An American teacher in Beijing tells her students “You lovely girls. I love you” — and her Chinese students are terrified. An Italian professor teaching in the United States is appalled to learn that his students are allowed to evaluate him, but an American elementary school teacher is frustrated by her South American students’ reluctance to answer questions in class. An American says “thank you” to a colleague for treating the group to dinner, embarrassing and offending the Indian recipient of his praise who believed it questioned the sincerity of his motives. A Dutch businessman jokingly tells someone who borrowed a chair for an empty office that “you’re on a nice stealing spree,” angering his Indonesian colleague who emphatically declared the next day that he is not a thief. A South Korean businessman is put off by the aggressive, confrontational behavior of his American negotiating partner, while the American is incredulous that the South Korean seems so afraid to speak his mind.
What is going on? These incongruities, as explained in Geert Hofstede’s excellent book: “Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind,” stem from differences in our subjective cultures — our patterns of thinking, feeling and acting which we learn through our lifetimes. Hofstede describes different cultural dimensions that result in different perceptions, communication styles and habits that, in turn, often result in conflict and miscommunication, impeding an organization’s ability to effectively carry out its mission: Does a culture value more collaboration between leaders and their subordinates, or is there a greater respect for lines of authority? Does it place a greater value on individualism or collectivism? Does it value assertiveness or modesty? Does it tolerate ambiguity or demand certainty? Hofstede explains where each country tends to fall on the spectrum of these cultural benchmarks, and how a clash of different subjective cultures can lead to miscommunication, inadvertently offensive conduct and ineffective outcomes.
Companies increasingly recognize the value of having employees equipped with intercultural competencies so that in a global economy they can communicate effectively in cross-cultural situations, and relate appropriately in different cultural contexts. Many companies, in other words, recognize the need to stop glossing over cultural differences (and to stop turning diversity initiatives into faux group hugs to “celebrate the rainbow”) but, rather, to bring in trained professionals to identify and explain cultural and communication differences, and teach how to navigate within them, strengthen intercultural awareness and communication, and become a stronger, more productive organization. Many people have a natural curiosity about these differences. Many travelers enjoy learning about the cultures of their destinations, and are rarely heard to announce defensively that they “don’t see Chinese or Peruvians or South Koreans — Just People.”
Why then, when it comes to race are many of us quick to say that “I don’t see race. Just people. I am colorblind”? Why do we become so instinctively uncomfortable talking about different values, perceptions or cultural norms between races? Out of fear of being labeled a racist? Of course there are many exceptions to every generalization and most people are more complex and multi-dimensional than is suggested by any label. Regardless, just as there are general cultural differences between people of different countries, there are interracial cultural difference that can pose their own challenges to interracial communication and cooperation. In his outstanding book “The Inclusion Paradox,” Andres Tapias reports that white males frequently rank values such as self-sufficiency, hard work, fairness and honestly at the top of their cultural lists, citing those who lived the American dream by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps as epitomizing those values. Many African Americans, in contrast, frequently list “giving back” and “justice”, and Latinos list “commitment to family,” at or near the top of their lists — differences that, as Tapias, explains, makes sense given the different experiences many in each group can relate to. Many whites, for example, grow up with the cultural perception that most people have a level playing field and equal opportunities, while many African Americans have a cultural perception that intervention is sometimes necessary to achieve justice — competing perceptions that are both grounded in histories that were taught or experienced differently. As well, a seemingly shared value can be interpreted very differently depending on race. Tapias observes that Southern white males and Northern African American women both list “respect” as a value that is embraced, but the former group believes saying “yes sir” and “no ma’am” is a sign of such respect, while the latter group believes it to be a sign of subservience. It is not surprising that racially disparate organizations or communities sometimes show conflict, miscommunication and vastly different perceptions, not unlike the Dutch and Indonesian business partners.
And what does any of this have to do with at-risk youth? Cultural differences permeate the criminal and juvenile justice system in the United States, a system which many African Americans believe is rigged against them — and with good reason. In a recent study by Stanford psychologists, 735 white Americans were told of the identical background of a fictitious 14 year old boy with several prior convictions charged with a brutal (though nonlethal) crime — half the respondents were told the offender was black and the other half was told the offender was white. The black offender group more strongly favored a sentence of life without parole and rated the juvenile offender more similar to adults in their culpability than respondents in the white offender group. Other studies have revealed that people have a tendency to fear members of races other than their own.
How are outcomes affected? In an earlier edition, we introduced the topic of racial disparities in the juvenile justice system through a satirical Onion broadcast news clip of a white girl whose crime was so horrific that she was sentenced to be tried as an adult black man. Satire or not, African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. If current trends continue one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, compared to one of every seventeen white males. Studies have revealed racial disparities in police activity and sentencing. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that from 1975 to 2011 white students were slightly more likely to have abused an illegal substance than black students, yet black youth were arrested for drug crimes at rates more than double those of white youth. Black drivers were three times as likely to be searched at a traffic stop as white drivers. New York City’s recent stop and frisk policies effectively targeted black and hispanic americans far more than white New Yorkers, yet blacks and hispanics were no more likely to possess weapons or drugs than whites. The harshest sentences — life without parole or the death penalty — is disproportionately sought and ordered when either the defendant is black or the victim was white.
It would be oversimplifying to blame all of this on racism or even unconscious bias. There are higher crime rates in poverty stricken neighborhoods. Public Defender’s offices that frequently represent minority defendants are overwhelmed with massive caseloads that do not permit sufficient investigation and preparation for each case. Those with limited resources are less able effectively navigate an often confusing system. But without an understanding of intercultural differences, unconscious biases will clearly exist between people with different sets of experiences and cultural norms. Whatever the reasons (and there are many), the reality and perception of the police, prosecutors and courts differ significantly depending on race, economic well-being and cultural orientation. But if the Dutch, Indonesian, American and South Korean businessmen can be taught about cultural differences and intercultural competencies to support their bottom line, then we should be able to have just as honest a discussion about interracial cultural differences and their implications for the bottom line of our children, our schools and our community. .