Maria Antonietta Marino Date: 2019-07-01

The frame, the definition, is a type of context. And context, as we said before, determines the meaning of things. There is no such thing as the view from nowhere, or from everywhere for that matter. Our point of view biases our observation, consciously and unconsciously. You cannot understand the view without the point of view.

Noam Shpancer

Consider the following scenarios and attempt to answer the question in the second example according to your own understanding of family dynamics:

An American girl cleaned the room while her Thai roommate was having breakfast in the dormitory dining hall.

When the roommate returned, she became upset, cried, and left the room. Later it became clear that the American girl had placed the Thai girl’s skirt on the pillow portion of the bed. In Thai culture, the head is sacred and putting a piece of clothing associated with a lesser part of the body on a place reserved for the head was one of the worst possible insults. Friends and advisors tried to explain to the Thai girl that the American girl’s intentions were only good, but the involuntary reaction was so deep that she refused to share the room with the American girl again.“ (Sikkema and Niyekawa, 1987)

Sam (a), Ben (c) and Harry (b) are sitting together. 

Sam faces Ben and Ben gives him a cigarette.  Harry sits quietly with his back to both Ben and Sam and contributes nothing to the animated conversation going on between Sam and Ben.  One of the men is Ben’s brother, the other is Ben’s sister’s child.  Who is the nephew?

a. Sam  b. Harry  c. Ben

What the two scenarios have in common is that a deep knowledge of the context is required to understand the social norms that apply in the specific situation.

For instance, only those familiar with the Kuuk Thaayorre (Aboriginal Australian people living on the southwestern part of the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland) culture would be able to answer the question: “an avoidance taboo operates between mother’s brother and sister’s son and politeness requires that sister’s son should never directly face mother’s brother nor talk to him directly in company.   Sam and Ben are obviously brothers because of their unrestrained interaction while Harry, with his back turned to both his uncles, is obviously the respectful nephew”. (Tammet, 2009).

In 1976, anthropologist E.T. Hall developed the iceberg analogy of culture: he theorized that if culture was an iceberg, some of its aspects (“above the water line” elements, such as language, food, art, music, fashion, literature, rituals, flags, festivals, etc.) would be visible and obvious to everyone, while most of them (the unconscious aspects, such as values, social norms, unspoken and unconscious rules, sense of time, personal space and concept of privacy, interpretation of “right” and “wrong”, non-verbal communication, concept of death, gender roles, courtesy and manners, notions of beauty and intelligence, etc.) would be hidden below the water line and only accessible to outsiders after a certain amount of time spent observing and learning about the new culture.

From a business perspective, it’s worth noting that according to KPMG’s Global IT-BPO Outsourcing Deal Analysis 2017, in recent years approximately 84.2% of outsourcing deals originated from the United States (low-context culture), while the AT Kearney Global Services Location Index 2017 indicates India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Chile and Cambodia (high-context cultures) as the top locations for outsourcing deals based on financial attractiveness, people skills and availability, business environment scores.

Furthermore, 70% of the world cultures are estimated to be high-context (Tung, R. 1995) and most developing economies are included in such estimate.

Mismatches between national and organizational culture and misunderstandings between clients and vendors can, if not properly and timely addressed, break an outsourcing partnerships and/or any other business relationship involving parties who do not share a similar background.

In regard to Deming’s definition of Total Quality Management (introduced in a previous article), how can quality and consistency be achieved if communication is ineffective and if people’s learning preferences and social attitudes are not given proper consideration in the workplace?

As observed by MIT economist Lester Thurow, the main factors behind a company’s success in the competitive global environment are the quality of its technology and the quality of its people rather than cheap materials and cheap labor: it is therefore a mandatory requirement for any organization to develop a high degree of multicultural competence in order to stay in business.

What are some of the main challenges companies are likely to face in regard to communication, learning methodologies, reaction to change in culturally diverse environments?

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