Thursday, July 7, 2011

I Know You Are, But What Am I? Closing the Cultural Gap
Please note: Statements found in the first paragraph have been said to this author at some point during my travels, but do not reflect my feelings. They have been included to provide content for the article and are not intended to be offensive to any group of people.

I bristle every time Chinese store keepers throw my change down on the counter instead of placing the money in my outstretched hand. I recoil when Italian women raise their arms to expose hairy armpits. I grouse to find stores closed in the afternoon in Spain because everyone is at siesta. I would like to scream at Japanese businessmen for not telling me “no” when they mean “no.” I feel the European workforce must lack productivity because they get a month or more vacation from work. I fail to understand how French workers can consume a bottle of wine at lunch, return to work and function properly. I cringe every time American sporting fans let out a frenzied yell at the national anthem’s phrase, “o’er the la-and of the free...”

The above-mentioned norms, regardless of how outlandish they may appear to the jaundiced mind, are practiced and accepted within those cultures. In reality, all of those dissatisfactions begin with the shallowness of the word “I” as though if “I” don’t approve, something must be wrong with “them.”

In order to wrap your mind around these divergent behaviors the concept of culture must be explored. I’m not an anthropologist so I began by researching the definition on the internet. Culture is described as “the shared basic assumptions learned by a group as its problems of external adaptation and internal integration are solved.” On an international basis, conflict arises when one assumes their values are heightened over the validity of another culture’s values.

Conflicting values, mixed with impatience and a lack of understanding, are often at the root of discontent. Accusing the Chinese shopkeepers of being rude may appear reasonable until you learn their culture considers placing money directly in a customer’s hand a sign of disrespect. What needs to be changed; your assumption or their actions?

Cultural differences can often stretch our limits of acceptability and diminish our scope of culpability. For instance, when foreigners move to America they are expected to learn to speak English and we get upset when they don’t. Conversely, when Americans retire to a foreign country, in many cases we fail to learn the language AND expect the locals to speak English to accommodate our understanding. My Grandma would offer corrective advice for such behavior by saying, “When you go out, the door swings both ways.”

In order to live in harmony with our Panamanian friends we must be willing to learn and accept their culture – warts and all.

For Panamanians, the dynamic of the group is more important than the individual. It is a relational culture that establishes friendships and enjoys social interaction. Panamanians are emotive and don’t hide their feelings. They are affectionate with a strong sense of family which extends beyond a single generation.

A 2002 study ranked values among managers in 12 Latin American countries. Values related to integrity - honesty and responsibility - ranked very high according to the businessmen sampled. Values related to civility - cheerfulness, helpfulness, kindness, forgiveness, cleanliness, obedience and politeness - followed in importance. Values related to drive - ambition, capability and courage – fell even lower in importance. The least important values for Latin American managers were related to self-direction - imagination, independence, intellect, open-mindedness and logic.  Lenartowiczn and Johnson (2002).

Many contributors on our forums are not shy about discussing their displeasure of how Panamanians tend to be more relaxed and flexible about time and punctuality. As much as we dislike what appears to us as a flagrant disregard for time, within the Hispanic community, NOT being on time is an acceptable behavior in the society.

Cultural values are elusive because they are so ingrained into our psyche. People take their values for granted without being conscious of their full impact on co-existing cultures. Even when the impact is explained they may still wonder why a problem exists. Their attitudes and behavioral norms have been taught by their parents, church and schools, and are "expected" in the society, workplace, and government. 

As Americans, our integration into new cultures gives us the opportunity to broaden our understanding of the world. We must show respect by learning more about the values and customs of our new neighbors before becoming critical. We must demonstrate proper social and business protocol. We must see and accept--or at least handle with tact--the divergent values in each other's culture, even if they don’t make sense to us. By looking in the mirror we will recognize that some of our own values, customs and traits may offend or irritate as well.

Just as Jeff Foxworthy shed a comedic light on certain aspects of American culture, we must have a clear perspective of who we are in order to help others understand our customs. I’m an American, born and raised in the South. I learned to sing the National Anthem in school and was taught to stand up straight, hand over my heart, as a show of national respect. Can somebody explain to me who re-wrote the crescendo to include the frenzied screams of hundreds of off-key revelers?