As mentioned in a previous post, I’m going to share my own personal experience with a cross-cultural communication problem that only reared its ugly head when visual cues were available. Thus, this post may substantially depart from my usual writing style.
I hired a career coach and began working with him in September 2012. Note that this fellow has close to 20 years of experience as a career coach and has been a longtime resident of California’s Bay Area, an area renown for its racial and cultural diversity. Also note that he’s a Caucasian-American dealing with me, an Asian-American (though something like this can happen even when there is a shared cultural or racial heritage given enough difference in personality). In my situation, this meant that there are body language dynamics that are vastly different in meaning (e.g., maintaining eye contact with your conversation partner). By the way, I live in California also, but we agreed to handle my case using technology to save me from having to make long drives.
He and I seemed to be communicating well and getting along swimmingly as we emailed back and forth. Trouble began when we started conversing on Skype. I began discussing my interest in workplace boredom and employee engagement consulting, and I tried to share some information with him. He did not believe that a workplace boredom phenomenon exists. He could see people being stressed, but not bored. This phenomenon is really quite easy to understand however. Here you go:
He also kept reiterating that consulting businesses that serve employers needs do not exist. He also believed that telework is a theoretical concept as no one in his social network was working this way. Words began to fail me as I saw that he was just hellbent on keeping information to the contrary away.
Noticing that I could barely form words at this point, he leaned a little forward into the webcam as he inspected my body language and said, “You’re nervous!” and then continued, “You’re intimidated by me!” Actually, I was exasperated and now so stunned at his confidence in his body language reading skills that I didn’t know what to say. He continued making other body language reading mistakes. This was going off about as well as a dog trying to read a cat’s behavior. I corrected him on his westernized assumptions about how friendships are formed when we discussed why I neither love nor engage in social chatter about various topics that tend to happen in the office scene. To that, he replied, “So you think you’re more Thai then?” “Well, geez,” I should’ve replied, “Do I look white to you???” I wish I was able to correct him at every instance in which he made mistakes but there were just too many. Also, as introverted as I am, my mind tends to be processing things so deeply that I remain a step behind during fast-paced conversations. Don’t you hate it when the clever retorts come to you after the situation has passed? I could have played this little game right along with him, leaned into my webcam and said, “You’re presumptuous!” “You jump to conclusions!” “You’re an obnoxious fool!”
The moral of the story: Ask, don’t assume. If you want to know how I feel then ask, don’t assume. If you want to know what my state of mind is then ask, don’t assume.
Had this guy been dealing with people overseas, he would have lost so many clients and offended so many people. I’m bringing this subject to attention because I’ve come across so many of these instances where someone assumed more similarity than there really is. This doesn’t just happen with people who have been “living under a rock” but with people who really should know better as well. People can still make assumptions about others based on the way they write. Also note that I am NOT discounting the conditions under which being able to read body language is beneficial. However, I have to laud communication methods without visuals for this one reason: It inhibits deeply ingrained assumptions that people often make because of the way someone looks or behaves.
He and I never interacted face-to-face but, somehow, I don’t think doing so would have prevented him from depending so much on his body language reading skills and cultural knowledge that only pertains to people similar to himself. Even worse, I would have had to resist recurring thoughts telling me to reach over and strangle him.