Culture Clash


Cultural informants
can assist adjustment

Just before leaving for his three-year assignment in Norway, Ross Devereux stopped by the Human Resources office of the engineering firm where he worked in Boulder, Colo. He wanted to speak with Sharon Tyler, who had organized a training program to assist in his adjustment to Norway. "I'm sure you'll do well as a sojourner to another country," Sharon told Ross. "Be sure to develop relations with people who might become cultural informants. Returnees from overseas tell me that this is especially important." Ross admitted, "With all the material covered during training, I don't remember everything about cultural informants. Could you remind me?"

Cultural informants are host national individuals who are good at answering questions that will assist people from other countries who going through the adjustment process. In Ross's case, this would mean a Norwegian who is willing to answer his questions about cultural differences, challenges to a smooth adjustment and standard work practices in Norway. In addition to their willingness to talk regularly with newcomers from other countries, cultural informants have other qualities. They have worked with enough sojourners to have seen what causes them to have the most adjustment difficulties. Often, the informants have themselves lived in another country and so have had typical sojourner experiences: Being puzzled by cultural differences, loneliness and homesickness, difficulties communicating effectively with host nationals, and so forth.

Cultural informants often enjoy developing relationships with sojourners. Most sojourners eventually make a successful adjustment and develop feelings of self-confidence that they can deal with any difficulties that life brings to them. By interacting with sojourners, cultural informants can be reminded of their own adjustment successes and can also share interests based on their international experiences. Often, interacting with sojourners becomes the only opportunity for informants to use their hard-won, highly valued international knowledge.

In his discussion with Sharon, Ross brought up a point about training programs that will always be troublesome. So much information is presented that not all of it can possibly find a place in a person's memory. Cultural informants can provide frequent reminders of cultural practices that may have been covered during training but that were imperfectly remembered.

In Hawaii, informants would remind newcomers, "Always takes your shoes off before entering someone's house." In many Asian countries, good advice is, "Be very careful about disagreeing with others in public. People do not distinguish the perceived worth of their ideas from the perceived worth of themselves as human beings. In Germany, the advice might be, "No matter what topic you might bring up during informal conversations, be prepared for someone to turn it into a serious discussion that will remind you of your most difficult college courses." If people can avoid the social embarrassment of making culturally based social errors, their adjustment will be smoother.

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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