Understanding cultural norms: How to avoid conflict in the work environment

2014-06-06 12:10

“South Africa is a country in which one can expect the unexpected. An inspiration for all. What made it possible was the determination of the people of South Africa to work together… to transform bitter experiences into the binding glue of a rainbow nation.”

So said Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General.

Kwazulu Natal (KZN) is home to an estimated 10.3 million people, making it the most populous province in the country. The principal language spoken by the people of KZN is isiZulu, followed by English, Afrikaans, Tamil, Hindi and, in a turn which reflects the changing economic landscape, Chinese (or Mandarin).

Due to the growing relations between Africa and China, KZN has experienced an influx of Chinese people, which in turn has contributed towards a positive economic growth. According to research by Nedbank, trade between South Africa and China totalled R201-billion in 2012 and has continued growing rapidly since then. Much of that investment has flowed in the direction of KZN.

For instance, one of China’s biggest agribusiness operators in 2013 announced that it was set to pour R20-billion into proposed South African food production piloting the project in the Umzimkhulu/Ixopo corridor. Even before this Chinese-driven development, with migrants from elsewhere in the continent, the largest concentration of Indians outside of India, and the general melting pot that is South Africa, KZN was already incredibly multi-cultural. This influx of Chinese money and nationals has only added to that.

For these reasons, companies need to place an ever-greater emphasis on training staff to deal with an ever more diverse work environment. Cultural sensitivity awareness is vital, and when people of different cultures and languages work together they need to be aware, tolerant, and understanding of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

KZN is one of the provinces that has seen increased growth thanks to the influx of Chinese investment, but this rapidly changing environment makes it ever more important that employees and employers have the necessary skills to deal with people from different cultures both respectfully as well as graciously.

First and foremost, it is about educating staff what to be aware of and sensitive to.

For example, in Chinese culture it is considered rude to whistle or snap your fingers, while most South Africans have no problem with it. It is also considered impolite to touch a Chinese person, whereas South Africans are known for physically embracing one another and even back slapping at times.

In fact, across different cultures, even the most innocuous of actions may be seen as disrespectful. Often times when we are handed business cards we pocket them without a second glance. However, this is considered offensive in Chinese culture, as is taking a business card with one hand instead of two.

Even what we may consider to be internationally accepted legal practices may, in fact, have different meanings in different cultures. In South Africa a contract is seen as a legally binding document… however, in Chinese culture, when signing a contract it may only been seen as an agreement between two parties that remains subject to change.

Most of the conflicts and hostilities among workers in any industry are caused by simple misunderstandings which can be resolved by talking to and educating one’s employees. Language can be a barrier, but not understanding and being misinformed about where someone comes from and their culture can cause bigger issues as well as substantial loss of productivity and even business revenue.

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