Culture Clash


Sometimes the presence
of an automatic support
group is expected

'I wish that some of the presenters could be more enthusiastic in front of this important audience," Jim Simpson told colleagues. Jim worked for a large investment firm in New York City. He was assisting six entrepreneurs who were seeking financial backing for their business plans. Three of the entrepreneurs were from the United States, and three were from Asian counties: Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Twelve venture capitalists came to Jim's firm to hear presentations by the six entrepreneurs. The Americans were noticeably more enthusiastic about their business proposals, and audience members paid more attention during their presentations. While Jim felt that all six had good plans, and that the technical aspects of the proposals were well handled, he felt that the dry and straightforward communication style of the three Asians worked to their disadvantage. The Asians also felt this. They met after the presentations and asked themselves whether the Americans have an edge given the excitement they generated during their presentations.

There are cultural differences in how people approach the task of speaking in public. In Asian countries, people belong to a collective. They view themselves as members of a group rather than as independent actors. They make contributions to their group, and they can expect benefits from their collective. When they speak in public, they expect that their group will be attentive. Further, it is not any one person's responsibility to communicate, "I have a lot to say in this presentation!" If there is good content in the presentation, it is the responsibility of the collective to spread this message to others.

In the United States, there is no automatic support group when people give public presentations. It is the responsibility of the individual to communicate, "I am well prepared, I am excited about the content of my proposal, and you should pay careful attention!" Since it is their responsibility to generate interest, successful presenters develop an enthusiastic, animated communication style. The value placed on good public speaking is recognized in the country's educational curricula. Speech is a course that can be taken by high school students, and it is frequently a mandatory course at the college level.

The presence or absence of an automatic support group has implications during job searches. In a collectivist culture, interviewees have group members who are expected to sing their praises. Consequently, they don't have to develop a dynamic self- presentation style for their interviews. Americans don't have this type of support and have to speak up for themselves during interviews. They have to communicate, "I have extensive qualifications and you should hire me!"

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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