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Mind the Culture Gap

August 28, 2009

We’ve all been there: something doesn’t happen the way we expected, or a person doesn’t do what we expected her/him to do or what we would have done in the same situation.  Frustration, anger, lost opportunities, sometimes extra cost occur – the price we pay for a gap in expectations.

The world of business has brought together people from many different cultures from many parts of the world. A lot of us have even moved away from bi-cultural encounters – i.e., teams consisting of members from two different national cultures, or a company only entering one new market –  to a reality where we’re dealing with multiple cultures on a regular basis.

Why does culture matter? The culture of a group of people can be defined as the shared values and beliefs they’ve learned over time and that result in characteristic behaviours.  The culture we grow up with impacts on how we see the world and others, and how we interpret other people’s actions.

Many of us have still grown up as ‘unicultural’ individuals who have learned to interact with people who share very similar values, beliefs, and we know what certain behaviour means.

The full impact and importance of culture only becomes evident when we experiment a culture gap.

Culture gaps occur when individuals interact with different expectations and assumptions on how to behave and what certain behaviours mean.

For example, if trust is very important to us then we will openly share information and thoughts with business partners and colleagues, and we’ll – unconsciously – expect them to act the same way.

A culture gap will occur when we interact with someone from a culture where trust is earned over time and the emphasis is on getting to know the other person well before sharing information.

This can be time consuming and frustrating to the person who’s used to exchanging information fast.  Often there is also the perception in the beginning that one side is giving more than the other, and that there is an inbalance in the business relationship.

One major goal of my work is to help people prepare for handling those culture gaps successfully.  Learn how to bridge the culture gap in my next post.

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