How impatience undermines cross cultural effectiveness

Jun 19 2012 by David Livermore Print This Article

Many tribal cultures don't have a word for "boredom". Sitting under a tree for hours at a time, waiting in line to get water from the well, or walking four days to a nearby village for medical help is just a way of life. But as technological advances penetrate societies all over the globe, impatience is mounting everywhere.

Google slowed down the speed of search results by four tenths of a second to see what impact it would have. The result was eight million fewer searches a day! A quarter of us abandon a webpage if it doesn't load within four seconds. An email that doesn't get a response within 24 hours is considered unresponsive. And one USA Today study found that most North Americans won't wait in line for more than 15 minutes.

But "impatience" + "cross-cultural" don't work well together. Cross-cultural relationships and projects inevitably take more time, more effort, and more patience. Slowing down often goes against the grain of what we're trying to accomplish.

A volunteer construction team from the U.S. traveled to Liberia to put a roof on a Monrovian school. The Liberians were extremely grateful for the N. Americans' generosity but the first day into the project, the Liberians expressed concern about whether the new roof would be well-suited to the Monrovian climate and environment.

When they voiced their concern, the volunteers replied, "Look. You have to trust us. We've worked on buildings like this all over the world. We're only here for six days. So the only way we'll get this done is if we stick with our plan."

Three months later, a monsoon came in off the Atlantic coast and the new roof came crashing down. A couple Liberian students died and several others were injured. Sometimes our "efficient"(impatient!) approach is not so great after all.

Just about everything takes longer when working and relating cross-culturally. Communication, trust-building, and just getting things done requires more effort and perseverance. Whether it's dealing with long queues when traveling, merging different technology systems, or trying to get to the bottom of a conflict, understanding and effectiveness come more slowly when different cultures are involved.

Patience needs to be factored in from the very beginning of any cross-cultural project. Long before the U.S. construction team ever arrived in Liberia, a more thorough process of determining what the need was and how to best meet it would have been valuable.

For a fraction of the cost of shipping a team to Africa, the volunteers could have sent money to have local builders put on a new roof. Or with a deeper level of analysis, they may have concluded that the roof wasn't really the problem but instead, was a symptom of deeper problems of poverty and conflict that could be better addressed by partnering with development experts.

Full disclosure. I'm terribly impatient. I hate waiting in lines, I calculate which driving lane is moving fastest, and I want things to happen quickly and according to plan. But on the rare occasion when I exercise patience, the end result is almost always better: the partnership is richer, the project gains wider acceptance, and the money invested goes further.

In a world of instant information and feedback, it's counterintuitive to step back and move more slowly. But slow is the new fast when you're working across cultures. Take a deep breath and trust that something far bigger and better can be accomplished when you patiently persevere through the hard work of listening, understanding, and discovering the possibilities that may otherwise go unnoticed when rushing to the finish line.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.