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What do we mean by culture?

Culture has been defined as “the shared ways in which groups of people understand and interpret the world”( Fons Trompenaars in Riding the Waves of Culture). Another definition is“The collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group… from another.” (Geert Hofstede in Cultures and Organizations). Perhaps the simplest expression of all, “the way we do things around here” ( John Mole, Author ). You can see these definitions take in the idea of the mind and ‘mindset’ through which the world is interpreted. We are not born with a ‘culture’ but it is something we are born into and acquire its ways as we grow up.

However, we tend to think of culture and cultural differences in terms of what we can see or hear or even taste. That is to say, how people express themselves through dress, food and conversation as well as behaviour in both social and business settings. What do we mean by behavior? For example, in some cultures people may communicate more formally (and indirectly) than in other cultures. Perhaps they may be more deferential to people considered higher in status or age e.g. in China, India, Middle East.

Meanwhile some societies value ‘equality’ and structures are flatter in organizations. Also, communication is more direct (and perhaps informal) such as in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and a little less so, the UK. Similarly we can observe differences in societies by the type of institutions and even how much general rules are followed!

All of this however, all that we are able to observe and sense, represents only the “tip of an iceberg”. Let’s call it the ‘Cultural Iceberg’. What we are not generally aware is that the far larger part, i.e. what a culture is, sits below the surface and is thus “hidden” from us. What we actually observe (above the surface) are only the expressions and symbols of a culture and this gives us neither the full picture nor full understanding of a culture. What is more, this idea of the ‘cultural iceberg’ applies as much to our own culture, e.g. if you live in Norway, as to any foreign culture you may be doing business with or have come across in other ways.

So, what aspects of a culture lie in the mysterious area below surface? This is where some of a person’s deepest, most implicit beliefs and assumptions reside. These manifest themselves as ‘core cultural values’ through which a person or society interprets both the world and what is seen to be the ‘right’ or ‘proper’ way to do things. These values underlie the collective way a society tends to act, notwithstanding differences in personality or competencies.

Where do these values come from? They have derived through the centuries from a country’s history and religion and traditions and institutions and even philosophy. Examples of core cultural values are the value placed on family or group compared to individualism, or hierarchy and status consciousness, or even the importance placed on building relationships say when doing business. There are many others.

It cannot be emphasized enough that it is these core cultural values that drive the ‘over the surface’ behaviours that we observe in a culture. So to understand any culture effectively, we need to know its cultural values and their impact.

Edward T Hall said “Culture hides more than it reveals. Strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants”. This applies to all of us. We are generally not even consciously aware of our own deeper cultural values and beliefs and why we behave and do things the way we do. We learn and assume these subconsciously as we grow up and so act in our particular ways without thinking about it – it all seems perfectly ‘normal’ in our own societies.

Our “worldview” is thus formed by these subconscious layers, which we wear as our “cultural lens” in assessing and interpreting interactions with other cultures. When the behaviours of another culture are not in “tune” with our own values, we often consider them to be “wrong”. Cultures have similarities and difference and it is the differences that pose us the challenges. Additionally, we are often unaware as to how we ourselves may come across to other cultures because we are not attentive to our own values. This can thus lead to cross cultural conflict! No culture is “right or wrong”, they are just different and difference does not mean being “less or more”.

So, when interacting with other cultures we need to keep in view the cultural iceberg. This means understanding the core values of not only the other culture but our own culture too and where differences exist. We then need to adapt and modify our behaviors to be able to live in and/or work effectively with another culture. However, we need to careful in avoiding stereotyping or too much generalisation.

Communication is the “glue” when doing business with another culture. Communication styles vary across cultures and we will share this in our next article in the autumn, when we examine differing styles and patterns of communication and how misunderstanding can occur, hindering the bottom line and or even living in a new culture.

This blog was written by Laxmi Chaudhry, Cross Cultural Consultant/Trainer at 1 Stop HR, UK; ; +44 7793 742767

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