What we observe about a culture – its language, food, dress, religions, architecture, greetings, etc., is but the “tip of the iceberg” of what really makes up a culture.
Underneath the water are cultural features that are not readily apparent. These features are deeply rooted ideas that need to be uncovered for us to have successful intercultural relationships.
For example, let’s take a French woman who comes to work in the US for a two-year assignment. After getting a performance review from her manager, she is thrilled that she is doing so well. In fact, she is now thinking about extending her stay.
Actually, the manager who gave her the review is not happy with her performance at all. While he admits she is very energetic and enthusiastic, he says her work is sloppy. Although he has mentioned it to her several times, she has not made any changes. He is thinking he’ll have to let her go if her performance doesn’t improve.
How could these two people have such vastly different perspectives of the same situation?
The answer is cultural miscommunication, two diverging attitudes, and beliefs about how to give feedback, in this case:
American supervisors often focus on the positives and try to minimize the negatives, couching their criticism in encouraging language.
In contrast, French supervisors tend to gloss over the positives and provide direct, blunt feedback.
So you can see how these very different cultural behaviors caused such different interpretations of the same situation.
As a language coach and cultural consultant, I can help my clients understand what expectations their American clients or undergraduate students may have of them.
For example, if my client, a French professor, is very strict in grading or harsh in giving feedback, her American students may feel very angry and frustrated. I would tell her to think about giving feedback in the form of a “sandwich” where the soft positive elements are given first; then the meat of the issue is given, and it all ends on a positive note. She can add “extra meat” if she wants!
Looking beneath the “water level” to understand core cultural values helps to prevent these kinds of miscues.
In order to discover these “hidden” beliefs and attitudes of other cultures, we first need to reflect on our own values to understand the filters through which we view our world.
Then, we need to take the time to get to know individuals from that other culture and interact with them in a meaningful way.