The business press is rife with horror stories about the disastrous results of intercultural miscommunication. Even when they speak the local language, expat employees are often frustrated by their inability to understand and be understood in a foreign corporate environment. I know — it happened to me.
When I worked in Singapore, I ran headlong into a clash of cultures with a colleague that left me bewildered and uncomfortable. Oddly enough, it wasn’t our work-related discussions that caused the problem — it was the small talk.
Small talk rules don’t cross cultures
The office water cooler has long been the symbolic social hub of the workplace. Shooting the breeze with co-workers is a good thing: it allows us to take a little breather from the stresses of the job while strengthening bonds between employees. As long as everyone gets along, this casual small talk can lead to a more relaxed and productive atmosphere.
In a multicultural workforce, however, the players’ ideas of what topics are appropriate might not be in sync. This is exactly what happened between Betty and me.
Betty was a Chinese Singaporean who sat at the desk next to mine in a large open-concept office. She seemed very nice: soft-spoken, polite, and always smiling. The first time we chatted, I followed the unspoken rules of Canadian small talk by commenting on the weather and asking how her weekend was.
I was horrified to be asked in return how much rent I was paying, how big my condo was, and how much money my husband made — topics I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing with my best friend, let alone a co-worker I’d just met. Feeling a bit like Goldilocks, I smiled tightly and managed to choke out that the rent was too high, the condo was too small, and my husband’s salary was just right.
Betty wasn’t the only local I encountered who seemed to be obsessed with money. In fact, one of the biggest shocks about life in Singapore was the pervasive drive to acquire luxury goods. I often heard Singaporeans discussing the importance of the “4 C’s”: cash, condo, car, and club. Status markers like expensive clothes, designer handbags, and the latest electronic gadgets were coveted and flaunted.
Let me tell you, I had a fairly modest upbringing and nothing in my life up to that point had prepared me for living in such a blatantly unapologetic money culture. Or for the probing questions that sometimes go along with it.
Cultural assumptions are the death knell of communication
When Betty asked me how much rent I was paying, my knee-jerk reaction was that she was being rude. Despite having lived in Asia for two years by then, I was still minimizing the differences between our cultures; I’d accepted the superficial variations in customs and food, but hadn’t dug below the surface to examine the values and behaviours that make Singaporeans unique.
I’d fallen into the trap of looking at each situation solely from a Canadian context, which dictates that questions about personal finances are unacceptable. It didn’t occur to me that Betty was behaving well within the boundaries of her culture’s standards of politeness.
In fact, we both made some perfectly reasonable — but incorrect — cultural assumptions. Betty assumed we shared a status orientation, so she was comfortable asking for information that would help her place me in the economic hierarchy. Meanwhile, I assumed we shared a sense of discretion about personal finances, and the understanding that discussing the topic with casual acquaintances is a big no-no.
Two useful tools: Empathy and objectivity
Any intercultural encounter will have a greater chance of success if we keep our cultural biases in check and try instead to understand the worldview of the other person. This is where I blew it. Because I was caught off-guard by what I thought of as an inappropriate question, my anxiety short-circuited my ability to empathize with Betty.
What could I have done differently? Tweaking my perspective a little and looking at the situation from her point of view would have been a good place to start. Had I taken a genuinely objective look at Betty’s behaviour, I might have said to myself,
“Look, I know that in Singapore, money matters. This is a country that’s embraced conspicuous consumption and isn’t shy about admitting it. Betty isn’t trying to be offensive; she’s just using the language of money to figure out where I fit in.”
Being aware of difference is the first step toward crossing the cultural divide, but the next step — deciding how to respond — often involves a delicate balancing act. In this case, dishing about my personal spending habits would have satisfied Betty’s needs at the expense of my own — definitely not the win-win outcome I was hoping for.
Finding a solution that would please Betty without compromising my personal ethics might have been as simple as:
“I’m still not comfortable discussing financial details, but I can help her gauge my social standing by speaking about my life in more general terms.”
Throwing in a values-based explanation for my lack of openness (“Canadians don’t like to talk about money — crazy, eh?”) might even have set the stage for a truly cross-cultural dialogue.
By the time I’d relaxed enough to work through all this in my head, the damage had already been done. Betty never did warm up to me, I’m afraid. But the experience taught me a valuable lesson about the danger of blithely projecting my own cultural biases onto someone who doesn’t share them. And I also learned — the hard way — that small talk can lead to big problems if you’re not careful.