The Invisible Culture of Privacy

The Invisible Culture of Privacy

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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!

5 thoughts on “The Invisible Culture of Privacy

  1. Katherine,
    Wonderful blog post! This will educate many across the privacy spectrum. Whenever I catch myself being very American in a group of internationals, I try to announce what I’m doing with “This is typically American, but I know this is strange for someone from [your culture]. Of course, there are still lots of unknowns for us to stumble over!

  2. Katherine I really really enjoy reading and absorbing the perspective you bring into my email inbox. You are smart and insightful.
    Thank you. Keep up this amazing site. I look forward to it.

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