Several years ago, I was sitting in the London office of one of my client’s, speaking to their Global HR Director. She was complaining to me about the “mysterious” behaviour of her colleagues in China.

For example, she would schedule training months in advance for teams in China. Yet just a few days before the training, or even on the day of the training itself, certain people would have to cancel. Or if there were appointments for phone calls or webinars sent out by email, people would still not show up.

She spent a good half hour complaing to me about this behaviour. She said things like “This behaviour is unacceptable”, “Don’t they want to learn anything?” and “They’re so rude”.

But eventually she became a lot more understanding when I explained a bit more of the situation.

I explained to her that in the China office, customers took a particularly high priority, and these customers frequently came up with last minute requests. The behaviour she observed was not because they didn’t want to learn anything, it was because the customer took first priority, and caused a lot of disruptions to people’s schedules. I explained as well that her Chinese colleagues may have tried to communicate these challenges to her before, but that she completely misread their messages due to different ways of communicating.

This HR Director suddenly saw her Chinese colleagues in a new light. After listening to just a few minutes of these explanations, she actually started to respect her Chinese colleagues a lot more.

What I noticed when dealing with this HR Director was that cultural differences are not always easy to spot. And when you can’t spot cultural differences, you can’t solve problems.

The key to spotting cultural differences is to recognise what I call ‘Resistance’. Resistance is the reaction either ourselves, or the other person, shows when one person’s behaviour does not meet the other person’s expectations. This normally makes us confused, frustrated, or even get angry at the other person.

For example, your British boss told you to “Think about” his advice. You thought about his advice, and then decided not to take it. A little while later, your British boss calls you into his office and then shouts at you for “insubordination”. You’re left feeling very confused because you did exactly what he said!

Or your French colleague recently called you up late on a Friday afternoon to ask for your help with something. You agreed to help, and spent an extra 2 hours at the office that Friday evening. Then a few weeks later you call your French colleague to ask for his help on something else, but he tells you he can’t help right now because he’s about to finish work for the day. “That man is so seflish!” you say to yourself.

And one final example. An American had arranged to meet a potential Chinese client in their offices in Shanghai. He turned up to the client’s office 15 minutes early, and just as he was walking into the lobby the Chinese client texted him to say “I can’t meet now. Let’s reschedule to 3pm tomorrow”. The American felt very disrespected and responded very directly by saying “No. Goodbye”.

All of the above are examples of reacting to cultural differences. When we just react, we lose opportunities to learn and solve problems. Instead we need to take a step back, recognise that we are facing a cultural difference, and then seek to learn how to overcome it.

Think of Resistance as a sign post. Everytime you encounter resistance, it is a sign that you are encountering a cultural difference and it is time to learn. Pay particular attention to when you, or another person, judge someone else’s behaviour as:

  • Confusing
  • Wrong
  • Bad
  • Rude
  • Disrespectful
  • Inappropriate
  • Lazy

So the next time you notice you or another person having those reactions, remind yourself that it is time to learn more about each other.