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Why simple assumptions are never really simple

If you are entering a new cultural world, it is better to go in with a wide-open mind and keen observation skills as opposed to merely conducting research and assuming you have a handle on the situation.

If you live in North America, when you go into a department store it is assumed that you are there to shop. In a furniture store, for example, you would only sit in an easy chair if you were considering buying it; you would only lie down on a mattress if you just wanted to be sure it was comfortable before you had it delivered to your house.

As North Americans, we could assume that stores are stores wherever you go in the world.

But what seems like a simple assumption is really not simple at all.

A couple of years ago, Dr. Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College, wrote a blog about behavior that is commonplace at the store of furniture and home design giant IKEA.

In China, people do not just go to the IKEA store to buy furniture. They go there to hang out. They snuggle up with their sweetie on the sofas, take a nap on the beds, and sit calmly and read their newspaper in the easy chairs.

Many seniors show up there looking for love in all the comfy places.

Nobody gets arrested. Nobody gets thrown out and told not to come back. As a business model in a culturally diverse world, it seems to work.

It’s a great example that when it comes to what is culturally acceptable, we can never make assumptions. If we do, what we thought would be a foregone conclusion can turn out to be horribly wrong.

If it just creates a simple faux pas, that’s no big deal. On the other hand, if these wrong assumptions torpedo a multi-million business partnership, then that is a big deal. It is also one that could have been avoided if cultural competence and listening skills were given greater emphasis in the workplace.

Organizational development expert Edward Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and integral integration  (sources of cultural changes), which has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel…”

In The Bridging PrinciplesTM, an intercultural communication program, culture is viewed as a set of glasses through which we view the world, and everyone’s cultural eyeglass prescription is a little bit (or drastically) different.

In that sense, every time we enter someone else’s business or home or country, we enter a new cultural world.

The goal is to find a balance between keeping the cultural values we own and learning and respecting the cultural protocols of the new multicultural world we have stepped into.

We cannot do that with assumptions. Better we should enter with absolutely no idea at all about the world we are walking into and be guided there to an understanding of it, than to ride in confidently on a set of preconceived ideas about it that are just not valid.

That is something to consider very seriously when we engage in staff training and imparting management skills for offices abroad. The soft skills training that prepares staff for these new work challenges must focus less on assumptions and more on cross cultural communication.

The Bridging Principles is a blog about doing business and life differently to create better results for all. Click here to subscribe for free. To pre-order a copy of the book “The Bridging Principles: Building Bridges for Business,” coming out soon, click here. To arrange for training in The Bridging Principles for your company, email

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