In a time when globalization has put a premium on cross-cultural communication skills and companies routinely pay lip service to the merits of diversity amongst their staff, hands-on advice from people such as ethnologist Gillis Herlitz is direly needed.
Last year, Gillis Herlitz was a man on the move. He flew out from Stockholm’s Arlanda airport some 70 times, and when he wasn’t in the air he clocked 50,000 kilometres in his car, all as part of his work as lecturer and mentor to organizations in need of advice. With cross-cultural communication as his forte and a PhD in ethnology as well as a degree in anthropology, the 63-year-old Herlitz has an idea why so many
people are eager to share his experiences.
“Cross-border contacts are multiplying as tourism, trade and migration increase and globalization spotlights the need to master cross-cultural communication and interaction,” he says.
In terms of cross-cultural communication, however, globalization works in many directions and may even – coupled with the Internet explosion – produce a levelling effect on national cultures, with cultural divergences running along different dividing lines than in the past.
“National borders function less and less as cultural borders,” says Herlitz, “and we ethnologists prefer to focus on differences according to education, rural as opposed to urban dwellers, old versus young people and so forth. The Internet, in particular, has caused a blurring of bound-aries, and young people today may develop a close affinity to people halfway around the globe that they have never met, nor will ever meet, in person.”
Irrespective of where in the world a young person lives today, he or she faces the same international media messages, says Herlitz. He notes that the difference between a 15-year-old in Madrid and a person of the same age in New Delhi is much smaller now than it was 40 years ago. And professionals in many industries have always been a step ahead in terms of cross-cultural interaction.
“A Thai accountant probably has much more in common with a fellow accountant in Paris, for example, than he has with a rice farmer,” says Herlitz, adding quickly, “even if some national characteristics differ and add to the overall complexity.”
To be sure, Herlitz is not a man keen on quick-fix recipes, but rather he is given to well-rounded analyses of complex matters (which may be part of why so many enjoy listening to him). Having worked for SIDA (the Swedish International Development Authority) for 15 years, he has encountered a wide array of prejudices and generalizations across cultural borders, and – at least in the beginning – inside himself. But Herlitz argues that prejudices need not be all bad.
“Our preconceived stereotypes help us grasp the world and do not necessarily pose a problem, unless you fail to examine when and why you are applying these generalizations and do not realize that you harbour preconceived notions about other people,” he says. “If you don’t see it, you can’t actively go to work on it. What you perceive to be the objective truth may actually have been subconsciously filtered through your personal experiences and beliefs.”
Herlitz’ early years in Africa have led him to understand that simply asking the question “why do they behave this way” is not sufficient. “You also have to ask yourself ‘why do I react this way, why do I think they are strange?’”
Asked whether he himself is willing to generalize about cultural differences, Herlitz suggests that there is a dividing line between non-Western, relationship-oriented cultures and Western, achievement-oriented cultures.
“In many non-Western cultures, conversation is seen as something inherently valuable, and we fail to see how that can be, since we believe time should be spent on achieving something tangible and not on developing relationships,” Herlitz says. “What we may write off as simple small talk may actually be a part of the business negotiation. To a non-Westerner, getting to know one another on a personal level may matter much more than ticking off points on an agenda.”
To a focused Western businessperson trained in efficient meeting techniques, venturing into other territories may be a challenge. What should you talk about, if not business? Herlitz’s advice on doing business in a different culture is to learn something about that environment.
“The local art history, for example, or the architecture or literature of the country you’re in,” he suggests. “Displaying such insight creates a tremendously good impression, especially today, when so many countries are struggling to find their national identity in a global village. The business benefits of making a good impression cannot be underestimated.”
Another tricky area for a Western visitor may be that our concept of time is not universally adhered to.
“If you have made an appointment for a certain time and the person doesn’t show up until an hour later, citing a relative who fell ill or something, a Westerner who is not used to a relationship-based culture may be perturbed, since ‘wasting time’ is a cardinal sin in the industrialized world,” Herlitz says. “We tend to view time as something limited and linear, whereas many cultures view it as circular and endless. The utilitarian thinking constantly takes precedence in the West.”
The flip side of the glimmering globalization coin, says Herlitz, is that nationalism is once again on the rise, partly as a reaction to feelings of growing rootlessness amidst a supposedly global village. As an
example, Herlitz mentions that more books on Swedish culture were published in the past decade than during the previous 90 years.
“I asked myself ‘why?’ and came to the conclusion that EU and immigration were the major causes,” Herlitz says. “Encountering others fosters a need to establish a self, and the quest for identity grows, along with a desire to pinpoint the contrasts that define us as opposed to them.”
The initial reaction upon joining the EU (which Sweden did in 1995) was for people to look inward. Herlitz recalls that all things Swedish, whether it was snuff or other trivia, were bestowed with a newly found patina.
By definition, Herlitz continues, there is no community that is not excluding in some way, and the need to identify with a group is a fundamental human need. The problem is not the us/them thinking in itself, but what Herlitz terms “the border-preserving mechanisms.”
“If we persist in saying ‘we Westerners’ and ‘those Africans’ and attach a value to these statements, we do have a problem,” he says. “The border-preserving mechanism is based on the value we attach to the differences between, say, men and women or whites and blacks. We have to be careful about interest groups that seek to usurp and perpetuate the differences and assign a negative value to them.”
In short, he says, do not be afraid of thinking in terms of us/them, but pay attention to the belief pattern attached to the differentiation.
“Examine your belief patterns and make sure you are aware of them,” Herlitz advises. “And don’t ever assume you are completely unbiased; few people are. Not even documentary makers or historians are unbiased, much as they would like to think they are.”
Besides cross-cultural communication, work-related stress is another topic that Herlitz is often invited to share his opinion on. So then, why is the phenomenon on the increase – and is it related to globalization?
“Workplace insecurity is increasing because the pace of change is so much quicker today,” says Herlitz. “In addition, corporate ownership is perceived by many as distant and beyond control. The only thing you can be sure of at work today is that things will change and that nothing will remain the same.”
In order to help employees cope with an increasingly uncertain future, companies need to boost their corporate culture in several areas, says Herlitz.
“Give every employee a sense of importance,” he advises. “People want to be acknowledged, to be seen, and this is not a task only for managers. Co-workers should be made to realize that they form an essential part of the workplace and that they are a part of their colleagues’ work environment. We are all there to contribute.”
There is certainly an abundance of leadership courses out there, but Herlitz believes the need for courses in co-workmanship is equally crucial.
“Don’t abdicate just because you’re not a manager,” he says. “People frequently confuse being buddies with being colleagues, but it’s not the same thing. Since you cannot escape your colleagues – at least not if you want to keep your job – you have a right to place very high demands on the others in the office.”
Intra-cultural communication is sometimes as tricky as cross-cultural interaction, which is why a company needs to lay down rules for social interaction at work. These rules, Herlitz says, should cover what’s okay and what’s not okay, how and when to criticize others and how employees should relate to one another in order to be efficient at work.
“Employees need to be reassured they will not be excluded just because they think differently, and these rules need to be implemented from the bottom up,” says Herlitz.
Herlitz warns that the increasingly rapid pace at work and in life in general entails a growing superficiality and a lack of patience with people who are perceived as different.
“High speed is not compatible with profound reflection, and growing stress makes people prefer to work with people they feel a kinship with,” Herlitz says. “Diversity is seen as much more stressful to cope with in a rapidly changing world.”
His advice to employers is to engage all employees – not just managers – in a quest for diversity that is not merely unavoidable, but also desirable in the multi-cultural world of today.
“Don’t recruit merely to fill minority quotas, but recruit individuals who will allow others to be individuals,” Herlitz says. “Don’t just communicate that you are for diversity, but also why you are for it. And recruit people who are curious and who dare to differ. Raise awareness of and promote a belief in the advantages of diversity.”