Why Cultural Differences Matter – And Just How Much

I’ll get straight to the point: They matter because they have the power to engender that most horrible feeling in human interactions – DISTRUST.

Distrust is the worst thing you can have in a relationship with another person, especially a person you want something from (attention, appreciation, time, a job, an apartment).

I have found that it’s instinctively difficult for people to trust individuals with a different communication style.

Blatant self-promotion might be the order of the day in some areas of corporate America, yet it will be perceived as arrogant, shallow, off-putting or downright threatening in countries across Europe and Asia. (In Germany, starting a paragraph in a cover letter with the word “I” is actually a no-no. Countless tutorials will teach you the right twist of phrase just to avoid putting yourself first. It is all about teamwork here.)

Or can you imagine a low-key, introverted person landing a great job in sales in the U.S.?  And yet, in some country you are better positioned to make a sale if you can sit and sip tea while complimenting your partner’s carpet collection or talking about family.

If I don’t trust my doctor’s communication style, I am more likely to doubt his competence and even reject a valid treatment option. Cultural differences and cultural expectations can actually endanger my health, my status in a team, my social relationships, my satisfaction with life.

Much of what immigrants call discrimination has to do with the distrust (on both sides!) which stems from different communication styles. It’s natural.  It’s not always personal. Life is complex, people need to make quick decisions, so they think in patterns and categories. Anything outside the norm is likely to receive tentative, sub-optimal treatment. (Imagine how much a lack of proficiency in the new language, or having a different skin color can add to this effect!)

Of course prejudice usually underlies, reinforces and strengthens our perception of a cultural difference. Prejudice makes us more aware of a difference – we see what we want to see, and we reject everything else.

And that is precisely why cultural awareness and culturally-aware communication are so important. Whether for a job interview, making friends, traveling abroad or just going shopping, holding a simple meeting or launching difficult negotiations with far-reaching implications, culture matters.

Getting past our own blind spot, knowing ourselves, our filters and our own sets of assumptions and attitudes – and knowing the other – that is the key to successful intercultural communication.

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