The other day my remote control completely stopped working, just as I had turned on the television for the news. Very annoying, as I had turned off the sound because I didn’t want to listen to the commercials. So I was trying to lip-read the news while frantically pushing buttons – with no result. In a desperate attempt to catch at least the weather forecast, I quickly changed the batteries – and oh wonder, it worked again! Granted, the remote control had occasionally been flashing two buttons at me for about six months. This only led me to conclude that it must be breaking down, while in fact, the remote control was trying to convey to me that its batteries were running low…
This made me think again about the importance of being aware of cultural differences. As I pointed out in an earlier post, many expats sent to nearby countries assume the culture is more or less the same. They underestimate cultural differences, and this lack of awareness could cause difficulties. This is also called the “psychic distance paradox” (1). If you are not aware that someone is trying to communicate something, you might completely miss the point (as in the case of my remote control).
A case in point is direct and indirect communication styles. For example, the English generally communicate in a more indirect way than the Dutch. Any Englishman is likely to give some indirect cues during a conversation with a Dutchman. The latter, however, is not so well trained in picking up these clues, which might then completely miss its target. If aware of cultural differences with regard to direct and indirect communication, the Dutchman might pay more attention to possible indirect clues and the Englishman might give more direct clues.
It is important to become aware of the many cultural differences that exist in this world. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we shy away from certain contacts because we have drawn the wrong conclusion, just as I nearly threw away my remote control?
(1) O’Grady, S., & Lane, H. W. (1996). The psychic distance paradox. Journal of International Business Studies, 27(2), 309-333.