I’ve been following Cindy King both on the internet and on Twitter. She’s an International Sales Expert, but also an amazing connector of all things interntional and intercultural. In the past I’ve referenced websites like culturecrossing.net, which aim to provide a quick “How To” guide to cross-cultural etiquette and understanding. I have said I find the sites helpful, but that they need to be used with a certain degree of latitude–as a starting point for conversation, rather than as a definititve predictor of behavior.
However, I do see Ms. King’s point, and think she may be more on target, with the word “entertainment” as the best descriptor. What do you think? Have you found them helpful? Have they steared you wrong and caused problems?
Cultural Generalizations and Stereotypes
by Cindy King, originally posted at cindyking.biz
Can generalizations like the ones you will find in the book Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands help you market to foreign clients?
I personally do not think so.
From My Experience
Twenty years ago I noticed examples where acceptance of such generalizations harmful to international business development.
Some people “learn” these generalizations, assume they are always right and do not make any effort to adapt to circumstances.
They believe they have been good students and will get straight A’s on their performance.
Mega, explosive miscommunication, right around the corner. It is just a question of waiting for it to go off.
Analyzing differences and making generalizing and assumptions to use in future conversations can easily lead to misunderstandings.
New Nuances For Old World Generalizations
Today I think it is even more foolish to use such generalizations in business. The reasons are multiple:
Most of these generalizations have been around for so long, that a generation or two have gone by and no longer truly representative to the whole country’s demographics. Even senior citizens may no longer correspond to these generalizations.
This trend to try to categorize certain cultural differences sometimes goes too far. Something may have been an accepted practice at a certain time and in a certain set of circumstances. That does not mean it can or should be taken out of context.
Internet, or rather the English language culture on the internet, and online media have influenced different market segments within foreign country on different levels. This means that some market segments in foreign cultures will interact with you different. They have learned to navigate in different environments.
The best way to read such generalizations is as pure entertainment.
I only think about generalizations when I meet up for the first time with someone who is culturally traveled and experienced. It is more like sharing old war stories. There is nostalgia in the air. Never prejudice or ill thoughts.
In every country I have lived there has been another race of people used as the underdog. When you change countries the jokes stay the same, but the nationality changed. You know, the ones where it takes several people to change the light bulb, one to hold and everyone else to turn the chair around.
Many generalizations seem to aim to strike the same cord, or one very close to these bad jokes.
In my experience any other reference to generalization of cultural habits always leads to fruitless conversations. Everyone has prejudices. And this is often an easy way to see prejudices in others. It does not help conversations move forward.
A Closer Look At The Book
But just a second, before I sign off, I actually have that book somewhere… let me go grab it so I can give you some specific reasons why I do not think it is a good idea…
Well the first one I grabbed is the Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands: Europe. This is just as well.
Let’s see if he trys yet again to explain the culturally correct number of times you need to kiss someone on the cheek as a greeting here in France. There is none. It depends on who is on the receiving end. Anywhere for 1 to 4 usually. And there is no logical, rational way to know if you are a foreigner. I just stick my cheek out and wait for it to be over.
And it was only in Italy where I saw kisses going on into two-digit numbers.
Well the first example is good enough.
Which of the following are characteristics of most French conversations?
- Attentive listening
- Waiting for the other person to finish
- Scrupulous accuracy
The book says the correct answer is none of the above.
I think this is not a good question to represent cultural differences.
- What do you consider attentive listening?
- What do you consider as polite listening?
- What do you consider as polite?
Whatever your answer, that is the problem. Your answer will be different from someone from a different culture. Perceptions of politeness are different in different cultures.
Besides I cannot say I agree with the answer. In my experience French people are just as attentive listeners as other cultures, they wait to hear what I say and as fas as I know they do not avoid accuracy in their conversations. It would be wrong to make these statements generalizations.
Learn Culture Through Practice
Now let’s lighten things up and only look at this for entertainment.
Can I easily imagine meeting a French person and having these conversation problems? A lack of attentive listening, interruptions and a slight disrespect for accuracy.
Well I could stretch my imagination and create a conversation I have never had. But I could also easily imagine the same conversation with a New Yorker for example.
By the way, I have also read the book Blunders In International Business by David Ricks. I would find this more instructive for business purposes, simply because it gives cultural blunders in business. It tells stories. This means you can see more and understand more. But this book too fails miserably in giving you accurate generalizations and guidelines.
And there is a simple reason why.
You must learn to adapt to different cultures through practice.
I’m always doubtful of those books that describe the ettiqute of a country in a page or two, before moving on to the next country. But other books that spend time going into cultural details of a particular nation – like, say The German Way have been quite helpful to me in the past. Obviously, you want to take everything with a grain of salt – and expect that a particular generalization may or may not apply to any particular individual you encounter – but as I’ve posted before, I don’t think that cultural generalizations are all bad.
And sometimes, even those little rules of etiquette that can be found in the type of books that Cindy is talking about are useful. For instance, the simple rule that it’s polite in Germany to eat with both hands on the table (or otherwise visible). Rules like that aren’t going to take you far with cultural differences (as I’ve just blogged about), but following them doesn’t hurt either.