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Hiding behind culture – cultural sensitivity or culpability?

Hiding behind Culture - cultural sensitivity or lack of accountability

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Living in a multicultural society, relocating to another country, or travelling for overseas busines often provides us with powerful eye openers as to how our own cultural behaviour impacts our relations with culturally diverse others. And sometimes we prefer to be hiding behind culture.

The Australian larrikin

Let’s have a look at an Australian societal concept that might raise eyebrows overseas while being perfectly acceptable – or at least understood – in Australia. The Australian larrikin. Although ‘larrikinism’ is often considered questionable taste even in Australia, most people who practice it are let off the hook by their fellow Australians, while the outside world looks on in astonishment.

Celeste Barber is known as the down-to-earth Australian larrikin who is never afraid to call out content creators and celebrities for how unrealistic their ‘relatable’ content is. Her parodies poke fun at the dramatic poses that celebrities strike in for example advertisements: she has fallen out of bed, covered herself in dirt, and belly-flopped into a pool.

How did Australians react to her Larrikin style behaviour? It was quietly much appreciated by the down-to-earth Australians who tend to value authenticity over fake. I imagine that they thought ‘good on’ya’ as the (stereo)typical Australian usually practices a humble appearance. It for sure made her massive Instagram followers smile. For the international celebrities it might have been a case of ‘if you can’t impress her, join her’, which quite a number of celebrities did…

Hidden behind culture at work

Recognising our own behaviour in culturally diverse workplaces is required when we work together and need trust and relationships to be effective in business. We should actually prepare ourselves better by learning about our own cultural peculiarities: understanding how our behaviour impacts on ‘cultural others’ before engaging in cross-cultural situations often ensure a stronger, inclusive, and more effective business relationship.

Dutch Bluntness

During a coaching session a Dutch manager confessed that she always need to tell people what she really thinks. She was eager to share her constructive criticism, regardless of it being appreciated or – asked for. She explained that whenever she spoken out, she puts on her ‘sorry’ face and apologise profoundly by saying that it is really her Dutch bluntness that makes her act in that way. And, by all means, people should not take offence. In the meantime she had been able to say exactly what she wanted and get it off her chest: “otherwise” she said “it keeps bugging me and I cannot concentrate properly”.

Dutch people might actually feel little embarrassment while practicing their (in)famous bluntness as they see this behaviour as a way to get to better outcomes for them.

Singaporean Kiasu

The Singaporeans have an inner urge to be first everywhere they go, and afraid to missing out on ‘something’. At least, they have invented a concept for it: Kiasu. In practice it can mean for foreigners that they are pushed out of the way in the subway, or be over-run whilst trying to enter a room. In airplanes kiasu makes people stand up when the wheels touch the ground although they are supposed to stay seated for their own safety. They need to be first in line to exit the plane. When you ask a Singaporean about this behaviour, they tell will you they are a bit embarrassed if fellow countrymen practice this concept.

One of my Singaporean colleagues managed to get an appointment with a very important prospect by bursting into the room and pushing himself to the front of a huge line of suppliers: he was the first – of a whole crowd – to talk to the prospect. He came back to our office and proudly announced his latest business success while apologising with a grin: “Good Kiasu, hey?”

I then understood that in fact, Kiasu is something Singaporeans are secretly proud of because it gets them where they want to be.

French Feedback

Training hundreds of staff in an Australian subsidiary of a French national company shed interesting light on differences in giving and receiving feedback. The Australians commented that they were rather uncomfortable with the way the French manager evaluated their performance. According to some staff the French focus only on the things that went wrong rather than appreciate the things that go well. Moreover the negative feedback was given in a rather direct and confrontational way.

A number of French managers recognised that their Australian staff were not always happy with the way the feedback was given, but argued that this was the French way. One of them explained that it already starts within the French school system… and a few commented that they also only receive negative feedback from their managers.

It all made sense when one of the senior French managers said in a confused tone: “why focus on the things that go right? That is a waste of time”.

Hiding behind culture – cultural sensitivity or culpability

Interestingly enough, the Dutch, the Singaporeans, and the French somehow know that their typical behaviour might cause offence and even problems while dealing with people from other cultures. However, they still cherish their bluntness, their Kiasu, and the way they give feedback. This behaviour is programmed into their minds: they have unconsciously learned throughout their upbringing that this behaviour is generally ‘accepted’ and secretly appreciated by their fellow countrymen.

Defence mechanism

Hiding behind culture and using cultural differences as a defence mechanism creates problems in the workplace. For example, when people prioritise bluntly addressing concerns over keeping harmony and face, when competition allows for rather brash behaviour, or when people insist providing feedback in a way that seriously offends others.

By using the cultural differences as an excuse, people avoid addressing culturally inappropriate behaviour. In workplaces this presents ethical dilemmas as organisations struggle with the tension between appreciating cultural sensitivity and taking accountability.

To hide or not to hide?

Hiding behind culture, cultural sensitivity or culpability? My advice would be to start making the negative behaviour transparent, and train people to recognise behaviour while learning to take accountability for it. Then work together towards ways that are more appreciated by staff.

Cultural diversity could be a driving force for positive behavioural change in culturally diverse workplaces.

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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