by Ed Love
To many, it’s obvious that different countries have different cultures. After all, look at all that strange food, curious clothing, and interesting tourist attractions! However, after spending many years living and working overseas, I’ve noticed that it goes so much deeper than that.
It’s very easy to think that our way of doing things is the right way, and all those strange people from overseas don’t quite understand things. However, that way of thinking will get us nowhere if we want to connect with people from different cultures.
At a fundamental level, people in different cultures actually think differently. Some cultures value individuals above groups, such as the USA, while others believe the opposite. It’s not just a belief, it shows up in all areas of life, and makes an enormous difference.
If we don’t learn about these differences, we will almost definitely fail, whether we seek to do business overseas, work for a charity, of even just get to know the locals.
The following guidelines are not set in stone, but generally true for the majority. Any group has culture, not just countries, but also smaller groups, like companies, religious groups, charities, families, clubs, and others.
This very brief introduction will explain the basics.
There are four related aspects to Cultural Intelligence:
Drive – the willingness, the interest, the passion to learn about other cultures, and how to relate to them. Without this, the following stages mean nothing.
Knowledge – what we we learn about other cultures. While there are many similarities that we normally assume, it’s the differences that are really important.
Strategy – we learn how to apply what we’ve learned, not only to deal better with other cultures, but also how to deal with issues that come up along the way.
Action – the ability to act upon what we’ve learned, and behave in an appropriate manner with people of other cultures. This is the final result of all the previous aspects.
As part of the 3rd area (knowledge), there are a number of dimensions that vary around the world. Some models of Cultural Intelligence identify six, others fewer, others up to ten. As with many models of intelligence, there isn’t yet total agreement on these divisions.
However, by exploring the following areas, we can understand a great deal more about how people from other cultures see the world differently, yet at the same time, we all believe our way is the right way.
No group is necessarily right or wrong, but without awareness of how other cultures operate, all sorts of misunderstandings can arise. These can build from simple personal disagreement, to accidental insults, violence, and all the way up to war.
Only by being aware that there are many ways to see things, and our way is not always the best way, can we be flexible enough to really understand and connect with people from different cultures.
This is the path to peace: understanding, acceptance, flexibility, and the willingness and ability to work together.
In no particular order:
1 – INDIVIDUALISM/COLLECTIVISM
Many countries around the world put the rights of the individual at the top of their priorities. Others put group well being as the most important priority in society.
e.g. the USA believes greatly in the rights of the individual, while at the other extreme, China is very much oriented towards group harmony.
2- POWER DISTANCE
This phrase addresses hierarchies in society. e.g. flat or deep. Cultures with a high power distance give huge power to leaders, and always defer to them. They have great privileges. Others believe in a flat organisational structure, where the boss or leader mixes with the rest of the group, and is treated no differently to others.
e.g. in the Arab world, leaders are revered and honoured, and wield great power. At the other extreme, in Holland, leaders mix readily with everybody else, and are often challenged and addressed by others in the group. This could be seen as a more democratic way of being. Not necessarily better, but different.
3 – UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE
Some cultures are far more at ease with uncertainty than others. Some have detailed rules to deal with every possible event, while others go with the flow. Some have serious consequences for those who break the rules, while others are much more forgiving.
e.g. Thailand is a very relaxed culture most of the time, believing in the idea of live and let live. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is very strict, both for residents and visitors. Best be aware of this kind of thing before you travel to somewhere new.
4 – COOPERATIVE/COMPETITIVE
Survival of the fittest is an expression that rules cultures that believe in competition. There is less compassion, and people are expected to look after themselves, and not rely on others. At the opposite extreme, some cultures believe in looking after everybody in society. This feels totally different.
e.g. the USA is one of the most competitive countries on the planet, with an extreme capitalist economy. This is obvious to most people from other countries. At the other extreme, Thailand is very cooperative, and does its best to take care of all its citizens. This is probably related to the main religion of Buddhism.
5 – TIME ORIENTATION
Some cultures are far more oriented around schedules, timetables, and linear time. People are expected to be punctual, and follow the schedule. Other cultures are more flexible, and not so tied to the clock. They believe that interruptions are common, and often unavoidable. They don’t get upset if people arrive late.
e.g. again, the USA is very strict about timing. Showing up late is not appreciated, and is a real social and business faux pas. On the other hand, many Latin cultures are far more flexible, and expect that not everybody will be ready by the agreed upon time.
6 – CONTEXT (DIRECT/INDIRECT)
This scale is about how we communicate: either direct and clear, or indirect, and not so literally. Some cultures spell everything out clearly, while others assume a great deal from context. e.g. existing knowledge that both parties share. Time spent communicating can very enormously depending on this value.
e.g. the Dutch are known for being very clear in their speech. They spell everything out explicitly, to avoid misunderstandings. Sometimes they might appear too literal. At the other extreme is Japan, where there is much more that is shared, and therefore assumed among people. Why spell it out if people already know?
7 – BEING/DOING
This is as simple as it sounds. Some cultures are keen on being active, and focus on doing, achieving, being active and productive. Others prefer to focus on quality of life, having time to rest, and enjoy it. Each extreme has some appreciation for the other, but the main focus is different.
e.g. again, the USA focuses far more on doing. This can lead to more productivity, but also more stress. At the opposite end of the scale, Scandinavia is far more interested in being, and enjoying life. Their citizens work to live, and have far shorter working hours than Americans.
8 – UNIVERSALISM/PARTICULARISM
This scale relates to rules: are they universal, do they apply for everybody, or are they flexible? Some cultures insist upon universalism, while others take into account many other aspects. e.g. are those involved family, friends, or strangers, or even foreigners?
e.g. in the UK, laws are applied to everybody, and nobody is considered to be above the law. This is not negotiable. On the other hand, India, with a huge variety of religious, social and cultural groups, is far more likely to be particularist, and take into account the background of those involved in any interactions.
9 – EXPRESSIVENESS (NEUTRAL/AFFECTIVE)
Some cultures are far more animated and expressive than others. At one end of this scale, people communicate openly and passionately, while at the other end, their faces and body language reveal nothing.
e.g. Italians are famous for talking loudly and with a great range of expressions, and using their hands to add to their speech. It’s usually not hard to understand where they’re coming from, even if you don’t speak Italian. On the other hand, Japanese are far less expressive, and usually communicate quietly and with respect.
10 – FOCUS (MONOCHRONIC/POLYCHRONIC)
This scale is related to the time dimension covered earlier. However, the focus is whether people address one issue at a time, or several. i.e. single tasking or multi tasking. This has a huge effect on how meetings are run, and expectations on how people interact.
e.g. Anglo Saxon nations are usually monochronic, and focus on one thing at a time. Meetings usually have strict schedules that are followed. At the other extreme, in many Arabic nations, there are often several things happening at once, and people naturally and easily switch between them.
There are many connections between these dimensions. e.g. cultures that are individualist are often very direct in their communication. They assume nothing, as people are often pursuing their own agendas, with little in common.
To understand these dimensions further, it’s helpful to explore the basic history of cultures around the world. These often heavily influence which end of the scales the cultures focus on. Cultures usually do whatever they need to survive, and differing pressures around the world result in different choices, values, and cultures.
Another great exercise is to find out where you stand on the dimensions. Sometimes it’s hard to see our own culture, a bit like asking a fish about water. By exploring your own answers, you can learn more about your own culture. Some people fit into it perfectly, and others are rebels in one way or another. Where do you stand?
People often dismiss history as being boring or no longer relevant. This is a big mistake. If you don’t learn the very basics of another culture, you risk enormous trouble. e.g. if you don’t know that a neighbouring country has repeatedly invaded and abused the country you’re visiting, you’ll cause all kinds of offence, or perhaps worse.
Do you have to learn the main language of a country you visit? Usually not, although learning a few basic phrases is something anybody can do. It usually brings huge rewards, as non English speaking people usually appreciate it when a visitor takes the time to learn some of their language.
Other areas of cultural difference include time zones, punctuality, which days of the week are for work, and which are considered the weekend, when national holidays are, and how people negotiate. All of these influence your success.
Still more areas to explore include the role and specifics of entertainment, both in business and private life, greetings and small talk, titles, names, gifts, and gestures, as well as dress, both for business and in your free time.
As you can imagine, learning all these things won’t happen overnight, but if you don’t bother, you’re almost guaranteeing either failure. Some countries don’t take too kindly to those who behave in such ignorant ways, and you could even be deported, or end up in prison.
How to find out more? The best introduction I’ve found is Customs of the World, a video series of 24 lectures from The Great Courses, by Professor David Livermore. It can be found here:
Countless articles can be found online, of course, but they won’t give you the superb top down view, or anywhere near as much detail.
A final reminder: if you wish to succeed when dealing with people from other countries, make sure you study cultural intelligence, or you risk almost certain failure.