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Recruiting Intelligence

10 valuable chapters of cross-culture learning

My wife and I have been working on time management for most of our marriage (>20 years). I have to admit that I am slightly obsessed about being on time.  Timeliness is one of those traits, that is part of my “cultural software." Why?  I grew up in Germany and timeliness matters more in Germany than most other countries.

Global Dexterity is a book about diagnosing cultural code.  Author Andy Molinsky provides a great deal of rich anecdotes around behavior that is appropriate, understandable and (un)acceptable in various cultural contexts.

Professor Molinsky developed an uncomplicated, but powerful framework to diagnose cultural code.  The approach includes the following six dimensions:

  • Directness: How straightforwardly you’re expected to communicate in a particular situation.
  • Enthusiasm: How much emotion and energy you are expected when communicating.
  • Formality:  The amount of deference and respect you are expected to display with your communication style.
  • Assertiveness: How strongly you are expected or allowed to voice your opinion and advocate your point of view in a particular culture and in a particular situation in that culture.
  • Self-promotion: The extent to which you can speak positively about yourself in a given cultural situation.
  • Personal disclosure: The extent to which it is appropriate to reveal personal information about yourself to others.

These categories may seem simple or obvious, but from my experience the selection is right on. I believe that Andy Molinksy analyzed critical elements that matter in new cultural environments.

As I mentioned I grew up in Germany and came to the United States as a graduate student.  I can think of dozens of examples and stories around each of the categories and I assure you that the cultural “gap” between a Western European and an American is much smaller than between an Asian and a Western European or American.

My first boss after graduate school was a German living in the United States.  After he returned to Germany and joined a German bank, my colleagues and I would call him and ask for “Klaus."  His secretary’s reaction was “typically” German when we asked for Klaus. She corrected us by saying, "You would like to talk with Prof. Dr. Friedrich."  And, the offense of addressing her boss by first name was greater in my case than for my American colleagues.  I clearly should have known better than these Americans.

Formality is an important aspect expressed in language, demeanor, physical contact, seating arrangements and more.

For Americans and Western Europeans, the difference between high and low context cultures is particularly important. Prof. Molinsky describes in several different parts of the book how we are accustomed to expressing our needs, questions, views and feelings more or less directly, in contrast to high context cultures which require a great deal more understanding, listening and nuanced context to understand the meaning.

I largely agreed with Prof. Molinsky's approach, “Don’t just change how you behave, change how you think,” and put your own personal spin on the local requirements so that it feels authentic to you. In the back of my head, I had nagging memories of rather inappropriate requests for bribes and commentary on the other gender while I lived and worked in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union.  In Chapter 10, Choosing Whether or Not to Adapt Your Behavior, Prof. Molinsky completed the book as a primer for living, traveling and working in other cultures by pointing out the tension when cultural norms conflict with your morals and ethics. These are not easy situations and many times it’s not about accepting or rejecting without serious consequences.

 

How we can be forgiven for our cultural mistakes is also an important chapter to allay your concerns and fears. Traveling and living abroad is about adventure, curiosity and attitude.  The author points out the importance of showing genuine interest in other cultures and building relationships.  I remember working with an American trucking executive on a project in Central Asia. He was very American – including his name John West. Yet his ability to relate to his counterparts in respect to their industry, the challenges of running trucks thousands of miles and so forth was amazing.  I have seen the opposite--people learning a local language fluently but showing a superior cultural attitude that offsets all good will created by language skills.

The book is a balanced, practical book that provides admissions officers a useful framework to approach their global activities and international colleagues and students. It’s also a very useful primer for international students to analyze and adapt their behavior to the American context and whatever country they are going to study or work.

Here is also a link to our recent podcast with the author.