I am on vacation – yippee – in New Mexico. I am pleased to be presenting posts while I am gone from several blogging buddies. I know you will find what they have to write interesting. There are two kinds of posts:
* Some folks are providing a post about whatever interests them.
* Some folks have graciously agreed to answer a set of questions I offered a couple weeks back.
I thank all my contributors!
Here is a post by Dave Pughe-Parry
Cultural Assumptions CAN KILL YOUR BUSINESS
The fifties were my formative pre-teen years. In that decade it was acceptable – even imperative – that children listened to their parents and took their advice without question. The next decade, the turbulent and exciting sixties, started to change all that.
Before the onset of flower-power and free love, my Dad taught me a lesson, one of many. “Always look a man in the eye,” he commanded. “This tells the world that you are honest, that you are not lying.” This lesson, and all the others that I received from my Dad, my Mom, my teachers, and other family members and friends, formed my culture. “This is the way we do things around here,” was implicit, and I had no reason to question that way.
Many years later, when I went into business, I started to work alongside people who had a different culture. One of the many – and lesser – tragedies of apartheid is that as a white male, I was deprived of exposure to other cultures. I, and many others in South Africa, have belatedly begun exploring our myriad cultures, and building a new one. The formation of our new rainbow nation is rightly regarded by many as miraculous. Tom Peters recently wrote in his blog on this.
So what role does culture play in business, in management and in communication? Culture has a huge impact. Around 15 years ago, I was confronted with the power of culture in the workplace. At that time I was consulting to one of the larger hotel groups in Africa providing multi-media communications to their managers. To give lower-level hotel staff – most of them black – an idea of what is was like to be a guest in a hotel, and to encourage participation in the “new way of working,” a simple suggestion box scheme was introduced. The prize for the best suggestion was a dinner for two in the flagship restaurant – presented as a “Romantic Candle Light Dinner” – as part of an evening in one of the nicer suites in the hotel.
The response wasn’t dismal – it was non-existent. I decided to do some research and asked some of the staff why no-one seemed interested. Most simply looked down and mumbled something while shrugging their shoulders expressively. I was starting to get exasperated by the lack of response, when someone was finally brave enough to provide an answer.
“Dave,” – to call me by my first name was itself a cultural innovation in apartheid South Africa – “I have spent all of my home life in candle light. I have eaten all my meals in my shack by candle light, I even did my schoolwork by candlelight, I washed by candle light,” he said, smiling wryly at my blushing embarrassment, which rapidly turned to horror as I realised just how insensitive and ignorant I had been. “Candle light dinners hold no attraction for any of us,” he said, before turning away.
In the ensuing weeks and months, I embarked on a quest to learn more about the different cultures that surround me every day. I also made a concerted effort to share my culture with anyone interested. By telling stories and sharing experiences, our lives are enriched by the culture of others. Communication promotes culture, and prevents tragedies.
For example, go back to my questioning the hotel staff about their non-participation. Remember the lesson my Dad taught me about “looking someone in the eye.” In my questioning, my culture dictated that I perceived the down-cast eyes as being dishonest at the very least. My embarrassment was no less acute when I learnt that, in most black cultures, it is considered disrespectful to look someone in the eye, especially a person in authority. It is a sign of respect to look down.
I also learnt that, if a manager has issued instructions for certain things to be done, the staff always ‘understood” the instructions. “Do you know what to do now?” “Do you understand?” “Any questions?” These questions are routinely asked of the staff at the end of the instructions.
Any and all of these types of interrogations were met with a shy affirmation, usually said with downcast eyes. You see, I learnt that for many black people at that time, it was unthinkable to tell someone in authority that his instructions were not understandable, or clear. Many white people interpreted this respect as subservient ignorance when the instructions were not carried out to the letter. I shudder to think of the hurt that this misunderstanding of culture has caused over the decades in my country alone.
Today I understand why a black African man will go through a door ahead of any women. In Western culture, we always let the women go first. In black culture, the man goes first to deal with any unknown danger that may be lurking through the door, or elevator, etc.
Today I understand why, when a black person comes into my office; he or she will immediately sit down without being invited to do so. To stand and look down on someone in authority is totally disrespectful. The “superior” must always be higher.
The diverse cultures that are so richly colouring the miracle that is our Rainbow nation continue to enrich my life and the lives of all the wonderful people of South Africa.
The clever and astute manager will make an effort to understand the cultural forces at play in his or her sphere. Communicating and dealing with people effectively has been shown repeatedly to be a smart move. Talking to people in their home language is only a small part of cultural acknowledgement.
Understanding another person´s culture and devising workarounds where necessary will pay enormous dividends – on the bottom line, where they should be paid!
Dave Pughe-Parry began his working life as a press photographer rising to Picture Editor on the Rand Daily Mail. A short stint as photographic manager for the county’s largest Public Relations firm preceded life as an entrepreneur.
Working mainly in the communications arena, Dave has led and been part of many media innovations in South Africa. Amongst a steady stream of innovative products contending for backing and a market, Dave also coaches and mentors communications business and creative professionals.
Dave is currently rolling out the Living ADDventure"?¢, a company focused on coaching and providing resources for adults with Attention Deficit Disorder. His web sites are www.creativechange.co.za and www.ladd.co.za He is looking forward to starting his blogs on both sites.
Dave’s favourite book is “Failing Forward” by John C Maxwell – in fact any of his books qualify for a favourite rating! “What is my purpose here,” is the question Dave asks before any activity or meeting. “The question, despite it being directed at me, must always come up with an answer directed away from me. Meeting someone, for example, brings about a variation of the original question; ‘What do I need to do for you?'”
Dave was a member of Team Y on Lisa Haneberg’s innovative 2Weeks2A Breakthrough programme. “Sharing and experiencing my goals with people all around the globe was a fabulous and enriching experience.”
Dave lives with his wife and small zoo in a vibrant little village called Fish Hoek, about 35km south of Cape Town, on the tip of Africa.