Culture Clash


Sunday, August 19, 2001

Social goals put first
in some cultures

Dallas resident Don White worked for a small financial planning firm. Winai Kitjaroen, from Thailand, worked for a large investment firm in Bangkok. They met at a workshop in Hong Kong dealing with Asian capital markets. Don and Winai found they shared both professional and personal interests and spent much of their free time together. Don mentioned that his firm allows employees to spend up to a year in other countries as part of its international expansion goals. Winai replied, "It would be nice if you could come to Bangkok. I'll tell my executives about your interest." Don returned to Dallas and received emails from Winai, but there was never any mention of an invitation to spend a year in Bangkok.

Negotiations about important issues such as a year-long overseas assignment will be based on many factors including cultural issues, the personalities of people, and changing organizational priorities. One cultural difference starts with the fact that there are at least two goals in communications among business people. One is social: people want to make others feel good about the social interactions they are having. Another goal deals with tasks: people want to make plans that will improve the financial performance of their organizations. In Thailand and often in other Asian cultures, the social goals can take precedence. Winai wants a good relationship with Don and so makes a positive comment about a year in Thailand. Don is concerned with tasks since he needs time to plan for a year in Thailand.

This incident developed from conversations with Kawpong Polyorat, University of Hawaii College of Business Administration. He is from Khon Kaen, Thailand. He would advise Bob to probe for specific details concerning the one-year assignment. What would be the scope of jointly-agreed upon projects? How much secretarial help will be available? If there are not answers to specific inquiries, this could be a sign that the assignment has become low priority in Winai's organization.

Some cultural differences can be better understood if similar dilemmas are identified in a person's own country. Bob has surely been to evening receptions where he meets someone who later says, "Let's have lunch." Was this a pleasant comment to keep positive conversations going, or was it a sincere invitation? Like all of us who have encountered this comment, we face difficulties deciding whether to call for a lunch appointment or not.

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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