Lessons in Cultural Adaptability: Varying Attitudes in Eastern and Western Cultures on Project Decisions and Direction

There’s a recent article featured on HBR that examines how people’s attitudes in the workplace depend on their relationship toward authority, which is largely driven by the culture they grew up in. Take for example, the difference between Western and Eastern cultures.

In the West, we are asked to be more proactive and a strategic leader is seen as more valuable than a tactician. In Asia, employees expect to learn their tasks play-by-play from their bosses. When American managers are assigned to Asia, or Asian managers are asked to work with American employees, disagreements ensue.

I see this first hand in my experience working with Asian colleagues from the Philippines. Part of my job is to provide marketing guidance to our team in Asia in a consultative environment. The recurring question is: How do we transform our marketing in the digital world? During our weekly meetings, those in the Philippines ask for rules and guidelines that they can follow step-by-step.

They ask about which specific media channel they should invest in: should we put all our media budget on Facebook?

They come to us looking for what amounts to laws of the land, or hard-and-fast rules that are rigid but comforting to them as they are well-defined. Is Facebook the one channel that will give us the best results?

My American colleague and I hesitate to provide them with a singular way to achieve a certain goal, because we wanted to encourage autonomy and creativity. In this case, they are a variety of media channels that they can look into investing in, not just Facebook. So we tell them over and over again that it would serve them well to look at the data, understand consumer behavior, and research media channels that are both successful and innovative in the market to make the right decision on their investments.

Yet, at the end of these meetings, our Filipino counterparts feel they are not given enough guidance because they are not given specific answers nor been told to go a specific direction. Whereas us here in the States feel that by looking for “rules” and “step-by-step” lists, they may be thinking in a rather short-sighted way, reluctant to open themselves up to new ways of doing things (ie. data-based decision making and experimenting with other digital channels).

In these interactions, I’m learning that Eastern culture emphasizes the importance of doing well what one is told to do, while Western culture emphasizes generating new ideas and collaborating on solutions.

Now, I’m trying to balance the cultural expectation of providing specific directions while also introducing a cultural change to think more freely, independently and rely on hard evidence such as data. I’ll suggest a specific scenario to answer their questions, then walk them through the process of why it would work, while reminding them that it’s not the only answer to their challenges.

Understanding cultural contexts allows us to make changes to our actions and communication in order to relate better to our peers.


Kindness or Directness as a Influencing Tactic?

Living in Asia makes you realize that there are communities in the world who see kindness is a strength, not a weakness. In my corporate experience in a big city like Chicago, I was rewarded more when I was firm with people, when I pushed back to claim what my team needed, and when I talked in a way that’s more matter-of-fact than friendly. Strength and grit is rewarded here in the States, while in Asia, it’s the opposite. If you’re brief and firm, people don’t see it as being curt and respect you for it– they see it as antagonistic and tell you you’re bossy.

So what’s an expat to do? One who commutes back and forth, and sees the dichotomy between two cultures amplified? It’s a lesson in adapting, for sure. Fortunately, I have friends in both places who understand the hard task of frequently having to navigate between cultures, and I confide in them to help me interpret situations. As we discussed this, we agreed that relating to people in different cultures means having toolbox with a set of tools (ie. knowledge about relational tactics that will make you more favorable in a certain culture). The more cultures you have to deal with, the more tools you collect as you learn more about it, expanding your toolbox.

The next time I need a team in Asia to do something, I’ll try a kinder approach– one that’s more friendly, even humbling oneself– since they respond better to this and will do the work with more motivation. They will see it as doing work they owe to you, as a kind boss. If I use this same approach in the States, it will be seen as weak, not strong enough to earn the respect of the team that they will not end up doing the work I ask them to do. So in that context, I will be more direct and straightforward, and discuss common objectives as a team to accomplishing the work.¬†They will see it as doing the work for common ideals, as a team striving for success.

Being Passionate about One’s Work

I was sitting at the Peet’s Coffee location across the street from my Chicago condo earlier today, reading analytics books and writing down ideas. Typical weekend activity for me– engaged in learning, being stimulated by insights, ideating about how to put it all in practice. There was an older man across the table from me, who was reading his morning paper while sipping a cup of coffee. He kept looking at my table and I thought maybe he thought he knew me or something. I don’t know this guy. It was a little creepy. Then, several minutes later, he got up to leave but not before passing by my desk and asking what I am studying. I didn’t know what he meant at first, but it occurred to me that he thought I was a student. Ha, I guess I can’t complain if people mistake me for being younger than my actual age. I said I was studying analytics, and hoping he won’t ask me exactly what it was because I was so immersed in my book that I didn’t have the patience to engage in conversation. He said, “It looks like you are very passionate about what you’re studying. I can see you’re so focused, and your passion for it shows.”

I’ve been described as a passionate, excitable individual, and I usually don’t like it because it connotes that I’m emotional especially among people who mistake my excitement for being temperamental or melodramatic. On this occasion, I’m glad I am seen as one ūüôā I’d like to be seen as someone dedicated to my work, which is why I continuously strive to work on something worth doing. One of the biggest motivation in my life is purpose, the fuel that keeps me going when I know that my work matters and it is a means to bring out something good in this world. I hope I get to use my skills– in marketing, analytics or otherwise– to bring value to society, whether economically, socially or spiritually.

What it Means to Have a Global Perspective

There is a great talk on Ted about the importance of listening to global voices and interacting with people outside your country of origin.¬†Although this talk was from three years ago and I was only able to watch today, the content contained in the video is now more relevant than ever. It’s about the importance of going beyond the surface fascination of a globally connected world, but knowing the consequences of that, and identifying ways to participate by¬†thinking of the specific connecting thread that enables us to relate to others outside of the country we live in. What is the “common language” ¬†you share with people from other parts of the world, that which connects you to those who are wildly distant and different from you?

This question hearkens back to the presentation made by Deborah Alden and Lawrence Abramson during the Design Research Conference hosted by the Illinois Institute of Technology. They made the case for why “third culture” kids¬†are some of the best creative professionals to hire: they can speak another language (literally), they are adaptable, they have a different perspective– all because they are used to straddling different cultures while they were growing up. The benefits of being a third culture kid has been on the pop culture lately too.

Many people think they have a global perspective. They’ve traveled to more than few countries, did study abroad, and get along with the French or Italian they met at work or through social gatherings. But are these experiences enough to say one is culturally adaptable or even sensitive¬†to cultures different from their own? I think that in order to¬†truly have a global perspective, some criteria must be met, especially for Americans.

Understand your position in the global society.

Generally speaking, news around the world revolve around America. If we live in the most powerful country in the world, and people watch our every move, it seems like there is a tendency to ignore what people in other countries are dealing with. It’s like we’re the celebrity and everyone else is a fan– they need to know about us, but we don’t need to know about them, right? (Who cares anyway? We only care about us!)¬†This creates a country with people who are mostly concerned with local news, and stops there. And these people are those who read the news to begin with. This is part of a much bigger problem: the lack of general interest in news, let alone news¬†from another part of the world. I suggest that we pay attention to how you are perceived by others when you travel to another country, and take interest in news around the world, not just our own.

Knowing that you don’t own the world.

For Americans who haven’t spent a lot of time outside the country, there is an assumption that the world outside is just like America, with the same rules and cultural norms, just a different country with a different language with people who look different. What is not apparently seen is that the everyday liberties that Americans enjoy at home are not carried in another country. We can’t act like we do at home, when we are not at home. I see my friends and peers going to another country and acting exactly the same way they do at home, at the expense of following cultural norms in the destination country. To locals in those countries, what they see is rudeness or disregard to their culture– the way of living they have set in their own country.

Think about the environments you grew up in, and how your experiences with other cultures changed the way you think. 

If you grow up in a community where people around you looked, acted and thought in the same way you did, chances are your worldview is quite ethnocentric. All of us are ethnocentric to a certain extent, since we each have our own cultural identity, but those who have not been exposed to other cultures are prone to think that their own culture are more important or superior than others. Ethnocentric people tend to judge others based on how they deviate from the ethnocentric’s culture. This does not only apply to the majority (Caucasians), but to anyone who grew up in a neighborhood whose predominant residents are people like you. Take a trip around other neighborhood whose demographic makeup is different from yours, and see how the people there see things differently. Put yourself in others’ shoes by having a companion and engaging in conversation to understand how he or she sees his or her world.

Being “culturally” minded goes beyond having friends with a different skin color or country of origin.¬†

Many people who have grown up in the States are proud of the fact that America is a diverse country. Taken as a whole, yes, America is a diverse, multicultural country. You see people from different parts of the world coming together in this country and interacting with each other. Yet, this feature is concentrated in major cities and the coasts. There are neighborhood pockets where diversity is not present. It could also be the case that people may be from other parts of the world but otherwise are still exactly like you. When I studied at Stanford in the summer of 2009, a lot of my classmates hailed from different countries, and it was this beautiful, multicultural group. Yet when looking closely at the class profile, we were the same people: raised in comfortable environments, went to the best schools, and have been given the resources to get a leg up in the work force that we will soon be entering. We looked like a diverse group, comprised of all races, but we had the relatively the same student profiles.

Developing a global perspective is not just a luxury or a convenience, but it is necessary in a connected world. This will afford us an advantage in navigating the new era that we will inevitably be living in. It cannot be any more true even for us, third culture kids who have spent our every day trying to adapt to various environments. It is something we have to continuously develop, and we will become richer with the experience.

The Variation Within All of Us

I attended a panel session a month ago that featured leaders in my company who have worked abroad in some capacity. They’ve been sent to Russia, the Middle East, China, Poland, South Africa, India, to name a few countries. They shared advice on how to initiate the conversation with managers and HR if we are planning on designing an international career for ourselves.

To me, what was remarkable about the insights they shared had nothing to do with their professional experiences, even if that was what the primary reason I was at that event. The stories they shared– such as being an uncomfortably noticeable Caucasian woman in China, or being stared at as an Asian woman in Russia– resonated with me because it drew a parallel to what minorities struggle with right here in the States. And by minority, I am not necessarily referring to race. I’m referring to groups of people who live on the periphery, on the margins, due to situational factors that group them outside of the mainstream, such as religion, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. Jewish people, gay people, minorities, women– these are some example of people who live on the sidelines, which gives them a different experience of life than the rest.

I’m not sure if the panelists– most of whom were Caucasian, a representation of the makeup of the agency– were aware of this. The hypervisibility, singularity and objectification they felt were part of what psychologists call¬†acculturative stress, as they adapted to a new culture and worked through the changes of an environment dissimilar from their own. I think its good for people who have grown up as part of the majority to have this experience, especially those who were raised in America. Individuals who led a relatively comfortable upbringing in a place where the dominant culture is their own, who enjoyed the privilege to be themselves and were spared from being the recipients of negative feedback when expressing their opinions because they are perceived to command and dominate.

In marketing, this¬†acculturative stress is akin to experiencing fatigue when thrusted into a new environment, in which schemas are not readily apparent and have to be observed in order to understand. The indicators of “culture” that become invisible to us when we’re acculturated to a particular environment, such as jargon/slang, popular entertainment, worldview, etc., become barriers to those who are trying to adapt to our environment because to them, these “invisible” ¬† markers of culture stick out. They are hypervigilant of these things and they receive it as separators that stand between them and everyone else. They start seeing themselves as the “other,” and this “otherness” is further fed by the majority group’s feedback toward these individuals, whether through stares or call outs of different mannerisms as “weirdness,” which causes them to further draw a line between them and the rest.

What I described above is not only relevant in racial situations, but rather, it occurs when someone enters a new group that has a dominant culture different from their own. A country girl who moves to the city. A child who grew up in poverty who is placed among kids who grew up privileged. An employee who enters a different industry. Someone who grew up in a diverse environment and moved to some place homogenous.

I notice that as a society, we attempt to be politically correct and avoid acknowledging sensitive topics such as race. We are afraid of pointing to someone different because we don’t want to single them out. We pretend life is a random walk, where we imagine things in the set are wildly varied, and we stop there. Sometimes, environments have little variation, which make us deluded when we imagine that environments are diverse. And when there is some level of variation, we don’t appreciate the individual tiles that make up the mosaic. What we fail to acknowledge is the culture in which an individual identifies with is central to that person’s identity. When we disregard someone’s race, we miss a big part of what makes that person distinct. We fail to see the whole person, in favor of what is convenient.