By David Livermore, PhD
A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with a group of newly acquainted colleagues. As soon as we ordered drinks, Klaus, the German in our group asked Jake (an American), “So who are you going to vote for?” The table suddenly fell silent. All eyes were on Jake.
Jake laughed nervously, looked around at the table, and said, “Hah…let’s not talk about U.S. politics. It’s too embarrassing with a table full of internationals.” Klaus wouldn’t let up. “C’mon man! Are you for Trump or Hillary?”
Jake said, “Okay. I’ll tell you. But here’s the deal. In the U.S., we would never ask someone that question, especially not a new professional acquaintance.
Klaus was dumbfounded. After all, he had loads of American friends on Facebook who were spouting off their opinions about the election. Why on earth would it be taboo to ask someone their candidate of choice? Klaus went on to explain that Germans love a raucous political debate and see it as a favorite topic of conversation.
Neither of the above characterizations is true of all Americans or Germans. But that’s not my point. Whenever we encounter “rude” or unfamiliar behavior, it’s a trigger.
I recently polled my social network for examples of behaviors they had encountered cross-culturally that seemed “rude”. My feed lit up with responses. Here is a small sampling:
- Asking questions that are too personal (Chinese)
- Not starting an email with a friendly greeting (Argentina)
- Looking a superior in the eye (Nigerian)
- Not looking me in the eye (Canadian)
- Using my first name in an introductory email (Slovakian)
- Wasting time on a business call with small talk (German)
- Returning to China and being told, “Wow, you’ve become fat!” (Austrian)
- Not responding to an email (British)
- Asking why I haven’t responded to an email (Emirati)
- Asking how much I paid for my car. (American)
- Spitting on the street (Hong Konger)
- People cutting in line (Australian)
- Standing far apart while talking (Brazilian)
The examples continued…from an Asian businessman who was caught off guard when his new boss told him details about his recent divorce… A U.S. woman who insisted on not hiring domestic help in Morocco only to find out she was insulting the locals…and loads of examples about struggling to find appropriate conversation topics, greetings, knowing who pays for dinner, etc.
Is it any wonder that diverse groups are susceptible to far more misunderstanding, frustration, and gridlock than homogenous ones?
Cultural differences are more pronounced in social settings than in work settings. Yet in many cultures, the social context is the most important environment for building trust.
First, context matters. One Canadian woman with a Pakistani background told me she was always annoyed by the question “Where are you from?” when living in a Canadian suburb. To her, it sounded like, “You’re obviously not from here.” But when she moved to Dubai, she welcomed the question. Given that 90% of the people in Dubai are not from Dubai, it was a natural way to get acquainted.
In addition, there are things my African American friends can say that are appropriate coming from them, and rude and offensive coming from me. It’s never “just words.”
Some people say…this is where political correctness gets you. Everyone needs to just “Lighten Up” and not take things so personally. I think there are times when we’re too quick to be offended. But let’s be honest. Especially when we’re tired or under pressure, a “rude” behavior quickly causes annoyance, and telling someone to “lighten up” helps no one. This is all the more the case if you’re the underrepresented individual in the mix.
Here are a few suggestions for a culturally intelligent way to respond to awkward cross-cultural encounters:
- Begin with positive intent. Before assuming someone was rude, inconsiderate, or “clueless”, start with assuming the best. You might eventually conclude that someone is indeed being rude, but the more the cultural differences between you, the slower you should be at making that judgment. And be aware that some of your behavior, no matter how well intended, may be perceived differently than you intend.
- Seek additional information. Most any behavior makes sense once you get additional information to explain “why” someone acts the way they do. You might still find the behavior offensive. For example, if you’re easily annoyed when people don’t line up in a queue the way you do, stop and consider what it’s like if you live in Asia (6 out of 10 people do!). Pushing is often a necessity, otherwise, you’ll never get on the bus. Someone is going to get left behind and some measure of assertiveness is required to survive.
- Decide in advance how to address the situation. Look at some of the frustrating situations you most often encounter. Then determine some effective ways to respond. In some cases, it might be helpful to use the uncomfortable moment to talk about the differences—just as my dinner mates did when Jake was asked about his preferred presidential candidate. In other cases, it might be practicing how to use a greeting the way locals do.
- Be yourself but adapt just enough. With all the emphasis these days on “being authentic”, some may feel that adapting to these different protocols of etiquette is being inauthentic. But most all of us adapt how we dress, behave, and talk based on the situation. We should do the same thing during intercultural encounters. Consider what behavior will best communication your intentions.
Some of you will notice that the four suggestions above are in fact the four CQ capabilities (CQ Drive—Positive Intent; CQ Knowledge—Gather Information; CQ Strategy—Plan Ahead; and CQ Action—Adapt Just Enough).
What have been some of your most jarring encounters with “rude” behavior cross-culturally? And what are your strategies for handling it? Post this with the addition of your own examples and we’ll see what we discover together!