Studying Confusion

Cassels-Brown has Made a Career of Miscommunication

Dora Sacer | March 2007

Elisabeth Cassels-Brown lecturing at a seminar in Mistelbach, near Vienna (Photo: WUV)

Try as you will, being "charming" doesn’t always work.

One day, shortly before class time, Prof. Elisabeth Cassels-Brown was summoned to the Immigration office in Vienna. Trying to get done as quickly as possible, she tried being "pleasant, smiling a lot, and trying not to appear important." She got nowhere. Her very "American" technique failed. Only when she asserted herself, "played on her status" and announced she had a course to teach, did she get what she wanted. "Quite a lesson for an American!," Cassels-Brown said.

Applying niceness in bureaucratic situations might work with American bureaucrats, but not with Austrian officials, who are more impressed with rank and professionalism.

Cassels-Brown became intrigued. Was it possible to find patterns in these differences, to discover underlying principles that could be learned and taught? She decided it was, and began her research in the science of cross-cultural communications.

"One learns skills as well as tools for getting to the root of a misunderstanding or defusing a conflict," she said. And at the same time, cultural differences enrich us. "Stretching ourselves to see something in a new way gives us new perspectives," the scholar of misunderstanding said with enthusiasm.

However, this passionate pursuit of cross-cultural understanding is never where Cassels-Brown had thought she would land.

As newly-minted college graduate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she had found what most would consider a dream job: a life of books, nice colleagues, quick promotions, and – she was miserable. Who could be dissatisfied at the Harvard University Press? Still, she longed for something else.

"What would you do if money were no obstacle, if you could do anything you want?," her mother asked one day. Like a shot, Elisabeth replied: "I would go to Vienna and study music!" – the thought of teaching hadn’t yet occurred to her.

"The sentence surprised me probably as much as it surprised my mother," Cassels-Brown recalls. Though a bit abstract, the idea wouldn’t leave her alone. Living with her parents, she could put aside the money she might have had to spend on rent.

After one and a half years, Cassels-Brown had saved enough for a "low-budget first year" in Vienna: she booked a room at the Katholische Hochschülerinnenheim (Catholic female Student home) and a German course at the Goethe-Institut. The ultimate incentive was her self-confidence.

"I, of course, thought that I had a great voice and that the Staatsoper was just waiting to have me sing for them," said Cassels-Brown with a grin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy.

Arriving in 1988, she saw after a year that singing was not supporting her. Having started at the "really ripe old age of 35," late for a singer, she realised that she won’t be able to earn a living with music. She had understood too late what she needed to know technically to be able to sing professionally.

Ironically, it was her singing teacher who helped her discover her real vocation: teaching. Why didn’t she teach English, the teacher suggested to the Anglo-American Cassels-Brown.

Being one of the very last generations to be granted a teaching certification without a pedagogical degree, Cassels-Brown’s began teaching business English skills at a language school. Today, she is self-employed with key clients the Wiener Städtische (insurance), Österreichische Nationalbank (Central bank of Austria) and OMV (energy).

Our meeting at a wine bar on a side street near Schwedenplatz was sandwiched between a course at the OMV and her rest for the day. In black turtleneck with a colourful vest, her hair pulled back tightly into a bun and understated make up, Cassels-Brown looked very elegant. A glass of Blaufränkisch only added grace to the woman who became more impressive with each anecdote.

To the Business English course, she later added Cross-Cultural Communication Skills. "I’m passionate about the subject of cultural differences and good communication, and teaching gives me the chance to talk about it and pass on what I know," she said with satisfaction.

"Each culture is a system of values and accepted behaviours that a group, usually unconsciously, develops over time to meet its needs." The needs, she explained, are the ability to adapt to the external environment and to stay together as a group. "Almost always, a culture has a kind of natural balance," she said. An example is the so-called "universalism"- dimension, which balances the freedom of the very individualistic US culture, through placing emphasis on law and order. Austria, in contrast, is more "particularistic," meaning that control comes from considering what is good for the group.

"I was always the odd one out," she said with a grin, meaning that she was more "particularistic" than her ‘typically-American’ peers – that’s why she feels "more herself" in Austria.

Cultural differences make several things difficult. "If you go into a different cultural system, unaware of the differences, you see everything from your own cultural perspective." One tends to judge according to one’s own cultural system  when we are unaware of the rules.

"Often you find that what worked best in your own country doesn’t work at all in your new situation." Just like in her encounter with the Austrian official.

Not only for her there are more lessons to learn. "How do you reconcile one resident’s need for large and happy parties with his or her neighbor’s need for peace and quietness?," she asked rhetorically.

Cassels-Brown applies her theoretical knowledge in everyday life. "I try to keep my sense of humour. And repeat to myself: Culture is a solution. It works for them. " Knowing there are more ways of doing something, Cassels-Brown is able to "engage with the other person with curiosity."

How can one person help? Small daily interactions - being patient, not talking down to people, trying to understand different lifestyles - help improve the situation. "Simply not contributing to the degeneration of a misunderstanding or conflict can also help." Not always, she pointed out. "For one’s own physical safety, it is important to be able to back down and walk away."

Webster students also profit from her vast knowledge. Cassels-Brown, a 2002 MBA Webster graduate herself, teaches the graduate course Cross-Cultural Management, where the ideas of her MBA thesis "Achieving Cross-Cultural Synergy in International Business Ventures" play a central role.

And her research continues. Cassels-Brown is currently working on a related research project on the perceptions South/Eastern-European managers have of Western European managers -- the assumption, startling to a westerner: using connections suggests dishonesty. The study results will show how perceptions interact with performance, and thus shape the quality of the interactions.

Sounds like no pastime. "True, my work-life-balance leans more towards work," Cassels-Brown admitted, hoping there will be more time for real life this year. Every once in a while she enjoys fish at the restaurant Schnattl, Italian dishes at the pizzeria Regina Margherita or indulges in "the best Mohr im Hemd she ever had" at the Gmoakeller.

Besides having a sweet tooth, Cassels-Brown likes walking and hiking in the Wienerwald, and occasionally takes singing lessons. All in all, "Vienna is a good fit for me," she said with satisfaction. Cultural offerings and "being where the action" is an advantage. In Vienna, all the greatest musicians land at some time or other and "you can hear Claudio Abbado, Alfred Brendel, or Jessye Norman live."

So how would she sum all this up? "I guess I should try out online dating to figure out how to describe myself," Cassels-Brown said with a smile.

Yet was this enough? What if somebody were to pose her mothers’ question, again? Now.

For a few seconds she was speechless. Hmmm. She took a deep breath.

"I would write a book," she decided. "I want to explain to Americans the rest of the world; why people live in a certain way, why it’s good - and show them the beauty of it." Which left me to wonder when we might see her ideas between hard covers, written by MA Elisabeth Cassels-Brown.

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