The Cocktail Party Question

The Cocktail Party Question


Do you know what your Cocktail Party Question is?

We are deep into party season with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah having just passed and Christmas and the New Year around the corner. Naturally, many of us, regardless of religion, will be meeting new people. This brings me to what I refer to as The Cocktail Party Question – that question we ask when striking up a conversation with someone new and we are trying to get to know them better.  What partygoers may not realize is that the initial questions we choose to ask can provide insights into our own invisible cultures. Since self-awareness is the first step on the path to intercultural awareness, why not look at our own Cocktail Party Questions.

When asking that initial question, many of us are inadvertently assigning status to the people that we meet based solely on what we (either individually or collectively as a society) have learned is good. We all have different backgrounds and because of that, what may seem like a simple and non-offensive question to us could potentially be offensive to someone else. For example, the typical Cocktail Party Question in the U.S. is, “What do you do?” I asked this question to an Australian woman that I met in Japan a while back and learned very quickly that it was offensive to her when she replied:

“Katherine, why do Americans always ask that question? Who cares what I do, what is more important is who I am.”

I thought about it, but I still wanted to know what she did. I come from the land where the slogan, “Just Do It!” was a wild success for a reason.  Here in the U.S. we elevate people based on the actions they take, hence, what you do tells me something about who you are in my world.

Mind you it doesn’t matter if we like the particular action – I might not want to participate in triathlons, but the fact that someone commits to them and spends their time doing something is admirable in my culture. Observing actions allows us as Americans to better process how to organize our thoughts about one another.

It wasn’t until years later as an Interculturalist that I learned that every culture has a way of assigning status to people. Therefore, what may be an appropriate question here in the U.S. may send the wrong message elsewhere and vice versa.

Some cultures people may assign status to your connections, the university to which you went, where you live or the mere fact that you went to university, regardless of where. For some it’s socioeconomics, religion or the number of degrees that you have. There is no end to the ways we assess one another, so there is no end to the number of Cocktail Party Questions you may hear around the world.

Regardless of the measuring stick, each group develops these preferences in response to approval from their communities. The answer to The Cocktail Party Question gives insight into a person’s success, goodness, likeability, and general worthiness of admiration in their own home town, not necessarily another’s.

While living in Singapore I was often asked how much money I made, how much I paid for rent, or how much my jewelry cost. In the U.S. that would be considered highly offensive (although some northern Europeans have complained to me that Americans talk about money too much). I have heard U.S. Americans express disgust at this practice of asking the price of things, but make no mistake – we are all asking the same question, we just have different ways of doing it.

In the U.S. we ask about actions. In France people may ask what university you attended. In Germany you don’t need to ask, you just pass on your business card and all of your degrees are listed right there to tell people of your status. In the U.K. they don’t even need a question because status is immediately established based on a person’s accent, which reveals all sorts of information like origin, locale and education level. Gen Y people may ask about your social networks, which tells them something about the communities to which you choose to belong (a choice few generations have had before).

While I am not an advocate of stereotyping, simple generalizations can act as guidelines to first establishing that there are differences and then taking steps towards respecting them. The goal is not to tolerate one another (which suggests putting up with something we don’t like), but to take it one step further and accept that those differences mean that we come from different places with different values that are supported through intricate reward systems. Once we can establish an environment of respect for differences we can celebrate our diversity and hopefully enjoy the holidays a little bit more.

In memory of Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) who changed our world by accepting our differences, making bold steps toward bringing people together and reconciling the wounds of our past. No words can adequately describe what a great loss this is to South Africa and the rest of the world. 


Treat Others as They Want to Be Treated

The Golden Platinum Rule


The Golden Rule has got to go. Dating back to ancient times the basic idea that people should treat each other the way they themselves want to be treated is a common theme across religions and culture, but what if all of that wisdom is wrong. What if I don’t want to be treated the way a Kuwaiti woman wants to be treated? What if you don’t want to be treated the way your neighbor does? The Golden Rule is a great concept, with good intending reciprocity underlying it, but it may not always be applicable in this global world.

Instead, consider The Platinum Rule – “Treat others how they wish to be treated.” The basic assumption of the Golden Rule is that we are all the same and we all have similar preferences. The basic assumption of the Platinum Rule is that we accept the differences between us and we have a willingness to adapt to those differences while hanging on to our own individual or cultural preferences.

We don’t assume that people are going to like all of the same food that we like, so why do we assume that they will like the same treatment that we will? Some people like to be confronted, some left alone. Some people like to be hugged, some people find touching uncomfortable. Some people like to use first names, while others may find that offensive.

Take John, for example. He thinks that honesty is the best policy and doesn’t like it when people beat around the bush. When he was working with his Thai counterpart, Ngam, he got straight to the point and often called meetings to discuss progress reports and next steps. John felt that Ngam was never sharing everything with him and was often suspicious of his intentions.

Ngam felt very anxious around John, with whom he wasn’t very familiar. Ngam didn’t quite understand why he needed to be so abrupt when talking about projects, especially in meetings when other people were around. Ngam felt that before he and John could make decisions together they should check with the rest of their team and their supervisor to make sure they were authorized to move forward on John’s suggestions. Furthermore, Ngam didn’t feel it was appropriate to raise certain issues with certain people in the room.

As a result, Ngam stayed quiet a lot of the time so he could wait to check with his supervisor and John found this to be tricky, cunning, calculated and dishonest. Because John was unaware that things were done differently in Ngam’s culture he pushed forward in the way in which he was most comfortable. Because Ngam was not familiar with how John did things, he shut down which created further distance between them.

In order to apply The Platinum Rule there first must be a certain level of understanding about a counterpart’s culture, but awareness is hard to come by when communication styles differ. A good indicator that culture or personality (culture of the individual) may be playing a role is when there is a feeling of discomfort or frustration with someone. This can be leveraged as a positive if it can be seen as a learning moment.

SOLUTION: The key to applying the Platinum Rule to cross-cultural interactions is to suspend judgment and find out what your counterparts preferences are. Suspend judgment and seek out the alternative reasons behind why people do the things they do. Most people don’t walk out of their house in the morning and say, “Hey, I am going to frustrate someone today.” For the most part, people go to work hoping to do well and be productive, if not exceptional. If you find yourself saying that someone is lazy or dishonest, most likely there is something else going on.

Once judgment is suspended we can work towards learning about how we can adapt our behaviors to achieve mutual goals. In the case of John and Ngam, their discomfort with each other is a great indicator of a potential learning moment. If they can suspend their negative evaluations and use their frustrations to dig deeper into the intent behind their actions and reactions, they may be better able to get to the bottom of things.

In this case, if John learned that, traditionally, in Ngam’s culture it is inappropriate, if not rude, to 1) speak up in a meeting where there is a boss, 2) put forth his/her individual opinion without considering the group or 3) give strong handshake to a superior, John may be better able to accurately interpret the meaning behind Ngam’s style.

If Ngam was able to recognize that in John’s culture meetings are for brainstorming and decision-making, he may be able to better equip himself and his team mates to get the authorizations they need and come to some kind of consensus on what their shared goals are.

Since the Golden Rule has so much goodness behind it, I am not suggesting we throw it out completely, but simply adapt the way we think about it moving forward.  In the end, by taking the time to learn about someone else’s preference we are better able to walk the talk of being global and adapt our behaviors while still hanging on tightly to our home core values. It is basic human nature to assume that people want things the way we do, but in a globalizing world that idea may just not be as golden as we once thought.


Raising Globally Minded Children

How To Raise Globally Competent Kids

Hands on a globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisWhat are your prejudices? For whom do you hold contempt? Is it the Hipsters? City people? Middle Easterners? Mexicans? African Americans? Maybe it’s rich people, poor people, white people or bankers? Be completely honest with yourself about which groups become scapegoats, evil-doers, and generally the people you blame for threatening your way of life and then think about how related comments may be affecting your kids.

We all have one if not more biases we carry with us. In some cases our judgments are what keep us safe in this world, but in others they can be harming us. No place is that more apparent then in how we set examples for our children. Whether you live in one place or travel around, success is no longer guaranteed by what a person knows so much as what they can do with that knowledge. I’ve met many experts in their fields who are stumped at how to get their projects to flourish because of cultural differences. Without cultural competence you can be a rocket scientist, but won’t be able to get anything off the ground if you can’t respect and mobilize your counterparts.

The need to equip our children with the ability to interact with or outsiders from either next door or around the world is increasing every day. While the ideal way to create globally minded children is to travel and expose them to different ways of doing things, there are a few simple (and even not so simple) steps parents can take to integrate a global mindset into their daily lives, whether they get on a plane or not.

1. Set the Example

Developing a global mindset unquestionably starts with the parents. How you react to things, categorize people, qualify information and respond to the differences around you will inform a big part of the attitudes your kids develop towards people who are not like them. Most of us aren’t doing anything wrong, but below are some ways of setting the example that can be added to our play books to better equip our children for a flatter world. By setting the example, fostering a global mindset in children ends up starting with us.

2. Us versus Them

Children will develop their attitudes towards difference through the things they hear their parents say. If parents have an Us versus Them attitude, their children will pick up on that and develop a similar world view. The Us/Them paradigm fosters a sense of false superiority that encourages exclusivism and actually weakens your children’s ability to objectively measure the world around them. It will certainly work against them when interacting with people globally. The Local/Outsider model is probably the most prolific example of this – local versus non-local, urban versus suburban, black versus white, rich versus poor, young techie versus old fogy. In the end the irony in it all is that our complaints about others, say more about Us than they do about Them.

3. Avoid Stereotypes and Generalizations

It is hard to avoid judging groups of people based on the behaviors that bother us about them, especially when those behaviors threaten a way of life. While sometimes generalizations can be helpfully descriptive, they can also be damaging if used too often. Example: the French are rude, Americans are loud, Germans are strict, Australians are fun, Chinese are clever. Even locally we use gross-generalizations: Hipster, Jersey people, Tourists, City folk, Rednecks. There are two problems with this. 1) It fosters the Us/Them and 2) It suggests that an entire country or group of people is unrealistically homogenous. That is a risky lesson to teach our kids if we want them to succeed in an increasingly heterogeneous world. Not only can it pigeon hole our kids into one of these categories, but it doesn’t allow for the diversity that exists within all cultures.

4. Qualify Lessons

In the United States children are often taught to look a person in the eye and shake hands firmly when they meet. In some countries looking an elder or superior directly in the eyes could be considered disrespectful. A firm handshake could be a sign of over confidence or lack of humility. When we qualify the lesson we are encouraging mindfulness, ex. “In the United States, you look at someone in the eyes when you greet them, but in some cultures this could be rude.” This lets children know that their way isn’t the only way, which leads to mindfulness.

5. Use Descriptions

It is easy to jump to conclusion based on what we see, but sticking to descriptions protects us and our kids from falling victim to inaccurately using our visible cultures to interpret someone else’s invisible culture. Continuing our above example, three possible ways a person could react to a firm hand shake:

a. Description: The young woman squeezed firmly when shaking hands.

b. Interpretation: The woman is rude and doesn’t understand my culture. She can’t be trusted.

c. Evaluation: The woman is bad.

(Generalization: Western women are over confident and disrespectful).

By sticking to descriptions we are teaching our children that there may be more to certain behaviors than meets the eye. How would you feel if someone judged you negatively for something you were taught was good, like a firm handshake?

6. Teach Them Another Language

Learning a language is a full-time commitment. For a child the ideal way to learn a second language is to be surrounded by it, but that is a primary goal or luxury few have. Language holds cultural cues often not accessible otherwise. Consider the Chinese character for home: the characters for house and woman combined. When you travel to a country with a foreign language learn a few key words and phrases and encourage your children to do the same. Good morning, thank you, please, where is the__, goodnight and I don’t speak ___, can go a long way to modeling respect. It has the added benefit of letting people from the host culture know you are at least trying. In the end it isn’t necessarily important to get children to fluency so much as it is to opening their minds to other possibilities.

7. Books and Films

Exposing children to books and films that have protagonists that are from different backgrounds can be incredibly enriching. has a great list of cartoons that feature main characters that aren’t the prototypical white.  Some of our favorite movies to watch at home with our 5 and 7 year old include Kirikou and any of Hayao Miyazaki’s Films . If you children are studying a certain language then having them watch films in that language will help with comprehension over time. Disney has a wide variety of offerings in multiple languages, even though most of their standards wouldn’t fall under the multi-cultural category.  Amazon has a list that acts as a great starting point of Best Books to Teach Children About Culture and Barnes and Noble has an excellent section on Teen Fiction – People’s and Culture.

8. Welcome an Exchange Student

Inviting a member of another culture into your home is a great way to expose children to difference. Ideally, an exchange student will speak the language that you are trying to encourage your child to learn, but if language isn’t involved, simply having a person from another culture provides all sorts of opportunities to discuss geography, culture and different ways of doing things. While this is a commitment, many people find it enriches the lives of all parties involved.

9. Travel

There is no better way to expose children to respecting different ways of doing things than to travel while incorporating the above tips into your interactions. If international travel isn’t your thing, then simply going to a neighboring state or community also provides opportunities for showing respect and appreciation for our differences. It is also valuable to keep in mind that being involved in local community activities that include people with disabilities is another way of transporting yourself into another culture as most of the time those communities have their own specific cultures that affect their values, beliefs and communications patterns as well.

10. Have a Globe and Atlas on Hand

Having a globe and atlas around the house allows you to talk about where your children are in relation to all of the other countries and people in the world. UNICEF publishes a couple of great books by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley, one of which is called Children Just Like Me which shows kids from around the world in their local clothes and environments. This combined with the atlas and globe makes the conversation more dynamic and visual and allows children to relate to different locations more dynamically.

In the end, it isn’t necessary to take extreme measure to raise a globally minded child. Every country has its own cultural similarities and subcultures that contradict those since each individual is unique regardless of their background. The key is to be flexible and be able to adapt to each situation that arises. Simply changing the way in which we talk about people from different places provides the example for children that they can keep with them a lifetime.

Let us know your thoughts and please share some strategies from your own playbook.


iC University



I’ll never forget the first time Invisible Culture was made visible to me. I was 11 years old at a water park in Florida, when a girl standing in line behind me asked,

“You wanna be my friend?” She had a deep southern drawl, which was unfamiliar to my New York ears.

I responded, “Sure, but you have such a strong accent.”

To which she replied, “I don’t have an accent, you have an accent!” I thought to myself, “I don’t have an aix ceent.” Wait a minute here…

In a blink I had my first cross-cultural “aha” moment: To her my way of speaking was strange. As I started to process this I struggled with the concept that she thought that her accent was normal.

And then it dawned on me: I am not the center of the universe. I stood there with my mouth half opened. The way I see the world isn’t the only way to see the world? My truth isn’t the only truth. I looked at her and felt a complete mix of emotions.   Shock. Horror. Pause. Wait, really? I didn’t know if I was crushed or giddy. The moment passed and we played all day, but the experience was not easily forgotten.

The next day on the long drive back to New York I thought about that interaction a lot. I felt betrayed and enlightened at the same time. I felt as if a door had been opened to a world that didn’t have a physical location. It was a door that led to multiple perspectives and open minds. It was a moment of awakening for me that has lasted a lifetime – the first of many and hopefully not my last.

So why do I tell this story? Because it is the beginning of the school year in the northern hemisphere and as we prepare to get back to school schedules I can’t help but reflect back on iCs blog and the comments I have received back from so many of you. Human-interest stories like the one about the Taxi driver or the Peruvian “CEO” seem to be popular, but many also ask about what it is exactly that I do and I am often at a loss to explain it in words.

In fact, words are ill-suited for the task of explaining how Invisible Culture impact our daily lives or what Invisible Culture actually is. Nonetheless, I will endeavor to write blogs from time to time that are a good starting point for explaining the unexplainable. Words (visible culture) are insufficient to have the impact that my interaction had, that said, they are a starting point.

One of the cornerstones of my industry of Intercultural Communications Training is that in order for true, accurate and ethical cultural learning to occur, it has to be experiential. You can’t teach culture. The process of me going through the experience of interacting with someone different is what opened my eyes, not someone telling me we are all different, not me saying I respect differences, not a grown up telling me to open my eyes. We all have bias by nature. It is what keeps us safe in our worlds, but it is also what gets us into trouble when we have to coexist with people who are not the same or do not have the same reference points that we do.

Everybody is the center of his or her own universe. Everybody will see the world based on his or her unique experiences. Everybody has been taught or has learned something that they believe to be good or bad. Everybody, to a certain extent, believes that their world view is correct and everybody, regardless of whether they are conscious of it or not, has something at stake when that idea is challenged. Hence, the need for a more experiential approach and my disclaimer: when I write about the basics of iC in my little iC University it will not be an end all be all, so much as, hopefully, a starting point for discussion.

Children are excused from an ethnocentric approach to seeing the world, especially those that aren’t exposed to too many people outside of their primary communities, but adults have less of an excuse. The world is changing. Newcomers are an inevitability. Every new person, whether from another country, town, age, educational, career or financial background, represents a culture unto themselves and as my favorite quote from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel goes, “Culture is like a wave. Resist it and it will knock you down. Dive straight in and you will come out the other side.”

I hope you continue to join me as we dive deeper into Invisible Culture.


CEOs Among Us


As I approached my seat on the airplane back to the U.S. a few weeks ago I was mildly disappointed to note a man in the seat next to mine.  I was hoping for a stretched out conversation-free flight but because of him I got the exact opposite. What I didn’t expect was that by the end of it all I would have a hard time saying goodbye.

I looked him over. Dark skin, pressed shirt, fingernails caked with dirt. He sat a bit off centered with his hands clenched over the bag on his lap. I removed the plastic from my blanket; he did the same. I opened my book; he reached for a magazine. I pushed on my T.V. screen; he pushed on his. Despite his interest in the T.V. screen he said, “No,” to headsets and then it dawned on me – this young, but hard faced, wrinkle skinned man had never been on a plane before.

I reached back, requested a headset and handed it to him and we resumed our game of Simon Says. I put on my headset; he did the same. I stuck the plastic wrap from my blanket in the seat pocket; he did the same. I put back my seat; he tried to do the same, but had no idea how. For the next half hour we communicated through nods and gestures and the occasional words.

He sat with his headset on just looking around and I showed him the end of cord. He jumped when I plugged it in. Once the volume was lowered he looked around as if he could see things floating in the air in front of him. He pointed to the screen and raised his eyebrows and I taught him how to use his first touch screen.

He inevitably pushed the icons to hard, too long and not quite on the mark and I couldn’t help thinking that this could be a metaphor for what was in store for him in America. The person in front of him looked back irritated a few times. After some music, he switched to movies and his first choice was Batman. The Batmobile and the Joker appeared on his screen  – welcome to America.

I shrugged it off and went back to my iPad until he wanted help with his immigration forms and that is where I learned his story.

“Address in the US?,” I asked




He looked at me sideways. I explained that Colorado was a state and that there were more specifics directions to where he would be going. He still didn’t know, so he handed over his passport with all of the paperwork some agency had probably given him and some of which was stapled directly into his passport.

Still no address, but there was letterhead from the Western Range Association stating that he was going to a ranch out in Colorado. I looked over the paper work in Spanish and his story became clearer.

He was being hired as a Shepard and he should expect to work the majority of his time alone with responsibility of upward of 1000 sheep. He had to have at least 1 year experience in this job and should expect to work long hours. Being able to ride a horse was a requirement. If his calloused hands were any indication, none should have been a problem at the tune of about $750 a month in pay.

During the rest of the flight he told me more. He was a father of 9 and had left his wife and family alone in an area that sounded quite remote. She wouldn’t have any relatives near by, but some of the children were old enough to help out. He was going to America to make more money and send it back to them in the hopes of a better future. In reality, he was the chief of his tribe, the CEO of his family, if you will.

In teaching him all of these new things, it was I who was changed during that flight. I learned what it was to be new again and how much fear is involved in going to a new place for the first time. I learned that he didn’t know what turbulence was or if it meant we were going to live or die. I also learned that as we approached the airport that he had grown comfortable enough to ask if I would make sure he got to his next gate. I learned that while he was intrigued by the movie icon image for Brokeback Mountain, he wasn’t all together comfortable with the topic. Ironically as I showed him all of this new technology it was he who taught me.

So why am I telling this story? Aside from the wonder of seeing the world through such new and unfamiliar eyes, Invisible Culture is about suspending judgment to seek out the reasons behind things that may not be immediately apparent. Our world-view is anchored in our experiences, so when we come into contact with people who are different from ourselves there can be a tendency to evaluate people from our own perspective. While our judgments and instincts are important to keep us safe in our environments, they can also cause us to jump to conclusions that are completely inaccurate and even at times prejudice.

I wondered what people in the land of manicures and pedicures would think of his hands. I wondered what responses he would get from people who think foreigners should speak “American.” I wondered if people would call him an alien if he wasn’t here illegally and I wondered if his employer would recognize that he was the CEO of his life in Peru. More immediately, I wondered how on earth he was going to afford lunch in JFK airport, let alone Dulles and Denver, which were still after that.

In the end, I waited for him and his friend at immigration, but an official came along. She said, “I’ll take it from here,” and so I reluctantly walked away as both he and I looked over our shoulders at one another as the distance between us grew with each step. After saying something to them she left them standing there alone and I wondered if she had any idea of how shocking baggage claim at JFK must have been to this Shepard of sheep, father of nine and CEO of his previous rural existence. We waved goodbye, but I suspected neither of us did so without reservations.

A couple of weeks later I contacted the ranch where he was working. I was delighted to receive a note back that all was well, but his trip was not that easy after that. A plane was missed (unsure of the reason) and his baggage never arrived so he was without any of his personal belongings and relying on the kindness of other workers to lend him some of their things. Once a chief, now a beggar.

So now what would you think of a person with dirty finger nails? How about the person that sits behind you on a plane and pushes on the back of your chair? Or how about a grown man who can’t speak English and is counting pennies to pay his lunch? Is he an alien or a hero to ten people who await his arrival home? We may never find out how his story ends, but we certainly can be a better part of someone else’s beginning.


Third Culture Kids (TCKs)


There is an entire community of people in the world that are uniquely connected by their upbringing, but weren’t raised in the same place. What they share is the experience of growing up outside of the cultural mainstream and for whom “home” is not defined by a physical location on a map. Instead it is defined by the experience of being raised in different cultures. When an American child grows up in China, they aren’t Chinese, but they aren’t typically American either, so what are they?

Some refer to this community as Third Culture Kids (TCKs), while others are now calling for the term Third Culture Adults (TCAs) for those who are grown. “Third culture” doesn’t refer to people raised in the third world, but instead to the experience of being raised in (1) a genuinely cross-cultural world, (2) in a highly mobile world, or (3) with distinct physical differences from the people around them. As a result, it is the third culture experience, of not fully belonging to one or another, that defines them more than anything else.

Research has shown that when TCKs go to college, they do not migrate towards people from their nationality or host country, but instead to other TCKs. So a Kenyan raised in Mexico may feel more affinity to an American raised in France than to a Kenyan or a Mexican. The “third” culture experience is what dominates regardless of whether or not someone was raise with two different cultures or ten – it is not a quantitative term, but a qualitative one of being of multiple places versus just one.

This is a great privilege in many ways, but can pose challenges if it is not recognized in our children or friends. TCKs tend to be highly educated, hold prestigious positions, speak more than one language and have multiple perspectives, but they also can be left with a feeling of isolation or lack of sense of belonging if not supported by people around them.

Profiles of TCKs include 1) people raised in a country different from the passport of their parents, 2) people raised in bi-racial or bi-cultural families or 3) people whose upbringing is highly mobile. Children of diplomats, executives of multi-national companies, aid workers, anthropologists and the military are all classic examples of TCKs.

According to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, authors of the book Third Culture Kids (TCK), “The TCK builds relationships to all of their cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” So how do you know when you have met a TCK? The next time you are at a cocktail party and meet someone who pauses after you ask them where they are from, chances are they are TCKs. Defining “home” in traditional terms is much harder for a TCK than someone raised in one cultural context and so it is often a question that stumps them.

Following is a brief documentary “So Where’s Home?” which explores TCK identity through the eyes of students at several international schools in Asia. Adrian Bautista, a TCK and graduate of Georgetown University, made this video. Bautista illustrates how TCKs don’t necessarily define themselves by their shared nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, or even values, instead their group and often individual identity is based on the experience of belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

I wonder when you will meet one next.


Model Leader – Peru

south-americanThe lion’s share of the work I do is for Fortune 500 companies, but every now and then I get asked culture related questions having to do with the issues that smaller businesses face. In the United States many small businesses employ people from Central and South America and American bosses find themselves unfamiliar with the cultures of their southern neighbors. The number one mistake someone can make when working with native Spanish speakers is to assume that they are all culturally the same, so a good starting point is to gather stories from people in the know.

On a recent trip to Peru I met with Miguel Vegas Van Oordt who manages 30 people for one of the Buenabrigo Hotels & Spas’ boutique hotels that just won the Trip Advisor 2013 Traveller’s Choice Award. His hotel has a reputation for exceptional customer service, so I asked him about the secret to his success:

         “First and foremost I tell everyone that this is a family. When I took the job I went to every employee’s house and sat with their family to get to know what their lives were like. I still go and visit their houses when there is a birth or something important because I feel that it is very important to our work that I feel connected to them outside of the hotel.”

Mr. Vegas Van Oordt’s comment illustrates the findings of best-selling author and researcher Dr. Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch expert in the field of intercultural communications who was voted as one of the top 20 HR Most Influential International Thinkers in 2011 by HR magazine. Trompenaars determined that there are four types of corporate culture preferences along national boundaries. It is no coincidence that one of those work style types is called the Family Style, whereby the definition of a good leader would share the same characteristics as a good father.

           “I try to be there for my staff when they need me. I also tell them that before they walk in the door in the morning that they should drink a bottle of oil. The idea is that the collaborator must not feel that when a guest is angry for anything and probably shouts or shows a bad attitude, even though it is not the resort’s fault, they should not make it personal and must always show a good attitude and smile.”

His approach seems to work. When a guest, or huesped, needs something there is always someone jumping to help. There is even a delightful camaraderie between returning guests and staff that reflects an even more extended family.

           “I also tell them that if the hotel reaches it’s sales goals at the end of each month, a name will be selected by lottery and that person will win a prize like an appliance or something for their home.” The notion of family extends beyond just the management, employees and guests. By creating a motivation system that also rewards people’s families at home, Mr. Van Oordt is leveraging his knowledge of culture to create business success.

In many of the cultures where the work style is Family oriented, relationships and group membership are highly valued over the task. In the end, it is relationships that get the task done, but an American boss may not start from that assumption. Compared to their Southern neighbors, Americans are typically more driven by goals, clearly defined tasks and schedules. In the U.S. the relationship grows from the task. It is the exact opposite in 80% of the world where the task gets done through relationships. The nature of the superior/subordinate relationship is therefore completely different.

Mr. Van Oortd’s style may seem very flexible to some Americans, but on the contrary, he is very fastidious about adhering to rules. One employer of a small business with South American employees once asked about how to handle someone with a bad attitude towards management that spilled over into the attitude of her sister who also worked there. “Sometimes I have to fire people.” He replied. “I remember when I arrived, there were some people who had to go. It was a terrible day, but I had to do it to establish an understanding that work is work, the rules must be followed and management needs to be respected.”

I asked him how he handles a commonly heard story about boundaries in a more intimate work environment: when an employee asks to borrow money. He confided, “I lend my staff money, but I make sure they pay it back. That keeps the others from asking because they know that eventually they are still going to have to pay for it. When it is an emergency that may be of a higher amount, I ask for the bill and pay the account directly. That leaves no questions and establishes an environment of respect and trust.”

The lessons provided by Mr. Van Oordt’s stories can be applied to both large and small companies. Regardless of size, people still want to be led, they still thrive when properly motivated and they still need to be compensated. How to tackle such HR issues varies across cultures, but one thing is for sure – there is someone doing it well and while finding someone as successful as Mr. Van Oordt may not be easy, it is worth the search to keep trying.

And who knows, through the practice of asking, you never know what relationships you may build.

A special thanks to Mr. Van Oordt for taking the time to share his expertise.



Who Would You Hire?


If you had to choose between a Pakistani taxi driver and a recent American Harvard graduate to run a new foundation, who would you choose?

The whole idea behind Invisible Culture is to heighten awareness of the things that may not be immediately apparent. I never cease to be amazed by the small miracles that surround us on a daily basis. Too often we can’t “see” them because of circumstance, schedules, or just simply being in our own world.

This morning while taking a taxi to JFK, that is exactly where I was – in my own world. I was reviewing notes for my upcoming job. When I finished, I asked my driver where he was from and was jolted out of my reverie to hear what followed.

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Slow Down, You’ll Get There Faster


Twice this week people have asked me to address the cultural differences between small towns and big towns. People often think of culture in terms of national boundaries, but there are plenty of sub-cultural differences within the same country, such as: age, gender, education, region and even urban/rural. One of the most common sources of misunderstandings has to do with whether or not a person is more task or relationship orientated.

One small business owner was telling me the challenges of managing people that may not only be from a totally different country, but also live right around the corner. It is a lot harder for a boss to take a hard line on an employee that they may see at church, the supermarket or the Sunday concert on the green. Also, the nature of the job in small towns tends to be more intimate whereby people are working closely together and therefore tend to know more about each other. more >


Japanese Emoticons

Simple Emoticons Keyboard Computer Graphics Metal

Diving into Invisible Culture is as much about learning about a foreign land as it is about seeing the reflection of our own cultures in the differences of those lands. Take a recent article that was written about the use of smiley faces that we use on emails or Facebook. According to Masaki Yuki, a scientist at Hokkaido University, the way we make those faces tells us something about the differences between U.S. and Japanese culture.

According to Yuki, Americans tend to put more emphasis on the mouth while Japanese focus on the eyes. He suggests that since Japanese tend to be more group oriented, maintaining harmony results in emotions being more controlled in public (iC). Nonetheless, no amount of control can mask ones true emotions which is why Japanese look to the eyes for other clues.

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