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Cultural Excuses?

Having just returned from two week’s working in Puerto Rico followed by a two week vacation in France, I am once again reminded how different we appear to be based on where we live.

But my observations have also led me to challenge some of the assumptions I have made about how much of our behaviour is dictated by our cultural heritage. In fact, I am drawn to the idea that perhaps we use our Culture as an excuse for failing to positively interact across cultures.

Culture is one of our great taboos. We’re minded ‘not to go there’ for fear of causing upset or being branded ‘racist’ or ‘xenophobic’. And this can prevent us from looking more closely at the way we behave. We can use our Culture too readily to condone behaviour that creates barriers between ourselves and others.

As a Brit (half Scottish and half English), I was struck by the warmth of welcome I received when I arrived in Puerto Rico. The ebullience of my hosts was a delightful surprise. I’d love to claim that this was put on purely for my benefit and that I had been singled out for special treatment. But this wouldn’t be true. My colleagues behaved like this with everyone.

Over the two weeks I observed behavioural norms that constituted hugging and kissing upon greeting and departing; people feeling very comfortable with touching and stroking as part of their normal, daily interactions; generosity of spirit; willingness to praise; relaxed about sharing their feelings and personal details; willing to open themselves up to each other; willing to put themselves out for each other. The list goes on.

Here in the UK, the picture is often very different. Can you imagine greeting your boss or your colleague on Monday morning with a huge bear hug? How routinely do you stop in a corridor to put your arms around a colleague, shake them warmly by the hand, share a joke and a smile?

The phrase I often hear is “We don’t do that here”; or variants such as “That’s not the way we do things”, or “We don’t find that culturally acceptable”.

Is this a distortion, a generalisation, an all-too-convenient smokescreen to divert our attention from the essential question, “What is the culture we need to create in order to achieve happiness and success?”

We talk about Culture Clashes as if they are inevitable. In fact we often use them to justify our failure to embrace new cultures and cultural behaviours.


They really are the bane of my life. No matter what choices I make I usually end up making the wrong one and offending someone. Something as simple as the humble tie, it seems, has the power to make or break a professional relationship.

When I visit a client’s premises the question I always ask is: “Do I need to wear a tie?” (or “Am I expected to wear a tie?). If I know them really well and I have sussed out that they typically dress down, I might choose to go without. The risk is that on that day there are a number of  people who are wearing ties and I am judged to be too casual for the role I am about to perform.

If I choose to err on the side of safety and wear a tie, I might find myself in an organisation that sees the wearing of ties as a symbol of stuffiness. It might set me apart from the client group and interrupt the rapport.

After years of struggling with this dilemma I have come up with a strategy that usually works. I always wear a tie and I make a big thing of removing it (often together with taking off my jacket, unbuttoning my shirt and rolling up my sleeves) if I judge the situation to be appropriate. It’s a semi-striptease, which more often than not helps to break the ice.

And yet I have worked in companies where the ‘culture’ has dictated that irrespective of the work or the environment, jackets and ties must be worn at all times. Even in extreme temperatures, the cultural norm is that a professional image can only be maintained by sweating profusely and enduring mild strangulation.

So back to Puerto Rico. I don’t think I saw a tie in sight apart from my own. Once ostentatiously removed, it hunkered down in a dark corner of my hotel room for the duration of the trip.

The tie serves as a simple metaphor for the conditions we appear to place on what is acceptable to us. Why should we wear them in the UK but not in Puerto Rico? It’s hotter there, but they have great air conditioning.

More and more we are operating cross-culturally. And something interesting is happening, but perhaps not fast enough. Work cultures are beginning to bleed into each other. Ultimately, a global work culture may be developed but we are a long way from this today. It should be possible to take the best bits of many cultures and blend them in a global whole that will allow international companies to trade and operate more successfully.

I am certainly not arguing that we should abandon cultural differences and identities. This is truly what makes our world so remarkable and intriguing. But it is possible to adopt and embrace some of the values that underpin the development of other cultures.

My argument is that we use ‘Culture’ in a misguided way to provide reasons for many bad or simply unhelpful practices, rather than to promote and share positive attributes.

Culture isn’t ‘out there’: it’s in here! It’s you, and every interaction you have with another person. It shouldn’t be an excuse. It shouldn’t be a restrictive label such as: “We can’t make autonomous decisions because we’re Swedish” or “We mustn’t show our feelings because we’re British”. Instead, we need to see culture as being a set of behaviours that enable all of us to find positive connections with our counterparts wherever they may be in the world.

If we can do this, our experience of work can be transformed.

My two weeks in Puerto Rico were perhaps the best I have ever experienced in my role as a consultant. The level of engagement; desire to learn;  commitment to creating a positive work environment; genuine interest in each other; levels of rapport and sincerity; and above all,  willingness to engage with other cultures, was truly inspiring. My visa application is in the post!

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