Fostering world peace, one lunch at a time
A Duluthian, a Canadian, a German, a Chinese-American and three Chinese nationals sat down at a table to make important decisions. Maybe that sounds like the beginning of a good joke, but this is a true story.
“If we work ‘smart,’ we can get our tasks done during this lunch meeting,” offered the Duluthian to the miniature United Nations gathering. As the appointed facilitator for this diverse group, I was responsible for a good outcome. As an optimist, I hoped for efficiency.
“But I have done pre-work and calculated how each of these factors could be adjusted. I will need time to explain my procedures,” stated the German, cheerfully passing out a series of detailed charts to each person around the table.
The time-pressed Canadian ever-so-slightly rolled his eyes. Although we had just started, one of the Chinese nationals commented that surely a second meeting would be required. The Chinese-American kept listening intently, silently eating his chicken and rice, avoiding eye contact with anyone.
Sigh. No one said this would be easy. We were all acting in ways that were consistent with research-based profiles of our native cultures. It was a study in international relations.
Germans tend toward structure and are risk-averse. It is what makes them excel in fields like engineering and sticklers for following rules. Chinese protect their “face” and communication is often indirect. Conflicts are not addressed openly because that could damage personal relationships. Canadians and Americans value individualism, are less patient and tend to want to go right to a solution.
As we continued, the German pressed his point about following the rules we had been given. The rest of the group, including me, had more experience and knew the rules weren’t going to work in reality. I put on my best “Chinese” persona and gently suggested that doing things strictly by the rules would likely be very difficult.
The German matter-of-factly persisted. I looked around the table, hoping others might join in and help persuade him about this. All of the Chinese were now extremely fascinated by their noodles, studying them as if they expected to find gold. The Canadian couldn’t hold himself back any longer and bluntly burst out, “Well, the rules don’t work. We have to do it another way!”
Somewhat apologetic after his initial outburst, the Canadian leaned forward to explain further. The German leaned back and listened carefully. They were both seasoned professionals who cared enough about the outcome to continue the work, even though it brought discomfort. I trusted they would find their own common ground if I remained silent for a time.
Luckily, this wasn’t my first cultural rodeo. In my professional facilitation work in Duluth, I find it sometimes just as challenging to create agreement among people with diverse personalities.
The key to real progress is to avoid something researchers call “projected cognitive similarity,” or the notion that others think in the same way as you. I teach my students and staff the simple motto: “Don’t get angry, get curious.” Every time I find myself in a situation where I can feel irritation mounting, it is a signal to stop and consider how other people’s behaviors might make sense from their perspective.
The second meeting of this mini-United Nations went well, and our third meeting is coming up. This situation has been a rich case for teaching my Cross-Cultural and Comparative Management students.
It is not necessary to move to another country to have cross-cultural experiences. Whether working in the Eastern and Western Hemisphere or East and West Duluth, we have the choice to let our differences frustrate or fascinate us.
Arlene J. Anderson is a native Duluthian turned explorer and teacher in Zhuhai, China.