If you’ve ever worked with people from other cultures, then at some point you’ve probably judged their behaviour as confusing, inappropriate, strange or maybe even rude. And people from other cultures have probably judged you in a similar way.

Culture is a lot like a set of rules you use to play a game. In your culture you learnt one set of rules, yet someone who was raised in another culture learnt a completely different set of rules, even if it’s for the same game! It’s a bit like one group of people learning to play football with their feet, whilst another learnt to play with their hands. Put them on the same pitch and you will find some very bizarre differences!

But judging the behaviour of people from other cultures doesn’t help us handle cultural differences. Instead of judging behaviour as right or wrong, we need to add another category; different. The more comfortable we are with labelling behaviour as different, the faster we will be able to start managing these cultural differences.

And one way to become more comfortable with labelling behaviour as different is to learn more about how we learnt our culture. As we do this, we start to recognise why other people’s cultures might teach them different rights and wrongs.

There are two key places we learn most of our culture from; our family and our school. Have a look at the two examples below and think about how these people will behave differently at work:

Person A

  • Had their own bedroom ever since they were a baby
  • Lived in a quiet house with just their mum and dad
  • Parent’s encouraged them to set their own life and career goals
  • Teachers at school praised them for asking good questions
  • Teachers encouraged them to recognise that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses
  • They were taught that the key to effective communication is to say what you mean and mean what you say


Person B

  • Always shared a bedroom with their parents, or grandparents or siblings
  • Lived in a small apartment with 5 other family members, it was very noisy
  • Parents and grandparents set career and life expectations for them
  • Teachers at school praised them for keeping quiet and following their instructions
  • Teachers ranked every student in order of grade
  • They were taught that how you say something is more important than what you say

Person A is more likely to grow up as a very independent minded person, who is used to challenging people in authority and has a strong sense of their own personal strengths and weaknesses. Due to what they learnt about communication at school, they have developed a very direct and clear style of communication, yet struggle to understand people who are more indirect than them.

Person B is more likely to develop strong relationships with their coworkers, and have a more sensitive and indirect communication style. People who grow up living in smaller spaces with larger families are more likely to seek to avoid direct confrontation as it creates high levels of tension which can be unbearable for people living closely together. As a result they will communicate more indirectly.

If these two people end up working together, then they are likely to face a few challenges as a result of their cultural differences. For example:

  • Person A may misunderstand Person B’s indirect communication style
  • Person B may think Person A is rude as they communicate too directly, and can at times seem confrontational
  • Person A may expect leaders to act more like equals and be open to challenges, whereas Person B may expect leaders to decisive and authoritative

When you think about how different people may have learnt completely different rules from their family and teachers when they grew up, then it becomes easier to accept their behaviour as different rather than being right or wrong.

So the next time you find yourself judging another person’s behaviour, take a moment to think about the rules they probably learnt from their families and teachers when they were growing up. It might help you become more tolerant of their behaviour.