Culture Clash


Sunday, November 4, 2001

other cultures is a
worthwhile challenge

Readers have asked me, "After the September 11 tragedies, many commentators have pointed to the need to learn about other cultures. Why is it so difficult to understand cultural differences?" I'll begin my explanation by reviewing a cultural difference experienced by all people who have lived in Hawaii for more than a year. The difference deals with preferences for a soft and indirect style of communication in contrast to a forceful and direct style. A boss can ask a subordinate, "I know your schedule is busy, but might you have the report done by Friday?" Or, the boss can say, "I want the report on my desk by Friday!"

I will discuss four reasons for the difference.

>> The first is that the choice of style is an aid in organizing knowledge. There are many ways people can behave, and the two communication styles help organize information on what good bosses do and how people in a culture should treat each other.

>> A second reason is that the styles assist people in making decisions that others will accept. Newcomers to Hawaii learn that they are much more productive if they adopt an indirect style. Residents of Hawaii who spend time on the mainland learn that they must speak up in a direct manner or others will ignore them.

>> A third reason is that the styles can help people hide their shortcomings that they do not want others to recognize. If bosses have little to say about an issue, they can hide this fact with well-practiced soft and indirect comments. People with a direct style can sometimes hide their ignorance behind a speech filled with loudness and bluster.

>> Finally, the styles can communicate people's values. With indirect comments, people are saying, "We respect others and know that they can make decisions on how to spend their workdays." With direct comments, people are saying, "It is important to let people know what bosses expect so that workers don't have to waste their valuable time with guessing games."

Difficulties are compounded when there are multiple cultural differences and when there are "moving targets." I have discussed just one difference here, but there can be a dozen aspects of culture encountered during the typical workweek. The concept of moving targets means that people may communicate softly or forcefully for one reason on Monday but for quite a different reason on Friday. Despite the admitted difficulties, the fact that we are in a fast moving and multicultural world means that we must continually accept the challenges of understanding cultural differences.

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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