RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And today we answer questions about workplace issues with help from our workplace consultant, Ben Dattner. Good morning.
Mr. BEN DATTNER (Organizational Psychologist): Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So we have a letter from a listener, Sarah Richards, in Fairfield, Connecticut, and this is what she writes: how do you handle a hovering manager?
Ms. SARAH RICHARDS (Listener): We have a new manager in our department who is originally from Yugoslavia. It may be a cultural difference, but he tends to hover behind us at our desks. How do we deal with these differences?
MONTAGNE: Now, Ben, she's presuming that there is a difference there. Maybe I want to put to you, are there cultural differences in terms of how managers generally might act?
Mr. DATTNER: Well, I happen to have a Yugoslavian colleague with whom I've spoken about this very issue. And what she says is that there, in fact, are cultural differences. And that in Yugoslav culture, people tend to be very close in terms of body space, which North Americans sometimes misinterpret as either being hovering or as being sort of inappropriate intimacy, when in fact that's really not what the person's trying to convey.
MONTAGNE: This letter generally brings to mind something I think a lot of people have heard about. When Japanese automakers first started opening plants in the United States, there was a lot of talk about adjusting to Japanese management style. Remind us of...
Mr. DATTNER: And even that great movie, "Gung Ho," which you may remember from the eighties.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, that's right, that's right. All about a plant dropping down into a little town. But...
Mr. DATTNER: There are a lot of very interesting cross-cultural things that happen in the workplace. So for example, how do employees even get picked into an organization in the first place. In Europe, they use handwriting analysis and in Japan sometimes they even use blood type. So notions of criteria for employee selection that may seem totally foreign to us are actually accepted and embraced in other cultures.
MONTAGNE: Back to our listener, what can she do given that it's a manager?
Mr. DATTNER: She might speak to the manager directly and say, you know, I know you don't mean to hover but sometimes it seems that you're a bit too close. It makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable.
MONTAGNE: Could that conversation go badly?
Mr. DATTNER: Well, it's a very interesting thing. When you think about the American approach to cross-cultural issues, we tend to be very up front, very direct. But even in the very act of doing that, you're coming across in an American kind of way to have that conversation.
MONTAGNE: Right. So you think about the conversation then think, hmm, let me try something else. How might one explore that?
Mr. DATTNER: Well, you could try to configure the office in such a way as that he or she couldn't come that close. You know, maybe orient your desk or your chair in a different way. You could also do one of those things like when you enter a store and there's the electric eye and the bell that goes ding-dong. You can put that in your cubicle some every time he crossed there would be a little alarm.
MONTAGNE: What techniques that American managers might use or habits they might have would seem odd to a worker from outside this country.
Mr. DATTNER: To have this sort of direct conversations. To ask about somebody's weekend, ask about their personal life. Also American managers might encourage employees to refer to them by their first names. And in other cultures, which have what's known as high power distance, where there's a big difference in terms of hierarchal levels of societies, workers might feel very uncomfortable referring to a boss by his or her first name.
MONTAGNE: Ben Dattner is an industrial and organizational psychologist and a regular guest on our program. Thanks much, Ben.
Mr. DATTNER: Thanks. Good to be with you.
MONTAGNE: To submit your workplace questions to Ben Dattner, go to our Web site, NPR.org, and search for the keyword Workplace.
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