the massive conflicts that occur in organizations; these conflicts are almost never actually resolved but are simply avoided, left to erupt in hundreds of costly ways; the training the organizations used to try to lessen tension actually proves to heighten it; and the steps that have been proven to actually overcome these obstacles of clash and tension and conflict are not undertaken by any of the firms or consultants (sorry, everyone!) we studied. Tune in later.

Mark Lilien
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

A client of mine hired a largely Muslim staff. During Ramadan, the staff will not eat during the day, which changes their performance. On the other hand, holiday staffing is generally easier, since there are employees from at least 4 major religions. As far as conflict resolution and communication, regional American differences can be very different, not just differences between national and religious cultures. If the management is committed to performance-based recruitment and promotion, the staff and management is much more likely to be diverse without great extra effort. The problems are much harder when the business hasn’t been performance-based and wants to transition in that direction. The previously-favored groups are challenged by people who might not only look different but might be more competent.

Mark Burr
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

Bernice is 100% correct.

andy gordon
Guest
andy gordon
11 years 6 months ago

The workforce in the U.S. has always been multicultural and diverse. Workplace conflict is just that , conflict. Deal with it. I am Native American. No one needs to to be overtly sensitive to my culture. We all have a job to do and to apply any special consideration to any particular group is prejudicial.

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