Clashes between various cultures occur in part because of the variety of different values and behavioral norms to which different cultures adhere, and also because many groups and individuals desire recognition of their own ideologies as the best or most correct. Listed below are a series of cultural nuances. While reading through them, try to decide which ones you would be comfortable with and which ones would cause you discomfort. Which ones do you believe are rational? As a leader, consider if you have employees with some of the following beliefs and behaviors and try to figure out the many ways they could be perceived.

  • Using the left hand in some Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures is considered inappropriate because it is seen as unclean.
  • Wearing leather is offensive in India because cattle are sacred.
  • In some Chinese cultures, wearing a green hat is symbolic of an unfaithful wife.
  • In Iceland the telephone directory is alphabetized according to first name because last names in Iceland are not passed down in families, but are patronymic, meaning they are derived from the father or mother’s first name (e.g., Jonsson or Jonsdottir for the son or daughter of Jon).
  • In Brazil, terms like “negao,” which refers to a black man, or “bronco,” which refers to a white person, can be considered derogatory or friendly depending on the tone of the speaker.
  • Women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden to drive a car.
  • In southern China, tapping two fingers on the table is seen as a sign of gratefulness.
  • In Fiji, crossing one’s arms is seen as a sign of respect.
  • Having a conversation with your hands in your pockets makes a poor impression in Belgium, France, Finland, Sweden, and Indonesia.
  • Patting someone on the head is a grave offense in Thailand and Singapore because the head is sacred.
  • Making eye contact is offensive in Korea, Japan, China, and some other Asian countries.
  • In Germany and Poland, switching from a last-name to first-name basis in a relationship is such an eventful passage that it is often marked by clasping arms and downing a ceremonial drink.
  • Arranged marriages are a very common tradition in China, India, the Middle East, and Africa.
  • In Bulgaria, the head motion for “yes” and “no” are exactly the opposite as in much of the Western world.
  • Those who practice it see the African ritual of cutting off a girl’s genitals as rational; however, for much of the world, it is seen as barbaric, uncivilized, and sexist.
  • In many countries, bribing is the common way to conduct business, but in other countries it may land someone in jail.

This list is only a very small portion of the unique cultural norms and values one can run into when interacting with people from cultures other than one’s own. Considering these tremendous variations in cultural norms, it is clear that the differences we see have very little to do with biology and almost everything to do with the values each society places on behaviors. These varied values are at the root of the tremendous conflicts between different cultural groups and within each cultural group. We often have very little knowledge about how other value systems work and adhere to the steadfast belief that one particular behavior or belief—usually our own—is superior to all others. Clearly, this dynamic can affect business and cause irreparable harm if companies cannot find a way to uphold their own values and maintain business relationships with other cultures. For example, consider the experience of one female executive from a large financial company in the United States who was supposed to go to Japan to do business with a Japanese company. The Japanese company contacted the American financial institution to request a male employee, but was sternly told that if they could not work with the woman, they could find another company with which to do business. The chairman of the American company decided to attend the initial meeting, and by showing his support for the female employee and his respect for the Japanese business, an agreeable solution was found. The female employee led all of the meetings over the course of the visit and the Japanese company decided she was an acceptable business partner. Like the chairman of the American company, leaders must truly exhibit the values of inclusivity by proactively and visibly supporting diverse individuals in leadership positions and throughout the organization.

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Cultural Nuances

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