Having made Singapore my home for the past 11 years and worked in many other countries during this period, I am fascinated by the ways that different people from different countries communicate and work together.
Singapore is one of the most multi-cultural countries I have experienced. I ran a management development workshop recently for a global multinational company and the 21 participants represented 11 nationalities and cultures.
It is important to understand how the different cultures perceive each other and be aware of the “cultural minefield” that may exist within a large organisation.
The research of social psychologist Geert Hofstede in the international management area has led to greater insights into how different cultures see and understand each other. Dr Hofstede discusses four dimensions in understanding organisational management practices: individualism-collectivism; power distance; uncertainty avoidance and masculinity versus femininity.
This dimension centres on organisational practices in individualistic cultures such as Canada, the United States, Australia and Great Britain, contrasted with collectivistic cultures in East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore).
Low power distance (for instance, Canada and the US) subscribes to equal power distribution versus high power distance (Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong) in hierarchical structures.
Dr Hofstede found that Canada and the US are low in uncertainty avoidance. This means that Canadians and Americans like to take risks, take individual initiative and enjoy conflict.
In contrast, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea are high in uncertainty avoidance. People from these countries do not like conflict, but pursue group harmony. Within organisations, they need clear rules, procedures and clearly defined job responsibilities.
Masculinity versus femininity
Dr Hofstede discovered that Japan rated high on masculine dimensions — males expect an “in-charge” role. In contrast, countries like Norway and Sweden have a stronger feminine dimension, which means that roles are more fluid between males and females.
"I" versus "we"
Professor Stella Ting-Toomey and her colleagues Michael Bond, Harry Triandis and Dr Hofstede, consistently found that the individualistic and collectivistic dimension teaches the most about differences between cultures, particularly between East Asian and western cultures.
Individualism and collectivism are connected with the concept of identity — “how do we see our sense of self?”
Individualistic cultures emphasise the “I” identity and collectivistic cultures emphasize the “we” identity, which is a fundamental difference between western and eastern cultures. In individualistic cultures, people tend to be verbally direct: they value openness in communication, learn to self-disclose, like to be clear and straightforward, and contribute to a positive management climate.
In collectivistic group-oriented cultures, indirect communication is preferred because the image of group harmony is essential. In western cultures, talking is very therapeutic; in Asian cultures, there is an emphasis on observing and reflecting about the process.
Research indicates that several patterns of cultural differences exist
The way people communicate varies widely between, and even within, cultures. One aspect of communication style is language usage. Across cultures, some words and phrases are used in different ways.
For example, even in countries that share the English language, the meaning of “yes” varies from “maybe, I'll consider it” to “definitely so”, with many shades in between.
Attitudes toward conflict
Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, while others view it as something to be avoided. In the US, conflict is not usually desirable; but people often are encouraged to deal directly with conflicts that do arise.
In contrast, in many Eastern countries, open conflict is experienced as embarrassing or demeaning. As a rule, differences are best worked out quietly.
Approaches to completing tasks
From culture to culture, there are different ways that people move toward completing tasks.
Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and place more emphasis on task completion toward the end.
European-Americans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task.
The roles individuals play in decision-making vary widely from culture to culture. For example, in the US, decisions are frequently delegated, that is, an official assigns responsibility for a particular matter to a subordinate.
In many Southern European and Latin American countries, there is a strong value placed on holding decision-making responsibilities oneself.
Attitudes toward disclosure
In some cultures, it is not appropriate to be frank about emotions, about the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information.
Keep all this in mind when you are working with others. Though cultural differences and boundaries do exist, it is my experience that the tie of our common humanity binds us together far greater than the divide of our cultural backgrounds.