The Cultural Mismatch

Background matters when it comes to success in new settings: A Q & A with researcher Sarah Townsend

July 01, 2019

As an assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, Sarah Townsend is focused on institutions: corporations, universities. But when it comes to her research, Townsend’s training as a social psychologist informs her work on human performance within these environments.

The Kenneth King Stonier Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Townsend is interested in delineating ways to assist working class people enter and succeed in middle-/upper-class, white collar settings.

In a 2017 Current Opinions in Psychology paper with Mindy Troung, USC Marshall Ph.D. student in Management and Organization, she argued how the independent cultural beliefs and practices embodied in white collar workplaces do not match the interdependent cultural beliefs and practices demonstrated by people from working-class backgrounds.

"The mismatch is created because institutions of higher education and many professional workplaces often prioritize independence. You can think of this as creating a cultural barrier that perpetuates disparities. We could do it differently, but we don’t."Sarah Townsend, Kenneth King Stonier Assistant Professor of Business Administration and assistant professor of management and organization

“It’s not that one is better than the other—both models are valid ways of perceiving and acting in the world,” Townsend said. “It’s just that institutions are often set up and operate primarily according to one model or the other. So, when individuals enter these contexts and follow a different set of norms, they experience a cultural mismatch that becomes a disadvantage.”

In a 2018 paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science,

she and co-authors Nicole Stephens and Andrea Dittmann of the Kellogg School of Management argue a key reason many people fail in gateway situations such as college or a first job is the “cultural mismatch” between the institution’s norms and the social norms of working class people.

“This mismatch is consequential,” Townsend said, and she went on to explain.

Townsend: In this country there’s a belief that anyone can get ahead. But, time and again we see an achievement gap between people from middle- and upper-class families and people from working class families who may be low income or first-generation college students.

Some of these setbacks are due to financial and material resources such as differences in the quality of the high schools students attended. But, we find differences in culture can create setbacks too. If a student or employee comes from a background that emphasizes different norms than the ones built into a given institution, that student or employee is likely to feel like they don’t quite fit in and that they aren’t quite sure of the “rules of the game.” In this way, the mismatch can make it more difficult for people to succeed.

What are examples of norms that vary?

Townsend: Our research has shown that middle-class contexts and U.S. institutions promote or operate according to norms of independence. Working class contexts, however, promote norms of interdependence much more—working together and helping others.

The mismatch is created because institutions of higher education and many professional workplaces often prioritize independence. You can think of this as creating a cultural barrier that perpetuates disparities. We could do it differently, but we don’t.

Isn’t that changing, especially in academic settings where teamwork on projects is gaining prominence?

Yes, in many classes, there are team and independent assignments. But, greater weight is often put on the individual assignments and it isn’t uncommon to have students arguing for more independent work.

We can do things other than changing the nature of assignments. For instance, we can reframe standard institutional norms. Some of our lab-based research suggests it might help to promote interdependence when students come to college by giving them a welcome letter that highlights interdependence on campus, for example.

We know it helps if we provide people with a new way to understand their different experiences in college. Stephanie Smallets, Marshall Ph.D. class of 2019, and I, as well as two co-authors published another paper last year that found teaching students that their experiences before college shape the challenges they’ll face in college helps them to see that those challenges aren’t because of personal deficiencies—there’s nothing wrong with them.

It’s really giving students exposure to a new concept. It’s highlighting that people’s backgrounds can be associated with different challenges, but it’s framing the different challenges as coming from people’s experiences (not their abilities). 

Is interdependence at college the great equalizer?

It could be. One of my students is theorizing that people who can combine independent and interdependent norms might be best situated to perform well in a variety of settings.

For now, we need more education around difference. How do we help people feel comfortable and not deficient? How do we help people achieve their full potential?

One way is to be considerate and inclusive of different of cultural norms. Background matters.