Culture – it’s about the complexity

One of the challenges of cross-cultural work is helping people recognize that it’s not about memorizing lists of do’s and don’ts. Don’t get me wrong – it is useful to know that some cultures remove their shoes, bow, or view certain numbers as unlucky. And particularly when giving a gift, meeting for the first time, or launching a marketing campaign, you’ll want to avoid telegraphing the wrong message.¬†However, in the bigger picture of crossing cultures in our work, education, and daily lives, it can be much harder to know what to do.

I’ll share an example from my life in a mixed Korean-American family. The challenges I face with my mother-in-law have nothing to do with remembering not to stick my chopsticks in the rice bowl. Instead, they are located in a maze of value and perspective differences that are both fascinating and frustrating.

Consider that in a hierarchical Korean family, the mother is always right. It doesn’t matter if what she says is logical or accurate, or whether the child is 3 or 30.¬†Within this dynamic we face a lot of what she probably sees as imparting wisdom. Sometimes, it is well-taken, but on other occasions, we see holes in the reasoning, sense that context is missing, disagree with the conclusions, or think it is just plain wrong. This creates a critical moment for me, especially when it seems that a response is required. I know it is rude to argue back or tell her that she is wrong, but it violates my own cultural code to agree with something that I find disagreeable. So, what am I to do?

When there are no easy answers

Unfortunately, do’s and don’ts are of little practical use here. First, they imply that by diligently adhering to all of the other culture’s rules, I will find success. However, the problem isn’t knowing the rules, but prioritizing and enacting them in the real-world, in a way that is appropriate and effective. Second, they assume that flawlessly performing the other culture is the purpose of the exchange. Instead, I would argue that the goal is to reach our own objectives – and understanding the web of culture helps us do that.

These lists are like a skeleton – they provide a framework, but they hardly constitute the whole, fleshed-out picture. By contrast, more complex cultural knowledge is valuable not because it tells us precisely what to do, but because it helps us avoid making an even bigger mess. It also expands our range of motion by revealing alternative paths, and helps us make informed assessments of various approaches. But we still have to exercise our own agency – and often, it’s a matter of choosing the least worst compromise rather than the single best answer.

In my example, I have to know what my goals are: to be true to myself while promoting familial goodwill. Because these objectives are somewhat at odds, I have to be mindful, creative, and flexible in trying different tactics. I’ve experimented with being very deferential (which worked for her but led me astray) and being honest and direct (which worked for me but upset her). I’ve also tried explaining, reasoning, engaging, and even avoiding. Lately, I have started responding with “hmm,” or “oh?” (sometimes, “I hadn’t heard that”, “I didn’t know that”, or “I hadn’t thought of that.”).

This is somewhat unsatisfying from my perspective, but it has actually been the most successful strategy so far. It fits Korean culture because I am not undermining my mother-in-law’s status nor making her lose face, and am maintaining surface harmony. It fits me because it doesn’t require me to be inauthentic or consent to nonsense; I am indicating that I heard her speak, but remain noncommittal. And it rarely comes up again – which shows that she wasn’t approaching it as a dialogue of equals where a consensus was to be reached, but was just having her say. If it does come up again, I mutter an “oh, I must have misunderstood . . .” and leave it at that.

To respond to this conflict, I thus went beyond the tactical list of do’s and don’ts and engaged the texture of Korean culture to form a more effective, fluid strategy. I had to figure out how to juggle not only her cultural expectations, but my own. I also expanded my knowledge – I learned the “oh?” response from watching Korean dramas (where power dynamics with parents are, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme). I also had to be courageous, curious, and committed. And finally, I needed realistic expectations: I can’t get everything I want, so I settled for an approach that is imperfect but workable. And from here, I can continue to learn, grow, and improve.

Cultural Training & Consulting Context

This example is from my own family, but it frequently appears in my work with expats, teachers, business travelers, and global teams. Here, there is a similar quandary: what do we do when we are trying to be open-minded and accepting of the other person’s culture, but we become hamstrung by lists that tell us not to eat with the left hand and not to blow our nose at the table, but don’t tell us how to connect despite conflict? I repeatedly meet people who are stuck because they are looking at the cross-cultural panorama through a tiny, distorted keyhole of lists and memes. It’s not that they are a bad place to start, but ultimately, they are a resource without depth or real insight, and when you need to find your way through a cross-cultural forest where the stakes are as high as the confusion, they don’t offer a map or a compass. A far better approach, in my experience, is to embrace complexity while building multifaceted knowledge. It’s a risk, but it’s in the ambiguity that we find the most promising possibilities and solutions.

Are you interested in learning how to swim in the open water of intercultural relations? Ask me about my coaching, training, and consulting!



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