A Tale of Two Cities: How to deal with regional differences in the same country

The U.S. is a nation of around 320 million people spread across almost 4 million square miles. The population represents almost every nation in the world and each of those people bring some of their own culture to the U.S. In short, it’s a huge and diverse country with regional differences that can be as different as if they were distinct countries. In the workplace, this diversity can be a strength – but only if managers are able to effectively manage the multitude of cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities present. Such is the case for countries across the world – not only in the U.S.

In a June 2015 webinar, Dean Foster, president of Intercultural Global Solutions, laid out the conditions that exist in the intracultural workplace, what issues might arise, and how managers can learn to embrace differences and engage each individual effectively.

The U.S. is one country that can be vastly different from region to region.The U.S. is one country that can be vastly different from region to region.

The mask of similarity
Foster acknowledged how differences between cultures from different nations are often expected and understood. Even nations that most consider relatively similar, like the U.S. and Canada or New Zealand and Australia, have distinct identities that each recognizes in the other. But intracultural differences may be harder to spot – we speak the same language, our national heritage is the same, we live under the same government, so how much different can we be?

Indeed, intracultural differences may be lower in number or degree than intercultural differences. However, because people expect to think the same way as someone else from the same country, the differences that do exist become more pronounced. Typically, the starkest of these variations occur along northern and souther lines – the northern and southern U.S. are clear examples of cultures that, had history played out another way, may have become totally distinct countries. The first step to promoting a functioning intracultural workplace is to recognize that these differences do exist, but don’t have to be obstacles to successful communication.

The differences play out during intranational reassignment much in the same way they would during a global relocation. The individuals working in a new culture within the U.S. have high expectations and are initially charmed by the change of pace, but eventually those positive reactions can give way to the feeling of being overwhelmed and ill-prepared for the consistent, unanticipated daily differences.

What are the hidden differences?
As it turns out, there are more differences from one region to the next than people may initially assume. Even though the language is technically the same, even the way people talk can be new and challenging. Foster laid out a few of the common, yet unexpected intranational contrasts:

  • Linguistic: Dialects can be dramatically different from region to region, to the point where phrases and words have entirely different meanings. New accents can make individuals feel separate from the rest of the workplace.
  • Historic: As with the American North and South, or regions of the U.K., or Eastern and Western Germany, a contemporary shared government and national identity do not necessarily mean a shared history as well.
  • Religious: In many cases, regions themselves are formed along existing religious demographics. In Bosnia, different regions consist of either Muslim or Orthodox majorities. In Northern Ireland, Protestantism and Catholicism take majority in different areas. Even within large cities there may exist neighborhoods of different religious majorities.
  • Geography: Mountains and valleys, different climates, coastal or landlocked – these are opposing features of regions that exist within many countries.
  • Generational: Is the population older or younger? The predominant age group will have an influence on how a society functions.
  • Urban vs. rural: Moving from the country to the city or vice versa can create massive culture shock, even if the distance of the move is relatively small. Moving from a rural area in one region to a city in an entirely different region can exacerbate the issue.
  • Gender: Some regions and cities have higher populations of men or women than others. Traveling from one extreme to the other can produce anxiety, especially if you’re interested in dating in a region with low populations of the gender you’re interested in.
  • Ethnicity: Within many countries, different ethnicities conglomerate in certain regions for one reason or another. If you live in a predominately white area and are relocated to a predominately black, Latin or Asian one, it’s important you learn to accept and understand the differences and similarities therein.

In navigating these differences, it’s important to have a supportive organization that can adequately prepare its employees for the customs and expectations in these areas. A company can’t make the mistake of assuming an employee is prepared to move from Connecticut to Alabama just because it’s an intranational move. That organization wouldn’t expect someone to adjust quickly and smoothly to a life abroad, so it shouldn’t hold intranational assignees to a different standard.

When managing a team full of individuals from different regions, remember to play on the unique perspectives and strengths each person brings to the table, but also remember each has a different way of communicating and doing business. Respecting each of these traditions – and demanding that respect among the team – will go a long way in promoting productivity.