Check Your Bias

Check Your Bias



To be humbled is to be illuminated and that is exactly what happened to me in 1991 at the Summer Institute of Intercultural Communications outside of Portland, Oregon. I went with the assumption that because I thought I was not a prejudiced person that I actually wasn’t a prejudiced person. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

During the final case study of a week-long workshop, my job was to present a proposal to two executives – a woman and a man. I prepared thoroughly, I was backed up with research and I presented the materials with the minimum number of ums and hiccups.

It wasn’t until the debrief that I learned that I had focused about 80% of my eye contact and attention on the man across the table all but ignoring the woman who, by the way, was the “CEO” of the company. I don’t know what was more mortifying, that I had the bias or that it was so out of my consciousness.

Self-awareness is viewed as one of the first and essential steps on the path to cultural competence, but there are so few opportunities to have the gift of such illumination presented to us in a safe and supportive learning environment. Too often people who are “called out,” get defensive or aren’t given usable tools and therefore lose the opportunity for awareness and growth.

In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg references a study conducted by Columbia University Business School and NY University professors, Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson. The idea behind the study was to test perceptions of both men and women in the workplace. They presented students with a leadership case study that was exactly the same in every way except for the name of the leader was Howard in one and Heidi in the other.

The students were then asked their impressions. To their credit they rated them equally on competence, but on respect their responses varied greatly. Howard was a more desirable colleague while Heidi was seen as selfish and not the type of person people wanted to work for. What they found was that unconscious bias was alive and well. With all things being equal except gender, people responded and judged them differently.

Over the past couple of months I have been working a lot with doctors. As a result I have been speaking with a lot of people about medical professionals. Regardless of the fact that most of the doctors about whom I was speaking were women, it was interesting to hear how often most people used the pronoun “he.”

I took note the first few times, but then started to become fascinated by the fact that it kept happening over and over again. Even people who could be described as feminists, well-traveled, well educated or possessing of open hearts, were making this classic error.

It is reasonable to rationalize such stories as based in history i.e.
“In the past most doctors were men…” but that doesn’t change the fact that we are still operating in a modern world where bias towards groups with shared characteristics is no longer an acceptable or desirable quality.


  1. Recognize that there is a chance you may suffer from unconscious bias.
  2. Partake in assessments that identify your preferences and biases in order to develop self-awareness.
  3. Develop clear vision of what your success looks like and how unconscious bias may be getting in the way of you accomplishing your goals most effectively.
  4. Identify areas where you may be at most risk of expressing your bias – work, home, socializing and via gender, race, national culture, economic culture etc.
  5. Develop specific action-steps to avoid falling into the pitfalls to which most people succumb so that your success is not undermined by your history and natural development.


Finally, if you are not sure just ASK. Becoming competent at not being unconsciously bias requires the right Attitude, Skills and Knowledge. You may not be able to prepare yourself for every different situation, but being a conscious observer with a curious approach can protect even the best intending of people from putting their foot in their mouth.


How are you? The Meaning of Words

“How are you?”
The Meaning of Words

words (1)

In many parts of the world, September is a transition month. Schools start, summer comes to an end, and daily routines resume. The changing season also brings new arrivals from foreign lands who may not be familiar with local greetings. “How was your summer?” or “How are you?” are common questions being heard in office hallways and school entrances, but what do such questions really mean across cultures?

While training a German engineer he once asked me, “Why do Americans ask ‘How are you?’ but then walk away without waiting for the answer?”

Good question.

He also noticed how when he responded to the same question that his counterparts seemed a bit taken aback. He said, “I told one co-worker, ‘I have a headache,’ and got the feeling I had said something wrong.” By answering authentically he was hoping to deepen the relationship, but instead found his approach was having the exact opposite affect.

Another time someone asked how his weekend was and he started to talk about how his in-laws were in town and therefore it was a bit stressful. He said his co-workers looked surprised at his response, seemed to laugh nervously and went on their way.

Such moments are examples of how regardless of the fact that English may be someone’s native language, that doesn’t mean people are using their words impeccably from the perspective of a newcomer who speaks English as a second language. To the engineer, “How are you?” really meant, “I want to know how you are doing.” Here in the U.S. it simply means, “Hi.”

It was crazy to him that a person could have just found out they had a disease, had just tripped and fallen or had a fight with a loved one and regardless, “Fine thank you, how are you,” is still the response that is given and expected.

The engineer interpreted this as a sign of inauthenticity. He took his experiences one step further and then generalized to all U.S. Americans, as if an entire country could truly be inauthentic. I clarified that it was a matter of interpretation and not mal-intent. He reluctantly accepted this, but still scratched his head.

“So how do you know when someone really wants to know how you are doing?” He asked.

Answer: They will ask a follow-up question that is usually more specific. The below example between James and Peter illustrates this.

James: “How are you?”

Peter:  “Fine thanks, how are you?”

James: “I’m fine. What did you do this weekend?”

And so the conversation continues versus simply drops off as a greeting like “Hi,” would. There are plenty of examples that we have discussed in past posts where the meaning of words may be a matter of cultural interpretation. For example:

“How are you?” can really mean “Hi.”

“Let’s do lunch!” can really mean “Nice to meet you.”

“Yes,” can really mean “Maybe.”

“Hai,” a common response word used in Japan, literally translates into “Yes,” but more likely means: “I hear you” or “I understand.” More than one U.S. American negotiator has fallen into the trap of thinking a deal was being made when it was simply being heard.  According to a chat on it can even mean a variety of things including: I have an opinion, I’m here, Sorry, Pardon, What, OK then, or Well.

So with the arrival of new parents and students at schools, new co-workers in the office and a new season around the corner, remember that if you don’t get the expected response you are looking for, literal translations of words may not translate into meaning. Digging deeper into intent based on culture may give a more accurate picture than just the words themselves.

And in the end, hopefully everything will be fine, thank you.


Meet the Crew: Prachi Mehrotra

 The Invisible Culture of an Indian American

india america flag

I would like to introduce Prachi Mehrotra who works here at Invisible Culture. Since she was raised by Indian parents here in the United States, she walks the line between many worlds – traditional India, the United States, tech culture and generational culture (including a boss who remembers when cassettes were all the rage). I am delighted that she has been generous enough to share her experiences here as a guest blogger, so I look forward to hosting her stories from time to time. Hopefully by hearing about what it is like to straddle two (if not more) cultural worlds, we can all gain insights into this classic U.S. American experience that isn’t necessarily shared by all. Thank you Prachi…

Hi, my name is Prachi Mehrotra and I am currently a sophomore at studying at New York University. Over the past few months, I have been working for Invisible Culture under the training and guidance of Katherine. Through my experiences thus far with Invisible Culture, I have learned a lot about the differences, as well as the intersections, among cultures across the world. As a first generation Indian American, I have learned a lot about the importance of accepting different cultures and understanding how they may differ from my own.

My mother tells me a story that when I was younger and entering pre-school I didn’t know the word for water in English, only Hindi. Before that, my family primarily spoke Hindi at home. Though I knew English, I didn’t go to it as my first language. When I got to school, where no one spoke Hindi, I kept asking for “pani,” and the teachers couldn’t figure out what I was asking for. They finally figured it out with the help of my mom, but it definitely caused some problems at first.

At three years old, I didn’t understand that language could be a barrier between cultures. Though in the business world and beyond, we look to translations to bypass this problem, language is a very obvious and important part of any culture that sometimes we do not consider enough.

This is just one example of many of how invisible culture was present in my life. Growing up as in Indian in America has taught me a lot about these two distinct cultures, where they overlap, and how together they define me. Through my posts, I will explore and uncover more about my experiences and understanding of how these two cultures are different and how they work together.


Global Leadership Insights

The Invisible Culture of Parenting

team vs individual

A French mother and a U.S. American mother are sitting in the playground parallel to one another. They both send their children off to play and they both give their children love when they come back crying after taking a fall. This is where their paths and those of their children go in different directions.

The French woman gives her child a kiss and some comfort and then scolds the child saying, “I told you to be careful. Now stay close to me and don’t get hurt.” The American mother gives a kiss and some comfort and then says, “Go on. Have fun. You can do it.”

This story can be found in the work of the French Psychoanalyst Pascal Baudry who discusses fundamental differences in French and U.S. American cultures from a psychoanalytic perspective. He says this example reveals a lot about how we develop our values. The French mother encourages group membership and closeness by resolving the problem with the solution of staying closer and not taking risks. The U.S. American mother encourages individuality with the resolution of going back out there and trying again.

Having grown up in the U.S. I often heard, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The U.S. American child is rewarded for taking risks, learning through mistakes and gaining independence at an early age. The French child is rewarded for being cautious, avoiding mistakes and staying close to the group.

Such values carry over into the workplace where I have heard more than one French person complain about U.S. American’s tendency to act too quickly. “If only they would take the time to do it right the first time, we wouldn’t have to spend all of this time correcting their mistakes.” The U.S. American sees those mistakes as natural parts of the process that encourage innovation, creative thinking and responsive problem solving. Meanwhile, the U.S. American complains that when working with their French colleagues, there is too much time spent talking and not enough time acting.

In the end they both get to the same place at the same time, they just do it differently. So who is right and who is wrong? Global Leaders recognize and embrace such differences as natural parts of a person’s upbringing and how we learn culture. They suspend judgment in order to recognize, adapt and leverage the similarities and differences into strengths not weaknesses. Consider a global team that has planners and risk takers and imagine the possibilities.


Happy Chinese New Year of the Ram

Katherine and the crew at Invisible Culture wish you happiness and prosperity in the New Year.

chinese new year1

If you are in NYC, Asia Society has special events this weekend and International Business Times has some suggestions on best places to eat in NYC. Of course, there is always the parade on Sunday in Chinatown just to name a few ways to get involved.

If you are fortunate enough to be invited to someone’s home, remember to avoid gifts in white or anything in quantities of four as they are both associated with death. Brand new crisp money in even numbers is usually given (especially to children at parties) in a traditional red envelope called a hóng bao (红包) and gifts are always given and received with two hands. Mandarins abound.

You can also visit‘s page for a bit more insight into this widely celebrated holiday.


Gong Xi Fa Cai  (Mandarin) and Gong Hey Fat Choy (Cantonese)


The Invisible Culture of Privacy

The Invisible Culture of Privacy


Recently a woman from Singapore moved to the U.S. to work at a Fortune 500 company and was invited to her boss’ house for dinner. They were having a lovely time until the boss did something that made this woman totally uncomfortable. She gave her guests their drinks and then offered them a house tour. The Singaporean woman wasn’t used to this, but thought, “OK, why not.” It wasn’t until the boss was showing everyone the layout of the upstairs that the new arrival felt that things had gone too far. “She is my boss, why is she showing me where she sleeps?! It was totally weird.”

The American house tour has shocked endless newcomers to our shores over the years. I have heard similar comments from people from a variety of other cultures including Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and France. “Why do they show me where they carry on their private lives?” Or, “Why are they showing me the bathroom!”

In the U.S. people may expect to be given a tour and many U.S. Americans are happy to oblige since they take pride in their homes and feel it extends the relationship further. A house tour is an invitation to get to know someone better, a way to show people something beyond the sterility of work and ultimately a way to connect a little bit more deeply. Not all U.S. Americans give the house tour, but plenty do and some guests may even expect it.

The flip side is when someone keeps houseguests in the living room or dining area their U.S. counterparts may feel like the host isn’t being welcoming. A Dutch national once responded to that by saying, “Not welcoming! I’ve invited them into my home. How much more welcoming could I be when really in the end business meals should be kept to restaurants and public spaces.”

The notion of privacy affects many aspects of how we relate to one another from what parts of our lives we share to how we make new friends. It can affect the extent to which we discuss certain things with people with whom we work to how much we think our parents should know or be involved with our personal lives. This is particularly tricky for a newcomer since establishing new relationships and creating a community is typically on the top of the list of personal objectives, but how to go about that isn’t always clear.

I remember meeting a woman from Norway once who said she thought it was bizarre that U.S. Americans strike up conversations with complete strangers. Despite being taught at a young age to not speak to strangers, I recalled the time I returned to New York from Shanghai and someone struck up a conversation with me while waiting on line at a deli. I can’t remember what she said, but I remember thinking it was odd that she was talking to me.

My original self, before having moved abroad, wouldn’t have thought twice about someone making a small commentary about something we were both experiencing. In my U.S. culture, physical proximity is enough for someone to strike up conversation, but that in some cultures, like Norway, formal introductions, common purpose or shared membership to a group are minimum requirements for people to not think that you are completely crazy for talking to them.

The notion of how, when, and with whom it is appropriate to strike up a conversation is another layer of the Invisible Culture of Privacy that only becomes apparent to people when that moment of surprise, discomfort or bewilderment arises. One woman said she thought an American man was being a pervert, by the mere fact that he was talking her, “for no reason.” I remember another woman commenting at how strange she thought it was that a U.S. American neighbor could show up unannounced at her doorstep with an Apple Pie.

This is when understanding Invisible Culture comes in handy. Digging beyond visible surface behaviors can reveal when and how to approach people in a new culture, how much is appropriate to share or what to expect from your relationships. More importantly it provides tools for accurately evaluating tings that people do instead of jumping to conclusions about why they do it.

The world renown intercultural researcher Fons Trompenaars conducts research that identifies the extent to which it is culturally appropriate for there to be overlap between public and private life. He refers to these cultures as either Specific or Diffuse. Keeping in mind no one culture is completely one or the other, but he has revealed tendencies and preferences that run along national cultural lines.

In a Specific culture there is less overlap between public and private life. Work relationships are kept at work and personal relationships are maintained separately. Hedges grow high between neighbors and families tend to be less probing or actively involved in the life decisions of their young adult members.

In a Diffuse culture, all bets are off. Parents and aunts and uncles all tend to feel that a young adult’s activities are fair fodder for family discussion, neighbors can knock on your door to welcome you to the neighborhood and work relationships may involved more intimate conversations about personal activities over the weekend,  knowledge about your family make-up or your ideas about non-work related issues.

Whether or not someone is comfortable showing people their homes or talking about your weekend has less to do with whether or not they are willing to deepen a relationship and more to do with what cultural norms are adopted from a very young age. So the next time you are crossing cultures and someone shows you their toilet or tells you they are nervous about meeting their in-laws they may not be trying to be inappropriate, but instead just acting in a way that is normal from where they come.

Nonetheless, this American still believes bedrooms and toilets are off limits to employees!