It’s all About R-E-S-P-E-C-T When Communicating Across Cultures, This Author Says



Sometimes cultural stereotypes–Americans are positive, Africans are warm, Indians hate aggressive behavior–can actually be useful in helping expats navigate an unfamiliar world.

In his new book about cross-cultural communications, business psychologist Gurnek Bains says that it’s a good idea to “cherchez la difference,” so to speak.

“While things can appear familiar on the surface, over time a gradual realization sinks in that the deep psychological and cultural instincts of different societies really are different in profound, non-superficial ways,” Mr. Bains writes in his new book, “Cultural DNA: The Psychology of Globalization.”

That means Africans asked to take what’s meant to be a quick assessment test at the end of a training session might struggle for hours, focusing on whether their answers to open-ended questions are right or wrong, Mr. Bains says. Or to understand that Americans will be crushed when they are given what they perceive as negative feedback. Cultures often give and receive criticism differently, he notes.

Mr. Bains, who is chairman of YSC, a corporate psychology consulting firm headquartered in London, sat down with WSJ Expat to talk about the need for people to know the basics of what he calls “cultural DNA,” both for global business leaders but also for those who spend time in cultures that are not their own. Edited remarks follow.

What lessons can expats take from this?

One of the things in quite a lot of the research is that people are very quick to pick up if you respect them or not, and respect their culture. Respect is fundamental if you’re going to really build an authentic relationship with other cultures. And in order to do that, you need to get under the skin of the culture and kind of empathize to a degree.

Isn’t it dangerous to talk about stereotypes?

While stereotypes can be dangerous and research shows that you should never judge individuals, the reality is that the longer you spend, the more you realize that cultures have their own assumptions and beliefs. My idea is, let’s acknowledge those views and have an honest mirror.

How is your book different from other cross-cultural books?

It’s a kind of roadmap. Other things written about cultural differences emphasize the dimensions. My belief is that you have to understand each culture on its own terms.

For example?

One of my clients who went to China said that the copying thing used to drive him mad. Then he learned that from their point of view, it’s considered arrogant to put your own spin on things. And the other thing he said was that he thought the Chinese lacked creativity. But he saw that there was a lot more going on under the surface, more originality of thinking, but people don’t show it openly.

What about other cultures?

Another client, who is British, told me that when he read about Americans’ positivity, he always thought they were fake. But then he realized Americans really are positive. If you understand it from the root principles, you understand that it’s real and there’s good reason for these guys to be positive.

You fill the book with dozens of examples of misunderstandings. What’s another?

An Australian guy went to India and was really frustrated by the lack of directness of people. He never could get a straight answer. I said, ‘You’ve got to understand that one of the places this comes from, deeply ingrained, is a huge level of not wanting to offend or be aggressive towards anyone. It’s not a position of dishonesty, but a position of being kind and not being rude or negative.’ He said this really helped him bond with his team and be less suspicious.

One of the more fascinating sections talks about an experience you had with executive training in Nigeria when the participants got stymied at finishing the questionnaire at the end of the session, taking hours to answer what was supposed to be a 20-minute exercise.

They thought we were trying to catch them out. In Africa, trust exists in circumscribed situations. We were all getting along fine, but then at the end a real wariness set in. They had completely not trusted what we told them: that there were no right or wrong answers.

How could expats apply these ideas?

I would encourage expats to develop that deep respect. You’re going to engage with the culture more deeply. Otherwise, you’re always going to float across the surface. Understanding and respecting where people are coming from allows you to build a real relationship. It’s also important to get out of your frame of reference. That’s why I think the book is also about understanding your default cultural settings, as well.

Any exceptions to the rule?

While it’s important to understand differences, you sometimes have to treat people as people as well. Sometimes when people are in a different culture, they tiptoe around sensitivities. People can also be similar in many ways, and you’ve got to work with both ideas.

It sounds as if this advice could work for everyone.

Even if you don’t leave the country, you’re probably dealing with people around the world. With globalization, you don’t have to get on a plane to experience these issues. It’s the new normal.