Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Cultures…Still Crashed!

Published Date : Dec 27, 2017

Associate Professor Benjawan Ubonsri
Chotima Chaitiamwong
Thailand-United States Educational Foundation
(TUSEF/Fulbright Thailand)

Commented by Porntip Kanajananiyot



Despite years of studies and promotion of cross-cultural understanding, cross culture remains one of the most challenging issues of the 21st century and even become much more complicated than before. Back in 1946, a year after the end of the World War II, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) was founded in the U.S. Department of States to provide staff training on language skills in response to the need of U.S. diplomatic corps, who were to be stationed abroad. The training subsequently integrated cultural understanding in the language instruction, thus introducing the new field of intercultural communication.

Therefore, it could be said that earlier studies of cross culture focused on differences between nations. As time goes by, our world has developed to the stage where traditional boundaries (e.g. states, public-private sectors, business industries, professionals, communities) are blurred by the mobility of people and cross-border activities, adding cobweb layers of cultural differences into human relations.

Why so?

If we look at the very micro level – an individual person, each of us is the manifestation of different cultures of our family, gender, ethnicity, religion, generation, social class, education institutions, professionals, nations, and many more. With increased and widened opportunities for individuals to interact, different cultures have more chances to crash. Consequently, cross-cultural competency is not only necessary for success in career but also for healthy survival in the today’s multicultural world.

Education institutions then take it as one of their core missions to cultivate cross-cultural competency among graduates. Exchange programs are particularly promoted as they provide the most effective cross-cultural learning. Still, there are number of issues undermining cross-cultural learning and, in the worst case, turning exchanges to nightmares of all those concerned. Revisiting our decades of administering exchange programs, we find some factors that make different cultures still crash.


What You See Is Not What You See

What is culture? American anthropologists gave more than 164 definitions of culture and, until early 1990s, no consensus was made on its nature. Generally speaking, culture is something we have been consciously and unconsciously absorbed all our lives from families, schools, communities, offices, religions, nations, and other societal units. Culture has been developed so gradually that we tend to overlook its existence and impacts on our lives. Such ignorance could lead to serious conflicts particularly when we are challenged by culture opposites which have oftentimes demonstrated through nonverbal messages.

The ice-berg model effectively explains why cross culture matters and why it could become serious. Truly, what we can see is merely a tiny tip of one culture. There are much more hidden cultural elements that we should know and need to figure out. There are also unknown cultural elements that we may or may never discover. In fact, those we can detect might not be what we think of. For cross-cultural understanding, we have to bear in mind that something seen could be illusive and something unseen could exist.


When East Meets West: Accept the Differences!

Picture the real situations when there are many more ice-bergs in different shapes and sizes in the ocean. Similarly, every culture has its own form of ice-berg and it is far too challenging for everyone to detect whether there could be some possible explosion underneath and how serious it could be.

We can, however, safeguard ourselves from the impacts. A good start is to accept that there are always cultural differences and we cannot convert others’ ways to match ours and vice versa. On the other end, we should appreciate the fact that, amid differences, there are some similarities. Thus, efforts to understand the reasons behind cultures so as to better think and select our approaches is also challengingly fun learning.

In regard of cultural differences, Thais and Americans could be good case studies as they are representatives of opposite cultures – the East and the West. Based on Fulbright Thailand’s experiences, we found that there are several extreme cultural contrasts underlining East-West cultural conflicts. Here, we highlight two of them as they are the most influential ones with real-life situations as examples when applicable.

Collectivism and Individualism
The agrarian culture of the East encourages collectivism. Individual is considered part of the society and well-being of the whole group also secures individual’s happiness. Emphasis is on group’s success rather than individual achievement. Farming needs teamwork rather than one farmer with speedy seeding. Therefore, Eastern people incline to care for needs and feelings of others, building unity and harmony through interdependence. Group relations are in family-like structure with strong hierarchical system in which younger generation has been taught to treasures the elders’ world’s wisdoms.

On the contrary, individualism of the West focuses on self. Individual well-being ensures group’s success. In fact, being a member of any societal groups for individualists is a choice. Self-reliance/sufficiency, self-interest, and self-achievement are the main focus while self-independence is highly valued. As we have observed, collectivist tends to use collective words such as we or our idea rather than I and my idea as frequently used by individualist.

Collectivist and individualist world views bring about the issue of, among many others, respect and assertiveness. Thais prefer not to argue with their seniors in public and quietly try to solve problems. Americans feel it is their responsibility to raise the concern for attention. Although each has sincere intention, Thais are complained for being far too submissive and Americans being aggressive and, oftentimes, rude. The attention is then on the message delivery rather than the message itself, which make the problem unsolved and the situation dramatized.

Another serious crash is about plagiarism. The concept could be based on individualist sense of self-achievement and the right to protect one’s entitlement. A good number of Thais still do not understand the term plagiarism. In fact, before this word was translated in Thai, we did not even have it in our language. Citing or copying people’s works without giving credits to the person is unfortunately quite common in Thai schools and universities. This is because in our culture, copying homework has long been regarded as sharing and helping. Americans have been struggling to introduce anti-plagiarism concept to Thai students and even Thai teachers. It is also equally challenging for them to also teach students the correct way of quoting.

Polychronic and Monochronic
The polychronic perception of the East sees time as cyclical and can be attuned to meet our needs. As there is always more time, we do not have to rush. Deadline is merely a guideline, lateness is not a matter, plan can always be changed, and interruptions are acceptable. On the contrary, in the monochronic view of the West, time is something set. We have to adjust our activities to fit with available time in schedules, plans, and deadlines. Time is precious, life depends on schedules, and plans are fixed as agreed upon. Accordingly, this perception finds lateness, interruptions, and changes intolerable.

Different views of polychromic and monochronic societies lead to one of the most notorious cultural crashes between Thais and Americans. The number one frustration for Americans working in Thailand is that they have to struggle blindly without any clues of what is expected of them, what they can expect, what to do next, etc. Many of them were lucky enough to receive their schedules at the very last minutes. Many of them came to light afterwards. Thais are not serious with planning and scheduling. We adopt no rush attitude and see no reason to be far too detailed.

The ideas towards changes are equally problematic. Americans also felt uneasy with changes, which seem to be unreasonably normal for Thai colleagues. The situation was even worse when changes occurred without notice. Several American teachers waited for their students for more than 20 minutes to find out that the classes were canceled. For Thai schools, changes happen recurrently and everyone seems to accept them naturally.

Also relevant to the concept of time is the issue of lateness. Americans value punctuality as they tend to live by schedule. More time could be a plus point while less time means a loss. Lateness is considered a waste of somebody’s time as well as a bad manner. Americans then feel very upset when students come to classes late (for any reasons) and cannot understand why Thais find it acceptable to wait or to make people wait.


National Heritage!

It might sound strange but one of the main obstacles for our cross-cultural awareness and understanding is our own culture. Fulbright Thailand do not advocate for the uproot change but wish to revisit some aspects of our Thai-ness which could be adjusted for the better. We are also well aware that Thais can be resistant to changes when it comes to culture. Our pride (and prejudice) could result in the feeling that every aspects of Thai culture are good. It is time that we honestly assess ourselves.

Face and Face Saving
We, as Thais, have been groomed in the culture in which face and face saving are given an exaggerate importance. These could be a flip side of our values on seniority/ hierarchy and result in the development of egotism and strong self-importance. As a consequence, we are prone not to admit that we lack knowledge, we misunderstand, or we make mistakes. We are then blocked from new information, knowledge, and learning. It is, therefore, very hard for many of us just to listen and open our minds for differences. Worse yet, these face and face saving concepts have influences on young generations as well.

Egotism and Self-deprecation
Relevant to face and face saving are egotism and self-deprecation. An overdose of both could blind us from neutral analysis on cross-cultural issues. Egotism exaggerates a sense of self-importance and, therefore, makes us endorse our culture as standard culture. Those different from ours are wrong. On the opposite side, many Thais have strong self-deprecation and tend to undervalue our own culture in comparing with others particularly the western one. This could result in parrot-like copying of culture that might not fit in our context.

Măn-sài (หมั่นไส้) and Kreng-jai (เกรงใจ)
Equally problematic are our peculiar feeling of măn-sài and kreng-jai which do not exist in English. In Thai, the two words carry both positive and negative feelings depending on the contexts and the speakers. Positively, măn sài is a loving way of teasing someone because the person does something different in a adorable way or exaggeratedly say something good about oneself. Negatively, the word carries senses of jealousy, dislike, annoyance, or irritation on someone because the person behaves ostentatiously or ridiculously or is better at something.

Kreng-jai, in a positive way, makes us do or say something against our true feeling because we care for the other’s feeling or think of all the trouble someone might have to go through for us. In a negative sense, we also go or say against our own will simply because the person is at the upper hierarchical level, or we do not want to look bad in others’ eyes, or we are trapped by emotional blackmail. All in all, both măn-sài and kreng-jai, in their negative aspects, limit our learning experiences, mislead our cross-cultural interpretations, handicap our critical thinking skills, and hinder our own genuine thinking/expressions.


Universal Sins

Despite the increasing number of people with international experiences (e.g. study abroad, exchanges, employment, and travel), many in the whole wide world has not yet had direct contacts with foreigners, let alone living in different cultures. Even for those with international experiences, they might not have enough opportunities to really learn and understand cross culture. For these reasons, most of us know people of other countries through second hand sources. Such sources can have powerful influences on our perceptions, pride, and prejudice.

Patriotic History
Each individual country has its own history, patriotic one in which it was the winner, the unfortunate defeated, the right, the deceived, etc. We write history from our standpoint and naturally view other countries as inferiors, competitors, or even enemies. We unsurprisingly tend to leave out our dark side. We have been programed with patriotic history since our school days as history could be employed as a mechanism to strengthen our patriotism. We overlook the fact that our history may differ from those of others who have passed through the same incidents. The same accounts can be differently interpreted by different sides.

The strong patriotic instinct could be fueled by movies. While movie producers are fond of presenting nostalgic and romantic stories of national heroes and momentous accounts in the name of patriotism, they do inflame people’s hatred towards the so-called enemies. We might also forget that we now live in the interconnected world in which people from other countries can also consume our movies. What would be their reactions seeing their beloved countries portrayed as evil souls? Strengthening patriotism in the expense of national wisdom and long-term international relations is more destructive than constructive, both to the countries and peoples.

Furthermore, foreign movies also have strong influences on our perceptions of the particular countries. For example, most of us know Americans from Hollywood movies and have already been framed that they are Caucasians (white skin with blue eyes and blond hair), super smart, superior, rich, and have casual sexual relations. Movies, however, reflect only a glimpse of the country and mostly provide dramatized /exaggerated stories and romanticized mentality. We need to be critical when consuming foreign movies in order to avoid stereotyping and cross-cultural misunderstanding.

Likewise, today media particularly news reports incorporate lots of subjective criticism and drama. Small accounts are exaggerated and dramatized regardless of how sensitive they could be to foreign relations. More and more reporters and anchors step beyond their roles of presenting facts to become experts, telling stories from news elaborately while filling in their ideas and perceptions on the issues. Oftentimes, they worsen the situations by, among others, creating unnecessary miscommunication, especially when they are not well-rounded enough to offer sound and reasonable comments, or with an intention to make profit from stories. Media plays a crucial role in strengthening and weakening foreign relations as it has great impacts on people’s acceptance due to more promptness to digest news and less awareness of cross-cultural understanding.

Language and Slangs
Our language and slangs also have negative forces. Some proverbs, jokes, and slangs contain a sense of discrimination and we have been absorbed them throughout our lives. Since our school days, we have developed a stereotype mind by linking names of countries and some dialects to inferiority. Indeed, the discrimination can be on nation, race, accent, religious, belief, gender, diet, practices… you name it. Frequent use of such language and slangs can subconsciously shape our minds towards discrimination and distorted conception.

All in all, by letting these negative forces develop, we risk ourselves to snap judgments and ethnocentrism – a sign of cross-cultural deficit.


Survival Check-list

Having dealt with cross-cultural crashes for more than decades, we could reconfirm that the crashes can never be completely cured but can be softened or even turned positively. Every single crash gives us a cross-cultural lesson though sometimes in a hard way. We just have to accept that it is not unusual to have cross-cultural pains. Americans who have been spending more than half of their lives in Thailand are still confused/ irritated with some of our Thai cultures. Likewise, a number of Thais living in the U.S. find it a challenge to adjust themselves to some of American cultures. This also includes our own selves who get confused/ irritated with some cultural traditions in our own countries.

In fact, we think a small degree of cross-cultural crashes bring about healthy relations but on conditions that those involved learn more about others as well as themselves. Our experiences also confirm that to healthily survive cross-cultural crashes, we need to cultivate three positive characteristics, namely attitude, adaptability, and a sense of humor, all of which have been emphasized among our Fulbright grantees as well as our hosts in every occasion possible.

Attitude maybe the most significant one as everything starts from good attitude. With open-mindedness, positive thinking, and eagerness to learn even from the mistakes/conflicts, one is not only able to happily benefit from most situations and charm oneself, but also able to become one of the key factors to promote similar positive attitude among his/ her community. Attitude determines the grantees’ success or failure in getting the most out of their exchanges. Our past experiences show that placing two grantees of different years in the same community gave totally different scenes. One saw difficulties as challenges to be tackled while the other saw them as curses. Obviously, their experiences were different in terms of degree of pain and gain they acquired.

Adaptability is crucial as we must be able to blend ourselves in the context we live in or else we will be alienated and/or feel miserable. Adaptability means respect of social rules and practices of the place we live in although we may feel that they are unreasonable. American female grantees who were mature adults in the U.S. felt strange when they were treated as children here in Thailand. Those who understand and accept the fact that Thais treat women at any age with more care were less frustrated while learning to appreciate the opportunity better. Similarly, Thais must learn the balanced way to treat Americans adults.

Adaptability also means going out of our ways for a new experience/habit. Americans who are used to having solid advance plans and active schedules must learn to live and, in fact, enjoy a slower pace of life here. At the same time, Thais should learn to plan in advance, particularly for professional improvements. Remember, effective learning occurs when both sides are ready to make adjustments.

A Sense of Humor
Positive attitude and adaptability work well when backed up with a sense of humor. In recent years, we have encountered more and more cases of depression and nervous breakdown. Some cases were so serious that we had to terminate the grants. From the observations, most of the cases happened with grantees who took life very seriously and had less sense of humor than their fellow grantees. A sense of humor, though might be a gift from birth, could be nurtured. It also became one of the success factors personally and professionally in business. Particularly for cross-cultural learning, a sense of humor helps grantees see the brighter side of difficult situations, easing them of stress and keeping them sane.


Let Them Crashed, Let Us Learn!

Like ice-bergs that could move along to different ecosystems, cross-cultural learning is life-long as people are always changing and the world is always moving. New factors, new actors, and new issues keep emerging. In the recent years, for example, we have been discussed about diversity particularly gender difference and generation gaps as it has great impacts on cross-cultural understanding. The issue itself became complicated. LGBT, for example, became LGBTQ, later LGBTQQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual), and maybe LGBTQQIA…XYZ as sexual orientation vary.

In managing education exchanges, it is important that every stakeholder learn something. While constantly keeping up with the world’s trends, we should also explore inside ourselves in order to be more sensitive, critical, and practical in cross-cultural management. An effective way towards being cross-cultural competent is through knowledge and experience sharing. Successes could be shared for good practices while negative experiences and failures have to be discussed with a view to preventing similar stories. Repeated cases reflect accumulated challenges that need serious attention. Although we cannot make any abrupt change, we can always adjust ourselves, making mistakes while gaining more examples, and learning through sharing.

Crash or not, we do learn and we should turn the learning into fun as well!



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