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Reflection – Rachel Elkington

by on November 8, 2007

My Reflection on Cultural Assumptions
Today in class we paired up in twos in order to do an exercise on cultural assumptions. We were asked to look at our partner – but not speak to them – and write down what cultural values we thought would be important to them. Also, we were asked to write down what cultural labels one might ascribe to them based on appearance. After doing that exercise, we showed our results to our partners and discussed whether we thought those assumptions were true or false. Next, the class was asked to write down what relevance to business those cultural assumptions and values might have.

The list I came up with was:
· Cultural values inform what kind of incentives you would want to offer someone in a business context
· They also inform what terms a person would want to use in communication to the other
· An understanding of a person’s cultural values may allow a manager to infer how that person might interact with other members of a team
· That understand would also allow a manager to understand which work assignments or instructions a person would understand to be important and which ones might not be perceived as important

The heart of the cultural ‘problem’ in business, Kevin explained, is a mismatch of expectations. A person from culture X would have a very different expectation of what is acceptable in a specific situation than a person from culture Y.

After class, I looked to the blogosphere to find first-hand accounts of mismatches of culture expectations. I found the blog ‘management craft’ (, and an entry in which the cultural differences between Black and White South Africans in the business context was explored. The title of the entry was “Cultural Assumptions Can Kill Your Business.” In the entry, the author describes an incentive program he made as a manager in a hotel in South Africa. The staff who reported to him were black South Africans. The reward in the incentive program was a romantic candle-lit dinner for two and a stay in one of the hotel’s nicest suites. Not a single member of the staff participated in the program. The manager was completely stumped, offended, and suspicious of what he was perceiving to be laziness on the part of the staff. What he discovered, however, when an employee was brave enough to answer his question of why no one participated, was that the employees of the hotel had lived their whole lives by candle-light because they didn’t have electricity. They saw nothing romantic in it at all. Their expectation of luxury was very different from his.

Another cultural difference the author encountered involved eye contact. Raised in the United States, he had been brought up with the idea that eye contact shows honesty and forthrightness. His employees in South Africa did not look him in the eye. They looked down when he spoke to them or when they spoke back. At first, he saw this as a sign of an employee hiding something or being subversive. But after doing research into the culture of his employees, he found that in their culture, looking down when a superior speaks to you is a sign of respect for their rank. Also, he noticed that when he gave instructions to his employees and asked if his instructions were clear, the response was always affirmative and yet many tasks were not done according to how he wanted them done. His research into culture turned up the reason for the disconnect: In the culture of his employees it would be disrespectful to say a superior’s instructions are unclear.

These anecdotes illustrate examples of the principles we discussed today in class. The same discussion can be seen multiple ways because different people have different cultural norms and expectations. All people have expectations, but understanding what they are is incredibly difficult. It simply would not occur to someone that the posture, and facial expressions and tone of voice they have successfully used all their life to communicate successfully might offend or confuse a person from a different culture. What is the solution? As with most things it is ‘do your homework’ find out what the norms of the culture are in which you want to work.
In that vein, I thought it might be interesting to some of my classmates to know about the one-credit lecture seminar series on international business offered next quarter at the business school’s Global Business Center. I’ve signed up for it.

Management Craft Blog:

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