By Edward Appleton

Whether you’re in China, Brazil, USA, Japan, Indonesia, or Taiwan, researching across continents poses many intercultural insight challenges for Western companies and researchers, and vice versa.

We all have in-built cultural biases – mental image of countries, stereotypes, people, habits built up from stories we’ve read, personal experience, our own fears and prejudices.

French people carry onions on their shoulders. Germans are ruthlessly efficient.

Dominant narrative cultural myths – however dated and erroneous – can cloud our research vision if they operate subconsciously.

All this is mental baggage, and whilst it can’t be easily ditched, we need to identify as many of our own prejudices as possible, and approach our projects with a humble and open mind-set.

Self-awareness is sometimes inhibiting, but for the researcher abroad invariably fruitful and certainly a useful mindset when dealing with “otherness”.

Getting things Done….Playing with Cultural Expectations

Anyone who has done research in – for example – Asia knows that simply transferring the Western (direct) way of managing a project easily leads to frustration – and worse…..A sense of inter-cultural respect, humility even, is in order.

So if in moments of project stress, we inadvertently “pull rank” and put direct pressure on a Chinese field partner, say, it will likely backfire – leading to psychological blocking, reactance, panic even, non-responsiveness….serious problems are around the corner. Pointing out a mistake? Losing face? Yikes!!

Japanese people may well react similarly if there is any sense of “order-giving” or bossiness at a briefing – codes of politeness are broken implicitly, leading again to mental barriers being erected. People don’t listen, the project immediately loses a huge surge of local energy – and horribly it’s often unspoken.

This article isn’t intended as a mini-guidebook on e.g. Chinese or Japanese cultural intricacies, nor to deal off-handedly with cultural stereotypes – but what is key in any international research is finding ways to understand the basics of cultural and business communication and societal expectations, wherever you are – and then playing with them.

So for example, and this is not a joke – we’ve had great success looking sad at briefing sessions with Japanese colleagues. The colleagues opened up, responding intuitively to an unspoken appeal: “We need help!” The session was overall far more productive.

Being Culturally Attuned 

Being culturally attuned throughout the whole research process can work for you if you learn to “swing with it”.

If you’re doing qual. research – groups say – into football in Brazil, you may well end up with larger groups than you originally recruited for – friends come along simply because they’re interested in the topic. Aiming for 12 – get 25!

Teen research in South America? Don’t be surprised if the family turns up as well.

Exploratory research in India amongst women? In-homes explorations may not yield a 1-on-1 context – mother-in-laws may well be present.

Interview sessions in Mexico City – a 1 hour delay isn’t unusual due to traffic congestion.

Groups in Moscow? Over-recruiting can be advisable when the weather is either particularly bad or good, with excuses being either “couldn’t make it” or an unspoken “preferred to into the country, the weather’s so nice”

Different rules apply all the time depending on where you are, the research set-up needs to be adapted to the specific factors.

The learnings will be all the richer if you simply immerse yourself, fluidly at times, into what is going on around you – whereas if you obsess about process, timings, logistics, you may simply make yourself and everyone involved nervous and less receptive to the tangential.

Edward Appleton, Happy Thinking People