Culture Clash


Culture affects interactions
based on group memberships

As human resources director of a large engineering firm in Portland, Ore., Paula Stevens was especially interested in the career development of employees from other countries. She found that with special orientation programs to introduce them to American norms and everyday practices, their adjustment was hastened. On certain issues, however, she needed to say very little since people adjusted very quickly. Many of these issues centered around individual freedoms, such as making one's own choices concerning everyday interpersonal interactions.

Bhola Paswan and Rajesh Sharma were both from the Indian state of Bihar, and they had attended the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. They were very friendly at work, ate lunch together frequently, and brought their families to weekend social events sponsored by the firm. Paula had learned that the two were from different caste groups in India. Rajesh was a Brahman, India's highest caste. Bhola was a Dusad, a caste commonly referred to as "untouchable." Paula asked them to talk about life in India and the United States during one of her orientation sessions.

Bhola and Rajesh agreed that interactions among different caste groups are far easier in the United States. They admitted their friendship would be next to impossible in India since the caste system is still a force, despite the protests of Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian leaders. In the United States, people are more likely to be judged on the basis of their character and work contributions. Most Americans don't know very much about the caste system, and this works to the advantage of Indian immigrants. Bhola and members of his family can go to work, attend schools and interact in the general community without the stigma of an imposed status given to them at birth. Rajesh and other Brahmans often point out that they enjoy "losing the excess baggage" of being forced to limit their interactions with others based on caste status.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with D.P.S. Bhawuk of the University of Hawaii College of Business Administration. There are remnants of the "excess baggage" that may continue to influence behavior. Bhola and Rajesh will probably be uncomfortable if their children start dating. If children of dating age persist, this may force more change within the two families as they make various adjustments to the United States.

Children of immigrants have long been major agents of change within families. They want to participate in the activities of their age peers, and these may be totally unfamiliar to their parents. They are encouraged to formulate their own opinions by teachers, but this may lead to disagreements with their fathers. Immigrants who had long planned to return to their own countries may stay in the United States because they see more opportunities for their children.

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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