Cross-Cultural Training: Creating Foundations or Creating Judgments?

I coach expatriates and conduct cross-cultural trainings in a parallel fashion in my career. And what I’ve been noticing on more than one occasion is that many of my coaching clients — those who have gone through a cross-cultural training at one time or another — carry much stronger judgments than those who didn’t. That got me thinking — what’s the connection between the judgments and the cross-cultural training?

We’ve all heard the common clichés that populate people’s thinking about each other. “Russians drink too much”, “Americans are clueless about other cultures”, “French don’t want to speak any other language but French”, the list can go on and on. And while these clichés might be partially true — they do contain some truth in them — they are certainly NOT true when extended to the entire population. All Russians do not drink too much, all Americans are not clueless, and all French are not monolingual.

What I think happens during cross-cultural trainings is that these clichés — already rampant in the world — get confirmed when we, cross-cultural trainers talk about the problems that have created them. And in the mind of the unsuspecting client, a cliché and a problem, mentioned by a trainer, get “married” to produce a very strong judgment. Cliché by itself is one thing. Cliché confirmed by training is another.

I don’t need to go into details about why judgments are not beneficial for anyone entering another culture and preparing to live/work in it. Judgments bear misunderstandings, miscommunication, hurt feelings, and many other unpleasant things. A person with judgments is a person whose mind is no longer open. And we all know that an open mind is one of the major keys to success in another country/culture.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

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25 responses to “Cross-Cultural Training: Creating Foundations or Creating Judgments?

  1. This is a view confirmed by research. Adrian Holliday has written a book called Intercultural Communication which has a look at how we “otherise” – in other words, how we exclude people by highlighting differences, which after all, is what cross cultural training is about – highlighting the difference between “culture A” and “culture B”.

    One of the issues with this kind of training is that we give an excuse to non-standard (from our own perspective) behaviour, and rather than thinking, “Why does that person drink so much” we merely state, “Oh, he’s Russian, so it’s to be expected”. This is a value judgement, placing MY position higher than YOUR position (I don’t drink as much, therefore I am a better person).

    I’m not sure how we as trainers can address this, but I am potentially involved in some research that might.

  2. globalcoachcenter

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your comment and for sharing the research. I think one way we can address it as trainers is watch closely to where we place “anchors” when we train. We can speak about the drinking problem in Russia (which is true), but as we speak about it, we can be careful as to how we “speak it”. That is what we do with our voice, our body language, etc — things that create anchors in other people. But, of course, we can never be 100% sure as to what the client hears. Again, “I don’t know what I said until I know what you heard.”

    My 2 cents…

  3. That’s another whole area. A wise man said, “Language is inherently ambiguous”, hence the science of Pragmatics has evolved to help us.

    The issue for me is that we allow “national traits” (whether generalised or stereotyped) to become an excuse, or even worse, a curtain hiding more serious individual issues.

    I recently heard a case where a senior manager had allowed her PA to come into work late each day, and leave early because the PA had claimed her “culture” was flexible with time. To me it appeared as a pure exploit, and combined with other factors influencing the analysis needed to be dealt with at a disciplinary level, before the manager lost complete control.

    The great danger of any cultural training is that we forget the individual by describing the general!

  4. BTW – very interesting blog!

  5. globalcoachcenter

    I agree about allowing national traits to become an excuse. It’s along the lines of being politically-correct in some situations.🙂

    Thanks for your comment on the blog!

  6. Just a couple of thoughts from my side: a x-cultural training can emphasize what is consistent across different countries/cultures rather than the differences. And if we concentrate on the differences, then we can talk about the ‘positive’ sides of a people, e.g. the ‘French like being with friends and family over long lunches’ or the ‘Americans being innovative’. With regard to delegates in a x-cultural training, it’s best to have them from different countries and cultures, and in addition, a x-cultural trainer should have lived and worked in different countries.
    My European 2 cents..

  7. globalcoachcenter

    Thanks, Andreas, I completely agree — great suggestions!

  8. “consistent across different countries/cultures”
    I’m afraid this is the bit I have a problem with. We are not consistent within ourselves, so why would there be consistency within a country.

    Are “the Americans” innovative? Compared to whom? Who are “the Americans”? This concept breaks down even further when you talk about 1.3 billion Chinese or 1 billion Indians. I don’t believe there is any one concept that can be used to describe the Chinese or Indian (or any other nationality) “in general”, stereotype or not!

  9. globalcoachcenter

    Hi Matt,

    I think we can speak of some “consistencies”, especially if they are positive and create positive anchors in a client’s mind. For instance, one consistency among the Russians is that they value friendships. Underlying that will help the client understand some of the motivations and reasons of why things are done the way they are done. I also think that “consistency” doesn’t have to be a 100% — but rather a tendency towards something.

    My 2 kopeks…

  10. I understand the point of view, but consider this:

    By saying “Russians value friendships”, you are putting a qualitative judgment on the statement, with the implication “…more than groups X”. This is patently not true. Relationships are essential to all humanity and not just the Russians. But I also question of the premise. Who do we mean my Russians. At last count there were approx 140million people in the Russian Federation with a claim to Russian nationality – this includes Chechens, Inuit, Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash etc etc etc. You have rural vs urban, single vs married, loner vs socialite, criminal vs law-abiding etc etc etc ad infinitum.

    We cannot characterise any group of people from a couple up to a nation with any meaningful generalisation….

    (Hope this is taken in the spirit it is intended, i.e., contribution to a debate, not a confrontation!!!)

    Matt

  11. globalcoachcenter

    Of course, Matt, definitely a debate spirit. I guess we have to be careful about language here: if I say “people in Russia” value friendships, I am not saying “Russians” and thereby excluding the others. Point taken.

    Also, I think that when I say “people in Russia” value friendships, I am not implying that others don’t. Of course, it depends on how this statement is said — the energy behind this statement is important. I think only if it’s said in a certain way, does it become a qualitative judgment, otherwise it remains only a statement.

  12. There is a very famous linguist/philospher called J L Austin, who created a theory of language use. The problem is that language creates reality as well as describing it (the argument is very long and complicated but I think it is fair to say it is accepted by most people in the field). There is always some kind of implication behind any phrase/sentence (utterance).

    The reason for stating “the Chinese take a long time to make decisions” (moving it away from Russians) is because this is noteworthy. It is only noteworthy if it is not a truism – in other words different from everyone else. By creating difference you create a value, whether positive or negative, it cannot by nature be neutral, or it wouldn’t be worth saying.

    However, saying “the Chinese take a long time to make decisions” is patently not true. There are 1.3 billion Chinese people and to claim they lack the ability to make instant, sound decisions is inaccurate and misleading. There are people who can and people who can’t – some are Chinese some aren’t.

    If I were to say “Black people are slower at making decisions” I would, rightly, be branded racist: I am applying a general trait to a group of human beings who cannot be defined by a single trait, or even by multiple traits. Even if I say gay men are more fashion concious, this is still discriminatory and just as untrue. I deliberately use controversial examples to show the point.

    I agree that there is a general instinctive feeling of “difference” when you meet people from a different country, but we cannot qualify the difference by simplistically describing value differences.

  13. globalcoachcenter

    I see what you are saying. Interesting.🙂

  14. Hello. Interesting conversation that is unfolding.
    In the original post, the question that immediately leaped to my mind was “what are the content & goals of the training?”. It would be good to know that we all have the same thing in mind.
    I think in training it is very important to acknowledge that we are generalizing with statements like “Russians drink too much”, and acknowledge that people of all types exist in that culture; and that people of the “drink too much” type exist in all cultures.
    I would hope that after discussing a generalization like this one in training, that the environmental and belief factors that come into play would be discussed and contrasting factors discussed with contrasting cultures – with a reminder that we are talking about beliefs that may be common and manifested in common ways, but not blindly by individuals.
    I hope that training would include how a given belief / behavior manifests itself in other cultures as well (have you seen people in other countries that drink heavily?….); even if this is not the accepted stereotype.
    It is a tough one, but maybe looking at values on continuums, in interaction with personal belief systems and experience could also be beneficial.

  15. As an anthropologist who work with globalization, mobilities and expatriate issues, I cannot but find this topic to be quite interesting and relevant.

    IMHO, though it is always good to give info about other cultures, I am convinced that the best “training” (I prefer the word “education”) is to make the expatriate reflect about his/her own ethnocentrisms, exploring his/her own expectations and limitations. An education that strikes the balance between knowing the “Other” and “Oneself”. Philosophy? But one that works…🙂

    Dr. Anthony D’Andrea
    – Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Project Coordinator “Nomadic Work/Life” Project, University of Limerick (Ireland)
    – International Alumni Lecturer, University of Chicago (USA)

  16. Anthony
    I almost agree. I think that we spend too long worrying about “ethnocentrisms” and “other cultures” without really understanding why. I would be interested to know if, in the course of your research you have found any data which points to the existence of the phenomenon known as “culture shock”. There is a lot of information about how to deal with it and it’s patterns, but all from a non-academic perspective. I have, as yet, been unable to find any authoratitive source that has (a) shown that it exists (b) that it is directly attributable to life in a new “culture” (c) has a “u” shaped curve, or a “w” shaped curve etc…..

  17. Matt, I need to deal with culture shock in the training programs I do . What seems to be most relevant is the component of grief at loss.- the loss of the familiar. This is why additional cultures into our own home culture do not trouble us- because the basics are still there. In the new host culture a lot is new and often fun, but I think the semse of loss of the familiar is very significant.

  18. I agree that a lot of people appear to feel something that we trainers have called “culture shock”, BUT it has never been qualified, identified and studied to find out why the training we provide works. I quite like your use of the word grief, because that his transferrable out of the context of international relocations. In my view “culture shock” cannot be “treated” with information about a country (and I will continue to use the word country rather than culture). That’s like treating a toothache with a description of tooth decay!

    To deny that people arriving in a new country do not experience a change of mental state is mistaken, however the attribution of that change purely to the new country is equally mistaken, and as trainers that is what we do far too often

  19. globalcoachcenter

    I work with Culture Shock from the point of view of a “relationship” with another culture. That is, like with any other relationships with a human being, we have good times and bad times. Managing the mad times is managing culture shock. I have a YouTube overview of my method here:

  20. I agree with these comments about labelling & value judgments. Interesting to note the identity level labelling when we say e.g. Russian’s are…. which of course implies that we have a shared understanding of what the word “Russians” mean!
    I’ve found it’s more helpful to talk in terms of behaviours that are social norms in the country – or even that part of a country or generally considered accepted rather than label at the identity level. We are all so much more than our labels wherever we come from and whatever beliefs, values & motivations drive our behaviours. And I find it useful to emphasise that we’re talking generalities when describing social norms and that underneath all those social niceties we are all human beings with more similarities than differences!
    I would be very interested to know if any of the research links the type, content, delivery of cross-cultural training (or awareness!) – presumably (another generalisation!) not all c/c education leads to value judgments – or does it?! Presumably those “trainings” that do so may have some flawed design or misalignment with the purpose of the training session? That may be worth exploring too. Could it be useful to look again first at the purpose of that training and then measure whether or not the session(s) achieve the desired outcome! And also of course the underlying belief system of the “trainer” which will of course become communicated in some way during the sessions!

    Thanks for a very interesting and potentially far reaching discussion.

  21. There is a lot of research in this area (Mendhall and Black are the main authors, but I don’t have an easy link unless you’re subscribed to academic journals).

    The main issue is measuring cause and effect, especially, if as I prefer to believe, our value systems are dynamic and not fixed – the argument for that is long and complicated so I won’t go in to that unless really provoked😉

  22. I would like to jump in….

    In response to a stereotype like ‘drinks too much’ I think if we discuss in what that is relevant to – if anything is a good idea.

    I recently read a book on Chinese business etiquette. In the book, it said Chinese have a higher expectation of co-workers going out together after ‘work’ – though it is still ‘work’ and they drink to get ‘drunk’ or lose inhibitions so they can see each other in a more relaxed way. Now, I can’t talk to that culture practice as I never experienced it. But after reading this, one could say too- ‘Chinese drink too much.’ But it’s that the context is different. This is more drinking than a teetotaler would do, that is for sure, but maybe not as much as a person in America (I am used to this culture) who is an alcoholic drinking in their home till wee hours day after day.

  23. CrossingPaths Intercultural

    If I may suggest looking at the work of Dr. Milton Bennett, it may offer some insight into one theory of why increased cultural awareness may result in greater judgement. When viewed as a continuum, the “less exposed” have less to be reactive to while the more exposed will have had to assess cultural differences in contrast with their own beliefs and preferences. This may result in the ability to form well-articulated and strongly held stereotypes. However, Dr Bennett suggests we target our training to reach the participant at their unique developmental level and help them move to greater understanding and clarity regarding cultural awareness–rather than informed sterotypes or merely neutral cultural relativism.
    This link will lead you to a presentation that explains the value of this method:
    http://www.mesaresearchgroup.com/downloads_SLP_Asia_07/Milton%20Bennett's%20PPT%20Presentation.ppt.

  24. This is a really interesting debate – thanks Margarita.

    Where to start so many different threads here so I’m going to list my thoughts – and of course they are just that – my thoughts or judgments….?

    When we work with people moving abroad they are at a stage where things are new, they feel vulnerable – broad cultural statements give them something solid and certain and perhaps they hang on to those comments for that reason, it helps them to make some sense out of a lot of conflicting and confusing input.

    Overtime though, part of learning to live and operate in a different culture has to be about developing self awareness and understanding (Ok that’s the coach in me coming through) but as this understanding develops so perhaps people realise these generalisations can’t and don’t work otherwise they would apply to them (re their own culture).

    I remember when I first lived abroad in Spain – 12 years ago now, hasta manana was my view and opinion of the Spanish until I experienced their a Germanic determination/reaction to meet some stretching deadlines – and so now I have a generalisation and judgement feeding another generalisation and judgement!

    Now 12 years on I’m in Madeira – you may have seen reports of our horrendous mud slides – did I say ‘ours’! (that belongs to your home/belonging debate Margarita!) But what I have seen has stunned me and made me question my personal belief that I don;t do personal stereotyping. It has been amazing to see the speed, the level of organisation, the positive, proactive reaction of the authorities to the disaster – a common goal to clear up and get the show back on the road – tourism is hugely impt here. But also it goes against my ‘generalised’ view of the Portuguese that they tend to dwell on the negative, the bad news, the memories of past better times (saudades).

    The issue is we all react to events and situations based on our experiences, needs, priorities, values, beliefs. This is not all culturally (I mean national culture here) driven – as I’ve seen it here it is situational and related to ‘need’.

    Stereotyping serves a need – providing sense and security in uncertain times – perhaps!? back to my point at the beginning. That doesn’t make it right just explains why it happens.

    Culture shock – I have been thinking a lot about this recently – isn’t it all about coping with change, developing strategies that work for us in new situations and cirs. Sometime life abroad is good sometimes its bad – and because we are without our normal support structures the bad can seem worse than a home based ‘bad stretch.

    Understanding the broad cultural differences probably does help – because from there we can develop strategies to help us personally feel more in control and feeling personally empowered helps.

    I think this has got rather long -but thanks for the debate it has made interesting reading.

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