What is culture?
Our culture is all around us. The influence of culture affects how we see the world and how we behave with others in ways we are not aware of. Culture in business also existis.
Culture is a social creation. It’s the way to communicate with and understand each other that a group of people have developed over time. A shared set of values, beliefs and behaviours about how things should be done. National culture is the most obvious example of this, but any group of people can develop a culture, perhaps in an organisation, business or profession. Each of us will have many cultural influences.
You may delight in the most visible culture of a people: festivities, food, local customs… Who doesn’t love the Catalan traditions of a correfoc or a calçotada, castells, the caganer and Tió de Nadal (to name just a few)? But things like this are the tip of the iceberg, the parts of cultural expression you can see. Other ideas about how the world works and how people should act are deeper, more abstract, and often invisible.
Since the 60s, researchers have been developing models to understand different aspects about the influcence of culture, the effect they have on us, and where and why misunderstandings happen. These tools help us to compare and understand people’s behaviour and thinking, based on the influence of their national cultural context.
American anthropologist Edward T. Hall was the first to develop a set of cultural factors to explain how influence of culture has decided to do things. Cultures are either high context (where people’s meaning can often be implied, like in France) or low context (it has to be explicitly stated, like in the USA). Hall also described differences in the way people perceive time (Monochronic – one thing after another, or Polychronic – human interaction is more important than the task). His final measure was about space – comfortable distances for personal space vary, as does the importance given to ownership and boundaries (high/low territoriality).
Another well-used scale of cultural dimensions was developed by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. The first – Power distance – shows how hierarchical a society is, and how much people expect power to be distributed unequally and accept that social roles are fixed. Individualism/Collectivism looks at whether people give more importance to ‘I’ or ‘we’, while Masculine/Feminine highlights the qualities valued by a culture (e.g. ‘assertiveness’ vs ‘cooperation’. As an anti-genderist, I have a bit of an issue with the terminology here!).
Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which people are comfortable with ambiguity and risk, how they deal with the unknowable future. Time orientation is in this case more concerned with how a culture prioritises past, present and future. Indulgence/Restraint looks at the ability to control impulses and desires, and how important this is.
Erin Meyer, an American intercultural and leadership specialist living and working in France, builds further on these models with her own ‘culture map’. Meyer’s framework has eight scales that plot differences in communication patterns and business systems across the world: Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, Leading, Deciding, Trusting, Disagreeing, Scheduling. It’s a thorough and detailed model that especially helps people working across cultures, but is fascinating for anyone interested in exploring more deeply their own style of relating to others.
It’s important to remember that there is not a right way or best way to do things. Lazy national stereotypes and feelings of superiority have no place here! All the approaches mentioned above in the models are equally valid; they’ve developed over time as the best way that group of people have found to deal with life as they encounter it. It’s also important to remember that nation states aren’t mono-cultural, and we as individuals have a lot of other things that make us who we are.
But we do make unconscious assumptions about what another’s behaviour means based on our own conception of what influence of culture is. So wires can really get crossed when people with different expectations interact! For example, what the Japanese see as respectful humility, Americans may interpret as being shy and weak, while American assertiveness can come across as rude arrogance, and so on.
The possibilities for misunderstandings are huge, and It can be exhausting for everyone to read and decode unfamiliar signals. But if you know how your own thoughts, expectations and actions are influenced by your cultural context(s), you’re on the way to becoming interculturally competent. As intercultural psychologist Joseph Shaules says, “We must first understand our roots – how culture affects us in ways we aren’t aware of. Then, we are better able to build bridges – to adjust to new ways of thinking and making sense of things.” An intercultural trainer has the tools to help you do this.
Alison Geldart is a facilitator of intercultural communication and English language specialist. Originally from the UK, she has been living and working in Barcelona since 2016.