Talking Across Cultures (With or Without Profanity)

Professor Andy Hoffman

by Andy Hoffman

This blog entry is cross-posted on Harvard Business Review.

In B-school, we teach culture. Ed Schein tells us that it has three levels: artifacts (the visible cues that represent the culture such as language, terminology, clothing, ways of addressing each other, etc.), espoused values (what we say is the culture) and underlying values (the deepest core level of what culture is all about).

These cultural elements represent distinct elements of motives, objectives, and values. And these cultural communities can be bounded by profession and degree (engineers have a certain culture, managers another), by nationality (many studies analyze the differences in culture between western and eastern thinking), by industry (the culture of business versus that of the non-profit or public sectors), levels in the organization (management versus labor) and many others. But with this knowledge, how do we actually manage?

Here’s a moment from my work in construction that made it clearer for me:

In May, Robert and Peter [the architects] decided that they would make their first inspection of the jobsite.

As we walked around the house, we came upon the masons. I tapped the masonry foreman, Roland, on the shoulder and introduced him to Peter and Robert.

“I hope you like what you see here,” he smiled.

But they didn’t. Something was wrong. Robert was staring intently at the stone work that had begun. It only climbed to about three feet over a span of 10 feet, but he was clearly concerned. We were all silent as Robert and Peter talked quietly to each other.

Finally, Robert started. “The physical elements of these stones were supposed to suggest the idea of carrying the structure.”

Peter continued, “Yes, we had hoped that this would be a transition from the rich and irregular organic materials of the New England farm field to the turn-of-the-century geometry of the building.”

“Yes, this is a transition,” repeated Robert. “It can’t look like a mosaic. It must look as though it were supporting everything, literally growing out of the ground.”

They turned back to Roland and awaited a response. But Roland looked perplexed, the pride in his stonework turning to defensiveness. With a clear note of annoyance, he turned to me and asked, “What the f*ck did they just say?”

I stifled a laugh, but no one else smirked.

“I think they want you to change your style,” I said, looking to Robert for encouragement. “If I have this right, think of a dry-wall. The stones rest on top of each other without mortar. They’re held in place by gravity. It looks natural. Would it be possible to have the walls have that effect? Can they be less smooth? Can you use stones that have a bit more irregularity to them and make them look like they’ve been here for a long time, stacked one on top of the other?” To sum up, I concluded, “Maybe you could think about mimicking the shape of the stone walls you took these from?”

“Yes, that’s a good suggestion,” Robert said.

“So you want me to do a sloppier job?” Roland asked, still annoyed.

“No,” I said, trying to turn this from criticism of his work to a suggestion for a different style. “Think of doing a sidewalk of pavers. They would all lie flat, the joints would be tight and the pieces would fit together in a perfect mosaic. This should not look like a sidewalk of pavers turned on its side. It should look more like a stone wall where each stone is carried by the ones below and carrying the ones above.”

“I think I see,” said Roland. “You want it to look structural and you want it to look old, like a stone foundation built-in the eighteen hundreds.”

“Just like it was built at the same time as these other stone walls, and maybe even by the same hand,” Peter added excitedly.

Roland added, “Would you like me to keep the moss on the stones we pull out?”

“That would be great,” Robert said.

“I’ll give it a try. We have to acid wash this when we’re done, but I can try to keep it alive.”

“Great, I think we’ve got it. This conversation alone made the visit worth the trip.”

I patted Roland on the shoulder as Robert and Peter continued the tour. Roland rolled his eyes. “If that’s what he wanted, why the f*ck didn’t he just say so?” He shook his head and announced the now familiar refrain, “f*ckin’ architects!”

I quickly realized that while I didn’t know how to do everything on a construction site, I did know how to talk to people. It was through me that all of the people involved in making the house a reality could communicate with each other. With equal clarity, I could talk to and understand the distinct wants, needs and languages of the multi-millionaire owner, professional architect, carpenter, plumber, and mason. I was the binding thread in this intricate web of relationships, and I parsed my energies in four primary directions: the crew, the owners, the architects and the subcontractors.

As this story shows, speaking across cultures is a lot harder than it seems. If you watch an experienced mediator or negotiator, you can see them adjusting to fit various cultural frames. This is an easy lesson to explain, a hard one to teach. Scholars of network theory talk of the power of filling a “structural hole,” being able to bridge two communities of people that can’t speak to each other otherwise. That is the role of the effective manager: To be “multilingual” in speaking with the different communities of people needed to get the job done.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: