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Are you a peach or a coconut?

Vincent Merk (TU/e) gives an introduction to intercultural awareness ICT Group was founded in the Netherlands in 1978, but now it’s 2016 and the organization is internationalizing rapidly. Not only because we are working for clients worldwide or have offices abroad, but even more so because in the Eindhoven region almost a quarter of our employees has an international background. This comes with new challenges in day-to-day work situations as many teams consist of colleagues with different cultural backgrounds. To create more awareness and give some guidelines for a practical approach, ICT Group invited Vincent Merk, senior lecturer intercultural management at the Eindhoven Technical University. Mr. Merk gave a very interesting and interactive presentation.

What is culture?

The first question is of course ‘what is culture?’ and this is followed by ‘how do you approach another culture?’. These questions are not so easy to answer but a commonly used definition of culture is “the accepted values, customs, attitudes and behaviors of a people or a group”. There is not just a national culture, but also professional culture (academic world, different sectors in the industry) and organizational culture. A lot of research has been conducted and models have been drawn up to capture cultural aspects, but it all starts with awareness. Independent of your cultural background, every individual sees what he/she wants to see. Being aware that different people have different perspectives is a first step.

A peach or a coconut?

These different perspectives have to do with your (cultural) background as well as your personality. When it comes to communication, there are a lot of factors that influence whether or not communication runs smoothly. The language used is an influence, as well as non-verbal communication and aspects like context. Mr. Merk also asked the audience ‘are you a peach or a coconut’. This metaphor depicts a model in which there are 2 domains of communication: public and private. The peach has a large ‘soft’ –public- skin and has the tendency to share a lot of personal information, but this persons’ “stone” – the private topics- are considered very private and hard to reach. The coconut has a hard outside layer, sharing little private information at first but once you get to know this person you can access their private domain easily. An example: if you get a new Dutch colleague, you will easily get information regarding his/her private situation on their first work day. What hobbies does he/she have, if they are married and have children or pets. A new Japanese colleague will never share such information on the first workday. However, being invited to a Dutch colleagues ’home is very rare, even if you have been working together for a long time. This is considered the private domain (stone): a typical peach. The Japanese might want to get to know you a bit better but will then invite you for dinner at his/her home and share their private domain: the coconut approach. This may lead to misconceptions: “the Dutch colleague is sharing a lot of private information but never invites me to meet up outside of work, maybe he/she doesn’t like me after all” or “I don’t know anything about this Japanese colleague but he/she is inviting me to his house. Maybe he/she wants to please me in order to get a promotion”. Such examples show how much we are looking through our own, culture-colored glasses. There is no quick fix when it comes to avoiding or solving such misconceptions but it helps to be aware of (possible) differences. If you start living and working in another country, try to learn the language and gather some information about the culture. Do not reject differences, but observe, ask, try out and when in doubt: double check. It will mean you’ll sometimes have to compromise or change things in your behavior but in the end it will help you feel at home and have better relations with your colleagues and that will surely lead to easier communication and a more effective way of working. And who knows, you might even get invited for dinner at a Dutch colleagues’ house! Also interested in working in a multicultural environment? Check out https://ict.eu/careers/ for our options!