Cultural Differences: What’s Our Attitude Like?

Last week, I talked a bit about the Pre-Doctoral Workshop that I led recently at Strathmore Business School in Nairobi. Today, I would like to consider the cultural differences and what our attitude should be like.

On the last day of the Workshop, participants received a certificate of attendance that I had to sign. As soon as I received the certificates, I noticed they were not in order. Trying to make life easier for the next person, I sorted them out according to last name.

When participants were called on to receive their certificate, my order had been re-arranged: the first person being called was Agnes… that was it! The initial ordering was alphabetical but according to first name! The lady whom I had past the certificates realized I had disordered them, and she hadn’t realized either that I had followed a different convention. Something really minor that was solved in just a few minutes. But cultural differences may have important consequences for cross-national activities: for good and for bad – it depends on our attitude towards them.

Strategy managing cultural differences in Africa: a matter of attitude
Muti-cultural representation in a session at Strathmore Business School

The main problem about cultural differences is not that they exist. The problem is that many times we are not aware of these differences, and we evaluate other people’s behaviors based on our own reference frame. This is what happened to both my Kenyan colleague and myself: each one of us was coming from a different frame of reference (a different convention to sort out a bunch of names), and each one thought that the other had done a lousy job. When I tried to make up for hers, I ended up creating trouble (she had to do her job twice).

First step: recognize the differences

We all know that cultural sensitivity is important to succeed in international business. The trick is to recognize those differences. When we enter unknown territory, we may be somewhat vigilant: an Italian company – just to pick one country – will be sensitive to cultural differences when they enter Nigeria in their first African venture.

But once they have some knowledge of the Nigerian culture, they may become overconfident and think that now they will succeed in their next venture only to find out that the culture in Ghana is so different that you need to re-start your “cultural clock” again. This is a mistake that many companieseven those from the continent – make when internationalizing across Africa.

Differences may be an advantage

On the other hand, cultural differences may be a plus. Once I heard Chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan Carlos Ghosn say that when there’s a common goal differences become complementarities instead of a source of conflict. This requires a flexible mindset, one which not all of us have but which we can develop by mindfully appreciating the value of differences. Instead of blaming others for having a different perspective or a different way of doing things, let’s start by thinking they may have a good reason for that: I’m sure we’ll learn many things if we take this attitude!

Would you like to share any experience with cultural differences in the African context?

Related posts:
Doing business in Nigeria: overcoming cultural challenges
Even neighboring countries are distant
How do the Chinese and Africans mingle?
From Nigeria to Kenya

11 thoughts on “Cultural Differences: What’s Our Attitude Like?

  1. Thanks for this note, Africa!
    I like the way you illustrate how logic and imaginaries play out on this situation especially when two people from different contexts meet! I think most IB literature is so driven by logic and often mistakes it with imaginaries. It is true that when we start to pay more attention to contextual imaginaries, we’ll learn a lot about other people’s cultural realness? Aloys

    1. Thank you, Aloys! Your comments are always very encouraging. I enjoy how you frame them in terms of the academic literature.

  2. Hi Africa. Many days without commenting your posts. But once more here. There are many definitions for cultural diversity but what I like more is to use that one that identifies the different societies that emerge around the earth. Each one of them differs each other in the way they organize themselves and how they interact with the environment. At the end people are the key of the result of a culture. They have an own language, different dress, traditions, lifestyle, designs, food, customs. All those are part of the cultural differences and diversity.
    Discussing, understanding, the differences, respecting and doing what is necessary to adapt our behavior are relevant in a global world. We cannot permit that differences make lose a lot of opportunities and productivity when we don’t manage properly all these differences at work place.
    I remember when I was Project Owner for a GM/Opel Corsa model. The right hand model was developed in South Africa and most of times we believed that other regions less developed than ours, are inferior. We didn’t treat the team there as equals. This is part of our values, principles, beliefs and those bring our behaviors. But of course reality is absolutely different and not always as we perceive.

    1. Hi! I guess you are Jose-Pedro, is that right?
      What you describe happens to many of us: we easily tend to believe that anything different from what we’re used to is inferior. And we make the worst mistakes when we try to use systems that have been developed (or practices that have emerged) in our part of the world onto another with no critical sense. There must be a reason why people do things in a particular way. The wise approach is to stop before taking action, and think what that reason could be — unlike what I did sorting the cards but I hope to have learned!

      1. Ohhhh!!!!!! I am very sorry. I don’t understand why appeared as anonymous. Yes, I am Jose-Pedro. I will check why. Thanks for this post and your answer.

        1. No problem, Jose-Pedro! We know each other well enough that I could identify you!

  3. Ohhhh!!!!! I’m am very sorry. I don’t understand why didn’t appear my name. Thanks for your post and your answer. Yes, I am Jose-Pedro.

  4. CONSEQUENCES negative cultural diversity as such does not believe there is any,
    cultural diversity is wealth indeed …
    It is through these differences that humanity achieves complement and find a balance,
    Imagine for example a homogeneous world, would be completely essence and spirit.
    These distinctive cultures are part of our identity and our history.

    1. I agree that diversity is wealth: it’s our uniqueness that makes as human beings.
      The problem comes when we forget about diversity, and we interpret others’ behaviors from our narrow perspective.

  5. Interesting post, Dear Africa. As far as business is concerned – in Africa and elsewhere in the world – the issue is to find the right balance between “efficiency” and “adaptation to cultural differences”.

    1. Yes, bith efficiency and adaptation are important considerations: at times they need to be balanced, at times traded off.

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