Culture & Society

  • Issue 85 / January - February 2012

    Same World, Different Lenses: A Brief Overview of Cultural Differences

    Osman Senkaya

    According to the British writer Raymond Williams, culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in English. It has many definitions but here is the crux to remember: Culture is the way of life of a given society. Our culture is what we are as a group; it is learnt from birth and is passed down from one generation to another.1

    Culture is to the person as water is to the fish. It influences the way we perceive the world, tells us how to behave, and tells scholars how to think about the causes of behavior. It even shapes the moods and opinions of public about what to eat, what to wear, what to think is right or wrong, and much more. However, people are generally unaware of their cultural conditioning and do not realize that the way they recognize the world is not necessarily same as the way other groups do.2

    An array of traditions, norms and values observed in a society raise its cultural character which distinguish societies from one another. These cultural variations influence the course of communications, may cause (the escalation of) conflict when it leads to miscommunication or misinterpretation, and can be problematic in cross-cultural encounters when one acts as if differences did not exist.3 The deeper one interacts with a different cultural group, the more he/she understands its norms and priorities. This awareness of the ways cultures operate in communication and conflict will yield to the ability to respond effectively to these differences and prevent misunderstandings in intercultural settings.

    One can list many dimensions or their sublevels that cause variations both between and within cultures. Below, we will discuss some major aspects along which cultures vary. Although it seems that there are no direct linkages between each topic, it is interesting to see how they actually relate to one another.

    a. Senses of Self:

    From the outside, a tree grown in California would probably look just like a tree grown in Japan. However, the growth of each tree is largely dependent on the soil that roots of the trees have to interact with in order to grow. The strength of the roots is also dependent on the environment the tree is exposed to, from sunshine to thunderstorms. Imagine the values of a particular culture represented as the roots of a tree. These roots (values) are the source of strength needed by the tree to survive in the surrounding environment (society). Of course, we don't really see the roots, but we are constantly exposed to the tree nevertheless. The type of fertilizer and water fed to the tree contributes significantly to the growth of it. In addition, you can not transplant a tree into other soil unless you prepare the roots for the new soil.

    The roots of each tree may have a different form, much like the cultures they represent. The Japanese roots are twisted together because they may have rockier soil and need the combined strength of the roots to support the tree during rough weather. The American roots, however, are individual, separate, straight, and deep, responding to their soil condition. 4

    Societies that value individual uniqueness and self-determination are referred to as individualistic cultures in which people make up their own mind and show initiative independently. In this way of life, people deem themselves as the masters of their lives which they think they can control by themselves. On the contrary, cultures in which people identify themselves with groups are categorized as collectivistic societies. These societies consider many external parameters outside one's control that affect the course of their lives, and there is more emphasis on the role of destiny in daily life. Many of the Asian cultures are collectivist, while Anglo cultures overall tend to be individualist.

    A "self-determining" individual tries to preserve his/her image and interests by taking a competitive stance in interpersonal encounters. However, for those in collectivistic cultures, direct confrontation may reflect poorly on the group or disturb overall harmony; then open criticisms of others are generally avoided. When there is conflict, a third party is utilized for resolution. Since no direct confrontation takes place, potential damage to the relationships is minimized.

    The value placed on individual freedom in individualist societies leads to the idea that everybody is equal regardless of age, social status, or authority, which calls for a tendency to be informal when addressing one another. In the US, for instance, superiors and subordinates often interact socially as equals, and an outsider typically cannot tell them apart. However, collectivistic societies place more value on seniority and hierarchy and, therefore, are more formal. They also put more emphasis on the role of power/status: Is the boss, a) always right because he is the boss, or b) only when he gets it right?

    Someone devoted to freewill and someone with a more philosophical orientation may face miscommunication. The first would expect immediate action and responsibility and, failing to see it, may conclude that the latter is lagging, hindering, or dishonest. The second person would expect respect for the natural order of things and, failing to see it, may conclude that the former is pushy or impolite.

    b. Communication styles:

    Japanese can find Westerners to be offensively blunt. Westerners can find Japanese to be secretive, devious and bafflingly unforthcoming with information. French can feel that Germans insult their intelligence by explaining the obvious, while Germans can feel that French managers provide no direction. 5

    In some cultures, people presume ample commonality of understanding and attitude in their counterparts hence they feel that it is unnecessary to be "over-explicit"; information is communicated in indirect ways embedded in the existing context or internalized in the person per se. Whereas in other cultures, information is part of, and conveyed through, the verbal content of the communication; things are made explicit, and there is considerable dependence on what is actually said. The first types of cultures are known as high-context, and the latter low-context respectively. Due to the significance of social information networks, collectivistic cultures tend to be high context.

    Since the focus is the message itself rather than the context, low context cultures are open to communication errors when they assume more shared knowledge than there actually is. This direct approach may help to avoid communication errors when used properly (in a good timing and context). However, communicators may fail to "feel the emotional state" of the other party, or may hurt feelings while trying to be "direct."

    Though, low context cultures expect thorough explanations, high context cultures take them as redundant discussions on details, and even somewhat hesitate to make mistakes with too much talk. These cultures are more cautious about the potential implications of the message delivered. Silence and other indirect/non-confrontational methods are frequently applied and patience is promoted for the sake of overall harmony. On one side, silence is viewed as a communication breakdown, whereas on the other it is utilized as an actual communication component at times.

    c. Perception of time:

    I was once told that one of the South American groups in the U.S. used to send to different invitations for the same occasion. One was truly showing the ceremony time, yet the other was for an hour before the actual kickoff. The first was for the American friends and the latter one was for their own community to offset possible delays.

    Time is beyond what a clock reads: "There are two blessings in which most people are in great loss: Good health and free time." 6 In addition to being a major blessing, it is one of the most central differences that separate cultures and cultural ways of doing things.

    In the West, time has a present focus moving toward the future at an acknowledged swiftness. Events are explained via specific causes, and there is an appropriate time and place for everything. This notion of time is actually a product of the Industrial Revolution which requires certain tasks to be achieved at a predetermined hour. Concentration is on one event at a time, schedules and deadlines take priority, and interruptions are not very welcome, which ultimately seals people off from one another, as limited time allows some people in and leaves some others out.

    In Western cultures, time is considered as a limited reserve which is continually being used up. It's like having a bathtub full of water that is running down the drain, and can never be replaced. It has to be used as it runs down the drain or it is wasted.5 Time is perceived quantitatively; it is measured and almost tangible. Many expressions such as Boucicault's following words highlight its importance and urge its awareness in these societies: "Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them." "Time is money" is a household expression, and people often talk about "saving," "spending," "wasting," "finding," or "losing" time. Time orders life and priorities: "I don't have time to do that." Since time is prioritized, so is accomplishing a task as quickly as possible; thus taking risks are expected to bring the future closer.

    As time is limited, punctuality becomes a desirable quality and wasting someone's time is regarded as an insult. Lest communication takes more time, individual-oriented cultures promote direct and competitive communication, whereas group-oriented cultures prefer indirect and harmonious approaches to communicate and avoid direct confrontation. Individualistic cultures may view this communication avoidance as passive, unwilling, or even ignorant. On the other hand, collectivistic cultures may view the direct approach to communication as being rude.

    In the East, time is circular, spiral, even repetitive, and has unlimited continuity; in old agricultural societies which depend on the months/seasons of the year, it renews itself annually (traditional Chinese calendar has a period of 12 years). Other unrelated events or mystical reasons may be used to explain a given event, "as time is viewed an unfolding of stories already written, or a play in which much of the set is invisible." 3 This idea of time also goes along with fate and destiny, and is connected to other people as well as periods of history. People may handle many things at once in this approach. A manager's office in such a culture typically has an open door, a ringing phone and a meeting all going on at the same time. Within all these intermingling events, punctuality is nice, but not essential.

    In Eastern cultures, time is more plentiful and people tend to be more patient. It is quite acceptable to make people wait all day, and then tell them to come back later. Time-abundant cultures tend to rely on trust to do business, whereas time-limited cultures don't have time to develop trust and have other mechanisms to substitute trust (such as judiciary mechanisms).5 This time pressure may also account for segmented relationships in Anglo cultures, while time-abundant societies tend to establish lifetime relationships. Furthermore, societies that have a more flexible sense of time are more comfortable with uncertainties and accommodate changes in verbal plans, whereas time-limited cultures prefer everything to be expressed in written details and abide by these binding plans.

    In Eastern viewpoint, past and future are both present in this stretching time that loops back and forth. The Western concept of time starts with the very current instant and extends into the future. In a negotiation setting of parties with these two different notions of time, one of the parties may take time to provide extensive information regarding their stories and their relationships to the issue; weaving themes, feelings, ideas, and experiences together as they remember the past and project the future. When it is the other party's chance to speak, they may promptly project flow charts showing processes for decision-making and speak about their intentions for entering the negotiation process right away. Neither side would feel satisfied with this meeting, but everyone would feel that they were not "on the same page." 3

    Therefore, as people from different cultural backgrounds work together, they should ask questions about their values and needs, and how these may affect their progress. Both cultures would be comfortable with meeting face to face in a mediation setting to frankly discuss differences of any sort.

    Figure 1, serves as a summary of the dimensions we have mentioned so far. While the generalizations listed do not apply uniformly to all cultures, they will help convey a pattern:

    Figure 1. Comparison of various cultural dimensions
    Group A Group B
    Perception of Self Emphasis on individual (Independent) Emphasis on group (Collectivist)
    Focuses on individual development Focuses on group development
    Focus on individual events and the person's role All events in the universe are interconnected
    Less formal tone Hierarchy, seniority, formality matters
    Respect for privacy (larger personal space) Deeply immersed w/ each others' lives
    Personality and attributes determine acts Situation and context have huge impact
    Internal locus of control (one determines own life) External locus of control (fate, chance)
    Status quo can-and often is-questioned Status quo is not questioned
    Communication Most of the information is explicit in words Context is at least as important as words
    Direct & explicit communication style Indirect & implicit. Delivery via nonverbal cues
    Words are way more important than the context What isn't said can be more meaningful
    Parties need explicit information Parties can handle ambiguity to some extent
    People want to hear what you think Silence is valued
    Perception of Time Emphasize promptness (schedules, deadlines, etc.) Not so concerned about punctuality
    Concentrate on one thing at a time Comfortable w/ several simultaneous tasks
    Concentrate on job and tasks Concentrate on people and feelings
    Cause-and-effect paradigms appear Events may have mystical explanations
    Serious time commitments (deadlines, schedules) Flexible with schedules
    Avoid uncertainties, rely on standards Tolerant to ambiguity, gut-level decisions
    Adhere to plans (written, binding) Change plans (spoken, flexible) easily
    People are committed to job and tasks People are committed to relationships
    Accustomed to short-term relationships Tend to build lifetime relationships
    Segmented personal relations Extensive information networks

    Most North European and North American cultures fall into Group A.
    Most Latin American, Asian, South European, and some African cultures overall fall into Group B.

    Each of the variables discussed here shows only a glimpse of various dimensions across cultures, which do not apply to all individuals within a culture. One should not generalize by ignoring individual differences; e.g., "he is like that because he is Asian ÔÇô all Asians are nonverbal." An individual's behavior may well vary depending on the situation, individual personality, mood, etc. as well. Cultural differences discussed here are general guidelines and there will always be exceptions. Anyone is unique in a sense and must be approached accordingly. It is important to remember this uniqueness at times of negotiations or unease, and not rush to make decisions before clearly understanding the situation. Keep in mind that different cultures see the world through diverse filtering lenses; there may not be a disagreement but just a different interpretation of what is going on.

    As a result of globalization, the world is becoming smaller and people of various cultures are able to communicate freely. Ideas and perspectives can span across cultures through different forms of media like the television, the newspapers and the Internet; thus, cultures are blending more and more every day, which makes dialogue and mutual understanding essential. Only by learning about, respecting, and celebrating these differences, we can build mutuality and co-operative relationships, rather than breeding enmities.

    Osman Senkaya has a Master's Degree in Nonprofit Leadership. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    2 Kim, Min-Sun. 2002. Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication: Implications for Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage Publications.
    3 LeBaron, Michelle. "Cross-Cultural Communication."
    4 Elashmawi, Farid, and Philip R. Harris. 1993. Multicultural Management: New Skills for Global Success. 3rd ed.: Gulf Publishing Company.
    5 "Differences in Cultures."
    6 Sahih Bukhari: Vol. 8, Book 76, Number 421.
    7 Foster, Dean A. 1992. Bargaining Across Borders: How to negotiate business successfully anywhere in the world: McGraw-Hill.


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