Example of Cultural Relativism in Business: 3 Approaches That Work

BY Reinier Van Scherpenzeel · 3 MIN READ

Since I moved to Uganda six months ago, I have dealt with examples of cultural relativism daily. For instance, I quickly noticed that people say sorry a lot. If I dropped something, or if I was fumigating at my computer’s permissions scheme, or if something else just went slightly wrong, people around me would respond with, “I’m sorry!” At first, I quickly responded with, “well, that’s okay.”

After a while, I would say, “well, it isn’t your fault, is it?” And then I said, “why do you say you’re sorry? I was the one who dropped it!” Because in the Netherlands, when you say you are sorry, you imply guilt. And then I learned that the sayer doesn’t really mean they are sorry as a way to excuse themselves. They use the phrase in the literal sense. They are literally sorry for me that it happened to me! I am Reinier, from Tunga, and this is my story!

Working at Tunga, I’ve had these situations a lot. Tunga was founded in the Netherlands and worked with over 300 software developers across Africa. Roughly 130 from Nigeria, another 130 from Uganda, 20 from Egypt, others from Ghana, Cameroon, Kenia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and the list goes on. We have running projects with clients from the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. And many of our clients are multi-national organizations in themselves. So dealing with different cultures is key to the way Tunga works. And here are three things that we have found to work over the years.

Cultural relativism can be the death of your company…

First of all, while there is value in every culture, not every custom works for your business. A couple of weeks ago, I had a performance review with one of our project managers. I asked him what he found most difficult in his job. He said: “It was hard to learn to say ‘no’ to our clients. The way I grew up and did my first jobs, whatever the client said should be done. So if a client asks me something, I feel enormous pressure just to say yes. Even though I would know it would be disastrous for the project. At Tunga, I was immediately taught to say no if I knew it was a bad idea.’

Some things do not work for your business. Doing whatever the client says in a software project is a recipe for disaster. So create maxims about how someone in your company should act. And try to prevent any contradictory behaviour. Even if it comes from someone’s culture.

…but you cannot disregard it!

Yet that does not mean you can negate the fact that different customs lead to different experiences of reality. Once, I was talking with a prospective Ugandan client who was interested in hiring a dedicated developer. We decided he had to share a profile of what he was looking for. And once I received it, I did what I was very much used to doing as a (blunt) Dutchman: I provided critical feedback.

Now, as you can imagine, since otherwise, I wouldn’t have shared this story, this did not end up well with our prospective client. He looked upon my critical feedback as though I was making a joke out of him. That I was even humiliating him. While my version of reality was that we were conjointly working to a profile as best suited as possible. My mistake was not that I gave feedback. My mistake was that I did not stop to think that in our cultural gap, there may be a different way for my client to perceive that feedback. A typical example of cultural relativism.

Language is everything

When I was studying philosophy, one of my subjects was linguistics. And the basics of linguistics are the relationship between reality, thinking, and language. This is called linguistic relativity, or the idea that language shapes its’ speakers view of the world. This sounds very difficult, but most examples are quite well known: the idea that the Inuit have much more words for ‘snow’ than other cultures. It isn’t easy to prove a strong connection. But we can take it for granted that different words can have very different meanings in different cultures.

For instance, I have learned a lot about the idea of clock time. Because I had to coordinate meetings across different timezones and cultures. Now, getting a meeting timing wrong every so often is not a big deal. But if you want to work internationally, you have to develop your own company’s vocabulary. In our Tunga Slack, you’ll see many different references to ETA’s (Estimated Time of Arrival or when you can expect something). We use COB CET, which is Close Of Business or 5 pm Central European Time, or COB EAT, which is 5 pm Eastern African Time, or EOD, which is End of Day or would translate as ‘I better have it ready when I start working tomorrow!’.

You’ll run into examples of cultural relativism more often now. So keep on learning!

But most of all, you and your organization have to realize you can never really stop learning about dabbling with different cultures. Because nothing is so fluid, perhaps even volatile and ethereal, as culture is. When you think you can grasp it, something happens which surprises you, and you learn all over again. And if you want to read about more examples of cultural relativism, check this one out: When Cultures Collide.