Recently I had a conversation with a colleague and friend. He works in the academic arena. We were discussing some of the challenges Americans working in China encounter. Initially, the conversation centered around different cultural approaches to international business, such as intellectual property. I revealed my discovery about the publishing industry in China and how it operates very differently than in the US. He then segued the conversation to the challenges academic recruiters face when recruiting “Asian” students—namely falsified information, invented student bios, plagiarized essays and manipulated transcripts. I questioned his assertion. I asked him if he was suggesting this was common behavior amongst all Asian applicants. Based on cultural norms in Asian countries like Japan, I found it difficult to believe these ethical dilemmas applied to a large number of Japanese students—along with others in Asia such as Singaporean applicants.
He immediately recanted his claim and told me he meant Chinese students. Certainly this could be a slip of the tongue or perhaps his statement reflects the human tendency to stereotype and put groups of people who may resemble each other under one behavioral umbrella. I have seen it time and time again: blanket statements about “Latins” or “Europeans.” However, I can assure you when it comes to Latins, Dominicans are quite different than Cubans. Yet they share the same Latin background. In Europe, the differences are even more pronounced. Danes have a completely different set of cultural priorities than for example, Italians—although they share the same continent.
So when is it acceptable to characterize cultures? The answer: when we can back up our assertion with generally accepted cultural norms and values. Let’s examine the topic of social status and then examine the United States. Many countries around the world have differing views on social hierarchy. People around the world are often placed on the social stratum based on a variety of factors—family name, income, ethnicity, where they live, gender, age and so on. In many countries, these labels are known and accepted. Most notably, in India, one can see very clear distinctions in society through the caste system. Now in the United States, one can argue there is an obvious hierarchy, based on inherited wealth, old money, disparities in income between races and ethnicities, etc. However the mantra in the US is clear— “all men (and women) are created equal.” It is part of American doctrine. It doesn’t matter if the adage is true or accurate. The reality is most Americans believe (or want to believe) it is true. Americans like to cite “American success stories” and look to people like Oprah Winfrey who personifies the “rags to riches” American dream.
And this egalitarian belief plays out in the American corporate environment. Although people talk about the “good old boy” network and the “glass ceiling” that excludes minorities from power positions, most employees in a US organization typically have the opportunity to speak out and express their opinion at an employee information exchange or gathering. In fact, participation is expected and encouraged. And corporate public forums are seen as an opportunity for middle managers to make an impact and senior managers to pinpoint up and coming talent. The key point in relevance to this topic is this: regardless of factors like race or gender, employees in the US feel comfortable participating and expressing their views in a corporate environment.
In other corporate cultures, hierarchy is held in high regard and as a result, the rules are rigid. In growing economies like China, Korea and India, corporate players are aware of their social standing and interact accordingly. There is little to no questioning of someone who has a higher social status. Line employees defer to supervisors who defer to middle managers, etc.
Although the following example did not take place within a corporate environment, it clearly illustrates the power of social status. Several years ago, a Korean airliner, preparing to land, was far short of the runway. Even though the First Officer knew they were on a path to disaster, he was reluctant to express his opinion and question the older and more experienced Captain’s lead. A questioning subordinate would be considered subordinate and humiliate the Captain. The First Officer remained silent as the plane catapulted into the English countryside, several miles short of the runway.
The key to success in international markets relies on becoming familiar with a variety of cross-cultural mindsets. As you examine a culture, be sure to explore the influence of social status and hierarchy. It is an instrumental component in the cross-cultural mosaic you’ll need to understand in order to build rewarding and profitable cross-cultural relationships. For additional resources on building international relationships, review my latest books at http://billsinunu.com/bills-books/.