IT Employment

Bridging cultural divides in the workplace

Cultural divides exist everywhere, from country to country, from region to region, even from workplace to workplace, but sooner or later you have to take responsibility for how you come across to the people who work around you.

Cultural divides exist everywhere, from country to country, from region to region, even from workplace to workplace, but sooner or later you have to take responsibility for how you come across to the people who work around you.

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Recently, I wrote about a horrid creature who blamed his brash and abusive workplace behavior on the culture from which he oozed (New York City). He thought that his co-workers (the Department of Education at a university in Kentucky) were complaining about him because they were Southern and just didn't understand his "ways."

Although culture differences can play a big role in how people get along, in this case, using that defense was just a crock. He was using it to excuse some really abhorrent behavior.

His delusional machinations aside, I will say that as a Southerner myself (although Kentucky's classification is up for debate -- Southern, Midwestern, East Central), I can imagine that his let's-get-this-done-now pace was a little off-putting to his colleagues at the university where he was employed. I know how my people can be. I have faced the same type of resistance when I try to assert some of my own genetically unexplainable Type A tendencies. But sooner or later you have to adapt to your surroundings. If you have any self-awareness at all, you figure out that you're insulting to people (e.g., their eyes bug out, they're suddenly speechless, there are tears, etc.). If you continue to behave a certain way after you're aware of how you're coming across, the fault lies with you.

I know some things are culturally ingrained and are extremely difficult to change. For example, I have worked with three people over the years who all happen to hail from the same large American Midwestern city. All three were perceived among their work peers here in Kentucky, on the whole, as abrasive and insensitive. Is this a coincidence? I don't really know. Was their bluntness and brashness a product of the faster pace of the area from which they came? Were our perceptions at fault or their methods of communicating? Or maybe a little of both. I do know that they relocated to this city and wanted to make career strides here but their alienating behavior made that difficult.

And before I get blasted in the discussions, I'm not talking about intolerance of different cultures. I'm not advocating total assimilation of cultures into the mainstream. I'm saying that, if you expect a certain result from someone you are dealing with, you have to understand their way of thinking.

I'm also not saying that people in the South are nicer than anywhere else. Frankly, we can be just as mean as the next guy. It's just that down South, we have a delivery that doesn't sound mean. You can insult someone until the cows come home, if you combine it with a sweet sounding phrase. For example:

"He's really a moron, bless his heart."

"God love her, she couldn't find her way out of a paper bag."

OK, all kidding aside, cultural divides exist everywhere, from country to country, from region to region, even from workplace to workplace, but sooner or later you have to take responsibility for how you come across to the people who work around you.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

92 comments
Shriks
Shriks

Could not go through all the responses to this thread to see if anyone did bring up this WSJ article talking about the United States of Mind - http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122211987961064719.html I often do not believe in the 'survey patterns' results because for some reason, it always seems that the survey is conducted on the same sample [maybe because my opinion was not asked for!!? :>] but in this case, the readings are interesting. bottom line then: - difference of opinions and issues should not be broken down to culture, race, sex or place of origin; - just for reference, there could be a culture sensitivity manual for every state/country that should be available in the public domain and not just with some cross-cultural trainer or the average movers and packers.

michelle
michelle

The same thing works in reverse... "Ahm Frum Thuh South" and I worked as a contract developer in Pennsylvania for a while. When I first got there, everyone treated me like I was stupid and I was only given silly little "fix-em-up" projects to work. Then the department manager included in me the group's weekly lunch at a local sports bar where we played trivia games on the big screen in front of everyone... you could almost hear the astonishment - "that new girl from Texas is actually kinda smart."

llaunders
llaunders

For every occurrence of this kind of complaint, there are two people who could make the claim that the other person's style, manner, work ethic, et al are just 'different' that what they're accustomed to. A GOOD employee will adapt to the style that is most effective for the person/people they're dealing with, but that isn't always possible given the circumstances of the job, whatever they may be. As with there being no excuse for the abhorrent behavior, I claim the same thing with those who can't find a way to stand up to those they find brusque or downright rude. Stand up for yourselves, and you can do it nicely while asserting yourself. You can be nice about it while letting the other know you do not appreciate their manner. If you don't, you are giving some form of tacit approval for their manner and it will not change.

reisen55
reisen55

But if I am working with an idiot with whom I have no respect for, then to hell with them. I have bumped into one supreme moron who got himself fired because of a bad attitude and screw-ups, and a current colleague I am working "with" but moving away from is an idiot savant. Talent love talent and I do not put any barriers in-between if so. Hey, ever work with a FORMER MARINE??

jose.schmoe
jose.schmoe

Everyone is focused internally talking about New Yorkers and midwesterners and stuff. Everyone is missing the point. Except me. The big picture is that a lot of our jobs are being outsourced to India, China, the moon! It is WE who need to get accustomed to the cultures of other peoples of other nations. Pretty soon they'll be our bosses. For those of us who still have jobs here in the US after it's all over.

Reuban
Reuban

I have worked in large and small culturally diverse teams and there is something to be said for the cultural dynamics within them. People from similar cultures do tend to find it easier flock together. Its the responsibility of organisations to ensure that, within a work environment, enough opportunities are provided for employees to work in diverse teams and help break out of their "cultural" moulds with any issues of professionalism or lack of it, addressed quickly and effectively. Best-in-class organisation tend to have code-of-conduct booklets and situational training to help with these. Extreme employee reactions to working with people not like them indicates a different sort of a problem. But delusional or not, any person causing problems at levels described above is probably taking advantage of management laxity.

lmimsno
lmimsno

Welcome to the Borg. Please leave your individuality at the door.

longwayoff
longwayoff

There is NO way that Kentucky can be considered Midwest - any state EAST of the Mississippi is eastern (or southern)! The Midwest is that double row from north to south starting with North Dakota and Minnesota at the top, and including IA, NE, SD, KS, MO. The four states at the bottom, AR, LA, TX, & OK, are more south than anything else. Speaking from Out West in Montana...

donpro1
donpro1

I've read all the posts up to this point (others may chime in while I'm typing this). I agree with most, disagree with some and whould advise others to be more politic in their ineractions. CAlling someone stup[id in front of others gets you labeled, at best. an A-hole, at worst you can potentially make all meetings unproductive simply because those around you don't want to be labeled stupid. You will also find folks less and less willing to work with you. I'm a veteran and have been involved in 2 shooting wars, so I understand that military attitude that defines "getting the job done right the first time". Unfortunately that attitude seems limited to the troops in the trenches and not those providing them the tools ot do the job. As a Southerner and Texan, I can say that there are very much differences between the way we do things down here and the way they get done elsewhere. Most Northerners seem to be in a greater hurry to get things done. AS one respondant said, "Time is everything". Well, down here we're taught from early on that time on earth isn't as important as eternity, so don't sweat it if something doesn't get done right now. In the long run, it won't matter how fast the job got done, so much as did it get done right. Yes our weather has an influence on our actions. It's hard to get excited aobut getting outside in 100+?? (F) temps, and even A/C doesn't make that easier. So we move slower. We talk slower, but we don't necessarily take our time getting things done, it just seems that way. More to the point, accomodataions have to be made for those of differing cultures when working with them. Just as those of differeing cultures must make accomodations for the culture you're working/dealing with. This is how we all get along. If we don't, you simply have open warfare in some version or another, and that's never good for anyone.

major.malfunction
major.malfunction

I worked at a place that the VP would readily offer out his opinion on the competency and/or personality of an employee. When it was bad, it was really bad. Which would lead me to always ask, "If they are such a hammer and/or incompetent....why are they worknig here? Furthermore, who hired him/her?" I could never understand the "sour milk" philosophy. That's when you go to the fridge, open the milk, see that its curdled and sour, put it back in the fridge, and then say "I'll take a look to see if its any better tomorrow." Just like people with awful personality traits or incompetence, it won't get any better tomorrrow and in fact, it will get worse. After 10 years of that, that was one of my main reasons for leaving. Crappy workers who never get corrected by management are a cancer to the office. After awhile, morale drops to zero and the good workers start wondering why they should behave or do their job to the fullest when other people do not. It just builds and builds and as a department manager, you can be powerless to fix it when the higher ups sit on their hands.

propellerheadus
propellerheadus

I work projects coast to coast in the US. I originally hail from the south. I definately had to tone my southern accent down to be acceptable. That's no big deal though. I always try to bear work culture in mind when I work a project in a particular location. In my mind the divide is east/west and not so much north/south. I've out New Yorked New Yorkers which is an accomplishment I'm proud of. I tend to have more trouble with the save-the-whales-while-we-are-hanging-loose west coast attitudes, but I've had plenty of successful projects out there too. In the north/south sense I'm more comfortable with southern work styles, but tend to be more successful in the north where hard driving naked agression is acceptable.

dbecker
dbecker

We have a Frenchman at work. Everyone explains his arrogance away saying, "Well, he's French". That's not it. It's narcissism. We aren't talking about a little selfishness from time to time here. We're talking about the full blown Personality Disorder described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [and anyone working in IT should have their own copy of the DSM IV]. Note that it is NOT A MENTAL ILLNESS! It is a personality disorder. Mental Illness is physiologically based. Narcissism is a choice. Unfortunately, the work place, particularly in IT, has come to the place where such choices are tolerated. The narcissist is the center of his / her own universe. Worse, they demand to have narcissistic sources. It's especially bad if they are in positions of power. The picture is worse than most of you can know. All fortune 500 companies are run by narcissists who can objectify themselves and everyone else. Worse, many of the narcissistic managers, directors, vice presidents, CIOs, CEOs, chairman of the board not only are narcissists, they have no conscience. They are psychopaths -- just the thing to keep Corporate America going [and a handy convenient explanation for Enron, Global Crossings, etc.]. The solution is to set boundaries, remain professional, do your job and some beyond, carefully keep records and record your accomplishments, build relationships with the competent around you, and -- most of all -- stay out of their way and keep off their radar.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

It is kind of like how neilb comes across to me as a crass, arrogant & up his own due to the attitude he displays towards the people of another country. Sadly not uncommon from the deep SE of the UK however. EDIT - My opinion, like or lump.

F4A6Pilot
F4A6Pilot

Actually, it is the mouthings of idiots that gets Marines current, ex, and defrocked riled. We have little tolerance for jerks. I have had to learn not to expand on the deficiencies I perceive in the civilian workplace. Just don't mention sensitive subjects like gun control ie. Shooting non-Weaver combat stance, and you will be fine.

bunkyaz
bunkyaz

In my experience as a retired military, I find the military people who shave spent 8 or more years active military are more tolerant of cultural issues than those without the military experience or only 4 years. Especially in my military career as a medic, I dealt with all cultures, languages, customs in varying degrees. There were always those that were soPC they could not ask someone why a certain action offended or why a particular action was done, and they never learned. I live in Arizona, where the PC police are everywhere. They drive me crazy! The military taught me, if a person is a jerk, they are a jerk! Culture, skin color, religion height, eye color, hair color, nationality do not matter.

dixiedi
dixiedi

I have worked with a former Marine. Not in the IT field but in nursing, which is where my first diploma then degrees came from. He was great! On time, even tempered, knowledgeable, hard working, organized, I could go on all day. I can't think of a single complaint about him. Do you have a problem working with a former marine?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

What was the problem, you couldn't hold up your end of the conversation?

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

IF a post is competent = even better SORRY.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Maybe it's Gen Y'ers from overseas we're supposed to be scared of? You worry about them. I'm competent enough to not need to.

dixiedi
dixiedi

LOL So you are the one who is correct while everyone else is wrong? Gees, I remember something about that back in psych 101.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

but I've heard states as far east as Ohio referred to as the Midwest. It sure isn't in the South or the Northeast.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan have been referred to as "Midwestern states" since I can remember. And I remember Eisenhower as president. :)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"All fortune 500 companies are run by narcissists who can objectify themselves and everyone else. Worse, many of the narcissistic managers, directors, vice presidents, CIOs, CEOs, chairman of the board not only are narcissists, they have no conscience. They are psychopaths..." I'm impressed. I probably couldn't name more than a dozen F500 CEO, and yet you've met or read the writings of all of them, and in depth enough to make assessments of their psychological health and motives, along with many of their supporting staff. Where did you find the time?

neilb
neilb

Kind of shines a spotlight on your parochial little mind, doesn't it? Shows what your opinion is worth. No need for edit.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]I find the military people who have spent 8 or more years active military are more tolerant of cultural issues than those without the military experience...[/i] I think it's more acceptance than tolerance. Not many retirees have much tolerance for willful incompetence, but we accept that everybody works differently. We may be "retahrded" but we aren't stupid! :D

jose.schmoe
jose.schmoe

well, well Palmetto, fancy meeting you here. Oh excuse me, fanc mtg u hr! Well believe it or not, us "old farts" have another weapon in our arsenal in eradicating these young upstarts from infiltrating the IT workforce. Though it's true that these nappie clad kiddos can be bought for much less than us more experienced, more savvy, more expensive wise old Yoda's, we have a trump card. We're in middle to upper management and THEY'RE (the young bucks) aren't! So we make the hiring decisions. And these guys overseas even the more seasoned ones come yet as a much less expensive package than the recent romper school grads. And if it strikes our fancy to cut out the feet from the body pierced, my space poster, facebook socializer slacker type and give his job to a more senior more MATURE IT guy in a foreign country then more power to us! Whichever way you look at it, GenYers will go down without even a whimper.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Whatever you do, don't ask him about the single constant in all his dysfunctional relationships.

dixiedi
dixiedi

I was born in Ohio, have lived here maybe a total of onlty 1/2 my life and I just hate it when we are referred to as East! The thought that anyone would compare us to the easteners just makes my skin crawl. Granted it's not geographically midwest but culturally and economically it is a lot more midwestern than eastern. Thanks, some of these folks were really beginning to scare me! By the way, in Ohio, Kentucky, one of my favorite states to live in is indeed considered South. Maybe it all just depends on where you live and how your area is affected by the economy and culture of the other states. In Europe we are all considered yanks with no differentiation between us. Excuse me if any misspelled words I am not well today and just don't feel like double checking my increasingly bad memory nor my heightened inability to control my darn finders.

alaniane
alaniane

have been historically called the Midwest. It has nothing to do with being west of the Mississippi river. The reason they're called the Midwest was because at one time they were the Western border of the US before the Louisiana purchase. Kentucky if I remember correctly wasn't considered completely Southern since it was one of the swing states like Missouri that sided with the North during the Civil War. I believe Kentucky was kept on the side of the North by having Northern troops move in and prevent it from siding with the South. Of course it's been too many years since I took American History in high school, so I could be mistaken about Kentucky. I know Maryland, West Virginia, and Missouri were states that sided with the North either by choice or coercion and therefore aren't considered true Southern states.

lost in Texas
lost in Texas

He's quoting from a seminal book in the field "Snakes in Suits." The premise is that the rise of fear in the workplace plus chaos, short attention spans, and failing business and personal controls have been the business equivalent of chum in the water. That many psychopathic people have been attracted into these situations because they can thrive in them. There was an interesting discussion in the Vault IBM chat room about how Lou Gerstner was in many ways just like that guy in the FBI, Robert Hanssen, who sold out all of us for years just for the thrills and the money of doing it. Same personality traits, etc.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

I said.... "Sadly not uncommon from the deep SE of the UK however" It refers to an area of the country! I am not alone in this opinion.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If you eradicate young people trying to enter the workforce, who's going to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for boomer retirements?

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

...my school is in the Big East conference, but located in the Midwest, so I really shouldn't cast any stones, I suppose! :)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Big Ten schools are just as good at geography as they are at arithmetic. :D

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

There was Ohio State and Michigan and some others. Then they let somebody else join, but, being math-challenged, never changed the conference name. :D

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

Why Northwestern is located in the Midwest. But how can you explain it being one of the 11 teams playing in the Big TEN conference??? :) Note: One of the constant 'moans' from sports fan in the region is that our teams aren't collectively shown enough 'love' by outfits like the Eastern Seaboard Programming Network. Hard to take a collegiate conference seriously when they can't even reconcile the # of teams to the name of the conference, I say.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Before they were considered the 'midwest', those states were the northwestern most states in the union. That explains why Illinois is home to Northwestern University.

Mark A. Lewis
Mark A. Lewis

States on the edges of these regions are difficult to label. Kentucky and Tennessee are best labeled as Mid-South.

50-50
50-50

Kentucky is solidly in the Mid-South. It's definitely not in the Deep South (MS, AL, GA, SC) where they consider Kentuckians and Tennesseeans to be yankees (or borderline southerners at best). It's surely not mid-western either, having the Ohio River for the northwestern border until it dumps into the big muddy. Kentucky's rolling bluegrass horse country only slightly resembles the flatter midwestern prairies and KY's eastern counties are rural appalachian mountain territory.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

seems more to be showing Daddy how to do it or blaming Daddy for not finishing up in the first place. Bloody stupid either way if you ask me.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Have you ever watched debates in the House of Commons or the Scottish Parliament! ????? It is like a sport. :-) Edit: Clarity

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Finish the job son! I will collect the retirement funds. Just my 2 cents.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The first Bush essentially had the world's approval to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 1991; he also had the opportunity. He chose not to continue the war and do so primarily because the approved objective of removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait had been achieved. I really don't see Thatcher or Blair showing such restraint, and we all know about the second Bush. Just an observation.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Thatcher Blair Bush (both of them) + any other world leader that made 'a mark'....

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It was the admission by both of you that each post just to agitate the other.

neilb
neilb

I believe that Alex Salmond is in the game for Alex Salmond. He's not really happy being the First Minister in a devolved parliament. He reminds me of Ken Livingstone in that he wants a big stage. He wants to be the First Minister in the EU's latest recruit, playing up there alongside the big boys. He wants to control the oil revenues. He wants power.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

My Opinion... Should he get his way there would be a huge overnight swing in the momentum of the Scottish National party towards the right. A casr of "OK, now we have it - time to play" Nationalistic partys be definition have always been right wing, you are just seeing some posturing to appease the floating Labour voters. It is how he / the party gained the power he currently has. Anybody that looks for independence from the mass, to the greater good of a country, normally has plans not to start free for all handouts and Robin Hood style practices. It would drive business out the country just at the momment he plans to attract them. Remember this post!

neilb
neilb

despite the sniping. Just because it's not US politics or whatever else you might find interesting, G-Man's views on and attitude to the breakup of the Union of Great Britain are of interest to me. They are no less significant, though probably not quite so potentially world-wrecking, as the prospects of the US electing a religious nutter as VP. If you don't like the interaction between us - and there hasn't been THAT much - don't read it. Neil ?:|

neilb
neilb

The South East is typically anti-everywhere-else-in-Britain as we/they consider that we/they pay for everyone else. It's not just the Scots we're anti. I only have a pop at the Scots because you take it so seriously. I don't post anti-Scottish stuff to Mycroft. Possibly - probably - because he hasn't started anything and not posted any anti-English ScotNat guff. By the way, I'm only anti-ScotNat because Alex Salmond and his left-wing cabal creep me out. I don't post any anti-Aussie, anti-Kiwi or anti-US (well, other than anti-Bush and anti-Iraq-War stuff). Neil :) Because I can't be bothered, I'm not going to go and find out who threw the first brick.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Well the SE is typically anti Scottish and (as you state above) so are you. Well done, all were valid! Besides, we have come across this point before. We are both posting for exactly the same kind of reason. :-)

neilb
neilb

Me or the south East? Both, even. If you could post a little more coherently, I might be able to understand what you're trying to say. Your post certainly implied that I was in some way typical of those from the South East. Has occurred to you that I post anti-Jock stuff just because I don't like you; because I know it gets you all wound up and that amuses me? :D