Cultural difference: independence and autonomy

I get hit sometimes by sudden realizations of monumental nature. Or so they seem to me at the time. Here is another one that hit me right after breakfast the day before. It is good food for thought:

Flying falconThere appears to be a big difference in how independent and autonomous people of different cultures perceive themselves and others.

Consequence: your idea of independent thought and action is likely different from the person that you are talking to unless you grew together in one village and even then.

I was thinking about how talking to Germans and Americans is different, how differently they react to similar questions. I am seeing a seriously different attitude towards independence and autonomy of thought. People feel themselves entitled to completely different ways and they also expect the corresponding familiar behavior from others that often does not match on the other side, resulting in unmet expectations and disappointment.

The Americans appear to be bent on autonomy, they believe they are on their own, they are in a sort of a fight of “me against all” or something similar. I am exaggerating, of course, but I do so to make my point. They feel entitled to complete independence of thought and taking decisions. Americans will happily tramp on your fingers when it suits their personal interests. They will use any opportunity to get ahead personally and will not like to be held back into the group.

An American manager does not assume automatic allegiance from his subordinates, especially from across levels. Neither would he rely on the colleagues and management until he is sure where their interests align. Americans are nearly direct in finding out the details of their situation. The end result is, of course, that you cannot assume the good will and allegiance on the part of an American colleague unless you can find out that your interests align. And if you happen to have opposite interests… there is no compromise, usually, so it would do you good to prepare for the battle.

The Germans seem to be on the other side of the scale. They do not seem to be interested in autonomy. Apparently they think it is a virtue to proclaim their allegiance and uphold their loyalty to whatever group they happen to be in, even to the detriment of their own interests. Again, I am exaggerating to make a point. Germans will actually forgo chances to get ahead in the world if it would cause others to doubt their loyalty ever so slightly. Mind you, I am not talking about politicians here but about normal people working in German companies. They will insist on getting things done “properly”, which in their mind means through the “right channels of hierarchy and allegiance”.

In practice, this means respecting multiple structures. There is the structure of the company where the subordinates are automatically loyal to their manager. There is the structure of the professional groups where one belongs nearly automatically. There is the structure of rules and guidelines that have to be respected to the letter and represent a yet another allegiance. So when you talk to a German colleague, you better find out what structures he belongs to and try to use those to your advantage instead of attempting to extricate a German from his “natural alliances”. On the other hand, it may turn out that you already belong to some such structure together and that would make your colleague automatically your ally. Is it not wonderful?

This attitude towards independence is also influenced by the person’s own character but for most people this adjustment is minimal. What is your own attitude? Are you independent or loyal? What are your expectations of others? You have to answer these questions to remove one more veil from your understanding of the world and improve your communication.