When Culture Conflicts With Office Norms
By Annabelle Macford Okwara
Culture is defined as the beliefs, customs, practices and social behaviour of a particular nation or people, while norm is a standard pattern of behaviour that is considered normal in a society or within a system. A good look at these definitions gives a clearer reason why people tend to allow cultural values to conflict with norms. Do you know that there are cultures that have nothing against belching on a dinner table? They may even laugh hilariously at the act. Now if you come from such cultural background, and you find yourself at a dinner with your boss and other business associates, belching on that table may seem proper to you, yet such act will not only go against the norm of dining, it may probably cost you your job. There is a thin line between our cultural values and norms.
Every organization has its own norms; it will only be wise to study your environment to know the norms that apply there. We have advised in previous editions that coming into an organization with an “I know it all” attitude will be detrimental to your learning abilities. I have been to a hospital once to see a doctor, we were about three in the waiting room, all waiting to see the same doctor and there he was in his office chatting and laughing so loudly with his friend, that we could hear their voices from where we were seated. And to make matters worse, their chat was all about village meeting and family matters. I really do not need medical school to teach me that a hospital should have a serene atmosphere, not a place to chat loudly like we are in a pub. Even patients know that. Now why will a doctor fall short of this? The answer is simple. He has not been able to separate culture from norm. It is often said that in any international conference or exhibition, if you are searching for where Nigerians have their stand, just follow the noise (please laugh if you will). In a Newsroom for instance, it may be the norm to have loud conversations, but definitely not in a bank and definitely not in so many other offices where loud conversations may amount to pollution of that environment and constituting a nuisance.
How do you address your colleagues at work, whether senior or junior? Do you say “Egbon”(Yoruba word for elder brother), “De”(Igbo word for elder brother)? Is that the norm in your office or are you conflicting culture with office norms? I do not think there’s any corporate environment that will allow addressing of colleagues in that manner. But it still happens. There are situations where you find a couple working together in the same office, but commonsensically they drop the pet names for the home and call each other by real names in the office. Culturally, couple addressing each other by first names may appear out of place but in the office it is the norm and I’ll say appropriate. Now imagine this, “Peter, please tell my Honey to bring in the files” or “Honey please address the marketing team”. I’ll leave you to think about it.
If it is the norm in an office to address colleagues by their first names, please drop the cultural values and call your colleagues by their first name, when you get to your village meeting or any other gathering you can call him all the “Egbon” and “De” that you’ve missed calling him in the office. If it is the norm in your office to address colleagues by adding their title first before their names (eg. Mr. or Mrs.), adhere to it please; it won’t change anything at all.
I don’t want to believe that people still prostrate in the office while greeting their senior colleagues. It will be a very funny sight. While it tells that you are well brought up culturally, it will send a signal of eye service in the office environment. If it is not the norm in your workplace to prostrate or genuflect while greeting please do not indulge in that. It is not proper. Norm in the office, culture outside the office, thank you.
As the saying goes: “While in Rome, behave like the Romans”. I’ll add that while in America behave like an American and while in the office behave like a corporate guru. Get your act right and be on top of your game, separate cultural ethos from office norms so you don’t appear subservient to people around you.