In the movie “Back to the Future” Marty McFly jumps to the past and has dinner with his girlfriend/prom-date/mother (it takes two more movies to sort that out). The family watched TV while they ate. I remember thinking at the time there was no way my family would watch TV while we were eating; family time was together time. But my best friend watched TV during dinner almost every night. Every family has its own cultures and traditions.
Outside the home there are national and regional cultures, as well. When you interact with a large and diverse set of traditions and expectations, differences in cultural context can have great potential for miscommunication.
I once had to speak to a staff member who was getting complaints for being rude and aggressive towards visitors and colleagues. During our conversation I pointed out her current behavior as an example. She stopped with a look of surprise and said, “Oh, I was just explaining what I thought. We talk like that all the time in my house.” What most of us took as an affront was standard communication to her.
Once, I had a Native American colleague who was late for an event because he was “watching the otters play.” He was literally watching the otters play in the stream near his house. But it wasn’t willful disregard for his work. The Wampanoag perception of time is based on the present – something to appreciate, not a race against the future as in most western cultures.
From an HR perspective, it doesn’t mean that infractions coming from an opposing culture shouldn’t be addressed. It means corrective measures should acknowledge an ingrained generational behavior, rather than assume laziness or apathy towards the job.
Improving communication through cultural context can be tricky because no one wants to cause offense or make assumptions. In addition, it can often take a while to realize conflicting behaviors even come from cultural traditions and not some other superficial source. It’s important to realize some people might very well see our culture as the one incompatible to theirs. A heavy dose of empathy and open conversation is the cure for that.