Culture Clash


Cultures have
safety valves for
stress in people’s lives

Having received lots of advice from colleagues who had lived in Asia, Ron Stover finalized his travel arrangements to Seoul, Korea. Ron had accepted a position in the marketing division of an Korean automobile manufacturing company. Originally from California, Ron's colleagues had told him that many Koreans are reserved and formal in the workplace. Further, they told him that close relationships develop slowly and that he should exercise caution with his suggestions about improving marketing policies at the company.

Upon his arrival in Seoul, Ron expected to spend some evenings and weekends by himself. However, after just two weeks he was invited to an evening out with his colleagues. People went to a soccer game, dressed in their favorite team's colors, and cheered and shouted loudly at good and bad plays on the field. After the game, they went to a nightclub where alcohol flowed freely. Ron's immediate boss told jokes and even criticized some recent company decisions. Ron decided that this group of Koreans was very open and informal and that he could start making his suggestions for improvements at work.

Ron may be making a mistake. He is assuming that the same informality and camaraderie expressed during the evening events will also exist in the workplace. He does not realize that in Korean culture, evening socializing and workplace interactions are guided by very different norms. Social events can be informal and raucous, but this does not extend to the workplace. Back at his job in the company, Ron has to realize that behaviors are guided by more formal norms that discourage open expression of personal opinions and emotions.

All cultures have safety valves that allow people to reduce their tensions and to "blow off steam." In the United States, people engage in loud criticism of referees and umpires at sporting events. In Russia, people drink vodka and then share their innermost thoughts, or their "souls." In Japan, people dance in the streets during various community festivals. Some safety valve activities can be dangerous. In their automobiles, Americans use very colorful language while shouting at other drivers and making hand gestures that communicate estimates of the others' intelligence. These activities, however, can keep a driver's attention away from road hazards and careless pedestrians.

Mistakes are made when safety valve behaviors are mistaken for workplace behaviors. In the United States, people know that individuals who attend baseball games and shout at umpires are not necessarily hostile and unpleasant colleagues at work. In Korea, people who tell bawdy jokes and criticize their company during an evening social event will not behave in similar ways during the workday.

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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