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What Is Culture, Anyway?
By Craig Storti
Pub: Profiles in Diversity Journal JANUARY/February 2011
This might be a good time, as this column gets ready to celebrate its second anniversary, to define this word “culture” we’ve been throwing around, just assuming everyone understands it and its relevance to today’s workplace. Most readers have an idea of what culture is, of course, and probably deal with culture—especially cultural differences— every day. But it might be nice to define what we mean by culture in this space and, just as important, what we don’t mean.
We don’t mean capital C Culture, of course: literature, painting, music, that sort of thing. We’re using the word in a much broader sense to refer to the way a particular group of people from the same background think and act. Most interculturalists (that really is what we call ourselves!) define culture using the famous iceberg metaphor, to suggest that there are both a visible (above the water line) and a larger, invisible (below the water line) dimension
to culture. And then we put some words on the iceberg as follows: Culture has a visible component, above the water line, which we call behavior: the things people say and do. When you interact with someone from another culture, it’s not their culture you are dealing with but everything that other person is saying and doing. In other words, you will encounter other people’s culture in the form of their behavior; this is what you need to try to understand, interpret correctly, and ideally be able to anticipate. And those other people will be encountering your culture in the form of your behavior: all the things you say and do.
But the whole point of culture, in a way, is that the visible dimension—the things people say and do—is neither accidental nor arbitrary. People aren’t making this up as they go along or changing it when the spirit moves them. Behavior is largely predictable, or else there would be chaos. And it is the product of the invisible and subconscious dimension of culture (below the water line), the elements we have labeled values, beliefs, and assumptions. Values are what you have been raised to think of as good or bad, right or wrong; beliefs are those things you think of as true or real; and assumptions, the deepest level of culture, are those instinctive, internalized convictions you have about how the world works, what is usually referred to as your mindset or your worldview. Or where you’re coming from.
So let’s pick a cultural assumption—attitude toward risk—and see how this all works. The chart (on page 11) presents the polar opposite extremes you’re going to find around the world in terms of how different people in different cultures instinctively “feel” about risk, based on their cultural conditioning. If you come from the United States, chances are you have been socialized the way people are in highrisk-tolerant cultures; if you come from Nigeria, you have probably been socialized the way people are in low-risk tolerant cultures, all other things being equal.
Remember that this socialization has been an ongoing process since the time you were born, and the effects are almost entirely subconscious and instinctive.You don’t realize you are risk tolerant/risk averse; you just naturally act that way. And voila: the crucial link between assumptions and behavior!
And here’s where it gets interesting: In many instances, individuals who are the products of risk-tolerant cultures are going to behave very differently from individuals who are the products of risk-averse cultures, and yet each type of individual is going to consider his/her behavior normal and logical and the behavior of the other type to be abnormal and illogical. Or just plain wrong.
Impact in the Workplace
In today’s workplace, you’re bound to have individuals of all different types, that is, some highly or moderately risk-tolerant types, and some moderately and highly risk averse types. Needless to say, they’re not going to see eye-to-eye on a lot of matters. And attitude toward risk is just one of many cultural assumptions that people have different ways of dealing with (see How Cultures Differ below).
Fine, you say. I get it. People from different cultural backgrounds are going to think and act differently. My problem is I’m trying to run a business here, and I need everybody to be more or less on the same wavelength If some of my staff are highly risk-averse and don’t like to try new things, and some are highly risk-tolerant and like to shake things up—what am I supposed to do when it comes to implementing that new reporting system? Am I supposed to give the risk-averse types six months before they have to start using it and let the other group start after two weeks? Sorry, but that’s not an option in the real world. Everyone has to start at the same time or this isn’t going to work.
We could go on, but you get the point. So what are we supposed to do about cultural differences in today’s multicultural workplace? Actually, you don’t have to do very much at all except try to be more aware of cultural differences, educate yourself about what forms they take so you’re not caught off guard when you encounter them on the job. They’re real and they can pose challenges, but they can also bring great benefits to your workforce: multiple perspectives, novel approaches, creative solutions to problems.
“So how do you answer my question about the risk averse guy and the risk friendly woman, both of whom have to start using the new reporting system?” Easy: you acknowledge that some of your staff are going to be happy and good at this, and some are going to be nervous and ham-fisted. And then you try to provide resources and support for the latter.
It’s really no different than dealing with any other difference among the various employees in your group, no two of whom are identical. You already treat all your staff as individuals, accommodating and capitalizing on their various personal qualities, allowing for their idiosyncrasies. And culture is just one more variable, one more factor, that figures in the mix. PDJ
HOW CULTURES DIFFER:
Let Us Count the Ways
In the main text we selected one way that
cultures differ—in their attitude toward
risk—and we explained that a difference
between cultures at the fundamental level,
what we called a cultural assumption, leads
to all manner of differences at the level of
individual behavior. So what are some of
the other fundamentals?
• Attitude towards time (monochromic &
•Management style (decentralized &
• Locus of control (internal & external)
• Communication style (direct & indirect)
• Concepts of rank and status (egalitarian
• Importance of face (less important &
• Concepts of right and fairness
(universalism & particularism)
• Concept of limits (unlimited possibilities
& limited possibilities)
• Concept of self/identity (individualist &
• View of human nature (benign & skeptical)
• Task vs. relationship orientation
• Attitude toward uncertainty
(high tolerance & low tolerance)
• Attitude toward power and authority (low
power distance & high power distance)
For each of these concepts, there is a
range between the two polar opposites,
leading to all kinds of behavioral differences.
Risk is a fact of life, built into almost any
situation; it’s not possible to
factor all risk out of most decisions/actions;
you can’t know anything for sure until
you try it; trial and error/experimenting
are essential for learning, improving;
nothing is ever perfect the first time (and we
can always fix it later); making
mistakes is how we learn; new is often
better/is not threatening; there is always a better way of doing thinks; tradition should not be valued for its own sake; "the way we have always done it" can be improved; being creative and
“thinking outside the box" are rewarded.
Taking risks and failing have strong nega
tive consequences; you should not have to
take risks if you do your homework; most
risks (and their consequences) can be avoided
if we do enough analysis/gather enough data;
risk-taking is for those who are impatient or
just lazy; mistakes can be avoided with care
ful planning; there is no need to “fix” things
if we take enough time to get it right in the
first place; tradition should not be lightly
cast aside; there are good reasons for “the way
we have always done things”; what is new is
unproven/should be approached with healthy
Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural
communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of
India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work
together with No. Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted
at:firstname.lastname@example.org or learn more at his website: craigstorti.com.