Cross-cultural communication is a challenge for everyone! As Gert Jan Hofstede puts it in Exploring Culture, “Cross-cultural misunderstanding is a much under-estimated cause of trouble.” I am currently working a lot on this question for different reasons and I am very attentive to every cross-cultural trouble I am in front of. Working in London UK is a wonderful playground for the cross-cultural observer.

When you study cultures, the one topic that you need to be aware of is stereotypes. Almost every nation is seen with some specific attributes in the eyes of the other countries. To mention just a few, Germans are very organised, French are wine experts, English drink tea all day long, Italians speak a lot, etc. If you are a disorganised German or a very quiet Italian will not do any good as you are not as expected anyway. I remember a situation like that when I was 25. I was travelling the USA for 2 months. I was lucky enough to know a couple of families over there. These friends did something very good for me: they arranged for me to travel the country almost always from friends to friends; these friends sending me to other friends and so on. That was fantastic! But something I was not expecting happened to me at some point. In new-Orleans, I met a lady who had been informed of my arrival. And guess why she was waiting for me? …Because she wanted me to kiss her hand in order to say hello. Man! I had never ever kissed anybody’s hand before in my life! The only thing I knew was that you are not actually suppose to really “kiss” the hand and that to do it properly; you don’t bring the hand to your mouth but your mouth to the hand. Well, in any case, you should never disappoint a lady! I was lucky enough to have been tipped beforehand and could prepare myself for it. So I did kiss her hand. As far as I know she was delighted.

Cross-cultural communication : Hand kiss cultural stereotype

On another occasion during that trip, I had the opportunity to discover another feature of “frenchism” I was not expecting, but this time i was less lucky. In Delaware, I was invited for dinner by some friends and they took me to the local wine shop before the dinner to choose some good wine. The trouble was, at that time, I knew nothing about wine. I did not like wine and never drunk any (I have fixed that since). I told my friends but they did not believe me. So, I thought that, as I did with the new-Orleans lady, I should not disappoint. Then I picked a bottle of wine from a region I knew my family was fond of. We went home, opened the bottle and they asked me to taste it and give my opinion. I did. My opinion was as vague as I could decently be and I asked for theirs. I’ll never forget that one: they found the wine really average to remain polite. I failed and somehow disappointed. What sort of Frenchman was I? Since then, and especially to avoid that shame again, I have decided to study wine and I consequently created a few wine clubs of my own. But that is another story.

In fact, I did not start that text in order to tell you about my wine misery but to tell you about cultural stereotype. As you see it is important to understand what stereotypes you have in mind for other nations and maybe be ready for the fact that everyone from that country is not necessary complying fully with the stereotype.

Now, I think it would be useful, in order to prevent cross-cultural misunderstanding, to not only be aware of stereotypes we have in mind for others but also stereotypes we have in mind for our own nation. Somehow, when you are travelling or dealing with foreigners, you have in the back of your mind something about what you should be as a whatever-country-you-are-from. This stereotype might change your behaviour in ways you would not think too much of otherwise.
I was watching a series on DVD the other day that gave me a great illustration of how you can caricature yourself when you pretend to be a true member of your country. This series is Mission Impossible. Not that I am particularly proud to be watching it but it reminds me of my younger time when I watched it on TV. The episode I am referring to is about a bad guy from the other side of the iron curtain who is specialising in guess what: American culture. Yes, this evil man is training people at behaving just like real Americans. The training camp is already a piece of choice as it represents the most average image of American city you could think of. Amazing! Our Mission Impossible Forces manage to infiltrate the camp and pretend to be candidates for being trainees in the camp. And they are clever at that, believe me! At some point they get clear lessons of what a “true American” would do and not do. I’ll give you two out of the four or 5 the episode contains.

A true American looks into the eyes when shaking a hand! Check that dialogue between Rollin Hand and Mr Bad guy. And see as well how the other candidates know their lesson better than Rollin Hand. Look at their eyes! That’s very amusing!

A true American woman knows how to behave with a man compared to these comrade girls from central Europe! Cinnamon needs to get the attention of Mr. Bad Guy and almost fails because she was not behaving as decently as a true American woman would do. Have a look at that!

I found that very amusing because in this very case, the caricature is coming directly from the nation itself. It is not how the others see the Americans but how the Americans see themselves compared to the rest of the world. I certainly do not pretend to take any lesson from a Mission Impossible episode regarding cross-cultural communication. I certainly do not even wish to judge in any way the content of that episode which is all about the cold war. I wonder what the TV series could have been on the other side. As exaggerated I suppose! Last but not least: this illustration is about Americans, but I am convinced that we could find similar examples for other cultures by searching other movies. Americans are not better or worse than anybody else at that. Do not take me wrong, this is not about Americans, or Germans or French or whatever, this is about culture perception, nothing else!
I think you can always learn and get opportunities for deeper thoughts when attentive to your environment, including while watching such stuff like Mission Impossible TV series.

In the end, I just wanted to say that we should always be aware of what we believe the others are like but also what we believe we personally are before working in a cross-cultural environment. The awareness of both sides should defuse a good load of troubles!

Let’s think about IT!