Sherpa Hossainy's Blog

Your perception is your truth, but it’s not “the” truth

Posted in Bangladesh, Celebrity, Dhaka, Gurus, Interviews by Sherpa Hossainy on December 23, 2011

Published in Friday Features in The Independent on 23 December 2011

Read the article in Independent website

Digital print version (Page 25 and Page 31)

When we stumble upon a custom from another culture that does not tally with our proclivity we might indulge ourselves into thinking “What on earth is that?” and simply discard it as nonsense. It’s hard not to judge others and be sanctimonious rather than digging deeper or sparing a moment to understand others’ standpoints. However, while being pejorative and reaching a hasty conclusion appears to solve a dilemma quicker, it leaves a bitter taste in our mouth when it comes to cross-cultural communication.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, renowned expert on cultural awareness and motivation, Pellegrino Riccardi, shared how empathy and understanding holds the key to successful cross-cultural communication. “Your perception is your truth, but it’s not ‘the’ truth. It’s easy to use our own standards to make a conclusion, but being judgmental doesn’t help any communication,” he said. To overcome cultural barriers, start looking for positives in other cultures, he added.

Pellegrino has had his fair share of cross-cultural exposure, as he was born to an Italian family, raised in the UK and lived and worked in Norway for the last 16 years. He recalled how he had to “switch” and “re-programme” to Italian culture after coming from a “British” school. “It was a conflict growing up as a child.  But later in life I learned it was a great advantage.” The cross-cultural communication expert travels around the world providing services for international companies and groups.

Pellegrino Riccardi at a lecture session in Ericsson office (Photo: Arild Klokkerhaug)

It was his first visit to Bangladesh, following an invitation from the Nordic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI) in Bangladesh. While here, he shared his experiences and expertise with members of top multinational companies about how culture and nationality affects communication. Pellegrino uses “edutainment”, which he believes is the magic formula for teaching along with a mixture of humor and theory.

According to Pellegrino, we have four basic needs, regardless of nationality: certainty, significance, relationship/connection, and, surprisingly, uncertainty (problems and surprises as life would be tedious if we always knew what’s coming). “While working with other cultures we react when we come across people’s actions and words that we are not prepared for,” he said, adding that people are surprised when they hear his British accent after seeing his “very Italian” name. Pellegrino said, “As humans we like our expectations to be met, we like to know what’s coming — more than we think we do.”

When people work in global companies they come across a lot of surprises, which makes international work exciting but too many surprises stress the body. Pellegrino said, “People who are culturally intelligent are good at tolerating and dealing with uncertainties.” Cultural intelligence consists of cultural knowledge, tolerating uncertainty, behavioural flexibility, being non-judgemental and self-questioning, he added.

Here’s an interesting scenario to understand the difference of interpretation of some core human values. Imagine you are in a car, which your best friend is driving. Suddenly s/he hits a pedestrian. It was purely an accident, but the pedestrian gets killed. Although it was an accident, you knew your friend was driving at 40km in a 30km zone. The case goes to court and the lawyer said that telling the court that your friend was driving at 30kmh would save her/him. The question is (answer in yes or no): Will you ‘lie’ to save your friend?

In this case, a study revealed that the percentage of people saying “no” was highest in Germany, Sweden, Norway, USA and UK; Poland, France, Italy had a lower percentage of “no” and India, Russia and Nigeria had few saying “yes”. After more extensive research Richard Lewis Communications, a communication research center, developed a cultural behaviour model, which categorises cultures in three groups — Blue, Red and Yellow — and found attributes that define a specific culture. However, a culture could also be in between these colours due to the diversity of human personalities. The colours themselves aren’t significant except as a point of reference.

Blue culture was found to be based on individualism, equality, freedom and very much linear and fact-oriented while Red culture was based on emotion, collectivism, hierarchy and more people-oriented. Yellow culture was found to be about obedience, harmony and intuition. Switzerland, Norway, Germany, USA were found to have Blue cultures while Denmark, Ireland and Australia have Blue with a touch of Red. Israel, South Africa, France, Russia were more close to Red while Portugal, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Nigeria were found to be Red. In the spectrum, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan were close to Red with a touch of Yellow. UK, Sweden, Finland and Canada are also close to Blue and Korea, Thailand, China and Vietnam belong to Yellow.

Pellegrino Riccardi at a lecture session (Photo: Arild Klokkerhaug)

Truth or integrity in some cultures may be interpreted in a different way than another, none of which are necessarily bad. It depends on perspective. “About flexible truth you have to get around the cultural aspect and understand there is a positive intention,” Pellegrino said. The perception of Blue culture about the Reds is that you can’t trust them but to think from a Red perspective, Blues can’t be trusted because they’ll not be there for you in a difficult situation like the car accident scenario. But we are programmed to do our best and behind any behaviour there is usually a positive intention, Pellegrino said.

System, institution and rules play an important part in Blue life and there is a policy of “zero tolerance”. Blues believe systems work and they can be perfect, though pragmatically they never are. The important commodity in Red culture is “people” whereas Blues choose personal attachments carefully because it gets harder saying no, if you are too close. In order to make the Blue system work there has to be a distance maintained. “Blues communicate in a straight line, when there is unpredictability they become insecure. The recent financial crisis is all about Blue cultures getting nervous about volatility and that is very infectious,” Pellegrino said.

In cross-cultural communication, body language plays a crucial role. Research has shown that when people communicate, as much as 55 per cent of the message is communicated through body language and 38 per cent through tone of voice. Only 7 per cent is through words. Thus, without tone and body language the chances of misunderstanding and misinterpretation increase dramatically. For reds, it is important to make clear how they feel and for blues it’s about control and composure. “Some things considered normal in Red culture would be regarded as violent outburst in Blue societies. So there could be lot of misinterpretation between the Reds and Blues,” Pellegrino said.

Another important trait of Red culture is collectivism, which the individualist blue culture perceives rather negatively, thinking it makes everyone slow. There was an interesting poster from an anti-Obama campaign when he tried to introduce the welfare system where everybody pays tax and the money goes for the ones who need it. The anti-Obama slogan read: “Collectivism is slavery”.

Nevertheless, the communication skills trainer thinks there’s way for both the cultures to work in cohesion by understanding each other’s strength. Individualists are innovators; they are good at pushing forward, while collectivists are great team workers, which says a lot about having more production in Asia, Pellegrino said. “Blues seem to have forgotten how to be collective, how to work together.” However, Pellegrino thinks “money has a lot to do with individualism” and it is hard to say if Red cultures like India or Bangladesh would lose collectivism if people start earning more. The recent financial crisis, however, has dealt a blow to individualism, he thinks.

Pellegrino Riccardi speaking at a lecture session in Ericsson office (Photo: Arild Klokkerhaug)

Pellegrino also shared his views about the extreme power distance and hierarchical structure that exists in Red culture that he says works as a “fear factor”. “In a Red culture it is very difficult to be honest upwards. It creates friction and an underlying communication problem,” he said. “It’s a basic need for human to be able to say what they think. By that you get to know each other better,” Pellegrino said.

In Red cultures “togetherness” also leads to nepotism but Pellegrino said the Blue cultures should not feel too self-righteous. “It’s everywhere. In Germany two-thirds of all jobs are acquired through personal contact. Reciprocity in Blue culture is ‘corruption’ or ‘networking’ at best. It’s all the same, just different labels.” Pellegrino thinks there is a greater need for multinational companies to find out how corporate values differ around the world. “The values created in Stockholm would not always translate completely in a Red culture — there will always be a local flavour,” he said.

Pellegrino also provides training on motivation and negotiation skills. He said negotiation focuses on understanding others’ perceptions. “We should try to see others’ problems from their point of view. The question is are we willing to go there and take the risk of understanding how others see it?” He said negotiators sometimes think they are right and understanding others would make them weak. “But negotiation is not about winning, it’s about finding a common solution,” he said.

Pellegrino hopes that people will understand more about cultural differences after his sessions and they will learn to appreciate different ways of interacting and thinking of different people. You can even disagree but once you start judging people, you cease to communicate, he said. “People find it difficult to change, unless they have to; they still have to adapt to every culture they work around.”

Stressing the need to give significance to others, Pellegrino said: “Sometimes while communicating we forget to give importance to others, which we should do to be better connected. When we stop giving each other significance, relationships fail. We have to learn to coexist and try to understand one another; that’s the only way to grow.”  Pellegrino thinks some become conceited thinking that they are from a supposedly better culture and they have seen it all, but this approach never helps — the onus is always on an individual to learn about other cultures. “Whoever is coming to Bangladesh has to learn about Bangladeshi culture, it is not the other way around,” he said. “Every culture has its ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ side. End of the day we all have similarities as well, lest we forget that.”

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