Published in the ECHO Journal, November 2010

Have you ever said or thought, “So, what’s his problem?” The comment is usually made in frustration but is a very legitimate question. I was once hired as an expert in a case in which John sued his neighbor, Sam, alleging that Sam’s fence was five feet high when the covenants said it should be four feet. The lawsuit made sense to me because Sam’s fence blocked part of John’s view of the ocean. That is, it made sense until I discovered that the covenant was going to expire, and therefore be unenforceable, before the case could go to court. After investigating, I discovered the case wasn’t really about the fence. Although the parties didn’t consciously know it, the case resulted because John believed Sam was thoughtless when John’s son died of leukemia.

Because I was co-director of the Center for Creative Problem Solving at the time, I decided to research the reasons we so frequently fail to identify the real problem in a dispute and how this interferes with solving problems creatively. This article shares some of the results of that research.

We all have a variety of lenses through which we view the world. These lenses arise from factors such as the countries and families in which we were raised, our gender, our professional training, and the way our brains are created. To demonstrate the fact, please read the following scenario and decide quickly if an assault has occurred. Legally, an assault occurs when a person fears being touched in a harmful or offensive way. One doesn’t need to be actually touched for an assault to occur.

Scenario

A condominium owner discovers a lien has been placed on the person’s property for failure to pay assessments. The owner is very upset and goes to the property manager to complain. The owner and manager argue and the manager raises an arm toward the owner. The owner falls. Was there an assault? Jot down your thoughts before you continue reading.

Did you think the owner and manager were male or female? How big were they? Did you visualize gender? Some people don’t visualize gender even though they visualize people. Was the owner afraid? Was the manager’s conduct appropriate? Who was at fault?

One interpretation is that the owner was a woman who didn’t pay her assessment because she had lost her job. She knew her neighbors and didn’t want them to think she was a deadbeat. She was a nice person but very upset about the lien. The manager was a small man who supported his elderly mother in a nursing home. He was afraid if he didn’t file the lien and try to collect assessments he would lose his job. He, too, was a nice person. When the woman began arguing, he raised his arm politely to show her the door. When heading toward the door she tripped on the carpet. No assault occurred.

There is a good chance that not every reader interpreted the facts in the same way. Our brains are designed to make quick decisions. If we had to do a thorough analysis of the safety of our cars every time we drove, we wouldn’t do much driving. The necessity for quick decisions makes us both fill in facts that don’t exist and ignore facts that do so that the situation can fit our patterns or preconceived notions.

We know the brain jumps to conclusions in order for us to function, but what assumptions does it make when jumping to its conclusions? First, all mentally healthy people assume their values are the norm or normal. We generally assume that people who act, look and sound like us are more likely to be normal or reasonable, and we are more likely to like them. This wiring obviously impacts our relationships in the multi-cultural environment that exists in California.

Our brains may force us to make automatic assumptions based on our core values. But the more conscious we are of our assumptions, the more likely we are to realize that others with a different set of core values also assume their assumptions are “normal.” Recognizing these differing assumptions can lead to solving problems more creatively.

If I am from an individualist society like the U.S., I am likely to assume that I am responsible for myself. I work hard and want to be recognized for my hard work. Fixing problems and honesty are both likely to be important to me. The importance of the individual is demonstrated by the fact that English is the only language that capitalizes “I.”

If my values have been shaped in a collectivist society, like many of the Asian societies, the group to which I belong is much more important than my individuality. I owe a strong loyalty to the family and community. Honesty is not as important as group harmony and saving face.

What impacts do these different approaches to life have in solving community association problems? If my values are formed in a collectivist setting where the in-group is the more important than the individual, I may think it perfectly appropriate to give preference to family members in hiring. I spoke once with an association manager from Mexico who was miserable because he had to lay off several of his workers. He said, “Of course my cousin will stay though.” He assumed this was what everyone would do under similar circumstances.

If I have an individualistic approach, I may assume that in order to solve a problem we need to share all the information we have. Someone using a collectivist approach may assume we only share information with the in-group and that everyone knows sharing information that reflects poorly on one’s family is wrong. To someone from an individualist society it may appear that the collectivist is sneaky or secretive rather than “normal.” To someone from a collectivist society it may appear the individualist is self-centered and disloyal. But it is possible to work around these different approaches if one is conscious of them.

A person from a society where the in-group is the most important core value may even feel it’s appropriate to lie for a member of the group. In Business Across Cultures the authors discuss giving a group of Venezuelans were given the following choice. “You are a passenger in a car. Your friend is driving 35 miles per hour. He hits someone. If you are willing to say he was driving 25 m.p.h., the legal speed limit, he will get off.” Sixty-seven percent of the Venezuelans said they would lie in court. They considered this the appropriate thing to do. The relationship is a more important core value than honesty.

When someone lies to me, my immediate response is to be resentful, think less of the person and not trust them. I don’t think about the fact that I told my son, and now grandchildren, that Santa Claus and the tooth fairy are real. And how many of us would lie to save the life of a family member?

Lying is even built into our law. One can’t successfully sue a used car salesperson for saying, “This is the best car you can find for the money” even if it is not. Society and the law assume we know what the ground rules are. Used car salespeople exaggerate. Similarly in a collectivist society it is assumed everyone knows the ground rules. There are situations where lying for a family member is appropriate.

In an association setting if the board knows someone is lying they may wish to step back and try and figure out the reason. Is the person simply following his cultural norms and is trustworthy in other settings, or is the person just dishonest? Our attitude toward the person makes a difference in how creative we are willing to be in working with that person when trying to solve a problem.

Attitudes toward contracts reveal other cultural differences. Many in the U.S. assume once a contract is signed “a deal is a deal.” If the conditions change to disfavor one party, so be it. In other societies, it is assumed that if conditions change it is immoral not to change the contract because the relationship is more important than the document. You can see how unconscious assumptions lead to misunderstanding and assumptions about the other person’s moral character.

I gave the scenario about the condominium owner who didn’t pay her assessments to 200 law students. I changed the facts in many ways to see how different facts affected their conclusions. For example, I said the manager was a football player and the owner was a small female, the manager was angry, the woman was aggressive. At the end I said, “Assume both parties are well intentioned.” Two hundred faces relaxed. I was surprised and asked them why their faces relaxed. They said that if the parties are both well intentioned, it will be possible to work out an amicable arrangement. An association is likely to save money and stress if they initially assume the parties are well intentioned and are just seeing the world through different lenses.

Sense of time is another filter or cultural lens. I once worked with a group of 20 people from about 15 different countries and asked them to write down how late one could be for a business meeting and a social dinner without apologizing. Times for the business meeting ranged from “one should not be late for a business meeting” to “one can be 30 minutes late without having to apologize.” Times for the social dinner ranged from 20 minutes late in the U.S. to three hours late in a Middle Eastern country.

Not all cultures pay as close attention to the clock as the U.S. In some cultures it is appropriate for a business meeting to start late because a previous conversation wasn’t finished. It may also be appropriate to have a business meeting interrupted by family members. Relationships are more important than the schedule.

Different perceptions of time obviously have an impact on meeting schedules and perhaps even late assessments. One person’s version of “late” can be another person’s version of “on time.” One person may assume someone who is late is disrespectful. Another may assume one who is precise about time is uptight. Again, if we assume the parties are well intentioned but just have different perceptions of time, we can find solutions to the problems without resorting to expensive dispute resolution systems.

Another cultural difference that can affect association interaction is the importance of hierarchy. In some societies hierarchy is extremely important. When working with a Chinese audience, I changed the facts in the scenario and said the owner was 30 and the manager was 75. At that point the discussion stopped. The group concluded the owner was clearly at fault because he was disrespectful of his elder. It didn’t matter what the owner and manager did; the younger person was at fault.

In the U.S. we value equality. For example, law professors will strongly defend equality under the law. But those same people also strongly defend the seniority system for picking offices. I don’t know of any junior professor or lawyer who has the best office. When I asked some of my colleagues the reason for defending the seniority system, they said it prevented arguments. This is the same rationale used in societies that are hierarchal. Everyone knows the ground rules and everyone knows their rights so it is easier for harmony to prevail.

How can attitudes toward hierarchy impact an association setting? When I needed an older woman who was from India to comply with a covenant, I first assumed she didn’t realize she was violating it. I assumed good intentions. Then, when I spoke with her, I slipped in a conversation about grandchildren because I knew hierarchy based on age was part of her cultural upbringing. I assumed she could relate to me better if she knew we were the same age, and she did.

I need to give a note of caution here. We are all individuals. Just because someone looks Japanese obviously doesn’t necessarily mean they share traditional Japanese values. We are all the product of many cultures—country, family, gender, age.

I have discovered many of my own unconscious assumptions in cross cultural workshops where I was a participant. Some of those assumptions are reflective of the country in which I was raised and some are not. For example, in a business setting I am a typical individualist, which didn’t surprise me. But I discovered in my family setting I might as well have been born in Japan, because I have collectivist tendencies. I wasn’t conscious of this. Knowing about cultural lenses or filters can at least give us some basis for being more creative in identifying the way different people (including ourselves) perceive the problem and in finding more creative solutions.

Communication styles also lead to misunderstanding. Some societies, like the U.S., use a direct style of communication. In the U.S. it is the responsibility of the speaker to be clear. For example one might complain, “My neighbor’s dog is driving me crazy because it barks all the time.” Other societies use an indirect style. In these societies it is the responsibility of person hearing the communication to decipher the message. In these societies the same complaint might be phrased, “My neighbor just got a new puppy. It is so cute and active.” The second person’s real message may not be heard by the board, resulting in the person feeling the board is not respecting them.

In our society not looking someone in the eye when speaking can be considered shifty. However in other societies a person who has less status (perhaps based on age) is not supposed to look into the eyes of the person with more status. It is disrespectful. You can imagine how thinking someone is shifty or disrespectful can affect the relationship between the parties and their idea of what the real problem is in an association setting.

These and many, many more cultural lenses can be learned through interactive exercises. While we can never really know the lenses through which another person sees the world, we can learn how to be more culturally sensitive or consult those who are. This increased awareness can help us reduce stress and save money in solving problems.

Assuming we want to be more creative in solving problems, how might we approach a problem? First, assume all parties are well intentioned. They are just viewing the situation through their own set of lenses. I know it may not be true, but it is a good place to begin. Second, assume the way we are viewing the problem isn’t necessarily the correct one. Consider other possible ways of viewing the problem. For example, how would one view the situation if one needed to save face or had a different concept of hierarchy or time? Third, how does viewing the situation through a different set of lenses affect your approach to solving the problem?

Some may think we shouldn’t have to go through this effort. But, if the ultimate goal is solving the problem with less stress and less money, isn’t the effort worth it?


Katharine Rosenberry was a property professor for 30 years and co-director of the Center for Creative Problem Solving at California Western School of Law. She is engaged in problem solving for community associations, which she has done for over 25 years, and gives seminars about creative problem solving in a multi-cultural world. You can contact her at krosenberry@cwsl.edu.