Avoiding Cultural  Collisions
by Donna Mills

As our world grows smaller, and populations more mobile, increased awareness of and sensitivity to cultural differences is essential. Diverse societies, with diverse histories, operate under diverse sets of social rules. When cultures collide, even gently, there is a real risk of painful or frustrating misunderstandings.

Keith To's feature article regarding the coaching process in China, and Francia Baez' article about coaching Latinos, reinforce the fact that everything meaningful in life and in business is based on personal relationships. How can individuals with varied cultural backgrounds best work together towards common goals?

This seems to be a significant emerging challenge for business coaches. While some organizations may still be very similar demographically, we are more and more frequently dealing with the global citizen. Books are available to help individuals understand the do's and don'ts of polite behavior in various cultures, explaining why an action which is the norm in one country is considered rude in another. If we don't understand these differences, we risk assigning incorrect motives to others' behavior, since we're basing our judgments on our own sets of social rules.

Here's an example: We are remodeling our bathroom, and one of the processes is installing drywall. After viewing the project and giving us an estimate, we hired a Latino contractor to do the work. It was our understanding that the work would be performed on a Friday and Saturday of a holiday weekend. The willingness to work that Saturday surprised us, but we scheduled the job.

At day-end on Friday, I thanked the workers and told them "See you tomorrow!" They nodded, smiled, and drove away. By mid-morning on Saturday, they had not returned. When I called the contractor, he told me that the workers had gone away for the weekend and would be back on Tuesday morning. He seemed a bit perplexed by my distress. While he was apologetic, the fact was that the workers weren't available, and there was nothing he could do.

The information provided in Francia's article on coaching Latinos helped me understand two things: The workers were reluctant to confront me or disappoint me, and they placed a high priority on their families' desire for a holiday weekend together. In an attempt to avoid conflict, they let me assume they'd be back on Saturday, but when the day came, their families' needs took precedence.

The point here is that the workers' behavior didn't reflect negative intentions. They didn't set out to deliberately disappoint us. Rather, they behaved and prioritized in a way that was culturally appropriate for them. Recognizing and understanding such cultural differences is a fundamental first step towards establishing trust—trust that is vital to every successful relationship, personal or professional.

Donna Mills, BA, CFCC, is editor of Business Coaching Worldwide. As the owner of Creative Clarity, Donna helps her clients to discover their authentic purposes, define goals that are aligned with those purposes, and design and implement strategies for their achievement. Read more about Donna in the WABC Coach Directory. Donna may be reached by email at


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