By David Livermore, PhD
Someone cuts ahead of you in the security line at the airport. It’s the same woman who cut in front of people at the check-in counter a few minutes ago. Do you say anything, shake your head in disgust, or take a deep breath and ignore it? Some of us would be quick to let her know that we’re all in a rush, and she needs to step back and wait her turn. Others of us would bite our tongue and say nothing.
Do you scold her loudly on behalf of everyone else in line? Or do you quietly confront her in a more measured way?
What’s the right way to respond to this kind of situation? It depends!
First, there are different cultural norms surrounding queuing. And we need more information about why she’s doing this before we jump to conclusions. But the issue I’m most interested in considering is the wide variance in what we deem as “appropriate” ways to express frustration. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks. Many of the workplace challenges I observe are related to the cultural value difference we describe as Neutral versus Affective. Neutral cultures believe that minimizing emotional expressiveness is a sign of dignity and respect, whereas Affective cultures value expressing feelings.
Go through a security line in a Japanese airport, and the staff says virtually nothing, other than “Kindly place your jacket in the bin” or “I’m sorry, but you’ve been selected for a random screening.” Go through the same kind of line at a New York airport and TSA agents start yelling at you as soon as you get in line: “Laptops out. Empty your pockets. No water bottles… Some of you aren’t paying attention! Laptops out…” And on it goes. Most Japanese are Neutral communicators. Most New Yorkers are Affective communicators.
Neutral communicators might view New Yorkers as rude and mean and Japanese as kind and hospitable. Affective communicators might view the New Yorkers as efficient and clear, and the Japanese staff as shy and lacking confidence.
Okay, so some cultures yell at you more than others. It can be irritating, but it’s not a big deal. However, there are some situations where this difference can be a big deal.
Many of the hospitals we work with have safety policies where medical staff is instructed to note their concern if they believe a patient may be violent. Many of the patients who are labeled as “violent” come from different cultural backgrounds than the hospital staff. If nurses come from a Neutral orientation, they believe disappointment and anxiety should be discussed in calm, measured ways. Tears are understandable, but losing your cool isn’t. Many of the patients who are labeled “violent” are Affective communicators. Their response to bad news often results in yelling, crying uncontrollably, and what some might describe as wailing. Are these patients really more violent, or are they just openly expressing their emotions? Once you’re labeled as violent, there’s an implicit reluctance by staff to provide the same level of care.
A psychologist working with one of the largest police departments in the US describes a similar situation. His chief responsibility is focused on assessing and mitigating threats across a diverse population of over 10 million people. He says, “I believe 75 percent of what we deal with requires high levels of cultural intelligence. Our officers have not been trained to know whether someone from a different cultural background is exhibiting a behavior that should be considered a potential threat, mental illness, a culturally derived emotional response to a crisis, or some combination thereof.” A great deal of what he describes comes back to the difficulty of discerning Neutral versus Affective behavior.
To avoid misjudging someone’s character or behavior, here are some ways to think more specifically about these differences:
Affective: Emphasis on expressive communication and sharing feelings
People with an Affective orientation use a wider range of facial expressions and physical gestures during everyday conversation.
Neutral: Emphasis on non-emotional communication and controlling emotions
People with a Neutral orientation strive to control their emotions. Reason may influence their behavior more than feelings.
Examples: African American, Italian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Working Class, Marketing
Examples: Chinese, Ethiopian, German, Japanese, Native American, Upper Class, Engineering
The Canadian home where I grew up was a Neutral environment. We used formal manners at the dinner table, fine china was on the table for Sunday dinner, and there was a very strong rule that you should never interrupt someone. This rule about not interrupting guided our family protocol, and it informed the way we evaluated other people’s behavior. To this day, I become anxious when someone starts interrupting because that was such a taboo in my family. In Neutral cultures, interruptions are rude unless an emergency really calls for it. Whereas in Affective cultures, interruptions are okay, but silence is awkward.
In many Neutral cultures, particularly throughout Asia, silence is not only okay, it’s welcomed. Silence is a sign of respect, and it allows both parties to reflect and take in what has been said. In many Affective cultures, the “silent treatment” is viewed as punitive.
Nurses and police officers may wrongfully label someone as violent based on an Affective response, and overlook someone who is violent because of a Neutral response. Some terrorists never scream and shout. And there are people who scream and shout who aren’t violent.
Managers may assume a Neutral staff member is disengaged when, in fact, they may have a different way of expressing their enthusiasm. And team members may assume a teammate has a temper when, in fact, they may simply have a different value for how openly and passionately to voice their opinions.
What should we do?
The first step for addressing this communication difference is emotional intelligence. You have to understand your own emotional state and gain the ability to regulate emotions in yourself and others. But emotional intelligence isn’t enough. You may wrongfully identify others’ emotions based on your cultural interpretations of those emotions.
Cultural intelligence (CQ®) is the only way to effectively understand someone from a different cultural background. With CQ, you have a growing repertoire of tools and strategies for reading a situation, discerning if and how culture may be influencing the situation, and then determining the best strategy for responding respectfully and effectively.
In the meantime, watch how this cultural value plays out over the holidays. Different family members have different orientations on Neutral vs. Affective communication styles as well as people from different parts of the country. And if you’re traveling, keep yourself occupied in the security line by identifying whose Neutral and whose Affective. And if someone cuts ahead of you, it’s usually better to start with a more Neutral response and regulate your expressiveness accordingly.