Culture Clash


Sunday, January 13, 2002

Success on intercultural
assignments has multiple

Readers have told me they can understand the importance of knowing about cultural differences for success in multicultural organizations. They also comment, "We have a general idea of what success is, but are there additional issues we should keep in mind when people work in other countries?"

A four-part criteria of intercultural success can be applied. The four aspects are similar when people accept assignments in other countries, or when they work extensively with people from different cultures in a multicultural nation such as the United States. Hawaii, of course, has residents from many different cultural backgrounds and consequently an understanding of intercultural relations is essential. For convenience, I will discuss the case of people moving to another country for job assignments or "sojourners."

>> The first aspect of the criteria for success is that sojourners enjoy their intercultural assignments, feel they making positive contributions to their organization, and report good working relationships.

>> The second aspect is that these other people, from different cultural backgrounds, reciprocate these positive feelings. This requirement that positive feelings about work, contributions and relationships be shared protects us against certain rigid and overconfident people. These people may report good working relationships, but if others are interviewed they might disagree.

>> The third aspect is that people complete tasks in a timely and effective manner. Overseas business people should be able to complete negotiations for joint trade agreements, international students should complete their degree studies, and technical assistance advisors should be able to introduce various technologies.

>> The fourth aspect is that people manage the unique stresses associated with overseas assignments. These unique stresses are referred to as "culture shock," and they result from the necessity of accomplishing tasks in unfamiliar ways. Familiar cultural practices are often not effective in other countries and sojourners must learn new ways of accomplishing their goals. Further, they must engage in this new learning without their helpful and familiar support group from their own country.

The four aspects of intercultural success are strongly related. If sojourners have good relationships with coworkers in other countries, this can contribute to task completion. Good relationships can lead to a support group that can assist sojourners through the stresses of culture shock. If sojourners are aware that cultural differences have an impact on their job performance, they can ask member of their newly-developed support group for help in understanding the 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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