Managing When Cultural Differences Are Invisible

As globalization marches on, experts are lining up to help us understand foreign cultures. But the advice often hovers on the surface—for instance, avoid putting someone’s business card in your back pocket in China and know how deeply to bow in Japan.

Such advice is essential for survival, but it won’t help with bigger challenges, such as managing cross-cultural teams or developing sustainable partnerships with businesses outside your borders. Without an in-depth understanding of a culture, the reality of what is truly happening—and why it’s happening—can remain invisible.

People’s behaviors are driven by deeply ingrained cultural history and norms. When we don’t understand those norms, we often interpret the words and actions of others through our own cultural lens. Unfortunately, this ethno-centric perspective can easily lead to false impressions and damaged relationships.

To illustrate, let’s look at two aspects of culture that aren’t often discussed: the differences in how cultures interpret a spoken language and perceive the concept of time.

When "Yes" May Mean "No"

In this first scenario, an American manager at the US operations of a Japanese company has arranged an in-person meeting with an important Japanese colleague and a representative of a major Indian outsourcing partner. The purpose of the meeting is to plan a complex project and ensure that the key players are all onboard.

During the discussion of a difficult work challenge, the American manager reviewed the major points. His Indian and Japanese counterparts said they understood and seemed to agree on how to move forward. A few weeks later, however, he discovered that his Japanese colleague hadn’t agreed at all. Despite the time and expense of meeting in person, the project was stopped dead in its tracks.

What’s Invisible?

The American manager assumed that his Japanese colleague used language in the same way that he did. In Europe and North America, people expect others to say what they mean and usually take them at word value. That limited cultural interpretation doesn’t translate across all borders, however.

For centuries, Japanese culture has highly valued harmony. It is considered rude and inappropriate to disagree with individuals to their face and worse to do so in the presence of others. Thus, when people from Japan nod and say “yes,” they may simply be acknowledging that they understood what you said. The fact that something is bothering them will only manifest itself in nonverbal gestures such as a nervous smile or a pained look in the eyes.

Indian culture also places a significant emphasis on harmony. Because the country was under British rule for more than a century, however, its people have adopted a more literal Western use of language. Thus, when the Indian outsourcing partner agreed verbally, it was a safe bet to take him at his word.

The Takeaway

The American manager should have been more keenly aware of his Japanese partner’s body language and realized that “yes” did not actually mean that he completely agreed. He should have scheduled time to speak privately to discover the issues and resolve them.

When You Should Forget the Watch

In our second scenario, let's imagine an Indian manufacturing partner that’s missed several deadlines with its European client.

The European manager scheduled a call and during the conversation cited the agreed-to delivery dates. He demanded an explanation and threatened to impose contractually agreed-upon penalties.

The Indian partner seemed much less concerned. In fact, she was offended at being called to task and even more insulted at the threat of penalties. The call ended poorly, and a critical manufacturing partnership began to unravel.

What’s Invisible?

The value of time may seem obvious, but cultural attitudes about time may differ below the surface. For example, many people from Buddhist and Hindu cultures view reincarnation as an integral part of their culture. Seeing time as limitless, they place more value on other aspects of life, such as relationships.

The Takeaway

The European manager should have known that his Indian partner’s attitude toward time would impact the work schedule. He should have planned a meeting in advance to discuss how missed deadlines could sidetrack their project and their relationship.

Use a Multicultural Lens to Succeed Across Borders

Human behavior is often driven by personal experiences and cultural norms that are invisible to others. As a result, we often assume that people from foreign cultures share similar values with us.

Seeing our colleagues through this limited ethno-centric lens can quickly lead to inaccurate judgments about their honesty, integrity, and work ethic. Whether you’re aligning cross-cultural teams or bridging international partnerships, it’s important to understand the invisible cultural beliefs and behaviors of your colleagues.

By viewing others through a multicultural lens, you can communicate more effectively, build productive relationships, and produce better results across countries and cultures.

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