Saturday, 20 April 2013

Human Cognition - Cultural Bias Beyond the WEIRD World

Anyone who has lived for any length of time in a culture that is different from the one they were originally raised probably noticed differences, sometimes subtle, in the way that those in the different culture observe the world and things around them.  The more different the culture, the sharper these differences become.  Many people simply discount these differences are quirks.  What scientists are beginning to find is that these "quirks" are often significant, and the differences challenge long held assumptions of human psychological universality. A recent write up in Pacific Standard (found here) goes into detail on what scientists are beginnning to find.  Both the article as well as the research study behind it are an excellent read.

In short, it states that the "generalized standard" for the vast majority of human psychology, cognition and behavior research studies in the world's top journals is based almost entirely upon people who come from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies (WEIRD).  What scientists are now finding is that there is substantial variability in the way that different cultures perceive the world, from fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self concepts and related motivations; and that population groups from the "generalized standard" are particularly unusual and frequent outliers compared to the rest of mankind.  Americans in particular fall at the extreme end of the scale even within the unusual population of Westerners, making them "outliers among outliers".

This brings into question a wide body of underlying assumptions, ones that form much of the foundation of societies.  If there are fundamental differences in the fabric of how people from different cultures observe the world, how can this be reconciled within the rules that make up everything from civil norms, the ways that people do business, and even education?  Might it even be possible to exploit the potential richness of different mental models within a business or community to make it a business or community more successful?

While different models can and do cause confusion and misunderstanding, they can also provide a richness that spurs creativity and innovation.  Perception that is different than your own is neither necessarily better or worse than your own.  It is simply different.  Exploration of these differences allow you to see potentially useful concepts that otherwise you may have missed.  People, from businessmen to the intellectually curious, have studied concepts as far ranging as Japanese business practices to Buddhism and Eastern mysticism. Steve Jobs, someone that many find to be a creative genius, was inspired by Zen Buddhism.  Others have been heavily influenced by experiences they and their families have experienced, from famines and depressions to wars and idealogical conflicts. They all leave imprints upon the way people approach problems, and being aware of them and their impact upon your mental models goes a long way to allowing you to not only better understand yourself, but also to help open yourself up to other models as well.

Those who are open to exploring often find entirely new ways of thinking, allowing themselves to question the previous certainty of the world around them and opening up entirely new opportunities that they would have otherwise completely missed.

Can businesses also take advantage of this?  Many businesses talk about diversity, but more often than not retain a certain rigidity to their own internal culture.  Opening up to different models, not in a soft HR-led politically correct way but in a much more scientific approach, may allow businesses to be both more innovative.  They also may help companies spot potential "perception misalignments" that may introduce risks to the business.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

I apologize, but we appear to be separated by a common language

 "I apologize, but we appear to be separated by a common language"
  -- overheard in the hallways of an international corporation

The role of communication is enormous in the modern world. It has become the backbone of entire industries, allowing for ideas to spread ever more quickly, merge with others to create completely new paradigms, all while destroying many of the monopolies of old. In many fields the speed of communication is the new arms race. However, as we all become ever more interconnected, we increasingly have to run the obstacle course that is our unique backgrounds, cultures, mental models, and even speech patterns. While mental models is a big enough topic for another post, I thought it would be worthwhile to start with the joys of communication in what many mistakenly think of as one consistent and unified language: Modern English.

For those of us who were (un)fortunate enough to grow up with English as our native tongue, one would think that we would be seemingly blessed with the fact that our language is becoming ever more ubiquitous, especially in booming fields such as technology and business. While it is definitely great to be able to convey thoughts and ideas in your first language (as those of us who have tried to in a language we came late to knowing can attest), the infinite flexibility, adaptability and regional differences of English have opened a myriad of opportunities for misunderstanding, confusion, hilarity and very occasionally complete system failure even between native speakers. What are non-native speakers to do? 

Having now lived and worked internationally for a long time, you encounter misunderstandings and lost meaning amongst people almost every day.  After a while, you have to learn to watch your language and to check to see that you were understood, especially when using cultural references. Amusingly, one of the places where I have found some of the biggest and most dangerous misunderstandings were amongst those native to the supposed birthplace of the language:  England.

If you are from a large and fairly cultural and linguistically homogeneous place like Canada/US (where I am from originally) and Australia/New Zealand (where my wife is from), you might occasionally run into communication problems if people are either non-native speakers, not American/Canadian or Kiwi/Australian, or have one of a very small number of challenging regional dialects (such as Cajun, Newfoundland English, Deep South, and some New Yorker and Bostonian accents).  It is generally very rare for the misunderstanding to last long, and (unless it is a Québécois trying to be difficult) rarely does it devolve into complete communication breakdown.  Perhaps it is due to the relatively recent settlement of these countries and the rise of modern media that has helped.  Regardless, this homogeneity gives a false sense of certainty that what you say will be understood, at least for the way you meant it to be.

Across English speaking country groups the confusion really begins.  Even though the language and structure is more or less the same, and even many of the literary and media references are mostly shared, regional terms and cultural references are often lost. Between the North American cluster and the Australia/New Zealand one there are occasional misses, though whether it is due to similar historical backgrounds or the more direct nature of the cultures to quickly catch and fix these usually keeps these to a minimum.

This all seems to go out the window in the UK.  While one would expect some differences between Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England, there are also significant difference across England itself, sometimes even between two towns that sit right next to each other.  There are the many better known dialects such as Cockney and Geordie, but there are also many dialects and subdialects across Yorkshire, the Midlands, East Anglia and across the south.  These dialects are far more distinct than those found in the Americas.  Few speak the BBC English that many outsiders would be familiar with.  There are also differences between people from different classes, even those from the same area. The class boundary is a particularly odd one for Americans who, despite all of the recent press lamenting growing socio-economic gaps in the United States, simply have little grasp of the class concept. 

While this is all rather confusing for a foreigner, many English also suffer from a similar problem that many Americans have:  they expect by default that everyone will understand what they are saying.  The empire once was strong, and it is technically called "English".  But even when there are plenty of examples within one's own country that hint that this assumption may be flawed, it does not seem to affect the prevalence of complete communication breakdowns, many that often compete with Monty Python sketches for their absurdity. 

This becomes a huge problem in business, especially within multinational companies.  I have seen time and again language subtleties causing misunderstandings that derail teams, projects, and even big initiatives.  All of this affects morale and trust, let alone the productivity and success of the business.  Assumptions that everyone understands what you mean can be extremely dangerous, even, as with the English, everyone happens to come from the same country.

I have found when trying to convey and idea or concept, that it is always good to test in a non-threateningly way, whether it is by asking questions back of people of their thoughts or what they think they might do in response to the new information, to see whether it was really grasped.  This also works well the other way, which I use often.  That way drift can be caught early, leaving far less room for wild and dangerous surprises later. 

This can go further, and certainly is not restricted to just English speakers.  When looking at the health of a company, it is also useful to look at the means for which people communicate.  We all have stories of misunderstandings developing because someone misinterpreted something said, especially if a low bandwidth medium such as email was used.  Teams and companies also suffer when communication quality is not up to the mark.  I have personally seen very bad situations develop, not only in English and polyglot companies, but also in German and Spanish speaking ones as well.

People who have to interact with one another often work much more effectively together when they know each other well enough and both sides have the ability to further develop communication links. This allows people to better understand each other's context, and correct small misunderstandings at a ground level very quickly. 

Visual indicators, whether they be facial expressions, pictures, or even trends on a graph are also high bandwidth ways to convey complex information.  They work quickly and can be very effective to communicate concepts from diagnostics to thoughts to emotions, bringing truth to the old adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Companies need to pay attention to the quality of communication across their organizations.  Without doing so, they risk creating a tower of incomprehensible babel and failure.