Stories

Supporting People's real-life stories about intercultural issues.
RSS feed

Cultural (mis)perceptions of behaviour

It’s funny how one can be on their best behavior in a situation and yet be seen to be something else by the other person. This is particularly true in intercultural interactions.

Anna from London told us of her experiences in her first job in Denmark. She remembers how grateful she was to get a job, and how polite she was in the office. There was not a ‘please’, ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’ missing in any of her sentences. She was on her best British behavior.

It was after the first few weeks on the job that her Danish colleague took her aside and told her to cut down on all the politeness. The politeness that was natural to Anna was making her seem weak in character, and rather submissive: traits that Anna didn’t want to be known for, and so she consciously changed her behaviour. The politeness was still there, but much less than there had been before. Particularly the word ‘sorry’, which in the English culture can be used without the heavy intonations of regret. For example, “Sorry, can I use that stapler?”

It was a wonderful piece of knowledge for Anna as she wanted to be taken seriously in the workplace. Luckily for her, her colleagues had felt it necessary to tell her how she may be perceived by others. They also confided in her and told her that they felt relief that the formality of all that politeness was gone.

Unfortunately, without cultural training or a friend’s warning about this misperception, people have to learn about adapting their cultural behavior the hard way.

“In Denmark, it seems we have moved away from openness and globalisation and in doing so are reducing growth and development. We have to do more to retain the foreign colleagues we are so keen to attract”

Jørgen Hunø Rasmussen, CEO at FLSmidth, taken from an article in Berlingske Tidende 30/09/09: Top industry professionals break with the fear of globalisation