When dealing with different or rule based cultures, it’s important to remain mindful of differences, so as to avoid misunderstandings.
Last month I had an assignment in Japan. On our first night in town, five colleagues and myself met in the bar of a major hotel where we had planned to have a pre-dinner drink and decide on a dinner location.
Upon arrival, we ordered our drinks and were each served a very small bowl of nuts. After a brief discussion, and review of the hotel menu, it was decided that we would eat at the hotel restaurant. Given that we didn’t have to travel anywhere for dinner, we decided to spend a bit more time relaxing and catching up before heading to the restaurant.
One of my colleagues politely asked the barman for a second bowl of nuts, to which the barman replied, “No, it is only one bowl per drink.” After some discussion it was clear that the barman was not going to bend the rules, there wasn’t going to be a second bowl of nuts unless a second drink was ordered.
In response to this inflexibility, we decided against having another drink and eating dinner at the hotel restaurant. Following our earlier conversation with the restaurant manager regarding the menu, on our departure he questioned why we were leaving.
We told him of our reason for leaving, to which he was very apologetic, thanked us for the feedback and then proceeded to escort us to the concierge, while also suggesting other local restaurants.
His friendly manner persuaded us to dine at one of the other restaurants within the hotel. We appreciated his demeanour and kind generosity – providing our table with a surprise complimentary bottle of wine.
Appreciate the Differences
The point of this story is to emphasise the differences of rule based cultures, that some cultures are bound by rules, formalities and regulations more than others. This doesn’t make one better than the other, more rude or generous than another, it just makes them different.
We need to understand and appreciate these differences. In the moment they may seem significant or even pedantic but their effects can be long reaching and detrimental toward future relationships, behaviours, attitudes and biases.
Strong rule based cultures tend to encourage conformity, embracing the status quo, while other cultures tolerate greater degrees of flexibility and adaptability.
The key to successfully navigating, working and interacting within and across cultures is to understand that these traits are often hidden, unspoken, understated characteristics that are bound up in the unspoken cultural rules, expectations, systems and processes.
Reflection and Mindfulness
They can appear when you are engaging in cross-cultural social and professional interactions i.e. different expectations and formalities of hierarchical and equality based structures, during negotiations, navigating through ambiguous, tense situations or when establishing and maintaining trusted working relationships with internal and external stakeholders.
The barman serving us was not rude, rather he was efficiently performing his job, behaving in a manner that was appropriate for a barman in his role, respecting the rules and processes of his job. Our observations and expectations of the barman’s behaviour and attitude were considered through our own cultural lenses.
This example highlights how interpretations of social rules and behaviours can quickly become construed as impolite, disrespectful and inappropriate. Reflection and mindfulness are valuable skills, especially when interacting with differences of any kind!
Dr. Tom Verghese is the Founder and Principal Consultant at Cultural Synergies, a leading global intercultural and diversity consultancy that specialises in developing and sustaining cultural intelligence.