Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A good time to ditch the rules of etiquette?

If you haven't read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers yet, I strongly suggest you add it to your list. In a nutshell, the book explores all of the various factors that need to come together for someone to be highly successful in a chosen field. Hint: it's not just talent and practice. To make his point, he looks at how things like date of birth, family, cultural legacy, friendships and luck play a role in an individual's success.
On the flip side, Gladwell devotes some time on the role of culture in the failure of certain operations in a chapter called The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. To demonstrate this, he suggests that certain airlines were experiencing an above-average frequency of crashes because the cultural legacy of their personnel prevented the co-pilot from speaking up when the pilot made an error. The etiquette of the airline's home country was so steeped in layers of hierarchy that, even when faced with slamming into a mountain at 100 miles an hour, "underlings" could only hint at what lay ahead. To be direct about it would be a violation of their etiquette code.
Gladwell's assertion that something as seemingly obtuse as a plane crash can be chalked up to cultural background has received mixed reviews but I found it interesting that lives might have been saved had the shackles of old-world etiquette been loosened a bit. Digging deeper, he explains that Eastern speech methods are based on a lot of direct and nonverbal communications that support the words spoken while the Western approach to speech is much more concrete and direct. In Eastern cultures, the onus is on the listener to decide what has been communicated by coupling the words with the nonverbal signals. In a Western setting, it's up to a speaker to make sure her words are correctly interpreted.
I prefer the direct approach but, of course, it's what I know and what I'm comfortable with. But, in an increasingly global culture, this story highlights the need to be aware of cultural differences in etiquette expectations when doing business in other countries.


  1. Dear Louise,

    Yes, I just started to listen to "Outliers" on audiobooks. I will let you know what I think but so far so good. On communication and business etiquette in a global environment - I've worked in varying degrees of diverse teams for over 20 years but nothing compares to working in China (Shanghai) in terms of direct and indirect approaches.

    There are various intercultural dimensions or metrics we could use to understand differences in business norms and etiquette between cultures and we tend to split the comparisons between Eastern and Western to make it simple and obviously there are huge variances since I am Indian but grew up in Canada so I identify and act in both cultural norms. Here are a few of those measures to consider but please note that these are generalizations:

    1. collectivist vs. individualistic cultures - eastern cultures identify and take pride in a group or the company they work for vs. western ideals of individuality and looking out for number one.

    2. high-low power distance - inequalities between people are expected in eastern cultures vs. those in power in western worlds who downplay accessibility and say their door is always open. Also power and position are earned in western beliefs whereas in the east, it can be ascribed.

    3. achievement vs. quality of life - western cultures value achievement rather than quality of life and people live to work vs working to live. In China, if I do not take lunch break with my colleagues, they find it very uncomfortable and say I am not taking care of myself.

    4. universalist vs. particularist - rules apply to all in western world and rules are more important than relationships vs. there can be many different versions of the truth, each valid depending on your point of view (eastern). As an example, I frequently experience rules changing to meet the needs of a situation. It works somehow but drives me crazy at the same time.

    5. neutral vs. emotional - in the west it is not easy to read people's emotional states and remaining calm and in control earns respect vs. open displays of emotion and eloquence and emotional hyperbole are admired in the east. I can say that being Indian (India) the more dramatic you are the better. In China however business is conducted with a more serious tone and only in personal dinner conversation can you be animated - but even then it is controlled. So this one is tricky.

    6. specific vs. diffuse - communication is direct and informal and generally people are relaxed when meeting for the first time in the west vs. eastern culture where people are reserved when meeting for the first time and communication is indirect and formal (relationships are formed over time and involve high commitment - business dinners, gatherings etc. getting to know each other) Whenever I meet someone new in a meeting, business cards are exchanged and a compliment on one's achievement or title is expected.

    7. external locus vs. internal locus - in the eastern culture, people have a strong belief in destiny and fate, religion, and forces of nature vs in the western culture where people focus on themselves and self improvement and have a strong drive to control their external environment. I notice at work here in China that the weather is talked about in a serious way and not just for small talk. Also talk of being how "lucky"you are is the answer to many problems.

    8. monochronic vs. polychronic - tasks are completed sequentially and meetings start on time with a belief that time can be controlled somehow in the western worlds vs. tasks are completed simultaneously and the agreed timetable is subordinate to the relationships involved and the purpose of the meeting. Also time cannot be controlled it is merely a means of orienting oneself. Yes in China, and more so in India, people arrive when they arrive. Although I have to say that my team here in China are always on time for meetings so it depends on the situation. The traffic is used a lot as a legitimate excuse. Being here, I have to agree with that one.

    Well, I may have got off topic a bit...but is that not the confusion of being a mixed breed of Eastern and Western cultural norms? And it's even more confusing in business communication and even more so with business etiquette. You have your work cut out for you my dear.

    I will get back to the Outliers soon. Thanks for the always interesting blog my dear friend! paris

  2. Great insights from my friend Paris in Shanghai -one of those people who is able to move between cultures effortlessly (or at least she makes it look that way).

    All of the factors you point out here are not things I had considered until now although they seem obvious once I read them. I'd like to operate in a world that blends them. I love direct language and eliminating misunderstandings but the idea of poeple being upset if I don't take lunch is also wonderful.

  3. Hello, Louise

    I checked you out because we share the same name (I'm a UK romantic novelist) but enjoyed your blog so will revisit. I'm sure I read an account of a US army helicopter crash where eight men were staring at the approaching mountain and no one spoke up - the military now train around this issue. Interesting stuff. Best. Louise