Practice: connections

XIII.1 January + February 2006
Page: 33
Digital Citation

Pack wisely and remember the local voltage

Laura Erickson

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In the age of globalization, the ease of access to information and instant communication have connected people from all over the earth in a way unimaginable to previous generations. Now business and communications are conducted across borders and time zones with ease—at least technologically speaking, that is. When it comes to comprehending the patterning involved in how different cultures proceed with their daily affairs, there is no machine that can be used to reprogram one's thinking and expectations in order to avoid misunderstandings or missed opportunities while interacting with people across the globe. As "flat" as the earth may seem from a technical or economic perspective, it still requires a somewhat psychological feat to respect and understand people living and working in a foreign culture.

The Outlet as Metaphor. When traveling abroad, everyone knows that if you want to successfully use and reuse a personal appliance like your cell phone or hairdryer, you have an important accessory to remember to pack before leaving: an outlet adapter/converter. Just as each country has a different configuration for making electrical contact between energy source and appliance, so each country has its rules, both spoken and unspoken, that govern the way business is conducted. To violate or not understand these rules is to risk the impact and successful outcome of a trip or interaction. In metaphorical terms, forget the adapter and your appliance will eventually die because you can't tap into the power source. Forget the converter and your appliance will get fried. So remember to pack wisely and come prepared to adapt your appliance to the local configuration, using their voltage.

The Influence of History. Since the business world does not exist in a vacuum, part of understanding a foreign peer is having some kind of understanding of the culture in which that person works and lives. To begin to understand a culture, it's helpful to know some history of the respective country in order to gain a little insight into the underlying psychology involved in interpersonal relations. Psychology is understood as referring only to people, but it seems that the history of a land also manifests in thought patterns and types of relationships formed, which vary from country to country.

To demonstrate this idea of history and place influencing the psychology of a particular culture, let's take a look at an example. Many people come to the US, and particularly to Silicon Valley, on a learning tour to try to answer such questions as, "Why does so much innovation happen there? What is it about that place that produces so many new ideas and ventures?" Somewhere in the background, in a sort of collective unconscious, lies a part of the answer to these questions. This background has to do with the history of America in general, and California in particular. Let's delve into a little of that history in order to uncover some of the unconscious factors at work behind the venturing success of this region, which is a reflection of the mindset of the people living and working there.

The US is a relatively young country that came into being by way of a pioneering revolution, ousting the powers that were. It has gained most of its population from different waves of immigration and has expanded its borders greatly in its short 200-plus years of existence. What these very general and well-known historical facts can tell us about the ways that Americans interrelate is this: The American mentality is young and, as a result, somewhat brash, because time and experience have not yet tempered the psychological residue of an upstart inception. In a business environment, amongst others, this manifests in a "can-do" attitude that welcomes, and indeed thrives on, innovative ideas that tend to be implemented rather quickly. In other longer-established countries that don't have the same kind of revolutionary formation, there may be more aversion to this style of risk-taking. This is good for Americans to keep in mind when interacting elsewhere. Citizens of other countries may find this attitude refreshing and encouraging or head-strong and naïve, depending on whether they have made an effort to adapt to the environment.

Continuing this brief overview, the second thing that we can deduce from American history has to do with its population. Worldwide historical events led various peoples to emigrate to the US in search of a better life. In this small fact, we have two more clues to American mentality: There is the belief in America as a land of opportunity (which obviously extends beyond a strictly American mentality), and Americans have the knowledge that people from many different cultures have emigrated at different times, meaning that, as a whole, the American populace does not really share a common base of history. Considering these two things together, one can see that Americans, wherever they are originally from, don't necessarily have common interests in terms of cultural identity; what really binds them is a germane economic outlook. Coupled with knowledge about America's Protestant roots and its attendant work ethic, we can start to see why capitalism has been so successful in America. It also helps to explain why Americans are so driven by money and success—this yearning to climb the social ladder is one of the things Americans historically have in common.

The last piece of this mini-analysis of American mentality and how that influences American business culture is the history of America's expanding frontiers. It was only about 150 years ago that much of what is now America was frontier territory. People came West in search of bigger and better—of more space and fortunes to be made. California was the final frontier in this movement westward, and the natural riches of California acted as a real magnet for entrepreneurial frontiersman and immigrants. This desire to carve out a more prosperous life in the spacious West reveals a yearning for, and a belief in, the vastness of the West as an economic jackpot. The gold rush brought even more people to the farthest reaches of the frontier—California—and acted as an even bigger draw for those looking to remake their lives in "virgin" territory. That people were so willing to give up their previous existence and go westward to encounter and thrive in the unsettled nature of the West belies an attitude well-suited for leaving behind old customs and traditions and pursuing adventure... in the name of wealth. In modern days, this frontier spirit is seen in the culture of innovation, with all that entails, that exists in California in general, and Silicon Valley in particular.

Time as a Conceptual System. In addition to its history, another part of comprehending a foreign culture is realizing how that culture conceives of time and what value it attaches to it. In America this value is decidedly monetary—the cliché "time is money" is an underlying conceptual system that forms judgments about how to appropriately utilize this resource. As previously discussed, the pursuit of material wealth is a common aspiration for Americans. Once time is factored into the equation, it's easy to understand what Benjamin Franklin was getting at when he advised to "Remember that Time is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day... and... sits idle one half of that Day... has already thrown away Five Shillings." ("Advice to a Young Tradesman," 1748, Writings, vol. ii.) In other words, the passage of time is linked to the possibility of being fiscally productive. In other countries, time may be valued more as a resource utilized for forming or solidifying relationships or as a type of insurance that can guard against rash actions that might lead to failure. Developing an appreciation for how people elsewhere value time is part of the ability to connect with them on their level.

Making an effort to respectfully interact with people across borders and cultures is a worthwhile and productive activity in the Global Age. The pace and distribution of technology is throwing together people who would not have even known of each other's existence a few decades ago. In order to make cross-cultural interactions productive and successful, everyone can make use of simple observations about a particular culture's history to deduce some of the psychological factors at work behind the ways that business is conducted, in order to better comprehend people coming from another point of view. Doing this is not only a fun and interesting way to make connections, but it is also a way of readjusting expectations so that everyone is in a more neutral territory and business can proceed without the hindrance of misunderstandings. Further observations about how time is valued also lead to new insights and appreciations of the dynamics at work. To bring back the outlet metaphor, time is the voltage that is used, and the underlying cultural mentality reflects the outlet's configuration. With the use of your mind as an adapter, you are sure to make a connection.

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Laura Erickson

About the Author:

Laura Erickson is operations manager for swissnex, a knowledge-exchange platform that works to bridge the energy, competences, and insights of Switzerland, the Western US, and Canada. Based in San Francisco, she's had many conversations regarding the factors that have made California a hotbed of innovation. Laura and the swissnex team host events, devise study tours, and collaborate on special projects in order to fulfill the swissnex mission of "connecting the dots" across cultures, disciplines, and practices.

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©2006 ACM  1072-5220/06/0100  $5.00

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