Once I was working with a Japanese team who was trying to give one of their team members feedback. They kept referencing a table and saying how if one leg were weak and broke, the whole table would collapse. When using this analogy with Americans, they asked me “what’s a table got to do with it?” In Japan, analogies and metaphors are a useful way to communicate thoughts. In America, not so much.
The way we communicate and relate to others depends in large part on our cultural heritage. These differences can spur innovation and greatness but they can also lead to challenges and frustration. What’s important is understanding these differences so they can be resolved and you can move forward.
Here are four cultural differences that may frustrate Westerners (Americans, in particular) but are important to comprehend and overcome:
Metaphors versus real examples. Back to that table. Some cultures, such as the Japanese, like to use metaphors and analogies to describe situations or feelings. But in western cultures, people prefer to hear clear feedback and direct explanations of what the problem is. In indirect cultures, metaphors and analogies can soften harsh criticism but can be confusing to those who like to get it straight.
Direct versus indirect. Similarly, in direct cultures such as in America, people say what they like or don’t like. They say when they agree or don’t agree. There is no beating around the bush. No couching of words. In indirect cultures, such as Asian ones, people avoid conflict. They express their opinions diplomatically and count on the listener to interpret the meaning. People who are direct may get frustrated with trying to determine what indirect people really mean. Indirect people may be offended by direct people’s seemingly brash words.
Fatalism versus optimism. Fatalistic cultures, such as Middle-Eastern cultures, believe that everything is in the hands of fate or God. Nothing a person can do can change the outcome. Non-fatalistic cultures, such as European or American cultures, believe you can change the outcome if you work hard enough or have the right ideas or strategy. These opposing viewpoints can drastically change the direction and scope of a project or goal.
Black and white versus gray. Americans really like things in black or white, or as either/or. Think about the American political system. Everything must be democratic or Republican. It is difficult to nuance between the two. Conversely, in Europe, there is more gray area, more subtlety. Gray makes Americans uncomfortable while Europeans think seeing everything in black and white blocks compromise.
You don’t have to like the way another culture communicates or does something but it is important to understand it. Without cultural understanding, these differences will never be resolved and can stand in the way of our success.