Ever watched any American movie and stumbled upon a scene where a teenage boy or girl yells at their parent? Ever wondered how “ill bred” that teenager was? Have you ever paused to think how weak and indulging the parent was? Well, I did, and I got exacerbated and triggered, but I got very curious as well. Growing up in a purely Egyptian household and being exposed to Egyptian drama with a heightened sense of morality and very sharp views of right and wrong; the only acceptable scenario was for that kid to be slapped on the face accompanied by an exceedingly dramatic music in the background. Anything less than that would be too hazardous to the very core of the Egyptian family values. And given the popularity of Egyptian drama in the Arab world during the 90s, I am assuming people my age in the rest of the Arab world have an idea about what I am talking about.
I tried to understand the cultural context in which it was acceptable for a young person, any young person, to be rude to a parent, or any elderly person in the society for that matter, and not be immediately made an example of -for the future generations- as “the boy who dared to raise his voice and talk back to his parents”. At first, I wasn’t thinking as much as I was judging. American philosopher, William James wasn’t lying when he said, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” After all, my cultural background mandates a blind obedience to the elderly and to figures of authority and anyone who outranks you in a specific social context. Things are definitely different now, but in the city where I grew during the mid-80s, 90s and early 2000s, talking back meant only one thing: rude.
This issue continued to preoccupy me especially when I started working in more culturally diverse settings, that while I had a very complicated relationship with authority where I was brought up to yield to it but grew more hateful and more resentful towards it. I also grew more ambivalent! I realized that people elsewhere had an entirely different relationship with authority; one where they felt equal, one where people in a position of authority are recognized more as people in service and less as people to be obeyed. It wasn’t until I was nagging my husband with those thoughts and him throwing the words “Hofstede cultural dimensions”, for me to chew on, that I finally had a conceptual model that voiced and organized all my thoughts.
Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist, and he defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others”. “Collective programming”, well at least he got that right!
While this article is far from a scientific review, we can still sneak a peek at his model and see how it can be meaningful to us in our daily lives.
Hofstede explored 6 cultural dimensions (Hofstede, 2011):
- Power Distance, related to the different solutions to the basic problem of human inequality.
- Uncertainty Avoidance, related to the level of stress in a society in the face of an
- Individualism versus Collectivism, related to the integration of individuals into
- Masculinity versus Femininity, related to the division of emotional roles between
women and men.
- Long Term versus Short Term Orientation, related to the choice of focus for
people’s efforts: the future or the present and past.
- Indulgence versus Restraint, related to the gratification versus control of basic
human desires related to enjoying life.
What does that mean?!
While it is way out of scope of this humble article of mine to explain what the above means, I will only relay what I found particularly interesting. When Hofstede tested his theory in over 30 countries, each country scored differently on each dimension and those differences were statistically significant. He, also, found correlations between the five personality dimensions (Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to experience, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness) and the culture dimension score of each country. In other words, culture and personality go hand in hand! Therefore, a cultural background is, in fact, a determinant of individual behavior.
When Hofstede explained the first cultural dimension; power distance (of a particularly great interest to me) I got my first answer. He explained that in cultures with small power distance, parents treat children as their equals AND older people are neither respected nor feared, his words not mine! On the contrary, in cultures with a large power distance, Hofstede found that “Power is a basic fact of society” and it comes before good or evil, it’s irrelevant whether it’s legitimate or not, parents teach children obedience and older people are both respected and feared. Sounds familiar? Exactly, it is like my own upbringing versus the kid in the movie.
If you review the rest of the cultural dimensions and start seeing them from your own personal point of view, you will understand how your cultural programming have influenced your idea about the world. In general, most of our ideas about race, age and gender arise from our cultural background, and working in a culturally diverse setting challenges those ideas on daily basis. I personally find it very healthy for my core beliefs about myself, environment, and the others to be challenged every once in a while. But I know for fact that others might not be open to the idea, in that case I find it important to understand why and how to navigate a culturally diverse setting.
How this might be of value to us regular folks
Very few work settings right now consist of a culturally homogenous workforce. And it’s not just at work; in fact multicultural, multiracial families are very in right now. I live in a city where almost everyone is an expat, and almost everyone calls it home; you got it; it’s Dubai. So what happens when you find yourself in a situation where you work with a culturally diverse team? You probably might think that being polite, respectful will be the winning card. While that is absolutely necessary and might serve you well in the short term, you will need a more effective strategy on the long run and especially when conflict arises.
Navigating multicultural work settings
I remember when this brilliant Greek scientist I worked with was infuriated because her Indian colleague used a certain hand gesture when she asked him to do something. Turns out later this hand gesture meant “please wait for a bit” but in her cultural context, it was purely threatening, and her hot Cretan blood just couldn’t take it. A simple explanation and a few laughs later, the issue was resolved. I witnessed another incident where one colleague was loud, and borderline disrespectful towards another. They were from different cultural backgrounds and the victim in that scenario did not respond, did not speak up and did not even file a complaint. It took an hour with three other colleagues from the same nationality to convince her to speak up and clearly express how she felt and what she thought of this behavior. A respectful conversation later, a simple apology and the issue was amicably resolved.
If you come from a place where speaking up was encouraged, you might think that people who do not speak up are passive or worse yet, cowardly. In many societies, speaking up could be punishable, either by loss of privileges or microaggressions here and there. You will be tempted to judge for a behavior that is foreign to you, but the truth is, after years of perceiving speaking up as irrational and/or costly, it is quite unreasonable to expect that perspective to change overnight.
What you can do
While managing a culturally diverse workforce lies heavily on the shoulders of the leadership, we all still need to learn how to navigate such settings in a way that allows us to become our true, unadulterated selves while seamlessly working with others in a setting that makes everyone feel valued and equal.
- Be curious
Ask general questions about the person’s place of upbringing. General questions about the place and the cuisine could help make people comfortable as themselves without having to sacrifice a part of their identity to fit in. it is, also, a good ice breaker. Resist the urge to make funny comments, some may find that disrespectful.
- Don’t make assumptions
Don’t assume that a certain behavior means one thing or another. If you do not understand something, ask questions. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, communicate how you feel and what you think.
As frustrating as it is to find your team members not delivering what they promised, it is wise to understand that, for people from certain cultural backgrounds, stating that they can’t do something is simply unfathomable and unacceptable. What might be wise is to raise those concerns, ask questions, offer support, and understand that you can either highlight a problem or be part of the solution.
- Understand what you bring into the mix
You might think that your cultural background is the norm, especially if you are working in your hometown or in a region that is culturally similar to your hometown. Understand that this is not how others may see you. Your behavior may be foreign to them, and you might be making them uncomfortable one way or another. For example, most of us Arabs tend to ask personal questions about family and children while other people may not be comfortable talking about family in their workplace. Discussing money or how much you spend on an item is a big NO NO for some and not such a big deal for others.
- Steer away from minefields
Discussing topics like religion and politics is never a good idea in a family gathering, discussing them at work is just asking for trouble. Understand the value of EI
- Understand the value of EI
In their paper titled “Emotional and cultural intelligence in diverse workplaces: getting out of the box” (Clark & Polesello, 2017), the authors concluded that emotional intelligence -as a construct- can be valuable in a culturally diverse workplace by creating positive attitudes toward diversity, assisting in interactions, and managing conflict. While some people naturally score high on emotional intelligence, the rest of us can learn to get better. Make others feel safe and included if you can, and at times, perhaps, give voice to the voiceless.
I can conclude all this by saying two words: communicate better!
Hofstede, G. (2011). Hofstede 2011.Pdf. Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Models in Context, 2, 1–26.
Clark, J. M., & Polesello, D. (2017). Emotional and cultural intelligence in diverse workplaces: Getting out of the box. Industrial and Commercial Training, 49(7/8), 337–349. https://doi.org/10.1108/ICT-06-2017-0040