Understanding Values in an International Economy


As we’ve mentioned in this column before, today’s business world is now dealing with people from many different religions, political systems, cultural backgrounds, and ethnic groups. Many citizens of the United States tend to think that the U.S. value system is the only one in the world with anything going for it, but we need to understand that every other country has the same temptation—to think its own national and cultural values are the best. Every year, more members of differing ethnic cultures join the American workforce. In addition, a growing number of smaller American companies are doing business abroad. 

When you are dealing with people from other cultures, you will tend to find four major areas of difference in values—and in perception of the values of others.

1. Views of power and authority. In many emerging countries, the prevailing attitude is that what a manager says must be followed without question. The practices of power sharing and group decision making in the United States seem strange and unfamiliar to many people of other cultures. They follow the traditional values of the top-down organization and often must be urged to participate, even in decisions that affect them personally.

For example: When Jasper Arasco arrived in America from Panama, he was surprised that his manager asked for his advice in making several important decisions. Jasper’s first reaction was to suspect that his manager was not very good at his job; in Panama, only someone very unsure of his or her job would take such an approach. After living in America for several months, Jasper began to understand that this was a style of management that he needed to become accustomed to. He realized that asking for advice was a way of sharing in decision making. However, when Jasper returned to a new job in Panama, he was forced to readjust.

2. Views of the individual versus the group. Americans have been taught to value individualism and the individual effort. In many other countries, the group is seen as considerably more important than any of its individual members. In these cultures, taking individual credit for an accomplishment that the group did together would be considered extremely selfish and rude. The group is usually valued more highly than the individual. Our competitive culture encourages and rewards individual achievement. This can lead to a stronger focus on individual accomplishments rather than on group successes.

For example: When Takara Nishi took a job in Portland after having worked in her native Japan, she was asked at a planning meeting if she would head a work team, since she had headed a successful one in Japan. Her reply was, “I have always worked well with my team; I would welcome an opportunity to do so again.” Since her American managers expected her to “sell” herself more assertively, her response was misinterpreted as showing a lack of confidence. When a manager asked why she hadn’t sounded more persuasive, she answered, “I didn’t want the members of my team to think that I was taking too much credit. That would make it difficult for us to work together.” In her culture, Takara had been taught that the group effort is much more important than any individual effort.

3. Tolerance for uncertainty. The history of the United States is a story of people who sailed here with little certainty of what lay ahead. Later, pioneers in covered wagons traveled to new territories. They had to have or develop the ability to live with the prospect of the unknown. Other cultures may view uncertainty as recklessness and lack of planning. To many cultures, maximizing certainty is a value that should be respected by members of other cultures.

For example:  A U.S. company opened a branch in Taiwan. Once they formed a management team, made up of both Americans and Taiwanese, the American top managers called a meeting to brainstorm ideas for entering markets with a new product. The Taiwanese members of the group found this method frustrating, especially when they suggested ideas that were added to, changed, or dismissed by the group. The problem came from differences between the two cultures in levels of uncertainty tolerance.

4. The value of punctuality. In the United States, people are often judged by their promptness and punctuality. Westerners, especially North Americans, often value people less when they are late for appointments. In many other cultures, time urgency is not a value at all. In fact, North Americans are often seen by others as impatient, judgmental, and overly stressed because of the time factor. When dealing with less time-focused cultures, North Americans need to relax and learn to behave in the others’ time context. They especially need to examine the high value they place on time.

For example: Bethany sells radio and television advertising. One of her customers is the Warm Springs Reservation. Bethany soon found that she was dealing with a culture that has different attitudes toward time than she did. She has learned not to expect absolute punctuality from clients, because they don’t value time in the same way as much of the rest of the American population. She has learned to be patient and tolerant and has done a large amount of successful business with the Native Americans. Bethany has also found that the Native Americans often make allowances for her culture as well.

Dealing with different cultures often stretches the entrepreneur.  The differences explained here can help you pick up on the values misunderstandings that North Americans might have with members of other cultures.

Lowell Lamberton is professor of business at Central Oregon Community College.  For more information, feel free to contact Professor Lamberton at 541-383-7714 or by e-mail at llamberton@cocc.edu


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