The Science of Diagnosing Cultural Differences

A former software engineer from Mumbai, Anika brought strong technical skills, a cosmopolitan outlook, and an engaging personality to job search in the United States. Passionate about pursuing a career in management consulting, Anika excelled in all aspects of the job search but one: promoting herself at career fairs and at informal networking events.

Compared to the United States, the process of getting a job in India relied much more on a person’s concrete work and educational experience or on close personal contacts, than on the informal networking that is so prevalent in the United States. There were no “elevator speeches” in India.  Job candidates were not expected to be confident, poised and assertive as they are in America with a potential employer. Instead, the process of communicating with a potential employer in India was far more formal and candidates are expected to behave in a more deferential and polite manner.

Given these differences, it’s not hard to understand why Anika felt so anxious, awkward, and embarrassed during networking conversations in the U.S. and failed in her initial attempts to find a job. Anika knew how to behave, but the difficulty of actually using this knowledge interfered with successful adaptation.

A Six-Dimensional Approach for Diagnosing the Cultural Code

In my book Global Dexterity, I provide a six-dimensional approach that helps people like Anika diagnose cultural differences in challenging situations.  These six dimensions represent key aspects of communication that differ across cultures, and that previous researchers in psychology and cross cultural communication have consistently shown to predict important personal and professional outcomes. They are:

  1. Directness
  2. Enthusiasm
  3. Formality
  4. Assertiveness
  5. Self-Promotion
  6. Personal disclosure

Directness has to do with how straightforwardly you’re expected to communicate in a particular situation. Are you expected to say exactly what you want to say, or are you expected to “hint” at something in a more indirect manner? Enthusiasm has to do with how much emotion and energy you are expected to show when communicating.  Formality has to do with the level of deference and respect you show.  Assertiveness captures the extent to which it’s acceptable to speak your mind.  Self-promotion is about whether or not it’s acceptable to “toot your own horn” and speak about your accomplishments. And personal disclosure captures the extent to which it’s appropriate to reveal personal information about yourself in a particular situation.

In Anika’s case, she experienced differences across all six dimensions.  But in other situations, it’s really only one or two aspects of the situation that are challenging.  Overall, however, what’s  powerful about this approach towards cultures is that it helps you pinpoint the source of the challenge you face in a particular situation.  It’s no longer just generally “stressful” or “difficult.” Instead, you can identify the particular reason or reasons why something is stressful or difficult.  And, in doing so, you can take a significant step towards solving the problem.

Some people feel culture is a soft, squishy concept that’s hard to define, but I actually find it to be quite the opposite.  By drilling down to the behavioral level and identifying the key aspects of situations that differ across cultures, we can bring a scientific lens to a concept that has been notoriously difficult to define – and, in doing so, hopefully make our work lives just a little bit better.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017).

Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.

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