Business, on every level, is becoming more multi-cultural. Whether it’s embracing diversity internally, expanding to multiple sites around the world, or entering distant markets such as China, never has it been so important for us to learn how to connect with people whose background and experiences may be fundamentally different than our own. With this month’s videos, Big Think+ is your guide as you rise to the challenge. We’ll help you strengthen your cultural intelligence, and show you how to find your place in this unprecedented intertwining of cultures.
Behavioral scientist Hazel Markus’ Big Think+ video “Conduct Business in Context” is the perfect foundation on which to build the month’s lessons. In it, Markus talks about the most basic building block in any business relationship: The individuals involved. The video exposes how differences in the role of the individual in different cultures can be one of the most vexing obstacles to cross-cultural understanding.
Independent vs. Interdependent
Markus divides the business world roughly into two parts, the Western/Global Northern region, and the Eastern/Global Southern region.
- Western/Global Northern people consider themselves individuals, unique but equal, free to express and look after their own interests. Personally independent. Markus has a nickname for them/us: WEIRDs. That stands for “Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic. They’re highly influential even though they comprise just 15% of the world’s population.
- Eastern/Global people — non-WEIRDs — on the other hand, see themselves as interdependent with others, contributors to the social whole, and view fitting in and fulfilling one’s obligations to family and friends as ethical imperatives.
There are a handful of business practices in particular that carry opposite meanings within the two cultural contexts. Markus mentions four in particular: nepotism, cronyism, bribery, and mandatory gift-giving.
In the West, we have laws against these things. In the East, though, they make perfect ethical sense: “From an interdependent worldview, an interdependent understanding,” Markus points out, “it seems obvious that if you are in a position to find employment, find a job for someone, especially in situations where employment opportunities are scarce, why wouldn’t you hire a family member? Why wouldn’t you hire a friend?”
Obviously, these are two really different views, and unless they understand this difference, both groups must consider the other, well, pretty weird. The WEIRDs would assume the non-WEIRDS to be corrupt, maybe even criminal, and the non-WEIRDs would dismiss the WEIRDs as foolish.
Now imagine a negotiation between them. They might as well be from different planets.
When the twain meet
Markus warns against waiting for the other person to come around to what you think is the right way to be. “That’s not going to happen.” Instead, there are some things you can do to help maintain a productive, positive relationship.
First, you’ve got to accept the other person as a genuine equal:
- Avoid negatively judging the other person’s character based on the ethical way to behave in your own culture.
- People living in different parts of the world and in different conditions have been developing their own strategies for thousands of years, and it’s not surprising different societies come to different solutions. Neither your culture nor theirs is right, or wrong.
From that equal footing, you can seek out solutions that make sense for both of you. When you do need to insist on something that’s not sitting well with your partner, learn to be comfortable with explaining why that position makes sense for you, and be careful to communicate your understanding of how it may be seen differently across the table. As Markus concludes, “It’s much easier and much more efficient to negotiate, bridge a divide, calm a clash if you can show that you understand, you appreciate, and you have respect from a perspective that’s rooted in another moral system, in another understanding of what it means to be a good person in the world.”