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Business Across Cultures: Mirrors of Perception

What do your foreign co-workers really think of you? With respect and politeness on both sides being common in major international offices, it is often difficult to tell how someone that you work with on a daily basis really thinks about you as an individual or feels about your cultural group.

I have put together some information on how the expatriate and Indonesian cultural groups often describe themselves and others. While this is not meant to be critical to either of the cultural groups, many of these perceptions are held by senior managers-both Indonesian and expatriate.

The following two lists of terms are emotional in nature. However, Indonesian groups came up with the following list of stereotypes for Indonesians, and expatriate groups came up with the list of stereotypes for expatriates.

The Indonesian managers described themselves as perceived by their expatriate co-workers as follows:

Lazy, slow, inferior, polite, not punctual, lacking discipline, use feeling not logic, do not follow rules, corrupt, hypocritical, religious, resistant to change, too tolerant, low profile, unwilling to confront or give 'bad news', silent in meetings, incompetent.

The expatriate managers described themselves as perceived by their Indonesian co-workers as follows:

Egotistical, pushy, bossy, lacking in respect, rude, punctual, opportunistic, discriminatory, dismissive, ethnocentric, do things 'my way', democratic, hypocritical, indifferent and uncaring of others, high profile, proud, open, overconfident, smart, arrogant, follow the rules.

Of course, this was just an exercise in determining the common stereotypes held of the other groups. Many of the people who answered may not have had this impression of the other group or individuals personally. It is, however, these contrasting sets of characteristics, whether real or perceived, which create areas of friction in the working relationships between the cultural groups.

The question becomes one of how individuals or groups can overcome these common perceptions and stereotypes and prove that they are valuable contributors to the workplace.

This is where understanding and knowledge of the other cultural group comes into play in any multi-cultural workplace. Almost all of these stereotypes can be discussed and addressed if the two cultural sides sit down together to talk it out and find solutions for a common standard with which to move forward.

Culture becomes ingrained by your exposure to others from your same cultural group. As an Indonesian rises within an international company and has more day-to-day contact with foreigners, the information passed on to him or her by their national co-workers may include some or all of the stereotypes mentioned above. Concurrently, when an expatriate moves to Indonesia to start a new posting, much of the information that he receives on how to work effectively in Indonesia comes from his own expatriate group.

Unless there is a strong emphasis from the senior management to identify and neutralized negative stereotypes they will persist in influencing the perceptions of the employees on both cultural sides normally resulting in a reduction of efficiency and effectiveness.

However, a company with a clear executive plan on the corporate cultural integration of the Indonesian and expatriate cultures will experience an increase in communications and benefits from the diversity of cultural backgrounds.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.