Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Cultural barriers, hot spots, and being a good host

I got somewhat interested on the topic of meeting metrics and dug up an academic paper with some very interesting conclusions. The paper is titled "Spotting 'Hot Spots' in Meetings: Human Judgments and Prosodic Cues".

If you muscle your way past the word "Prosodic" in the subtitle, you will read about an experiment where listeners were asked to rate the "involvement" of meeting participants along the lines of amusement or disagreement. The ratings were fairly consistent amongst listeners, with one exception, described in this excerpt:
However, differences in performance between native and nonnative raters indicate that judgments on involvement are also influenced by the native language of the listener.
The authors found evidence that there was less consistency in the perception of meeting "hot spots" by people who were non-native speakers. In other words, the non-native speakers didn't perceive the meeting dynamics in the same way the native speakers did. They made a point of not ascribing the observation to cultural or language aspects, because they were not after that particular aspect during the experiment and also due to the small population size.

Having attended a fair share of meetings where I was the sole cultural minority, I have certainly experienced first-hand the difficulty in understanding contextual jokes, such as a remark about a TV show I have never watched. Conversely, I have hosted many meetings where I am part of the cultural majority, witnessing embarrassed guests completely lost amidst laughter or tension during the meeting.

Some lessons learned:

The least-common denominator language wins: Mastering a foreign language takes years of practice. Speaking someone else's native language is a sign of individual achievement, not of cultural inferiority. If that least-common denominator language happens to be English, you will have to learn it. Get over it, but put it in perspective: In terms of human history, English is fairly new as a universal language, and not for long if this trend continues. And this leads to the next lesson learned:

Avoid side-conversations in your own language if it is not shared by all participants: Unless someone specifically asked to hear an exotic sample of your own language, just don't. If someone simply does not speak the language, announce the need to translate the conversations to other participants. Cumbersome beats being rude.

Share context before telling a story: Sharing stories with the team is a great way of establishing healthy bonds, but many good stories need some background to be fully understood. The ability to share stories more quickly by building upon other stories is powerful, so that this is not only about cultural and language minorities. If you are about to tell a funny story involving that former old boss, take a couple of moments to share the context with people who didn't know him at the time.

Share context before a meeting: The lesson above also goes for introducing a contentious technical subject. For instance, educating a new colleague on which faction favors one aspect of a solution versus another may spare the rookie from being too forceful or too subtle during the meeting. It is just embarrassing to see a colleague dispensing a 5-minute speech on a person who is already known (by everybody else) to share that point of view. You may want to share the context in private and certainly without labeling either side, even if you disagree with one of them.

Accommodate the contextual majority: This comes from someone who has grown up watching Formula 1 and now lives in NASCAR country. NASCAR fans are a "contextual" majority, not a "cultural" majority. If your new team likes to talk about it, it is not your minority right to ask for a change of subject. You can choose to absorb the context and join in on the conversation. It takes time until you are accepted as a knowledgeable source on the subject and can start poking fun at it. In accommodating the contextual majority, it is also important to set limits to preserve your own integrity, such as steering clear from "American Idol" or "Lost" (as context for people who don't live in the USA, these are very popular TV shows for reasons that are completely lost on me.)

Learn about the other culture: Just the other day I was on an 11PM call with a team in Japan when a (Western nationality omitted here to protect the offender) participant asked the sunny side of the call: "Why did you use this component instead of the approved ones?" That comment would have rolled over the back of anyone here in RTP, but for those familiar with the Japanese culture, it was worse than watching someone slamming the lid of their laptops on their fingers. I cringed in anticipation and, as expected, our Japanese counterparts were considerably quieter until the meeting was over, restricting themselves to answering direct questions.

I have recently developed a sense of dignity in avoiding asking "what do you think?" questions at the end of any given posting; the lack of comments was too painful. But please feel free to share your own lessons here.


BRyan said...

Excellent post. In these days of GIE (Globally Integrated Enterprise) very apropos.
The effect of cultural 'in jokes' on the members of the team who don't have access to the background is always something to remind the meeting participants of. We in the States may not even know of the discomfort and possible resentment we are creating by referring to Gilligans Island, et al. (goodness, not me, we didn't have a tv when i was growing up)
p.s.The link for 'This Trend' didn't work for me, is there another?
p.p.s. re the sense of dignity I have recently found some script for listing recent comments for blogspot. See it in action here

Denilson Nastacio said...
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