Cultural Blind Spots: Country Of Origin


PART 1 Of 2

A few years ago, I found myself in a team meeting which involved people from China, India and the United States.  We were discussing a change strategy, and – inevitably – emotions began to creep into the conversation.  It was interesting:  The US team members were clearly trying to drive the discussion to a conclusion, while the Indian team members argued their points increasingly vigorously and the Chinese team members became increasingly silent.

As the meeting wore on, I felt like I was participating in a real-life Tower of Babel: Everyone was talking, few were really listening, and almost everyone was focused on their own point of view and needs rather than that of the team.  We’ve all been in meetings liket his, but it’s particularly pronounced in situations where team members have different countries of origin.

cultures-hands-world-map-global-earth-globe-blue-creative(1)As more and more businesses ‘go global’ and the world gets smaller and smaller, it’s becoming more important for businesses – and individuals – to understand their cultural orientations and recognize potential cultural blind spots.

Over the years, I’ve found the Cultural Orientation Index (COI) from Training Management Corporation to be a helpful resource in these situations.  The COI has several components, but I’d like to focus on one, Action.


The Action dimension focuses on how “individuals conceptualize actions and interactions with people and objects in their environment”, with two orientations, ‘Being’ and ‘Doing’.

People with a ‘being’ orientation focus on building relationships with others and value reflection in making decisions, while those with a ‘doing’ orientation focus on completing tasks, and they value achievement.

It will come as no surprise to discover that the US has a ‘doing’ orientation while China has a ‘being’ orientation.  India, on the other hand, falls squarely in the middle with a hybrid ‘being/doing’ orientation.  (It goes without saying, of course, that not everyone from a given country will conform to these orientations, but it does provide a useful starting point.)

If the meeting participants had been more aware of these orientations, the meeting might have proceeded more productively.  Someone could have said to the US team members: “We recognize you’re focused on concluding this meeting and walking away with firm decisions, but some of us need to contemplate our findings so far.  Can we take a break and resume our discussions in 30 minutes?  That will give us time to think through our concerns.”  Or, knowing they would likely need time for reflection, the team members from China could have pre-scheduled a mid-meeting break.

The blind spot?  No one at the table appeared to have considered these different styles prior to the meeting.  Instead, the cultural gaps manifested themselves during the meeting as silence, acquiescence, excessive arguing, frustration, and, ultimately, a lack of resolution.

Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).


  1. jphilpin, thanks for your thoughts and for joining the conversation. I appreciate your perspective, although my experience with this team, and others isn’t the same as yours. I believe that no matter how old your culture is, it is important to consider all cultures on a multicultural team. I didn’t find the Chinese nationals or the Indian nationals any more cognizant of the cultural interplays or any more or less able to listen to each other because of it. My experience is that the age of the culture has nothing to do with an individual’s ability to listen and appreciate other perspectives. It is a person’s interest in considering that culture plays into everything we do and that all cultures carry with them ideals and values that may or may not align with others in the room and the task at hand. Once everyone considers culture the outcomes can be markedly different.

  2. Another thought …. China (depending on how you measure it) has a culture / civilization of anything up to 10,000 years and certainly no less than 3,000 years. India is a little harder – but lets say 2,500 years. The United States turned 240 years this year, but that doesn’t stop the ongoing attempt to shape the world ‘in their own image’. I wasn’t at your meeting – but my experience is that outside of the US, people do tend to listen. Inside the US – not so much. Witness the cackle from ‘The Hill’. Consider the screaming voices on 24 Hour News. Think how people like Travis Kalanick who because they have a problem in their city – believe that this is a global problem and push and amplify using the bully pulpit of money to bend the world to their way of thinking. When the world looks into the USA, they generally see
    – noise, not contemplation,
    – conflict, not agreement,
    – division, not harmony
    unfortunately, its catching on, which I think also explains aspects of your meeting.







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