Is Appreciation Just an American Concept?

I have had the privilege of traveling internationally to numerous countries to introduce the concept of authentic appreciation in the workplace. Fortunately, authentic appreciation and vibrant workplaces aren’t limited to certain cultures. They exist on every inhabited continent. And our book, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, has been translated into 17 languages.

Lessons From a Multinational Training Experience

A few years ago, I had the privilege of training the management and supervisors of an elite international organization in how to communicate authentic appreciation to their staff. Functioning within the tourism and hospitality industries, the staff (in one location) came from over 40 countries and six continents.

As I approached the training, I was interested to see and hear if the staff desired to be appreciated for their work.  Additionally, I wanted to find out whether communicating appreciation in the workplace was relevant across many cultures. Finally, I was curious to learn various ways employees felt comfortable receiving appreciation and what the challenges might be due to differences in the variety of cultures (which included British, Norwegian, Filipino, Colombian, South African, Indian, Irish, Egyptian and American).

What I Discovered

  •  No Surprise – All cultures affirmed that, yes, they would like to be valued for the work they do (and have the appreciation communicated to them by their supervisors and colleagues).
  • Suspicion Confirmed – A few individuals reported that appreciation in the workplace was not part of their home culture (mainly northern European cultures—Finnish, German, etc.).  Appreciation from one’s supervisor was not expected by the employee nor did managers believe they should have to communicate appreciation.
  • An Affirmation – Having translated (both linguistically and culturally) our materials into different languages I was fairly sure that there would be differences in the type of appreciation desired by individuals from different cultural backgrounds. Most were familiar the concept of saying, “Thank you” or “Good job.” But the idea that there were others way of expressing appreciation (spending quality time, doing an act of service) was new to a number of them.
  • New Perspective – One interesting observation was that people have fairly strong opinions about what they did not like in how appreciation might be communicated by others. The Brits were repulsed by the repetitive kissing on the cheeks by the Southern Europeans (Portuguese, Italians).  Many European women did not understand the purpose or meaning of “high fives” and “fist bumps” and the Filipinos did not understand (and sometimes were offended by) the humor used by the British, Irish, and Americans—which was often seen as a way of communicating warmth and friendship by the senders.

One of the encouraging aspects of the training was the feedback I received, from the top executives down to the front-line supervisors. The most important concepts they valued included:

  • Not everyone feels appreciated in the same way;
  • There are alternative ways to communicate appreciation besides words (and words are not valued by everyone);
  • Communicating appreciation in the way that is valued by the recipient is critical, as opposed to what the sender prefers;
  • Perceived authenticity is key and can be a challenge in cross- cultural work relationships.

Roy Saunderson, a colleague who has done training on recognition and appreciation in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the Middle East, made an interesting comment to me when we were discussing appreciation and cultural differences. He stated,

“Wherever I’ve gone, regardless of how warm and expressive or cool and distant a culture is—all the employees I interacted with indicated to me that they desired more, and more authentic recognition in their workplace.”

So, it appears the answer to the opening question, “Isn’t the appreciation concept really just an American fad?” is an emphatic: “No, it’s not!” The need for appreciation is expressed in a variety of countries and cultures. You can’t miss the mark by saying “thanks” for a job well done, regardless of the cultural background of your colleagues!

Go to www.appreciationatwork.com/international for more cross-cultural examples and resources.

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Jana Choi

Very cool article. A manager led us in a team appreciation exercise the other day, which called on us to learn how and for what our co-workers would like to be appreciated. Your article made me think of how important it is to recognize people how they would like to be seen.

Paul White

Jana, glad you found it to be helpfull. If you (or your manager) haven’t looked at our resources, we’ve developed a lot of materials to help teams apply the concepts in daily work life (www.appreciationatwork.com). Especially take a look at our online assessment (Motivating By Appreciation Inventory) which Identifies the specific ways each person wants to be shown appreciation — and we’ve created a specific version for government employees. Dr. Paul