If you’ve ever lived in a foreign country, or worked in a foreign company, then you’ll discover that it’s not uncommon to hear complaints, or slightly negative comments about other cultures.

When speaking with Western managers, I frequently hear the complaint “Chinese never speak up in meetings!”. When speaking with Chinese employees in European companies, I frequently hear “When Europeans want help from us, we always help immediately, but when we want help from them, they’re all on holiday!”.

And these complaints are understandable. Because from our cultural perspective, when we encounter a type of behaviour that we classify as unacceptable, it can feel quite unfair, disappointing or frustrating.

But this reaction stems from a thinking pattern that does not help us work effectively with other cultures. The thinking pattern is as follows:
1. Observe Behaviour
2. Judge Behaviour

When we observe a behaviour, we automatically judge it. It’s right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. It might be strange or normal, cute or serious, professional or unprofessional.

But to judge behaviour, we must have a standard to reference against. And this standard comes from the culture we most strongly associate ourselves with. If your culture says that we must speak up in meetings then it’s easy to view someone as passive or even lazy when they stay quiet. If your culture says that we should do our best to help each other when in need, then it would seem rude and disrespectful to be on holiday at our time of need.

The key to changing this thinking pattern is to ask one simple question; “Why? “. As soon as we observe the behaviour, ask why they are behaving that way.

This one simple word prevents us from jumping to judgements which are the cause of so much difficulty when working across cultures. It opens us to the very real possibility that they come from a culture where that behaviour is acceptable. It allows us to accept more easily the fact that deep beneath the surface there are good reasons why someone may behave this way.

Consider how your reaction would differ if you changed your thinking pattern. For example, in your culture people are expected to contribute actively to discussions in meetings. So during a meeting you constantly jump in with your own ideas and suggestions. But you notice sitting opposite from you, your foreign colleague has been quiet the whole time. As you realise this, a feeling of frustration rises up in your chest. But rather than jump straight to judgement, you start to ask yourself why they are behaving this way.

You consider all the possibilities in your mind, such as language differences, lack of confidence or even a lack of familiarity with the subject. You even go ahead and ask them why they aren’t saying anything. And they reveal to you that they agree with everything you have said and so don’t have anything extra to add.

This habit of asking why is so easy to do, but even easier to forget. It turns you from a frustrated alien into a curious scientist. It even allows you to learn new ways of thinking and behaving which may be even more useful than what you already know.

So next time you encounter a cultural difference, and find yourself rushing to judgement, stop and ask why. Approach the situation like a scientist would, and you’ll be surprised what you can learn.