Corporate Cultural Myopia: The need for a new pair of eyeglasses!

Nov 26, 2019

Oops – it happened again. A company tried to be humorous with an advertisement but ended up alienating its very audience in the process. This is another case of cultural nearsightedness!

Dolce and Gabbana just had to cancel a major fashion show in Shanghai after producing a flippant and ignorant commercial stereotyping the Chinese culture. In three videos released on social media November 18, 2018 (to promote the Shanghai fashion show), a beautiful Chinese woman in a glittering evening dress, is pictured clumsily trying to eat a pizza, a huge bowl of spaghetti, and then a cannoli, with chopsticks. She makes silly faces as a man’s deep voice talks about the challenges of eating western food with chopsticks. 

The advertisement makes no sense – it has nothing to do with fashion or Chinese culture. As an expat living in China, it’s an offensive stereotype - to Chinese culture and to women. As a professor of business communication for 20 years, I would have to give a failing grade to the commercial's creators (and those who approved it) for lack of understanding the audience and purpose of the message. Andrew Keith*, president of the new designer label, Lane Crawford, as well as Joyce, aptly said, “We believe that brands need to be aware of the cultural implications of their actions and understand the potential backlash when customers feel their values have been disrespected.”

It will be helpful to analyze this recent faux pas made by D&G regarding cultural dimensions and ethnocentrism. Cultural myopia can be fixed with the right adjustment and an expert diagnosis.

Cultural Differences and Cultural Dimensions

We think we’re all the same, and as human beings, we are the same; but our cultures, worldviews, personalities, and life experiences make us different. Understanding cultural dimensions can help us view our differences in a positive light.

Professor Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist who worked for IBM and who is responsible for developing the field of cross-cultural management through his landmark scientific study of workplace values, has provided empirical insight into how cultures differ. He describes culture as the collective programming of our mind. He explains that norms (the accepted and expected ways of living) are formed from within the collective group interactions of people and subsequently influence us in ways that we are not even aware. While we are all human beings, we all have differences.

Because of such cultural differences, understanding the following Three Levels of Mental Programming can help us be more culturally sensitive and better at communicating and interacting with others:

  • Human Nature is at the deepest level because of human nature, there are many behaviors and understandings that all people share even though they come from different cultures.
  • Culture is at the middle level, and is based on common experiences that we share with a particular group of human beings. Cultural values, attitudes and assumptions about proper behavior give us something in common with a definable group of others, but not with all of them... this could be due to a national culture, a work culture, or a community culture.
  • Personality is at the surface level, which is based upon our genetic makeup and personal experiences that make each of us unique. Because of personality, each of us has many behaviors and understandings that are quite different from those of others, even though we come from the same culture.

(Article Image: I just gave a presentation last week to a group of engineers in Deyang, Sichuan Province, China, and discussed this idea of Three Levels of Mental Programming.)

In his 1980 book, Culture’s Consequences, Hofstede advanced the idea that “cultural dimensions” are aspects of culture that can be measured against other cultures. Professor Hofstede uses continua to contrast differences in order to demonstrate how a particular culture could be more or less of any particular dimension – for example, some cultures like the U.S. and Italy (northern Italy – such as Milan – fashion capital) generally tend to be more individualist in their social makeup. In Individualist cultures, people tend to look out for themselves and their immediate “in-groups” (such as family and organizations); in Collectivist cultures, people’s membership within their in-groups (especially including extended families) is tighter with a mutual obligation to be loyal, show respect, and care for each other.

In Individualist cultures people also tend to be more direct with their communication and say what they think. Humor and satire are commonly used because there is freedom to say what they want – even though it might not be acceptable or appropriate. However, the opposite generally applies to collective societies – one doesn’t necessarily express opinions or viewpoints in the open. This could be a reason why D&C thought they were being funny (using Chinese chopsticks to eat Italian food) in that they could use satire and express themselves freely.   But they did so without thinking about possible repercussions. In Chinese culture, one tends not to make such overt statements or expressions – such as in this commercial – as it will disrupt social harmony. (See Tuleja, pp. 112-114: Intercultural Communication for Global Business: How Leaders Communicate for Success, Routledge 2017.**)

Key Take-Away: while we are all human beings, we have differences due to culture, worldview, personality, and experience. 

To make matters more complicated, we tend to view our reality as the best reality, often forgetting that others may not see things in the same way that we do.

Ethnocentrism and Human Nature

Social psychologists tell us it is human nature to think that all people are just like us – that it is a natural part of the socialization process because there are in-groups and out-groups, and we are influenced by all sorts of people in those groups. Socialization is a process where we learn the rules and patterns of behavior (e.g., from parents, grandparents, extended families, friends, workplace, religious places of worship, schooling, etc.). By the time we are adults, we don’t even notice the cultural lenses in which we view the world. We naturally think that our perspective is the best perspective. This is called ethnocentrism.

And so, we see the world through our own lenses – what we think, believe, and do seems most appropriate to us. We therefore tend to evaluate other groups according to the values and standards of our own group and inherently believe our ways of doing things are superior. Because we are self-focused and think our way of life is better than other people’s ways of life, we make faulty assumptions about others. (See Tuleja, pp. 49-52.)

Key Take-Away: Human beings tend to be ethnocentric because of how we are naturally socialized with our in-groups to believe that our way of "seeing" things is the best way – thus we can develop cultural nearsightedness.  

How Can Dolce and Gabbana Recover?

Mr. Dolce and Mr. Gabbana's live press release (statement and video) helped the situation a little because they attempted to sincerely apologize (although scripted) and showed contrite body language and tone (which is what is taught in business communication courses when dealing with the media). Whether they will be believed and forgiven is another issue altogether (see: Said one blogger on Weibo in response to the apology, "They're bowing their precious heads to the renminbi (yuan)," [Weibo 微博 is the Chinese word for “microblog” and is the biggest social media platform in China - equivalent to Twitter.]. The company has lost business through,, and, all online retail giants in China. They also have lost reputation within the larger global audience's perception on who they are as a company.

The company's leadership would be wise to hire a cross-cultural management consultant (I’m available!) who has the expertise to work with employees at all levels in order to uncover the hidden bias that comes with our natural tendency to see the world though our own perspective. They have made a mistake - but they can correct it by doing what is necessary to demonstrate that their remorse can be turned into something good.

By examining our own blind spots, we can become more insightful, mindful, and culturally competent people. I have worked through this process myself in order to become a better person and a better professional. My method works.

Here is my process for consulting with organizations (of course, after discussing at length their specific needs, challenges, and goals):

  1. Meet with the group to present the basics of cultural dimensions and do some interactive exercises that show (versus merely tell) how to be more culturally sensitive.
  2. Have each employee take two online assessments aimed at (a) uncovering hidden bias and (b) understanding individual communication/workstyle/cultural preferences.
  3. Debrief the teams regarding these two assessments. This is critical in developing clarity and acuity in seeing the issues and challenges that are causing problems.
  4. Work with team leaders and individuals via coaching and creating a viable action plan. It takes time and effort to overcome old habits - but we can do it.
  5. Follow-up with the organization to ensure ongoing support and improvement in overall cultural competency. Often this includes mentoring and developing in-house staff to help with ongoing guided learning for the organization. Change in attitudes and behaviors doesn't happen overnight - there needs to be a commitment to change and also the support for it.


It’s easy to look at this situation and view it through an “us versus them” mentality (which is ethnocentric!) – that they made the mistake but I never would. Actually – we are all ethnocentric and have to be careful about what we think and say and do...and pointing fingers does no good. We may mean no harm, but because we think that our reality is reality, we may forget that someone else may have a different perception and could be easily offended. Adjusting our prescription for better vision can benefit our cultural sensitivity and ultimately the outcome of our actions and words.

In my next blog I will talk about HOW to move away from ethnocentric thinking and into a more intercultural mindset. If you like what you've read and are interested in my global leadership consulting services, please check out my website at: I can provide the expert insight and guidance to help your organization thrive in our global society - from the inside out.


Please stay tuned for my upcoming online course in Global Leadership, which will be scalable for individuals, for the classroom, and for the C-suite!


*Information and video of the commercial:  

Apology on YouTube:

**Andrew Keith has played a major role in the fashion industry by introducing western brands to China and has been named one of Asia’s most influential multi-brand retailer.

***Book available in print/digital form via Routledge ON SALE NOW AT SIGNIFICANT SAVINGS of 30%!




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