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Culture Clash

BY RICHARD BRISLIN

Sunday, July 29, 2001



Personal and professional
styles differ

Jung-Mi Kim and Yeon-Hee Pak had been classmates at a women's college in Seoul, Korea. After graduation, Jung-Mi had attended graduate school in the United States and then worked in the human resources department of a large American company. Yeon-Hee accepted employment in the accounting department of a Korean company.

Jung-Mi Kim had developed a reputation as a good trainer in the United States, with a specialty in improving the leadership skills of young managers. She was asked to give a workshop at the company where Yeon-Hee worked. Jung-Mi gave a dynamic leadership improvement workshop. She demonstrated an energetic speaking style and confident body movements as she engaged the attention of workshop participants. Yeon-Hee thought Jung-Mi had developed an overly direct and assertive personality and was uncomfortable talking with her former college classmate.

Yeon-Hee has risked making an attribution error. Attributions refer to judgments about the causes of behavior. People make such judgments every day. The boss complimented our work. Is this sincere, or does he want our support as he goes up for promotion? A colleague is abrupt with us during a phone call. Is she being rude, or is she especially busy today? Our answers to questions like these are called "attributions."

In this example, Yeon-Hee may be making a basic attribution error. She may be making conclusions about Jung-Mi's personality traits and not taking into account the context. Rather than conclude that Jung-Mi is overly assertive, Yeon-Hee should consider her former classmate's recent experiences. In the United States, a dynamic presentation style is valued, and Jung-Mi has learned to give workshops using this style. This does not mean Jung-Mi's personality has changed. It means she has learned to be effective in a different context; training workshops that meet the expectations of business people in the United States. One reason for this attribution is that people are familiar with traits they like and dislike. However, they are not as familiar with the social contexts where other people have worked successfully in recent years.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Sheldon Varney, professor emeritus, University of Hawaii. To deal with the possibility of this attribution error, we recommend people set aside judgments based on personalities and consider carefully various aspects of social contexts that could be influencing the behavior of others.


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: cro@cba.hawaii.edu



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