“When a French person “demands” something, no offence should be taken. The French verb to ask is demander.

From Do’s and Taboos around the World By Roger E. Axtell

A slip of the tongue or an imperious request?  A simple mistranslation may cause ill-feeling. Equally, if a colleague at work who comes from a different culture does not greet you in the morning, is it bad behaviour, culturally driven, or has he or she simply not seen you? Giving someone the benefit of the doubt in either of these circumstances would seem to be the prudent approach. However, in our work with multi-cultural groups in very diverse organizational settings, we have found that many people choose to actively blame others’ cultural orientations for misunderstandings and also use their own cultural orientations as an excuse for not finding the real solution to a problem.

Although cultural orientation influences our preferred operating style, this is no excuse for hiding behind cultural orientation as the only possible explanation when things go wrong. It is important to distinguish between orientations, abilities and behaviors to find the true solution.

Fault sign


STOP and THINK before you judge and react – seek to understand

ORIENTATIONS    What do you prefer?

ABILITIES               What are you capable of?

BEHAVIOURS        What do you do in reality?


  •  If a manager has not successfully communicated with an employee when addressing a problem of poor performance (behaviour), is it because the manager’s belief that speaking directly is not appropriate (orientation) or a lack of skill (ability). Re-evaluating the belief may be called for in the first scenario while improving skill level is the best action in the second.
  •  If a person frequently monopolizes the discussion in meetings with diverse national cultures and does not leave space for the contributions of others (behaviour) is this because of a belief that you speak up if you have something say (orientation) or a lack of interest or skill in listening to what others have to say (ability)? This person may need to recognize that other cultures do not place equal value on the same belief of being pro-active in speaking up and are reluctant to “push” their views and opinions forward “forcefully”. The ability to leave space, encourage others and listen can be developed.

How to handle communication challenges arising out of diverse cultural approaches features in our Focus Area “Mastering Workplace Challenges”.