Work, Family and Other Cultural Values

in Communication and Languages

Turkish tea

Photo by Julian James Ward

Recently, when I was in Istanbul, I was reminded again of how cultural values determine how we think, feel and act.

I was there for work, not a family vacation.

If you’ve been paying attention — and you have, right? — you know that Americans put a premium on getting the job done.

(Yes, I know that the term “Americans” is imprecise. Geographically-speaking, there are plenty of countries that could qualify. Plus, the word doesn’t cover all the diverse cultures living in the United States of America.)

Anyway…there I was busy putting the final touches on the conference agenda and hobnobbing with the client.

Then I got a call from my Turkish sister-in-law inviting me out for tea.

To Talk, Perchance to Communicate

The conversation went something like this:

My SIL: We really want to see you. When can we meet?

Me: Oh, I’d love to. But I’m not really sure when I’ll be able to get away from work.

My SIL: No problem. We can meet later. What time do you finish?

Me: Well, we’re supposed to end around 5 but sometimes we don’t finish on time.

My SIL: Okay, how about if we come by at 5?

Me: Well, we might not be finished then. Maybe you’d rather come a little later?

My SIL: That’s alright. We’ll wait in the lobby.

Me: Are you sure? I don’t want to waste your time. Maybe we should meet another day?

My SIL: It’s fine. We’ll have some tea while we wait for you.

Which is how I found myself at 7 pm in a lovely tea garden near the Dolmabache Palace.

Tea for Two: Lessons in Cross-cultural Communication

So, what does it all mean?

Heck, if I know!

Okay, so maybe I have an inkling — thanks to the work of three intercultural communication experts, Geerte Hostede, Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, who have each developed models that try to explain and measure national cultures.

And, yes, I know I’m making generalizations here. Just roll with me, please.

    In “collectivist” or “community-oriented” cultures (like Turkey), personal relationships are of great importance. Does that mean Turks sit around all day drinking tea and socializing? No, but it does mean that the group (family, team, company, country) comes before the individual.

    All work and no play is the American way. In the U.S. people are very “task-oriented” compared to other national cultures. Sometimes we can even act like a guided missile (That’s Trompenaars term, not mine). Sure, we can (and do) party like the best of ‘em. But that Protestant work ethic? Well, it’s pretty hard to shake.

    It’s the values, stupid.Unconscious cultural values often underlie a person’s behavior. For my sister-in-law, it wasn’t about “having tea”; it was about honoring the family relationship.

    Communication styles are influenced by cultural values. Around the world Americans are typically depicted as direct, straight-forward, and, sometimes, downright rude. Remember, we’re project-oriented. Other cultures are apt to be less direct. My guess is that my sister-in-law wasn’t thrilled about having to wait for me but she wouldn’t dream of telling me that.

And our tea party? It was fun. We drank lots of tea, had a couple laughs and even shared a smoke (shh, don’t tell).

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