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Sensitivity to other cultures

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2006. Sensitivity to other cultures. Intercom May 2006:6–8.

For much of my career, I've specialized in editing scientific manuscripts written by people for whom English is a second—and sometimes third or fourth—language. I've relished the challenge of figuring out what each author was trying to say, and I still get considerable pleasure from helping authors translate a message from their own culture's way of saying things into something readers from a very different culture can understand and appreciate. This work has also given me many opportunities to understand people from other cultures, and to use that knowledge to communicate with them now that they're my clients and colleagues. In this article, I'll provide a few tips based on my personal experience.

Remember: "They're not like us"

On a fundamental level, all humans are more similar than different: we all hunger, fear, love, hate, and grow frustrated or excited by challenges. But between that fundamental level and the self we present to the world lie many layers of context. Anyone who has grown frustrated trying to explain the subtleties of their emotional state or their position on an issue to someone from their own culture—that is, every single one of us—should be able to appreciate how much more difficult the problem becomes when the listener comes from a different culture. We rely on many layers of cultural and linguistic assumptions when we attempt to communicate, and these layers distort or conceal our fundamental similarities and make "others" seem more alien than they really are.

Cultural assumptions can differ quite enormously, and we need to be prepared for these differences so we can recognize how they shape communication. Let's consider two examples I deal with daily when working with colleagues from Asian cultures. The same principle applies to most cultures and most contexts: a single act can have many variations among cultures.

Even simple things like presenting a business card to a colleague can trip us up. In North America, this is generally a casual affair in which you hand across your card with no ceremony, and the card is tucked into a pocket or thrown into a briefcase with an equal lack of ceremony. But in both China and Japan, business cards are presented with some formality. In general, you should hold your card at the top corners and present it with both hands so it can be read by the recipient; if you’re particularly clever, you've created a version of the card in the appropriate Asian language. When you receive a card from a Japanese or Chinese colleague, you should read it and make some polite comment that shows you've done so; for example, while I was in China, my hosts were pleased by my efforts to confirm that I could properly pronounce their name. However, Japanese bow during the presentation of business cards, with the bow growing increasingly deep as the recipient's age or status increases. Chinese do not bow in this situation, though they may nod their heads.

Once read, the card should be kept close at hand. If you're sitting around a conference table with Chinese hosts, you'll often see the business cards left on the table in front of each person so they can be referred to. In a different situation, such as while mingling at a banquet, the card should be placed carefully in a card holder where it will be safe (though a shirt pocket will do in a pinch), not immediately crumpled into your back pocket or crammed into your wallet.

As a second example, consider how to express disagreement. North Americans assume that public disagreement and debate are not only expected, they're encouraged. But Chinese and Japanese cultures both promote harmony within the group, something that may be difficult to understand if you come from the Western culture of rugged individualism. Indeed, the North American phrase "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" may well become the Japanese observation that "the nail that sticks out will be pounded down". Chinese and Japanese colleagues may be offended by the in-your-face individualism preferred by North Americans. In fact, in China, you can end up in serious relationship difficulty if you publicly embarrass someone by disagreeing vehemently with what they said, because of the concept of mianzi. Mianzi is usually translated as face, in the sense of "losing face", but it means more than that: it represents a combination of one’s public reputation and how well one will be accepted or treated because of that reputation. In embarrassing someone by disagreeing with them publicly, you have reduced their mianzi—but you've also reduced your own mianzi by demonstrating your insensitivity to the need to preserve at least the appearance of harmony.

Human relationships are difficult enough even when we share cultural assumptions. When we don't, simple discourtesies such as failing to treat the presentation of business cards with formal respect or inadvertently embarrassing your hosts by contradicting them add one more irritation to an already frustrating process. Many foreign colleagues have simply grown inured to our Western faux pas, but that doesn't mean we should presume on their kindness. The more of these irritations we can remove, the less frustrating the communication process will become and the more likely we will succeed.

Take the first step

English is unquestionably the world's dominant language, and those of us who speak English as our birth language tend to take it for granted that people from other countries will speak English and accommodate our cultural needs. This assumption can lead to a certain unconscious arrogance that blinds us to the fact that other cultures are equally deserving of respect and accommodation. Many people from other cultures resent the assumption that they should be the ones to accommodate our needs at the expense of their own—and well they should. A Chinese colleague once told me that many Chinese professionals have simply learned to cope with the Western rhetorical approach in the books they read and have learned not to expect anything like what we would call localization. He pointedly avoided answering my question about whether they enjoy or prefer this situation—a telling silence.

Some English-speakers use the observation that many people outside North America speak many languages, and that we don't, to justify sticking to English. After all, they must already know our language, right? Yes, but that's no excuse for forcing someone to test their potentially limited English skills. It makes more sense to adopt the European approach: recognizing and embracing the many languages that exist in a multicultural environment. You can see this to a limited extent in Montreal, where it's normal for bilingual French and English colleagues to switch freely back and forth between French, English, and sometimes-bizarre hybrids of the two during a conversation as their communication needs change—simply choosing whichever language best suits their needs of the moment. If we understand only English, communication with us may still take place in English simply because it is the only shared language. But if we at least attempt to start the dialogue in other people’s language, we have demonstrated that we care enough about their language and culture to make an effort. That humility is appreciated.

Sometimes all that's necessary to begin bridging a cultural gap is making an effort to do so. How well we succeed is often far less important than evidence that we have tried. When I was invited to visit China in 2002, I spent the brief period between deciding to accept the invitation and my departure desperately trying to take that first step. I purchased Scott Seligman's excellent Chinese Business Etiquette and read it carefully. Simultaneously, I purchased language tapes and spent nearly a month striving to cram the complexities of basic Mandarin and pinyin (the current Romanization style for Chinese words) into my reluctant brain. This was an enormous effort, but it paid off dramatically: within moments of beginning a conversation in Chinese, I was rewarded with smiles and compliments from my hosts, and with rapid disappearance of the initial remoteness many Chinese exhibit toward waiguoren (foreigners).

Start by trying to understand

One of the bits of wisdom I've learned over the years is that it becomes much easier to understand other people if you invest some effort understanding their context: what has shaped the goal of their communication and how they attempt to achieve that goal? It's the effort to imagine where others are coming from—their context and how that context shapes what they're saying—that lets us bridge the sometimes formidable gap between different cultures. And when our imagination is weak from lack of practice, preparing for the effort by arming ourselves with knowledge of the other person's culture makes the task that much easier.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved