“Culture of origin” vs. “Acquired culture”

In the 21st century culture has become a complicated, challenged, discussed, debated, and popular issue. In a recent Cultural Intelligence (CQ) workshop that I conducted for an Israeli startup company that was “going global,” I was asked the following question that prompted writing this article: “Why is culture so complicated?”

Culture is not an abstract notion, but human driven. We understand this intuitively when we visit another country; we witness all the visible cultural elements of that culture such as its language, food, architecture, music, dress, literature, even religion and emotional display. These are all the artifacts and symbols that make up what we see, touch, feel, taste and experience, but if we don’t understand why people behave the way they do, and understand the values, assumptions and beliefs that motivate the behavior, we won’t understand how these behaviors are conducted and consequently how to conduct positive and effective interactions with individuals from that culture.

A key factor in this challenge over the last century is the globalization of business culture. Once, we were able to distinguish the differences between Chinese and American negotiation styles, or how communication style between managers and staff in Sweden differed from those in Israel, or the unique elements differentiating Indian and German conflict resolution.

However, as a result of technology, the globalization of popular culture, the use of English as the preferred language of global communication, these identifiable differences among cultures are no longer owned by those national cultures, rather have become “archetypes” of all human behavior.

One of the challenges individuals and organizations face in interacting with intercultural colleagues is the confusion between the behaviors of the “culture of origin” vs. the “acquired culture.”

“Global citizens”

For example: You are doing business in Korea, interacting with Jiwon, who is Korean. Jiwon grew up and was educated in Korea but she has also become a global citizen through her MBA studies in the U.S. and three years of work experience in a European organization. In other words, she knows how to work bi-culturally. So when you interact with her, you don’t see prototypical Korean in her cultural style; rather, those differences become less critical and alter the “rules” of interaction. In the post-global world we are faced with these kinds of “global citizens” at a significantly greater rate than ever before. The question is, do we intuitively understand this global business culture or is it making our lives more complex?

This example, when shared in my workshops, always brings about an “aha” moment among its participants. Misinterpretations assumed among multi-cultural mindsets have often left intercultural colleagues both baffled and frustrated.

So how do we bridge the gap?

Three steps to managing cultures

Managing cultures in today’s complex world requires skills that must be learned and then reinforced. There are three steps to this process:

  • Become aware that there are cultural differences between yourself and your colleague and those may be showcased by individuals with multiple cultural mindsets.
  • Understand how your colleague’s behavior differs from yours. Where are the areas where these differences might cause a misunderstanding? Why they exist and how they reveal themselves in your interactions with colleagues from that culture.
  • Strategize ways to implement best practices and behaviors that work for you and your particular goals in that culture.

In summary, before entering a business relationship, ask yourself what you can do to navigate more successfully through the multiple cultural mindsets of this particular culture? What kind of tactics and strategies do you need to create now to help you understand the implicit values that drive the behaviors of that culture?