Each culture has a set of unique idiosyncrasies. In other words, behavioural traits which have grown out of historical experience. These traits are so engrained in the psyche of the culture that it can be difficult to explain their origins or why they are still followed years, decades or even centuries later.
Outsiders or international assignees entering a new culture may be perplexed by what they perceive as strange or unnatural behaviour. Without proper pre-departure cross cultural training and support which gives international assignees an understanding of the culture, these cultural idiosyncrasies will remain distant, unexplained oddities that can prevent the assignee from having a successful expatriation in the new country.
A good example of where cultural idiosyncrasies often baffle foreigners is the UK. People who are not from Britain often say that the country is obsessed with courtesy and good manners. The British way of communicating is peppered with politeness markers and their behaviour can sometimes be perceived as too conciliatory.
In fact, in the UK the most minor omission of a politeness marker such as ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or the wrong word order in a sentence can cause offence. Failing to observe the queuing culture or asking a question too directly can leave people with the impression that you are rude or disrespectful. International assignees living and working in the UK must therefore have an understanding of the culture and these unique politeness traits if they want to communicate effectively with their British counterparts.
The intricacies of politeness in the UK are complex and mostly subconscious behaviours that are considered the norm. Politeness markers are often used with complete sincerity or pre-thought. Let’s look at an example where a man and woman approach each other in a busy corridor both carrying papers. As they pass in the corridor, the man bumps into the woman and knocks her, causing her to drop some of her documents. The man says ‘sorry’, which would be considered quite normal for many as he is the one who knocked into her. However the woman also apologises. This happens frequently in the UK, and often confuses those who are unaware of the culture of politeness.
Another example often cited by non-natives revolves around taking the bus. Most British have the habit of thanking the bus driver as they get off the bus. There is no real reason for doing this as the bus driver has to stop at the bus stop and let them off anyway, and most of the time the driver is behind a window which makes it difficult to hear them. Nevertheless, most British adhere to this cultural norm on a daily basis. In many cultures, people believe that because the bus driver’s job is to drive the bus and to let you off, they have not done anything special for you and therefore do not deserve a thank you.
These differences in expected courtesy also affect the way people convey certain messages in business. Being unaware of such discrepancies between what it is said and what it is meant can cause some problems, especially in the workplace. One common example of this is how British people often request tasks to be completed.
For instance, your manager might ask you ‘Would you mind finishing this piece of work by the end of today please?’. This can be perceived as a request to complete the job without much urgency while in fact your manager could really be trying to say: ‘Get on with it and finish it by the end of the day!’. This misunderstanding can often cause the employee to take a longer time than required. If this pattern persists it may well cause frustrations between manager and employees.
These are just a few simple examples of how politeness in the UK can be a confusing thing for many foreigners and how it can impact international business. By attending a cross cultural awareness training course such as Communicaid’s Living and Working in the UK or Doing Business in the UK, business travellers and international assignees can gain the cultural understanding they need to successfully communicate, build relationships and adapt to life in the UK.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2010