Culture Clash


A quiet approach can
better serve people’s goals

'This should be a good session at the conference," Kathy Chun told other members of the planning committee. Kathy and her colleagues were finalizing plans for various sessions at the Hawaii Conference for Human Resource Professionals. The meetings were to extend over three days. For the first day, Kathy had received a commitment from Frank Weldon, who was flying in from California for the conference. Frank had a reputation as a dynamic speaker who could present challenging ideas that encouraged creative thinking among audience members.

Previously, Frank had called Kathy to find out as much as possible about conference attendees. Kathy told him that people would come from many backgrounds given Hawaii's cultural diversity, and that some attendees would be from various Asian countries. Frank mentioned that he had traveled to Asia several times over the last five years. He said he would be happy to work with Kathy on this presentation the first day, and he reminded her that he would also be speaking on the conference's last day.

After Frank's presentation the first day, Kathy was disappointed. While not a total bore, Frank's talk was not particularly dynamic and many of the ideas he covered were already familiar to audience members. Kathy wondered why Frank had not lived up to his reputation.

Frank may be behaving in a quiet, reserved manner while learning about conference attendees and deciding how he can present his ideas most effectively. Frank has been in Asia and knows that presenters often speak in a less dynamic style than is common in the United States. He also knows that disagreements are taken very seriously. If some of his audience members have taken public positions opposite to Frank's, these people might have difficulty interacting effectively with him during the rest of the conference. Frank may feel that it is best to be non-controversial early in the program and to use the first two days to discover people's range of opinions on different issues. Then, at his second presentation, he can present his ideas while at the same time recognizing and showing respect for the positions held by others.

I've seen this approach work effectively in Hawaii. If people give their firm ideas too quickly, they can be dismissed as know-it-all loudmouths. If a committee is to have meetings over several months, it is often best to be reserved during the first four or five weeks. People can learn what their colleague's positions are, can think about their own positions, and can later offer suggestions that integrate the strengths of various ideas. Good advice for meeting organizers is to be patient. If early sessions seem tame and uneventful, various people may be using the "wait and then contribute" approach. Future meetings are likely to be much more dynamic.

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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