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Workplace Diversity

By Alan Hood | September 9, 2007

Todays work place has many different faces. As we expand our business into the Global arena, it is essential that we accept individuals without PRE-judgment. One of the greatest opportunities for miscommunications and prejudice occurs when the WEST meets the EAST. The Asian culture is vast and diverse, with countries in East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia), South Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan), Central Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), SE Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam) and Austral Asia (Australia, New Zealand) and also includes various religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity).

However, the Asian Culture is often categorized as a whole.

What is Culture?

Culture is the software our minds use to process input from the world around us. It is learned from the time of our birth. We belong to many groups, large (Nations) and small (Families), which differentiate themselves from other groups with rules and beliefs. Culture includes concepts, skills, habits of thinking and acting, arts, institutions, ways of relating to the world and agreement on what is significant and necessary to know. There is no escape from culture. It imbues every aspect of our lives. Cultural patterns are remarkably durable, but they are also flexible, ambiguous, contradictory and changing. Conflict or miscommunication often occurs when cultures collide.

Cultural Differences The United States is a Nation based on the ideals of Egalitarianism: the doctrine of the equality of mankind and the desirability of political and economic and social equality. Individuals are recognized for their contributions. We often focus on results, confront problems and speak up. These ideals are expressed in common sayings such as:

Toot your own horn. Give yourself a pat on the back. Grab the bull by the horn. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

It would be highly unlikely to hear any of these expressions in an Asian Culture. Asian Culture is Authoritarianism, which stems from Confucianism and is characterized by or favoring absolute obedience to authority. Asian Culture is status and group oriented. You may hear these sayings:

Modesty is a virtue The nail that sticks up gets hammered down (Japan) An empty cart makes a louder noise (China)

Context Context is the whole situation, background, or environment connected to an event, a situation, or an individual. The United States is a comparatively Low Context Culture. A low-context culture is one in which information and meaning are explicitly stated in the message or communication. Individuals in a low-context culture expect explanations when statements or situations are unclear, as they often are. Information and meaning are not internalized by the individual but are derived from context, e.g., from the situation or an event. (2)

Asian Cultures are High Context. A high-context culture is a culture in which the individual has internalized meaning and information, so that little is explicitly stated in written or spoken messages. In conversation, the listener knows what is meant; because the speaker and listener share the same knowledge and assumptions, the listener can piece together the speakers meaning. (2)

Content is what is said, while Context is where, how and when it is said. The Highest Context Cultures are Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Arab.

The difference between High and Low Context Cultures can be compared to an iceberg:

Above the water line: Aspects of culture that are explicit, visible, taught. Below the water line: Hidden culture: the habits, assumptions, understandings, values, judgments that we know but do not or cannot articulate. Usually these aspects are not taught directly.

High context cultures have more cultural knowledge below the waterline, Low Context cultures have more cultural knowledge accessible above the waterline. (3)

The communication problems that arise when one speaker is from a high-context culture and the other is from a low-context culture can be seen in the Joy Luck Club: My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each others meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more (2)

Cultural Variations Always be sensitive to FACE when communicating with an individual of Asian Culture. Face is identity and respect and because Asian Culture emphasizes group identify, saving face is not only directed at self, but also at the other person. There is concern for the group reputation and a win-win reputation. There is also a reciprocity, a belief that, If I help save the other persons face at this time, perhaps the other person will help save my face at a future date. Demonstrations of saving face include: lowered expectations of other persons and apologies ahead of time, emphasizing that they have done their best and hope the others will forgive them.

Working with Asians Check your assumptions - Because of our differences, we must never assume that a person from another culture adheres to our unspoken rules. An example is: eye contact; which is a sign of honesty and involvement in the United States, but is perceived as disrespectful in Asian Cultures.

Avoid stereotyping and generalization - Any information provided is simply a guideline to provide better understanding, but remember you are working with individuals and they deserve to be recognized as such.

Seek to understand their perspectives - Asian Culture does not promote individualism so be sensitive when requesting feedback in a group setting. An Asian coworker may refrain from speaking out in a group. Also, they will be less likely to correct mistakes or incorrect assumptions, to avoid embarrassing others (saving face). An affirmative response is not necessarily agreement.

Recognize diverse values as strengths - Asian culture values family and relationships. Once a relationship is established, there will be tremendous loyalty. This is true of your Asian coworkers as well as you Asian customers. Spend the necessary time to build relationships and honor them.

Explain corporate American culture and priorities - A typical American business meeting will include a few minutes of pleasantries and then on to business. Since Asian culture is focused on Relationships and Status vs. Task and Results, a great deal of time will be devoted to building personal relationships and a small portion on business. American businessmen, eager to close a deal, may unintentionally insult if they do not recognize the culture differences. Asian individuals thrust into American business arena, will likely be overwhelmed with the unfamiliar territory. Your awareness of the culture differences will make you an ideal coach.

Help team to understand cultural differences - Seek first to understand, so that you may be understood. (4) You are aware of cultural differences, and even though you do not fully understand the Asian culture, your awareness allows you to see where miscommunication may occur. Once you share your awareness with others, they too can improve communications. Emphasize trust, inclusion and mutual learning

Copyright 2003 Lisa Hood. All rights reserved.

Resources (1) (2) Amy Tan, author - Joy Luck Club; High Context Cultures and Low Context Cultures @ http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/tan.html (3) Cross Cultural Communications @ http://www.culture-at-work.com/overh1.html#basics (4) Stephen Covey - 7 Steps of Highly Effective People