Impact of Cultural Differences Part 1

September 7, 2010

I remember my first time in a supermarket in the USA, it was over 20 years ago and I was living on the university campus in Boulder, Colorado. I was walking down one of the aisles when I stopped dead in my tracks – my mind had just taken in what my eye had been seeing for a few seconds already – a half of one whole aisle devoted to…nothing but…salad dressing: ranch, italian, blue cheese, thousand island…full fat, low fat, lite, low cholesterol… To me this meant that American society had taken choice to a degree that I was not comfortable with!

So, I was amused to see a slide in a TED talk given by Sheena Lyengar who has specialised in the subject of choice in her academic career – the slide had a cartoon of an American supermarket and above it, the caption “Monstromart – where shopping is a baffling ordeal”.

Now, it’s clear that Americans are brought up to know what they like, and so I suppose that they are in some way blind to the panoply of options presented to them, whereas I had no criteria for selection and so was stunned by the level of choice available.

Yet another example that Sheena gave was of working in Eastern Europe where she was running some focus groups. As a matter of hospitality she provided seven different types of canned drink which from the slide appeared to be Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Dr Pepper and Mountain Dew. She was a little shocked when one of the participants said that she was only offering them one choice, a “Soda”. This was confirmed when she offered these seven canned drinks plus water and fruit juice – and the participants perceived three difference choices as being available rather than nine.

These examples show some of the differences between cultures which we tend to be oblivious to until we are immersed in another culture and suddenly can see something which is alien to our own norms sticking out like a flashing beacon.

I’ve found that when working with clients, even if something is of interest to me in the data then the same may not be true for them. I have learned in a recent client engagement with Narrate that when working on a SenseMaker™ project the best thing to do is to present the client with the data in a graphical form and allow them to discern patterns for themselves which they then ask to look at in more detail or perhaps want cut another way. If we had tried to select the patterns ourselves then we were in danger of either stating something which is obvious to the client, even though it’s new to us, or in pointing out something quite esoteric that the client has little interest in.

Tomorrow I’ll blog about another cultural difference and something of its background in Western thought that may account for the surprise results reported here on the recent trial of SenseMaker(TM) being used to look at the impact of aid in Africa.

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Impact of Cultural Differences Part 2

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