What is Culture?
Culture in general is concerned with beliefs and values on the basis of which people interpret experiences and behave, individually and in groups. Broadly and simply put, “culture” refers to a group or community with which you share common experiences that shape the way you understand the world.
The same person, thus, can belong to several different cultures depending on his or her birthplace; nationality; ethnicity; family status; gender; age; language; education; physical condition; sexual orientation; religion; profession; place of work and its corporate culture.
Culture is the “lens” through which you view the world. It is central to what you see, how you make sense of what you see, and how you express yourself.
Four Cultural Dimensions
Cultures – both national and organizational – differ along many dimensions. Four of the most important are:
Directness (get to the point versus imply the messages)
Hierarchy (follow orders versus engage in debate)
Consensus (dissent is accepted versus unanimity is needed)
Individualism (individual winners versus team effectiveness)7
Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges
Culture is often at the root of communication challenges. Exploring historical experiences and the ways in which various cultural groups have related to each other is key to opening channels for cross-cultural communication. Becoming more aware of cultural differences, as well as exploring cultural similarities, can help you communicate with others more effectively. Next time you find yourself in a confusing situation, ask yourself how culture may be shaping your own reactions, and try to see the world from the other’s point of view.
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In some cultures, looking people in the eye is assumed to indicate honesty and straightforwardness; in others it is seen as challenging and rude. Most people in Arab cultures share a great deal of eye contact and may regard too little as disrespectful. In English culture, a certain amount of eye contact is required, but too much makes many people uncomfortable. Most English people make eye contact at the beginning and then let their gaze drift to the side periodically to avoid ‘staring the other person out’. In South Asian and many other cultures direct eye contact is generally regarded as aggressive and rude.
In some cultures and religious groups eye contact between men and women is seen as flirtatious or threatening. Men of these communities who do not make eye contact with women are not usually rude or evasive, but respectful. Different cultures also vary in the amount that it is acceptable to watch other people. Some experts call these high-look and low-look cultures. British culture is a low-look culture. Watching other people, especially strangers, is regarded as intrusive. People who are caught ‘staring’ usually look away quickly and are often embarrassed. Those being watched may feel threatened and insulted. In high-look cultures, for example in southern Europe, looking or gazing at other people is perfectly acceptable; being watched is not a problem. When people’s expectations and interpretations clash, irritation and misunderstandings can arise
Failure to identify cultural issues and take action can lead to a culture shock. In order of priority, the most often found symptoms of culture shock are3:
anxiety and worry
reduction in job performance
high nervous energy
Not coping with culture shock symptoms when they appear can lead to a very negative situation.
Respecting Differences and Working Together
Anthropologists discovered that, when faced by interaction that we do not understand, people tend to interpret the others involved as “abnormal”, “weird” or “wrong”5.
Awareness of cultural differences and recognizing where cultural differences are at work is the first step toward understanding each other and establishing a positive working environment. Use these differences to challenge your own assumptions about the “right” way of doing things and as a chance to learn new ways to solve problems.
Case point DuPont
A US-based multicultural team at DuPont gained around US$45 million in new business by changing the way decorating materials are developed and marketed. The changes included new colors that team members new, from their experience within other cultures, would appeal more to their overseas customers.6
Building Trust Across Cultural Boundaries
Research indicates4 that there is a strong correlation between components of trust (such as communication effectiveness, conflict management, and rapport) and productivity. Cultural differences play a key role in the creation of trust, since trust is built in different ways, and means different things in different cultures.
For instance, in the U.S., trust is “demonstrated performance over time”. Here you can gain the trust of your colleagues by “coming through” and delivering on time on your commitments. In many other parts of the world, including many Arab, Asian and Latin American countries, building relationships is a pre-requisite for professional interactions. Building trust in these countries often involves lengthy discussions on non-professional topics and shared meals in restaurants. Work-related discussions start only once your counterpart has become comfortable with you as a person.
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Cultural differences in multicultural teams can create misunderstandings between team members before they have had a chance to establish any credibility with each other. Thus, building trust is a critical step in creation and development of such teams. As a manager of a multicultural team, you need to recognize that building trust between different people is a complex process, since each culture has its own way of building trust and its own interpretation of what trust is.
Anthropologists in cross-cultural management
Observing people in Sydney made me quite clear that the dominant focus of cross-cultural academics and practitioners on national cultures is problematic. People from so-many cultural background study and work in closely cooperation at universities and public and private organisations. Looking at your Indian, English, Dutch, Japanese or German colleague as representatives of fixed national cultures will not help you very much in your collaboration. The so-called essentialistic perspective has become very popular in contemporary management literature and consultancy and is highlighted by European authors, such as Hofstede (1990) and Trompenaars (1993). The work of Hofstede and Trompenaars, who have developed ‘cultural maps of the world’ in which each country can be situated based on their score on different indexes, fitted perfectly in the assumption that culture is a (more or less) stable entity that can be ‘engineered’, and managed. However, recent evaluations of these essentialistic cultural programs are not positive in regard to organizational costs and sustainability. The programs use a dramatic oversimplification of the culture concept and make no difference between espoused values and actual behaviour. Consultants of large cross-cultural consultancy firms themselves don’t believe in the value of multi value models. Instead they do use their international sensitiveness and experience to train managers and employees. In our research on the number one consultancy on cross cultural business in the Netherlands showed that a larger part of the consultants were using anthropological tools and methods rather than the corporate developed multi value models. None of them however, were anthropologists.
And this is surprising as international management and the training of managers in cross-cultural affairs should be of the core competences of anthropologists. However, anthropologists are not very good at selling their knowledge and skills to corporations. They are outnumbered by all other kind of professions that have taken up cross cultural consultancy. Only recently I have seen a growth of (small) anthropological consultancy firms, but there could be many more of them. The message that everything is more complex than what our cultural “competitors” bring is of course not a very good argument for selling your services. That could be done better by, for example, showing in a business case the costs of failures and awkward collaboration.
To support managers and organisations operating in a international context, we have explored new directions in cross-cultural management by making managers aware of practices of (cross-cultural) collaboration. The interest is not so much in gaining knowledge of other (national) cultures but rather on spaces and boundary objects in which cross cultural collaboration in daily organizational life takes place. Two weeks ago I was working with a large project management firm that had asked help to manage their large diversity of workforce. The company had employees of more than 35 different national cultures working in complex projects. Instead of training the management on all these cultures we studied collaboration practices at the workfloor from a socio-material perspective which includes spatial settings, materiality and social behaviour. The French anthropologist Latour called this symmetric anthropology. We found that engineers and project employees of both the company and the client gathered around so-called “rollerboards”. These are tables that can roll and have large paper drawings of installations on them. Around the rollerboard 6 different professionals stand, hang and are bending over the drawings. In debating which objects had to be left out, changed or added, each of the 6 professionals got time to explain their view, experience, perspective. If agreed upon, different colours were used to materialize the debate and colour the drawings on spots were the debate was on. The manager was surprised as he wanted to replace the rollerboard by a computer system, which would have ruined this efficient cross-cultural collaborative practice. In this way anthropologists can deliver knowledge and advice that are not given by traditional cross-cultural consultancy firms.
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