Culture: A quick primer

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The word culture is becoming more common - so much that in 2014, Merriam-Webster dictionary named it the word of the year. However, popularity has led to confusion as people use the same word to talk about different things. Below, we take a quick look at what we mean by culture in an intercultural and global business context. We also share basic steps for becoming more culture-savvy. 

Ways to think about culture

Geert Hofstede described culture as "the software of the mind." Others say it is like an iceberg - where what we see on the surface is only a fraction of what's hiding below. And some compare culture to the water in a fish bowl, in that the fish doesn't give the water a second thought unless it leaves the security of its bowl and discovers that everything it took for granted was essential. 

Culture is a system that makes life make sense  

These metaphors help us visualize an unwieldy topic, but they don't necessarily tell us what culture is and how it works. Culture is a complex system that tells us what life is about, what we should value and prioritize, how we should act, what our roles should be, what we should aspire to, how to communicate, how to form and sustain relationships, how to think about time, and what is right and wrong. In short, it's how we do things, how things work, and how we know who we are. 

We learn the rules of the game as children and by adulthood, most of us accept our society's norms at face value. They may even be so self-evident, obvious, and "right" that we assume they are universal. However, because systems are created by people in response to local conditions and then recreated by our daily actions, cultures vary widely from place to place. 

This is easy for most people to accept in theory. The trouble comes in practice when, like the fish out of water, we study, work, or live outside our own culture – or people from another culture come into ours. When we interact with other cultures, we may be embarrassed by a faux pas or feel judgmental when someone behaves in a way that we were taught to see as strange, wrong, or bad. If our communication patterns are different, we may feel frustrated because someone is too blunt or evasive; similarly, if our personal space bubbles are different, we may view them as intrusive or stand-offish. On the other hand, we may be so fascinated and enthusiastic that we embrace everything overzealously and uncritically.  

These reactions may become the lens through which we view the other culture. A defensive posture can lead us to judge them unfairly or reject them outright, and a "small world" mentality can foster false expectations about similarity, setting us up for disappointment. Both impede cultural effectiveness by leading us to view them not as they really are, but as we think they are (and how we feel about that).  

Managing ourselves

One element in working across cultures is learning how to deal with ourselves – because we are a variable in the cross-cultural equation. The idea is not to become bias-free or leave cherished values at the door. Rather, we want to be aware of our reactions and viewpoints and work with them productively instead of operating on autopilot. 

Learning about the other culture

Next, we need to learn about the other culture. How do things work? What do they value? What behaviors are appropriate in which contexts? What does effective communication look like? How do they establish trust? What does an event or decision mean here, and what meanings are you missing? 

Code-switching

Finally, we need to code switch, or adjust our communication style and behavior to the cultural context. There's no need to overdo it and become more local than the locals; in most cases there is a sweet spot where you can be effective while still feeling and sounding like yourself.  

Becoming culture-savvy

These three steps sound simple but working through them presents a challenge for most people.  This is because in the real world, we must think on our feet and process new cultural information, filter it through our own frameworks, dig into our knowledge banks, scan possible responses, and react in real time. Doing it at all can be difficult; doing it well involves cycles of learning, practice, and feedback.  

At Hahn Cultural Consulting, we help you build cultural competence by offering training (where we provide information about the other culture) and coaching (where we help you manage yourself, so you can "do" the other culture better). We're also ready to help you discover the role that culture plays in your organization through consulting. Finally, because culture is bigger than any single article, we are here to give you advice and shine a light on any cultural questions or challenges that may arise. (Ready to get started? Contact us and let us know how we can help!)