Culture Traps – Part I: Unconscious Bias, Braggarts & Losers

DIVERSITY & INCLUSION, Photo ⓒ by Cosmin Gheorghe


We all like to believe -or at least those of us who live in democratic countries- that we are free individuals, able to make the choices and decisions we “want” and “need”. As it turns out, however, our wants and needs -and therefore our choices and decisions- are heavily influenced, and often determined, by a specific set of values and beliefs, which we absorb unconsciously from the culture that surrounds us. Those beliefs translate into specific behaviors, most of which were acquired so early in life that we are not even aware of them. It is this lack of awareness that prevents individuals and organizations from achieving their global potential in an increasingly globalized economy.  

Labor supply and demand is an area where cultural intelligence is in high demand. As an example, highly qualified Scandinavian job applicants interviewed by a US American company may have few chances to be hired when compared to their fellow Americans. That is because their cultural values direct them to be modest and definitely not brag about themselves. Doing otherwise is a considered throughout Scandinavia an impolite, and even ridiculous behavior. By contrast, American candidates have no problems being loud about their past and future success and ambitions, and they frequently use a long array of superlatives to describe their skills and accomplishments. In other words, Americans oversell, while Scandinavians undersell and downplay their abilities. As a result, interviewers and recruiters who are not familiar with the culture metrics in the U.S. and Sweden or Norway, have a big chance to misinterpret the candidate’s behavior: Americans would consider the modest Scandinavians losers, while Scandinavians would perceive the Americans as braggarts. Obviously, not every American or Swedish are the same, so a short cultural intelligence self-assessment always brings clarification.

In her keynote speech for the Diversity, Inclusion and Global Leadership Summit -part of the Oracle OpenWorld 2015- CEO Safra Catz said:

“Economies are more and more global and so are our customers, employees and opportunities. But that means that our challenges have also gone global. A common mistake is that people want to do [business] exactly the same way they did before [globalization]. We cannot afford to apply the same local solutions to very different, global, problems.”

Technology and social networks have exponentially accelerated globalization, which has in turn increased tremendously the interaction between employees, executives and customers who belong to one or more different cultures. In order to survive and then thrive in a global economy, we cannot ignore anymore the fact that our own cultural values and belief system influence our thinking, feeling and behavior, often leading to biased choices and decisions.

As I was explaining in the interview I gave Forbes at the beginning of this year, culture includes everything around us: the values promoted by our families, communities and nations; the products and services we choose; the jobs and role models we accept or reject, etc. Whether we like it or not, consciously or not, we include ourselves into a number of specific cultures, which further shape our individual identity.

The key words here are consciously or not, as the “not” refers to a brilliant concept, popularized by two medical doctors, the founders of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung: the unconscious. Briefly, the unconscious is defined as the sum of our mind’s processes that occur automatically and of which we are not aware, yet they influence our behavior and perception. These processes include thoughts, memories, emotions, and motivations, and they play a role in who we choose as friends or significant others, what kind of products we buy, who we want to hire, fire or promote. All these decisions and choices are influenced, and often determined, by a collection of unconscious beliefs, and when that is reflected in our response toward others, we call it bias.

“Together doesn’t mean the same. And let’s all agree: 30 years ago I would not be up here, talking to you [as a foreign born national and woman].”  SAFRA CATZ, CEO, Oracle

Bias is essentially an automatic reaction, aimed to help each of us navigate the world in a faster way. And since the pace of the world has been increasing constantly, we tend to rely more on more on our biases to decide and choose. That worked well until about 10 years ago, when globalization began creating more complicated scenarios of cultural diversity and intercultural business interaction. According to Facebook research on unconscious bias:

“When it comes to decision-making, unconscious biases cause some people to be perceived as ‘naturally talented,’ whereas others are presumed to have ‘gotten lucky.’ People on the receiving end of these biases are less likely to receive credit for their ideas, are interrupted more often during team interactions and have less influence on teams.”

But more about Bias, Cultural Intelligence and Disruptive Unemployment in Part II of this story.

Cosmin Gheorghe

Cosmin Gheorghe (Co-founder of Synergis Counseling; Founder of Hermes' Writings and @CulturesWise) is a Bay Area based consultant, coach, speaker and author. His work explores the ways in which culture and technology influence our choices & decisions, as well as their impact on how we relate to each other, and to products and services. His approach is based on the concept of social and cultural systems, which are now transformed by globalization in socio-cultural networks. Cosmin loves writing and he is a regular contributor for the Huffington Post blog where he covers a variety of topics that involve culture, the psychology of technology, and global leadership. He was recently interviewed by Forbes about the importance of cultures in business and everyday life. Cosmin’s interests include: semiotics, philosophy, theater, cultural anthropology. In his pre-California life he obtained an MD degree in General Medicine and wrote and directed theater plays at Thespis Theatre in Timisoara, Romania.