Culture and Communication

Therapist and pop-culture phenomenon John Gray has built quite a career (and bank account) by insisting that “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” In Gray’s bipolar cosmos, communication issues are inextricably bound up with anatomy, or biology, or hormones, or something. (I have to admit I’ve only read more than a few pages of one of his books, but I have heard him lecture and despite the fact that he seems like a personable and well-meaning man, I always come away feeling sort of alien. I don’t fit into his paradigm, perhaps because I’m not from Venus; I’m from New Jersey.)

Anyway, what I think Gray is getting at is emotional intelligence. And I do agree with him that different people hear and react to things in different ways. But many factors influence this, beyond (or perhaps in addition to) hormones.  Culture, for one, is a major component of social awareness and relationship management. Take someone who is completely in synch with the dominant forms of behavior in his or her native country and plop them in a culture with different expectations and his or her EQ can drop like a stone.

I recently interviewed an executive, an Indian gentleman who grew up and has spent his whole career in India.  At the end of our conversation, I asked him the same closing question I use in every interview: “Is there anything I haven’t asked you that I should have?” 

When I’m talking with Americans, that open-ended query often yields the most interesting answers about things I never would have thought to ask.  But this Indian executive read the question differently. “Oh,” he stammered, “I would never presume to tell you what you should do. You know the information you need much better than I do.”

In that instant I felt like “Speechwriter from Mars.”  Perhaps I should have thought about potential cultural differences between us before I opened my mouth, but at least I was able to hear and recognize them once he responded.  I reassured him that if he answered, I would not feel criticized – that, in fact, he may have some knowledge to share that I know nothing about, so his answer could be a great help to me. 

Now he’s an intelligent man, with advanced degrees from India’s finest universities, but plop him in an American classroom and he’s not going to get much out of the experience…unless the teacher identifies and addresses how his expectations may differ from those of his classmates.  

Or unless he gives some thought to cultural differences himself.  Communication, after all, is a two-way street.  But I do think in that situation it’s more the responsibility of the person native to the culture to lead or guide, just as you would make sure a houseguest visiting for the first time knows where in your house you keep the towels.
Have any of you had experiences where your emotional intelligence seemed to desert you, or where it was seriously out of whack with the people you were dealing with? How did you handle it?