I’m borrowing the title from a book I randomly pulled off the shelf yesterday – Working Across Cultures, by John Hooker (2003) – as it certainly describes the attitude that I carried to Singapore as a young adult migrating from Australia. On temporary assignment, I was being posted for nine months to complete a project to deliver an effective quality system in a distribution environment across two countries and three locations. The multiple locations I had done before, however looking back I can see that I was unprepared for the multiple countries and the multiple cultures I needed to work with to achieve my aggressive target.
At the time I was briefed and prepared by the management at home and expatriate management in the host country – I was going to teach these people… These people who called mobile phones “hand phones” and who added -lah as a suffix to words at odd places… I was going to teach them how business was done.
Such was my attitude when I called my first meeting of management stakeholders. Scheduled at ten in the morning, a time I deemed suitable in case anyone was late or needed a few minutes to tackle those urgent requests. I was waiting in the conference room for 15 minutes before I realised that it appeared no one was coming. Being a small office I quickly stuck my head around corners and checked if we were still on. “Coming, coming,” was the general reply. I went back to the conference room and waited. We started at 10:45am.
This was my first introduction to a small difference as to ‘how things were’ and my perception of ‘how things should be’. I spent the first two months of my posting trying to hold meetings on time before finally discussing this with other expatriated westerners who basically agreed that this was “just the way things were.” The Singaporeans didn’t seem to think this was a problem, and it seemed that I was the only one bothered by it. What was wrong with these people?
I was to discover that this perspective is a universalists’ one – where people believe that what is true or correct can ultimately be applied everywhere (Hoecklin, 1995 in Metters, 2008, p. 730) and is one that is generally held by Westerners (Hooker, 2003). The opposite is known as particularism, where the understanding of what is good and right changes depending on circumstances and the relationships involved (Metters, 2008). What started as a small matter – being on time – raised its head in a number of circumstances over the ensuing months, and it was to take 2-3 months for a cultural adjustment to be effected (on me, not ‘them’), and the project proper to be truly underway.
As a product of a ‘western’ education in Australia, was I applying my universalist perspective to my new position? I was 23. Was this style of thinking attributable solely to my culture? Certainly not. I’m sure the ego and invincibility of my youth had something to do with it, but I’m also sure it was partly my upbringing and cultural programming (Hofstede, 2010) that lead me to the perspective that it was only a matter of time before ‘these people’ picked up on the truth of what I had to teach, and learn that my western way was the only logical conclusion.
This was almost 20 years ago, and nowadays businesses in general appear to make relevant noises about making the appropriate concessions to their host cultures. My motivation for conducting research in this area is that I still receive anecdotal ‘complaints’ that culture still matters, that it gets in the way, and that managers bang their noses against cultural patterns when implementing decisions across multiple locations in multiple countries.
My cultural journey started twenty years ago with a universalist’s mindset, and I started this research journey with Hofstede’s cultural dimensions as a starting reference point from which to address this ‘banging of noses.’ I am trying to investigate an approach that might shy away from stereotypes and the idea that cultural misunderstanding is a ‘problem.’ Cultural generalisations do not necessarily hold true at individual level due to the ‘noise’ that exists from other influences (eg. personality), and I’m currently trying to navigate through the myriad of literature that makes this claim, however it is at individual level that we experience and articulate our difficulties. This is why I chose qualitative methods for my investigation technique. In doing business we deal with individuals, and it is individuals that often complain about cultural difficulties.
Hopefully I can contribute to this ongoing discussion in a meaningful way.
I am struggling with writing and finding my voice. My notes above are for reflection and comment, but I ask that you be constructive in your feedback.
Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J. & Minkov, M., 2010, Cultures and Organizations : Software for the Mind (3rd Edition), McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, New York, NY, USA.
Hooker, J., 2003, Working across cultures, Stanford Business Books, Stanford, Calif..
Metters, R., 2008, A case study of national culture and offshoring services, International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 28(8), pp. 727 – 747.