Cultural differencesWhat is culture? How does it shape us?

These are not easy questions to answer. We are as immersed in culture as a fish in water. We take it for granted, like the air we breathe, to the point where it is invisible to us.  Often the time when our culture becomes more visible is when we spend an extended time living in another culture, and then return home. The well-known phenomenon of “reverse culture shock” is the opening of our eyes to things in our own culture that we are seeing, as if for the first time.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as:

a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time <popular culture> <southern culture> c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization <a corporate culture focused on the bottom line> d : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.

One important aspect of culture is the mechanism by which humans adapt to particular environments. Some animals are specialists – eg the Giant Panda, which has a very narrow habitat and only eats one kind of bamboo shoot. Other animals are generalists – such as the Rat, which can eat a huge variety of things and survives in many different kinds of environments. Humans are generalists. We have adapted to live in very cold environments (the Inuits of North America, Russia and Greenland) and very hot, dry environments (the Aboriginal peoples of Central Australia). But if you were to take an Inuit and place him in the desert, he would not survive. Nor would an Aborigine survive north of the Arctic Circle. In each of these extreme environments, what enables humans to live is a complex set of values, attitudes, relationships, social codes, specialist knowledge, tools, clothing, behaviours and skills which, together, form a culture. Each person born into a culture starts the process of learning it almost as soon as they are born. Without it they would not know how to survive in that culture.

An important part of culture is the sense of identity and belonging that it gives through the set of stories of that culture. Whether the stories are considered myth or history, they still have the same role, which is to convey some deeper sense of purpose – an answer to the question “why are we here”.  That deeper sense of purpose is the glue which holds the people together.  It is the reason that individuals are prepared to make personal sacrifices for the sake of their people. A culture with no purpose or vision cannot inspire such loyalty.

The “identity” aspects of culture may be expressed through special clothing or other visual displays (tatoos, hair, weaing of symbols). It may also be expressed through art forms – songs, dance, literature, rituals. Above all, it is expressed through story – history and myths which also express the values and codes of that culture.

Those values and codes of behaviour (ie, what is considered “good manners”) will vary from culture to culture – although there is remarkable consensus on core moral values.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Dr Geert Hofstede working at IBM began to survey the organisational behaviour of IBM employees in 70 different countries.  This was followed by the GLOBE study, carried out between 1994-2004, of more than 17,000 middle managers from 950 organizations across the world and across different industries who were surveyed.  about their attitudes in nine different areas:

  • Power Distance – the degree to which people expect and agree that power should be shared unequally
  • Institutional Collectivism – the degree to which society encourages and rewards collective action, group loyalty is emphasised at the expense of individual goals, and whether being accepted by other people is important
  • In-Group collectivism – the degree to which people express pride, loyalty and interdependence in their families
  • Assertiveness – the reflection of beliefs as to whether people should be assertive, aggressive, confrontational, and tough in social relationships
  • Future orientation – describes the orientation towards planning and sacrificing instant individual or collective gratification for long-term future rewards
  • Uncertainty avoidance – the extent to which ambiguous situations are threatening to individuals, to which rules and order are preferred, and to which uncertainty is tolerated in society
  • Performance orientation – the degree to which an organization or a society encourages and rewards its members for performance improvement and excellence
  • Gender egalitarianism – the extent to which an organization or society minimizes gender role differences while promoting gender equality
  • Humane orientation – describes if individuals in organisations or societies are encouraged or rewarded for being fair, altruistic, friendly, generous, caring and in general kind to each other.

The GLOBE survey found significant differences between attitudes in these areas in 25 countries. This research forms the basis of the Intercultural Communication and Collaboration Appraisal (ICCA™) tool developed by Dr Wolfgang Messner and Professor Dr Norbert Schäfer. For example, Australians on average score 23% on In-Group collectivism, whereas the average for China is 80. Another example: Argentinians score just 9% on Future orientation, whereas the average for Singapore is 100%.

When managing diversity – either through a culturally diverse workforce or through doing business with people in another country – it is valuable to be aware of what culture means, and what cultural differences may exist. Some preparation in this area can make the difference between success and failure.

Mike Lowe
Helping individuals and teams get into flow

Frameworks for understanding & managing diversity part 2. Cultural differences.
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