Two Kinds of Cultures

In the reduced level of understanding created by diversity, a transcultural leader or manager must be able to shift back and forth from a mindset which says that communicating means saying something to someone else that will further a' relationship out of which appropriate actions will come, to a one which sees communicating as a collaborative effort between people to create meaning and action together. The first mindset is more representative of a higher context, or what we choose to call a "more tightly woven" (MTW) culture where the participants share a larger context of understanding whenever they speak to each other. Most of the new entrants to the workforce today are coming from MTW cultural groups, (women, Latin and Asian immigrants, etc.) than the American workplace has been accustomed to. The second mindset is normal in lower context, or "more loosely knit" (MLK) cultures or organizations where assumptions must be constantly checked and agreements hammered out. Since an organization with many cultures de facto becomes more loosely knit, the transcultural leader or manager, however MTW or MLK her or his native background may be, must know how to operate out of both mindsets to communicate well. She or he must also know how to help others make similar mind shifts. In effect it means that she or he must be able to move back and forth between the columns below.
MISMATCHED CONTEXTS How do we pass between these mindsets? Two imaginary pictures might help. First, imagine a computer. If you type in the right commands and press the return key, you invariably get the result you are looking for, except in the rare situation where there has been a malfunction. When you don't get the results you expect, when people behave out of context, you assume that something is wrong with them. This is how it feels when a communicator from a MTW culture has a breakdown with someone from a MLK one. Next, imagine playing paddleball on the beach. The fun comes form seeing how long you can keep the ball in the air by hitting it back and forth. The game is frustrating and you soon quit if one partner rarely hits the ball back. This breakdown occurs when a communicator from a MLK background encounters someone from a more tightly woven MTW·context. Here are some examples of the breakdowns that occur when people with mismatched contexts communicate:
  • A Japanese (MTW) manager gives an order to US American workers (MLK) and is annoyed to find it disputed and resented. The manager begins to distrust the subordinates and their motivation.
  • A Swedish (MLK) manager makes a request of her Turkish (MTW) subordinates and finds that they carry it out so literally, “without thinking,” that the desired results are not achieved. The manager accuses them of malicious obedience.
  • A Filipino seaman (MTW) is being disciplined by his Norwegian first officer (MLK). The seaman remains silent as the first officer pushes for an explanation or apology. The first officer thinks the seaman does not get the message, doesn't care about the situation, or is guilty of even more than originally suspected. To make matters worse, the Norwegian first officer publically belabors the point and raises his voice with the Filipino seaman who doesn't appear to get the message, admit fault, or apologize. Resentment builds up in the subordinate. He stops communicating and becomes ineffective at his job for the rest of the voyage.
  • A Canadian consultant (MLK) while being gently criticized by her Indonesian client (MIW) argues in her own defense. The client sees the consultant as rude and unteachable and, therefore, incompetent.
  • A young British data processing trainer (MLK) is working with a group of Sri Lankan trainees (MTW). Because the trainees ask no questions, the trainer assumes they have grasped all that she has said.
  • A newly arrived Swiss manufacturing manager (MLK) consults his Pakistani assembly line workers (MTW) about the steps he should take to install a quality inspecting system. They are embarrassed for him because it seems that he does not know how to do his job. They are reluctant to make suggestions. He sees them as unthinking and uncooperative. The transcultural leader may have to employ both MTW and MLK communication skills to create congruent messages and objectives. Congruence means not only that two people settle on the same meaning or direction, but also that they are confident that this has actually taken place. This shows up as a certain degree of comfort with themselves and each other, some assurance that they are on the same wavelength.

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