My prior place of employment was customer service, the company employing a variety of different races and ethnicities. A few people came from collectivistic cultures, mostly Asian, while the majority of workers came from an individualistic orientation of Americans. At that time, I did not realize that some of our work related problems stemmed from differences in how cultures express themselves at work.
In the article by Sanchez, Lee, Nisbett, Zhao, & Koo (2003), it stated that Americans are usually more direct at work, versus East Asians, who are more indirect. I remember an instance where we had a supervisor who was verbally abusive to employees and had sexual harrassed one of the female workers. A special meeting was arranged to discuss the matter with the goal of getting rid of the supervisor.

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During the meeting, an Asian worker who had been treated quite badly by the supervisor downplayed the whole situation, refusing to implicate the supervisor and acting as if everything was fine. Most of the people in the room could not understand why he was protecting the supervisor. This situation created much strife between the co-workers and the Asian worker. Some employees thought the he was on the supervisor’s side and were offended by this undeserved loyalty and his seemingly lack of concern over the female associate’s sexual harrassment. Some employees stopped talking to the Asian worker. He quit about a month later.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized that the Asian employee probably came from a culture where elders were respected and more emphasis was placed on status differentials . For the Asian employee, he probably felt that it was disrespectful to disagree with a person in an elevated status, especially at work, where Asians are generally not as direct. I think he may have felt that he should conform to his native land’s view on how to react in the workplace and not rock the boat.

However, the Americans felt differently, taking into account each individual that was hurt and disrespected by the supervisor, not focusing as much on how implicating the supervisor may stir up turmoil at work for a bit.

I feel that a better solution would have been to have a group meeting and an individual meeting, so that each worker gets a chance to express themselves in both settings. The Asian employee may have felt singled out in the group meeting, not wanting other people to know how he really felt about the situation. Having each person fill out an anonymous survey, detailing the incident with the supervisor may have helped. Being reassured that nobody would lose their job or experience repercussions because of the incident may have also encouraged the Asian employee to open up and tell the truth about the situation. Instead of Americans not talking to the Asian employee and expressing hostility, they should have asked the Asian worker why he felt the way he did. He may have epxplained his reasons, fostering a greater sense of understanding between both cultures.

  • Costigan, C., Bardina, P., Cauce, A., Kim, G., & Latendresse, S. (2006). Inter-and-intra-group variability in perceptions of behavior among Asian Americans and Eurpoean Americans. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 710-724.
  • Sanchez, B. J., Lee, F., Nisbett, R., Zhao, S., & Koo, J. (2003). Conversing across cultures: East-West communcation styles in work and nonwork contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 363-372.