Every person, whether they realise it or not, holds and is subject to unconscious cultural biases. Biases appear to be a natural part of human interaction and, in principle, biases are there to keep us safe. When we “do biases,” we are testing how safe the situation is. But when biases are used to compare or as fact, they become reductive and damaging to inter-cultural interactions and they can lead to more dangerous manifestations, such as stereotyping and discrimination. These are negative in any context but can be especially damaging within a working environment.
It’s crucial, from a business perspective, to understand how and why cultural biases come about, especially when we work in a field where communications are key. When it comes to forming close professional relationships, such as coaching and mentoring, we must learn to embrace other cultures, and work with people from all backgrounds.
What is a cultural bias?
Culture is a broad term that covers everything we identify with and believe. It includes our role in society as single parts of a greater whole. As individuals, we view everything through our own personal lenses. Our beliefs and ideas are formed from our unique social influences: our parents, peers, national culture and subcultures, the media, and everything in between.
A cultural bias describes a pattern of thinking that leads to judgements based on ideals of one’s own cultural system. Cultural biases can lead to assumptions, stereotypes, and belief systems about a different culture, based on our own limited experience of that world.
Annie Murphy Paul says, ‘We want to feel good about the group we belong to—and one way of doing so is to denigrate all those who aren’t in it. And while we tend to see members of our own group as individuals, we view those in out-groups as an undifferentiated—stereotyped—mass.”
It is a natural human trait to look for patterns and predictability in the world, as this enables us to make sense of what we’re experiencing, but within the workplace cultural, looking for and expecting patterns can lead to biases that cause tension.
The risks of cultural biases
Within a professional setting, there are different expectations for how you treat and show respect to your co-workers and clients based on the culture. In a personal relationship you might be able to ask directly for clarification, but in the workplace you are expected to accommodate other cultures implicitly.
For some, cultural bias conjures ideas of national stereotypes – overt cartoon images of snooty French waiters, loud American tourists, and stuffy Brits- but stereotyping is just a part of how biases are integral to our cultural identities.
While it’s hopefully obvious why overt discrimination and stereotyping in the workplace won’t help you make great professional relationships, it’s important to be aware of more insidious displays of bias that you may or may not be aware of.
For example, in Japanese culture, there is a tendency toward quiet, respectful behaviour where listening and calmness is a priority. Italians, on the other hand, are typically much more lively and loquacious in their business dealings. An Italian might seem unspeakably rude and loud to a Japanese person, but a Japanese person could come across as meek and awkward to an Italian if they hadn’t initially been aware of their differences and how to navigate them.
Every culture has different ideas of what is polite or impolite, appropriate humour, attitudes about education, preferences in religion, and expectations for business planning, right down to a person’s sense of self and position in society. This doesn’t mean that different cultures can’t do business together, but it’s easy to see how two different ideas of ‘normal’ could clash if not approached with care and consideration.
According to the cognitive approach, there is a human tendency across all cultures to stereotype those who are ‘other,’ so how do we work around this to deliver quality services and build strong professional relationships?
How to be sensitive to different cultures
Avoid the dangerously reductive effects of cultural bias in the workplace. Here are our top tips on how to be sensitive to individual backgrounds and beliefs when in a professional environment:
- Be aware of your own biases and prejudices. Even the most intelligent liberal will have their own preconceptions – it’s just how we operate. Being aware of your own attitudes will help you initiate things from a fresh perspective.
- Notice the little things. Someone from a different cultural background might behave in a way that you interpret as rude, shy, or standoffish, but that could simply be the way you interpret it. You need to think deeper, and really acknowledge that what you call ‘truth’ is actually just accumulated information from your own cultural background.
- Communication is key. Avoid sweeping generalisations and do your research on different cultures. A gesture or custom that you’re indifferent to might offend someone from a different cultural background, and vice versa.
- Be flexible. We all operate in different ways and have different views of life – even within the same sub-cultures. In a professional environment, always respect others’ customs, such as national holidays, dietary requirements and political attitudes. If in doubt, talk about something else!
- Be yourself! We’re all human at the end of the day, and you’ll often find that smiling and offering a friendly face are universally recognised behaviours, wherever you’re from!
Do your best to be aware of biases and avoid stereotyping or discrimination, and you may well find that you have more in common with people from other cultures than you realised. Building professional relationships is fundamentally no different from building personal relationships. Trust, support and acceptance are the way forward and will build you a solid basis of loyal clients.