Profiles in Diversity Journal Second Quarter 2022

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executives’ faces just turned ashen because the elephant is a very sacred animal in Thailand. So they asked, ‘But why would you eat an elephant? Do Australians eat elephants?!’” xiii These stories illustrate the ways in which communication itself presents yet another barrier to overcoming cultural differences. But words alone are not the problem. Language consists not just of defined words and rules, but also the informal rules about speaking, listening, and even nonverbal body language. Let’s explore these ideas by first considering an emotional man named Spike and his calm counterpart Serena.

Neutral ---------------- Affective Spike and Serena are both honest, hard working and intelligent people, but to the outward observer they could hardly be more different. Spike shows his emotions easily. Some say he is volatile. He’s quick to flash a smile, but with the right spark, that smile can just as quickly devolve into anger or frustration. Spike is affective. Serena, by contrast, keeps her emotions in check. Rarely do you see her angry. She is calm, even stoic. When she is happy, she tries to hide it from others, even stifling her laughs or putting her hand over her mouth as if embarrassed. Serena is neutral. xiv Now imagine how you might perceive Spike and Serena if they were your coworkers. Let’s say one day you’re in a meeting where you find out the company made a costly, and let’s be honest, a dumb mistake. Spike reacts to the news by slamming his hands on the table and shouting angrily. His face is also contorted in anger. Now consider your probable interpretation of this behavior. You might say, “Whatever, he always does that. It’ll pass.” But now imagine if Serena acted in this way. For her, this is a remarkable display of anger. You might instead say, ‘Oh boy, this must be serious. Did you see how angry she was? She’s never like that.”


2022 Second Quarter

We judge others through interactions, and so these and other differences in communication styles can lead to vastly different interpretations of people. Indeed, this is the incubator in which so many stereotypes grow strong.

The point is that how we interpret emotions is largely driven by what we expect of the emoting person. But Spike is not just your coworker. He may be seen as a stand-in for the highly emotive, or “affective” cultures found in many Middle Eastern, Latin American, and Latin European countries. xv Serena may represent the neutral cultures of the Japanese, Ethiopians, or Austrians. xvi We judge others through interactions, and so these and other differences in communication styles can lead to vastly different interpretations of people. Indeed, this is the incubator in which so many stereotypes grow strong. Neutrals traveling to an affective country full of Spikes, for example, may be tempted to say that their “blood runs hot,” just as affectives in a neutral country full of Serenas may feel they’re in a place full of cold-hearted dullards. But in truth, culture strongly influences an individual’s affective tendencies. Suppose Spike lives in an affective society and really wants to make it known that he is angry (or happy or sad); given how affective he and everyone around him is on a regular basis, he must be even more emotional than normal. To make any impact at all on his colleagues, he may have to scream like mad before storming out of the conference room (or laugh more than normal or shed tears). He is thus enculturated, or “mentally programmed,” to behave emotionally. And if Serena lives in a neutral culture, she knows that even

a minor expression of emotion may signal strong emotions. xvii To behave as Spike regularly does might be truly shocking. Although Americans are moderately affective on the whole, they tend to take a neutral approach within the business context. xviii Why the difference? The “it’s not personal, it’s business” mentality so often seen in American offices arises from a universalist perspective, which reinforces a rule-based approach to business in which human relations are somewhat subordinated to objective skills and general standards. This rules-based approach, in theory applicable to everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, and the like, is considered “fair” and even ethical, and thus provides the justification for a relatively dispassionate approach to business. Understanding the relative affectivity of the culture from which come your business partners, customers, and colleagues is important: the cross-cultural business person seeks not to miss the note of dissatisfaction that passes ever so subtly over Serena’s face; she avoids taking offense, or attributing too much significance, when Spike behaves affectively. Mutual understanding is at the heart of business relationships, but the risk of misunderstanding and the potential for mistrust is even higher in cross-cultural relationships. As the Wall Street Journal’s piece on emails lost in translation illustrates, communication is an imperfect art even among countrymen. PDJ