Culture Clash


Sunday, June 24, 2001

Overseas assignments
bring stress

Heather Martin and Michelle Collins had been apartment mates in college. They were both business administration majors and had taken courses that would provide good preparation for an overseas assignment. They found they had similar interests in music, computer technology and athletics.

After graduation, Heather took a position in Thailand, and Michelle joined a company in Australia. They kept in frequent contact during their assignments and shared their reactions to life in another country. They were surprised to find Michelle had a more difficult adjustment than Heather.

People often have a difficult time adjusting to a culture that is supposedly similar. In Michelle's case, there is a shared language, some similarities in ethnic mix, and the possibility of shared interests such a boating and hiking. But there are also identifiable reasons for potential difficulties. One is that people are not prepared to experience differences, so they have a larger impact. Another reason is the shared language allows people to form relationships quicker. But relationships, whether they are based on romance or friendship, can go sour and this causes stress.

A third reason is people may not be given much slack. If an American makes a cultural mistake in Thailand, it may be overlooked as long as she shows a desire to be culturally sensitive. Similar mistakes may be much more noticeable in Australia if the assumption is Americans should know the proper way of doing things.

This analysis was developed during discussions with Gary Fontaine and Susan Weekes of the University of Hawaii's Department of Communication. We have also discussed how best to prepare people for overseas assignments. In Michelle's case, she simply might dismiss information about possible problems while still in the United States. A better time to discuss difficulties may be a few weeks into her assignment in Australia. At this point, she is likely to have experienced some cultural differences and will be more willing to take them seriously.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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