Fish Discover Water Last

06/07/2013 02:05 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013

Part One

The boundary between what is custom and what is law, differs from culture to culture. The lines can become blurred without our knowledge and when that happens, the laws of human nature nearly guarantee a collision. My name is Iram Ganju, and I ought to know because I personally experienced the implications of these two ways of determining right from wrong while I was caring for my Dad again, this time in a US hospital in 2012. Though my cultural mindset GPS was set to the "American mindset" I didn't realize that during this period of personal stress how easily it reverted back to what is familiar to me and unconsciously, it defaulted back to my "Pakistani mindset." While both settings are a result of learned behavior, I was surprised to realize, that after living a Westernized life for nearly all my adult life, how unconsciously my Pakistani ways of relating, regulating and reasoning kicked in.

We don't know who discovered water, but it wasn't a fish.

Ironically, everything falls into place for me when it comes to personal and private family matters, such as a health care dilemma. I know my position within my family, my rights and responsibilities as a daughter, and the degree of authority I have. I would have thought that when it came to such matters in the States, the terrain would be no different. I am reminded of the Ethiopian proverb "Fish discover water last." We don't know who discovered water, but it wasn't a fish. The same goes for the cultural dilemmas I was about to face. My adopted American culture was all around me. So it was natural for me to think I could predict how I would react, reason and relate to my both my immediate family and in-laws about the health care system, how I would make decisions when it came to my Dad's life, and how I would think and reason these issues out, especially when I speak English fluently. But that's just where the similarities begin and end. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Culture is all around us. It's an assumption; like breathing. We don't give it a second thought until someone cuts off the air supply. In my relocation business, living and working successfully across cultures is as important in the boardroom as it would turn out to be in my Dad's hospital room. The implicit dimensions of culture that drive our behavior are invisible, but they are just as real as air or love. Just because you can't see them, doesn't mean they're not there or you don't need them. My software of the mind determines whether I value rules over relationships, the individual over the group, or, how I understand power, and whether I allow someone else to make decisions for me.

A health care crisis was just what the doctor ordered

Handling critical incidents, like my dad's health care crisis in an American hospital, turned out to be a learning opportunity to acknowledge the importance of culture, the type of culture, and to recognize when it's different. This takes time, but the good news is because culture is all around us, we are surrounded by a hundred opportunities every day to get it right. Although they are not easy or obvious at first, they will be as we become aware of their signals and practice. Moments that will teach us all we need to know to become wiser and more empathetic in a shrinking world. The question is, how often do you pass up these opportunities by instinctively reacting in the "reject - refuse - resist" mode at the deli counter, the dry cleaners, during a sales call, or in negotiation?

Cross-Cultural Competency is the new Six Sigma

Acquiring cross-cultural competency is the new Six Sigma. Like any new management technique it's a process that takes time to learn because it's about changing behavior. Think of it as style-switching. You can't phone this stuff in. When human resources chooses a quality cross-cultural training program, they are building a world-class American workforce. A down and dirty lunch and learn webinar or "Tips and Techniques" approach may help to steer you safely around the tip of the cultural iceberg, but be aware that you may be in for a Titanic collision with the unseen and profound dimensions of culture that lie beneath the surface.

For example, in business, what is custom versus law depends on more than just the esprit de corps of an organization, or as in my case, what I presumed to control about my dad's health in the American context. Yes, one man's gift is another man's bribe, but consider this textbook hypothetical case presented by Trompenaars Hamden-Turner Global Consultants to about 70,000 managers in over 65 countries (so far):

"You are a passenger in a car driven by a close friend. That friend knocks down a pedestrian. The friend was travelling well above the speed limit - say 35 miles an hour in a 20-mile-an-hour-zone. There are no witnesses. The friend's lawyer suggests that testifying under oath on the friend's behalf that he was only doing 20 miles an hour may save him from serious consequences. Does the friend have a definite right, some right, or no right at all to expect someone (the manager being as asked the question) to testify to the lower figure. He also asks whether - irrespective of such right - the manager would testify to the lower figure."

The answers they received have varied around the world but, to some extent, were predictable. The answers match the ethical standards of the culture according to the roles and responsibilities they have ascribed to them. This example explores the cultural difference between Universalist and Particularistic societies. Universalist societies follow the rules and assume that the standards they hold dear are the correct ones. They try to get everyone to conform to them. That way, they believe, society works better. Particularistic societies, on the other hand, believe that particular circumstances are more important than general rules and that your response depends on the situation. The results of the study concluded that culture is not uniform but it's often a major determinant of attitude and of action. It is rich, varied and, at times, messy.

The Swiss almost unanimously feel that the friend has no right to expect his friend to perjure him/herself, and that in no circumstances should this be considered. Less than 35 percent of Venezuelans and the Chinese agree with this answer. For them, relationships are more important than rules. What's more, there is no value judgment when we know that this is just how they think. There are no wrong answers. What we do in a given situation becomes value neutral diffusing the "us versus them" discourse. And Trompenaars study concluded that yes, Americans believe rules are more important. This is the clear answer as a Universalist culture. I should not lie for my friend who broke the speed limit law and hit the pedestrian. This is just plain corrupt, not to mention a lie, in which case we should tell the truth.
So, when I learned that my legal authority over my father's health and welfare was extinguished, my emotions collided head on with my adopted culture.

Next week, Part 2: Turning over my private affairs over to an outsider, legally.

Iram Ganju is a Destination Services Consultant with office in the United States, London, Canada, Hong Kong, India and Singapore She welcomes all comments and can be reached at



Earley, C.P., Ang, S., Tan, J-S. (2006) Developing Cultural Intelligence at Work.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Freud, The Uncanny. New York: Penguin. 2003.

Freud, Return of Totemism in Childhood. California: Mayfield.

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New
York: Basic Books.

Hall, E.T. (1977) Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books.

Hofstede, G. (2001) Cultures Consequences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Publications, Inc.

Hofstede, G. & Hofstede, G.J. (2005) Cultures and Organizations: Software of
the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, G.J., Pederson, P.B., Hofstede, G. (2002) Exploring Culture:
Exercises, Stories, and Synthetic Cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press,

Howell, W.C. & Fleishman, E.A. (eds. 1982) Human Performance and
Productivity. Vol. 2: Information Processing and Decision Making. Hillsdale, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kroeber, A. & Kluckhohn, C. (1952) Culture. New York: Meridian Books.

Leach, Custom, Law, and Terrorist Violence. Edinburgh: University Press. 1977.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 25 ed. New York: Vintage, 1978.Spradley, J. & McCurdy, d. (1989) The Cultural Perspective. Prospect Heights,
IL: Waveland Press.

Thomas, D.C. & Inkson, K. (2003) Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global
Business. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Trompenaars, F. (1998) Riding The Waves of Culture: New York: Mc Graw Hill.

Williams, R. (1983) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York:
Oxford University Press.