Culture Clash


Sunday, October 21, 2001

Cultural habits designed
to protect against

'I'm glad they changed the name to the Czech Republic," Barry Miller thought as he looked out his office window to see a gray February day in Prague. "Czechoslovakia was the word I always missed during our school spelling bees back in Toledo, Ohio." Barry shared this thought with Petr Bozek, a coworker at a sporting goods company for which they both worked. Barry found that Petr was not the sort of person who made friends quickly, and so he was pleased when Petr agreed to have lunch one day.

At the lunch, the coworkers talked about upcoming events in their personal lives as well as developments in the company. Petr mentioned that he was going to go skiing during the upcoming weekend. He added, "But the snow probably won't be very good and the ski lifts may be broken, as in the past." When they talked about new technology at work, Petr warned Barry that the company's new computers would probably be out of date by the time they were installed. Further, the electricity in their building would probably be inadequate to support sophisticated computers. Barry was struck by the gloomy tone in Petr's conversation.

Petr is engaging in behaviors called "defensive pessimism." In addition to the Czech Republic, this style of thinking and conversing with others is found in many Eastern European countries. Given the experiences of World War II, and the unwelcome influence of communism after the war, people in the Czech Republic had to accustom themselves to various privations. One way to deal with limited resources and the real possibility of disappointment is to have limited expectations. Then, if people actually experience the limitations, they are not disappointed since they expected no better. However, if they have positive experiences, they are even more welcome since they exceeded expectations.

In Petr's case, he tells Barry that he expects poor snow, broken ski lifts and outdated computers. If reality meets these expectations, he has protected himself against disappointment. If the ski trip is successful and if the computers are state of the art, then he is happy that his expectations were exceeded. The danger with defensive pessimism is that it can lead to inaction if people reinforce each other with their negative thinking and communications. There can be little positive action for the future unless people move forward with bold, positive, and optimistic behaviors that will improve developing economies.

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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