Intercultural Management in the Global Economy (part 2)

By University Alliance

A Discussion with Notre Dame Professor Elizabeth Tuleja (Part II)

Elizabeth Tuleja As an educator, author, consultant and speaker, Elizabeth A. Tuleja has shared her extensive knowledge of global leadership and intercultural communication with college students, business leaders and military officials.

Since 2009, she has taught at the University of Notre Dame, including campus-based and online courses for the Executive MBA and MBA programs at the Mendoza College of Business. In addition, Tuleja is a faculty fellow at the University’s Institute for Asia and Asian Studies and Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and directs cross-cultural immersion programs to China.

She provides insight and advice on the complex nature of global communication through her website, Global Business Leader.

Tuleja, a classically trained flutist who is studying Mandarin Chinese, received her master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, where she previously taught management communication and leadership courses at the Wharton Communication Program.

Her book, Intercultural Communication for Business, offers “practical applications … for professionals who want to understand intercultural communication at work.”

In part two of our interview with Tuleja, we asked her about the impact that varying cultural views can have in an interconnected world economy, and she also discussed the importance of understanding the social practices, religion, politics and history of other cultures.

Do differing cultural views about competition play a role in an increasingly global marketplace?

Yes, differing cultural views about competition or any other cultural value will affect how we interact in today’s side-by-side global marketplace.

Every culture group has different views about values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Key thinkers in the field of anthropology and intercultural communication, such as Edward T. Hall and Geert Hofstede, have identified numerous values that are reflected across cultures, such as identity, communication, power, uncertainty, use of time, cooperation and competition. Differences in cultural values will manifest themselves in how we interact in the workplace. So, whenever you get a group of diverse people working with each other, you will find that there are many challenges that you will encounter – people simply look at the world in fundamentally different ways.

Let’s look at the cultural values of competition and cooperation. Competition can be defined as being motivated by the opportunities to achieve and exceed goal expectations, and value is placed on material achievement and assertiveness. Cooperation is based on trust and collaboration with an emphasis placed on long-term relationships, and value is placed on quality of life and interdependence. 

So, let’s say your group of Executive MBA students from the United States is working with a global team as part of their international immersion project. On your team are members from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, India and China. You have your first meeting and get right down to business, discussing the project, assigning roles and responsibilities, as well as constructing a timeline for deliverables. After all, as U.S. Americans, you don’t want to waste time. You notice halfway through your meeting that your Chinese and Indian classmates are listening to the discussion but not participating in the conversation and you get frustrated.

What happened here? In cooperative cultures, such as in India and China, people will generally sit back, listen and observe the dynamics of the group, taking in the context of the situation.  There is a need to learn about the people of the group and you do this by observing – it would be rude to cut in and interrupt. It would be equally rude to rush to any decision-making during your very first meeting, which should be reserved for getting to know each other. Anything that happens must be based upon the developing relationship and it should be done together. To rush in and take over would be disastrous to the overall goal of the group project – the goal is to cooperate and not compete.

Do all Chinese or Indian people interact like this when meeting for the first time? Of course not. We talk about these cultural values in general because we have to take into account that not all U.S. Americans would jump to interact with strong personalities, nor would all Indians or Chinese defer to the other people in the group as they begin to form relationships through politeness and tact.  

When we talk about cultures we often think in terms of a national culture, for example, “The French do this” and “The Germans do that.” As we try to make sense out of the differences between these national cultures, we are often drawn to generalizations in order to categorize unfamiliar information – cognitive psychologists tell us that this is called creating a “mental model” or “schema” (representation of the surrounding world or our experiences). Another interculturalist, Milton Bennett, explains that using generalizations wisely can be a good way for global managers to make sense of the complexities that often confuse and confound. However, generalizations must be based upon combining cultural knowledge with openness to individual differences.

Here’s why: while in every culture there are dominant cultural patterns that can generally describe the standard values, practices and behaviors of any given group of people, there are also many sub- and co-cultures within that dominant culture. These could be ethnic, religious and social-class influences, among others. So, you use generalizations as a hypothesis to be tested and observed. Danielle Medina Walker, creator of the Cultural Orientations Model (COM) and author of the book Doing Business Internationally: The Guide to Cross-Cultural Success, says that generalizations are heuristic statements, subject to review and change about what is expected, rewarded and reinforced in any given social environment.

Knowing some of these cultural values – and how people from different national cultures, in general, might approach work situations based upon their norms for interaction and behavior – can help you to understand what is happening without passing judgment. Otherwise, both parties would be frustrated with each other as they wondered why one was being overly assertive and the other passive.

Can you explain ethnocentrism and enculturation and describe how these would apply to a company trying to establish business overseas?

It is human nature to think that all people are just like us. We often assume we are similar rather than different, and therefore expect that others will think the same way, perceive the same way and behave the same way we do. While this is a natural assumption, this way of thinking is called ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is a form of superiority in which you believe your way of doing things is the right and preferable way – you evaluate other cultures based on your particular cultural standards. While it may be human nature to do this, becoming an effective intercultural communicator requires that we understand people generally. Dutch interculturalist Geert Hofstede says we may have “different minds but common problems.” It is when we project our superiority onto others and judge their “different minds” as inferior that we block the process of understanding intercultural differences.

Intercultural problems arise from differences in behavior, thinking, assumptions and values between people with whom they associate. These cultural differences often produce misunderstandings and lead to ineffectiveness in face-to-face communication. A deeper understanding of the nature of cultural differences would increase the effectiveness of anybody in intercultural situations. But to reach this goal, we must first become more conscious and knowledgeable about how our own culture has conditioned our ways of thinking and planted within us the values and assumptions that govern behavior. 

The process of enculturation is learning about another culture and beginning to adapt its norms for behavior and appreciating its values. We all go through an enculturation process in our own cultures – it is the process of socialization. We learn from our families, friends, communities, religious affiliations, etc., about what is appropriate behavior.

If your company is planning to open an office across borders, it will be absolutely imperative to learn about the norms (rules), behaviors and mindsets of the people. This should go beyond mere awareness of the “do’s and taboos” of that culture to understanding the significance that is attached to their ways of thinking, their patterns of behaving and the process of their thinking. Learning about the culture’s history, politics, religion and social practices, as well as beginning to learn even a little of the language, will help immensely. However, this is not enough – intercultural learning must be an ongoing process whereby you constantly reflect on what has happened and why it might have happened and then have discussions with trusted friends who can confirm or disconfirm your assumptions. When you do this it leads you to a deeper understanding of why people dowhatthey do. And don’t just stop there, because the more you become aware of why you do what you do regarding your own individual cultural identity, your perspective on others’ cultural differences will deepen as well.

There is another Chinese proverb that says, “If you do not climb the mountain, you will not see the plain.” You can wish to see the beautiful scenery from the vantage point of being on the mountain top, but no matter how much you hope, you won’t be able to see it if you don’t make the effort to climb to the top.

Read Part I of Elizabeth Tuleja’s Interview

Category: Intercultural Management