The misconception of common sense

This post was first published on Culturenergy, the company webpage of our Indonesian Focal Point Silke Irmscher

“I thought it was clear”, said a Dutch manager about his recent experience of delegating a job to his Indonesian subordinate. His eyes reflect a mix of puzzlement, shock and astonishment. For a minute it seems that he does not longer understand what is going on in his team, here, at the Indonesian subsidiary of a European company in Jakarta.

He had delegated that important job and was waiting for the results. But the results had not been delivered. Until he inquired about the current status and to his surprise (or shock) found out that his subordinate had not processed the job at all because “she was not sure about a couple of things”. His reaction, “But why didn´t you just tell me???” immediately showed that the two had been at cross assumptions the whole time.

This example shows the misconception of common sense in intercultural relations.

Many professionals that work with people from different cultures are taken by it. They assume that the others apply the same standards like they do, that they share the same idea of normality. How tricky! Because people that have been socialized in different social, academic or cultural environments very often do NOT share the same experiences nor the same values and beliefs. The “I-thought-it-was-clear” surprise marks the point when suddenly people become aware of the fact that colleagues from a different culture act out of a completely different perspective on the same situation. It shows that actually nothing is clear but that there are a million of things left unsaid.

It is indeed tricky: For example, in international companies in Jakarta most people talk in English. They use the same language and they even may dress in a similar way. The also might use the same brand of electronic devices. All these everyday similarities can make one easily believe that the others also feel, think and act in a similar way, along the slogan “I´m sure she knows what I mean”. But the outer perception is just the tip of the iceberg and reveals not much about the values and beliefs that lie inside or below the surface.

Analyzing cultural differences

In our example, the difference in normality between the Dutch manager and the Indonesian assistant may look like this: The Dutch, socialized in a culture where from early age children are taught to be independent and self-reliant, believes that professionals at every level should work pro-actively to get the job done. For him it is the most normal thing on earth that somebody asks for the information she needs.

The Indonesian assistant that grew up in a hierarchical society where people are taught to listen to the seniors, however, is hesitant to speak up and pro-actively report about the job development. For her, the most normal thing is that her manager supervises her and provides guidance to make sure that the job gets done.

The one assuming that his assistant will approach him if she needs more information. The other expecting her manager to watch her while believing that she has not the right to bother her boss with questions. Common sense?

The truth is, that there is no common sense in intercultural relations.

How we bring up a topic, how we perceive our relationship to others, how we discuss and negotiate or how we process a task differs a lot from culture to culture. Csaba Toth, the developer of the Award Winning tool Intercultural DISCTM even calls intercultural communication the “Science of uncommon sense”. How true is that!

That´s why it is so important for all people involved to make aware that “uncommon sense” – every day, at every cross-cultural encounter. Starting from that, we can find out more about that what our culturally different colleagues and business partners feel and think about a situation and what they consider appropriate based on their “normality”. Sure, this requires a big deal of self-reflection and empathy. But if we want to do successful international business, it is essential to learn about the normality of people from different cultures.

How do we do that?

Well, we may start by inquiring about the other viewpoints with curiosity.

We listen to them to find out about the “Why” that lies behind culturally different behavior.

We stop judging foreign behavior based on our own values.

And we make it a habit to openly verbalize our assumptions and explain ourselves.

In other words: We learn to create transparent cross-cultural situations. With that, the manager from our above example instead of experiencing another “I-thought-it-was-clear” surprise one day really could say, “It was quite unclear in the beginning but we knew what we needed to do to make it clear!”

By the way, these tips do not only apply for expats that work abroad but also for locals working with expats. Communicating with cultural awareness brings always bilateral benefit!

Does this example sound familiar to you? Or do you feel that there is a lot of “uncommon sense” in your culturally diverse team? Then reach out! Culturenergy is specialized in translating cultures as well as supporting professionals to develop Cultural Intelligence – in Indonesia and elsewhere.

Post by Silke Irmscher Owner of Culturenergy, here we are Focal Point in Indonesia, Intercultural Trainer, Expat Coach and Brain Gym Therapist.

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