How can we communicate well to bridge the differences?
1. What is culture?
There are many different definitions of culture. I think one of the most useful is:
Culture = (shared) Beliefs + Behaviours(in a group)
A ‘group’ could be, for instance, a group of friends at school, a team in sport or a team at work, a local community, people who belong to a particular church or religion, a political party, a nation such as the UK.
Beliefs and behaviours are ‘cultural’ (that is, rather than just individual) if they are shared by people in a group. That is, if people generally have the same beliefs about how things are and should be and generally behave in similar ways to each other, we can say that those people belong to the same (or a similar) culture.
I will give an example from a person I worked with recently in the Philippines:
“I believe that we should care for our extended families. That includes our parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins etc. That means I believe I am responsible for the wellbeing of the people I am related to. This is one of my beliefs. We can think of behaviour as what we do. Because of what I believe, I try to do what is best for my extended family, not only what is best for me, when I make decisions about, for example: who to spend time with, what to spend my money on, what to do if one of my relatives gets sick etc.
That means that what I believe influences my behaviour (what I do). If youandothers share similar beliefs and behave in similar ways to me with our extended families, we can say that, in that respect, we share the same culture.”
2. What differences are there between cultures?
There are lots of differences (and similarities) between cultures, just as there are lots of differences and similarities between people. This means that although cultures (and people) may be different in some ways, they may also be similar in other ways. I will build on the example from the Philippines (above):
“I have already explained that my extended family is very important to me. I may meet someone from a different culture who believes that their immediate family (that is, parents and brothers and sisters) is far more important, much more so than their other relatives.
In this way, we are different. In other ways, however, we could be very similar. For instance, we may both live in and belong to the same community. We may both support the same sports teams or enjoy similar music.”
So we can be similar as well as different. Part of cross-cultural communication and relationship-building is building on our similarities and working through our differences.
Some time ago (in the 1980s), a Dutch social psychologist called Geert Hofstede was interested to see if there are common patterns in what is similar and what is different between different cultures. (A social psychologist is someone who is interested in how people and groups relate to each other). Hofstede hoped that, if he could do this research well, he could help people from different cultures in the world to understand and work well together.
Hofstede found six common differences between cultures. Some of the language he uses is a bit technical but I will say a bit more about each of the key differences he noticed:
a. Hierarchy vs equality
Some cultures expect and respect hierarchy (that is, clear differences between who holds power and who doesn’t) whereas other cultures expect and respect egalitarianism (that is, where everyone is viewed and treated as equals).For example, in some countries people expect managers at work to make their decisions for them.
In other countries, people expect managers to listen to everyone and work collaboratively when making decisions. There are similarities in schools where, in some cultures, students expect the teachers to be experts in a subject. In other cultures, students expect the teachers to help them discover their own answers for themselves.
b. Individual vs collective
Some cultures focus on individual rights, responsibilities and rewards – that is, where everyone is free to take their own decisions and actions. Other cultures focus on collective rights, responsibilities and rewards – that is, where people take decisions and actions together, or that they believe are best for the wider group, e.g. team, community or nation.
Western countries are typically more individual-orientated whereas Asian countries are typically more collective-orientated. This means that, when a Westerner makes a decision, they may ask themselves, ‘What is best for me?’ whereas, when an Asian person makes a decision, they are more likely to ask, ‘What is best for my family – or community?’
c. Masculine vs feminine
This cultural dimension can apply to the roles that men/boys and women/girls are normally expected to play in society – e.g. who does the cooking or who looks after the children at home. It can also apply to characteristics of a society as a whole. It doesn’t mean the society has more men or more women. It just means that, if we were to imagine that the society was a ‘person’, it’s whether the person would appear more masculine or feminine.
For example, a ‘masculine’ society (e.g. Japan) may value strength most whereas a ‘feminine’ society (e.g. Sweden) may value relationships most. In ‘masculine’ societies, men and women tend to have very different roles (e.g. in the home or at work) whereas in a ‘feminine’ society, there are less clear or rigid distinctions between them.
d. Certainty vs uncertainty
In some cultures, people prefer things to be stable and predictable. They may sometimes feel anxious or threatened if faced with uncertainty or change. In these cultures, we tend to see lots of traditions, people using status-titles (e.g. Sir, Madam), rigid rules that people must follow, formal expectations for how people should behave etc. The idea is that these things help to create stability in society.
In other cultures, people feel happy with flexibility and change and enjoy experimenting with new ideas and trying new things. They are likely to be less-structured (e.g. less likely to say that rules are important or to follow them strictly) and less likely to use formal titles (Sir, Madam, etc). We could say that, on the whole, they feel more relaxed with openness and change.
e. Pleasure vs restraint
In some cultures, people believe that what is most important is to have a happy life. They are likely to be optimistic, believe in the importance of freedom of expression (including freedom of speech), allowing people to be and behave however they like, and to be open to other people’s interests and ideas. The most important thing is to enjoy life to the full.
In other cultures, people believe that what is most important it to live in the ‘right’ way, e.g. to do one’s duty or to respect formal traditions. In these cultures, people less likely to be optimistic, less likely to be playful when at work and more likely to emphasise personal discipline and self-sacrifice over personal enjoyment or pleasure.
f. Pragmatic vs normative
Less research has been done in this cultural area so it is a new addition to Hofstede’s thinking. However, it indicates that, in some cultures, people are more likely to aim for short-term goals, to be assertive and to present themselves confidently. This would often be typical of Western cultures, e.g. of the United States.
In other cultures, people are likely to be patient with longer-term goals, to value modesty and avoid talking much about themselves. This would be typical of many countries in South East Asia, e.g. Cambodia, China or Vietnam.
3. How can we communicate well to bridge the differences?
Communication is about giving and receiving messages that both people or groups can understand. When we communicate with someone – whether by e.g. our words, pictures or behaviour – we tend to do it from our own cultural perspective. In other words, we use words, symbols or actions that make sense to us in our own culture.
But what if the other person does not understand, or misunderstands, what we mean because they interpret our words, pictures or behaviour from their own cultural perspective? What if they don’t understand our culture, disagree with our culture or didn’t even realise that we have cultural differences? This is where communication breakdown or ‘culture-clash’ can happen.
I will give another example, this time with a person I worked with from Kenya:
“Imagine I am about to leave for work and a neighbour in need asks me for help. If I believe that helping my neighbour is more important than, say, arriving at work on time, I will help my neighbour and, as a result, arrive late at a work.
If the boss at work shares the same cultural beliefs as me, that helping my neighbour is more important than arriving at work on time, they will forgive me for allowing late and help me to catch up on anything I had missed. If my parents, carers, siblings and neighbours share that same cultural belief too, they will praise me for doing the ‘right’ thing when I arrive home after work.
What if, however, the employer or my parents had a different cultural view? What if my boss believes, for instance, that all employees must arrive on time to avoid disrupting work for other colleagues or clients? Or what if my family or colleagues believe that leaving for work on time is most important because it means I can travel safely with my friends?”
This is where communication is so useful and important to help work through cultural differences. I will now say a bit more about why – and then introduce a 5-step process that can help us to do it well:
When we live, study, work or play in a particular cultural group, we often aren’t aware of the culture of the group itself. It’s as if it’s invisible to us. What we believe and how we behave in the group just seem obvious and automatic to us. We don’t tend to think about it unless we meet a person or group who seems to think and do things very differently to us.
The first step is, therefore, awareness. I can start with myself. This means growing in awareness of what I believe is important in life, at work, in relationships etc. I can ask myself, especially if I get excited or annoyed about something, ‘Why is this so important to me?’ I can also notice how I tend to behave in different types of situations, e.g. at home, at work, in a shop or with friends.
I can also grow in awareness of where my beliefs and actions are the same as, or similar to, other people around me, e.g at work or in my community. I can ask myself or ask a group I’m part of, ‘If an alien visited from another planet and wanted to fit in here with us, what would we advise them to do or not-to-do?’ This will help me/us to notice my/our own culture.
The next step is observing. I can start observing people and groups that are very different to me/us. I can ask, ‘What seems to be most important to them?’ and, ‘Why do they do what they do?’ or ‘…how they do it?’ or ‘…when they do it?’ This will help me grow in awareness of other cultures. One way to do this is to watch people from different cultures on TV or online, e.g. in movies from other parts of the world to take note of how they behave in different situations.
The next step is mirroring. When I meet a real person from another culture, I can try using some of the language they use or copying some of the things they do (e.g. by using some of the phrases they use to greet each other). This communicates empathy – an attempt to understand them – and builds rapport – a feeling of connection between us. It shows I am being sensitive to their culture and attempting to reach out towards them – to build a ‘bridge’ between us.
The next step is curiosity. This means inviting people from other cultural groups to say something about their cultural beliefs, what really matters to them, and inquiring about their behaviours – what rituals are important to them (e.g. bowing, shaking hands, hugging or kissing when they meet) – why they do what they do…and in what situations. This helps us to understand the intentions behind their actions and how to behave in their culture to limit misunderstanding or offence.
The final step is sharing. This means sharing my/our own cultural beliefs, rituals and reasons for doing things with other people from different cultural backgrounds so that they can understand the intentions behind my/our actions too. We could think of this as educating others into our cultural beliefs and behaviours to increase awareness and understanding and, therefore, to limit the risk of misunderstanding and offence. People are much more likely to do this if we have tried to listen and understand them first.