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Sunday, June 24, 2012


Cultures always fascinate me. How do they develop? How do they change? How the meaning of an action is different in different cultures? Why people are not very good at seeing things from another perspective (influenced by another culture)? 

To continue learning about cultures, I just finished reading a book - Figuring Foreigners Out-which gives very pragmatic advice on understanding and adapting to new cultures. Thanks to my teacher, Donna Stringer, for recommending the book. Following are some edited excepts that explain fundamentals of culture: 

1. Culture is the shared assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people which result in characteristic behaviors. And, cultural generalizations are necessarily statements of likelihood and potential, not of certainty. 

2. An instance of behavior has no particular meaning other than what the people who witness that behavior assign to it. Behavior means what we decide it means - very often it means nothing at all. 

3. If all human behavior were put on a continuem, the part related to culture would fall in the middle, between universal at one extreme and personal at the other. 

4. There are four building blocks for culture: 

i) Concept of self: individualist and collectivist 
ii) Personal vs societal responsibility: universalist and particularist 
iii) Concept of time: monochronic and polychornic 
iv) Locus of control: internal and external 

Let's look at these blocks one by one. 

5. Self: 

i) Individualist: The smallest unit of survival is the individual. People identify primarily with self, and the needs of the individual are satisfied before those of the group. Looking after and taking care of oneself, being self-sufficient, guarantees the well-being of the group. Independence and self-reliance are stressed and greatly valued, personal freedom is highly desired. In general, there is more psychological distance from others. One may choose to join groups, but group membership is not essential to one's identity, survival or success. 

US is a good example of an Individualist culture. 

ii) Collectivist: The primary group, usually the immediate family, is the smallest unit of survival. One's identity is in large part a function of one's membership and role in a group (e.g., the family, the work team). The survival and success of the group ensures the well-being of the individual, so that by considering the needs and feelings of others, one protects oneself. Harmony and interdependence of group members are stressed and valued. There is relatively little psychological or emotional distance between group members, though there is more distance between group (ingroup)and non-group members (outgroup). 

China is a good example of a Collectivist culture. 

A lot of cultures fall between the continuem where individualist and collectivist are the opposite poles. 

6. Responsibility: 

i) Universalism: There are certain absolutes that apply across the board, regardless of circumstances or the particular situation. What is right is always right. Wherever possible, one should try to apply the same rules to everyone in like situations. To be fair is to treat everyone alike and not make exceptions for family, friends, or members of one's ingroup. In general, ingroup/outgroup distinctions are minimized. Where possible, one should lay one's personal feelings aside and look at situations objectively. Where life isn't fair, one can make it more fair by treating everyone the same. 

Germany is a good example of a Universalist culture. 

ii) Particularism: How you behave in a given situation depends on circumstances. What is right in one situation may not be right in another. You treat family, friends, and your ingroups the best you can, and you let the rest of the world take care of itself. (Their ingroups will protect them.) One's ingroups and outgroups are clearly distinguished. There will always be exceptions made for certain people. To be fair is to treat everyone as unique. In any case, on one expects life to be fair. Personal feelings should not be laid aside but rather relied upon. 

Africa is a good example of a Particularist culture. 

A lot of cultures fall between the continuem where Universalist and Particularist are the opposite poles. 

7. Time: 

i) Monochronic: Time is a commodity; it is quantifiable and and there is limited amount of it. Therefore, it is necessary to use time wisely and not waste it. There is a premium on efficiency, hence a sense of urgency in may matters. Time is the given and people are variable; the needs of people are adjusted to suit the demands of time (schedules, deadlines, etc.). It is considered most efficient to do one thing at a time or wait on one person at a time. As far as possibile, you shouldn't let circumstances, unforeseen events, interfere with your plans. Interruptions are a nuisance. 

US is a good example of a Monochronic culture. 

ii) Polychronic: Time is limitless and not quantifiable. There is always more time, and people are never too busy. Time is the servant and tool of people and is adjusted to suit the needs of people. Schedules and deadlines often get changed. People may may have to do several things simultaneously, as required by circumstances. It's not necessary to finish one thing before starting another, nor to finish your business with one person before starting in with another. One always has to take circumstances into account and make adjustments. Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as an interruption. 

Mexico is a good example of a Polychronic culture.

A lot of cultures fall between the continuem where Monochronic and Polychronic are the opposite poles. 

8. Control: 

Internal: The locus of control is largely internal, within the individual. There are very few givens in life, few things or circumstances which have to be accepted as they are and cannot be changed. There are no limits on what you can do or become, so long as you set your mind to it and make the necessary effort. Your success is your own achievement. You are responsible for what happens to you. Life is what you do; hence, these represent more activist cultures. 

US is a good example of an Internal culture. 

External: The locus of control is largely external to the individual. Some things in life are predetermined, built into the nature of things. There are limits beyond which one cannot go and certain givens that cannot be changed and must he accepted. ("That's just the way things are.") Your success is a combination of your effort and your good fortune. Life is in large part what happens to you; thus, these represent more fatalist cultures. 

Middle East is a good example of an External culture. 

A lot of cultures fall between the continuem where Internal and External are the opposite poles. 

9. In cross-cultural communication, whether the message you send is the one that gets received and whether the message you receive is the one that was sent are no longer forgone conclusions. 

10. How does one communicate effectively in cross-cultural environment? The differences between the directness and indirectness, probably account for more cross-cultural misunderstanding than any other single factor. The directness and indirectness are described below: 

i) Indirect (High Context): People in these cultures tend to infer, suggest, and imply rather than say things directly. At least that is how they appear to people from more direct cultures - though not, of course, to each other. These cultures tend to be collectivist, where harmony and saving face are the greatest goods.; hence, there is a natural tendency toward indirectness and away from confrontation. In collectivist cultures, ingroups are well established and members have an intuitive understanding of each other, in part because of shared experiences. This means that as a rule people don't need to spell things out or say very much to get their message across. This intuitive understanding is known as context (in this context:-)) , and in high-context cultures messages often don't even need words to be expressed; non-verbal communication may be enough, or the message may be expressed in terms of what is not said or done. The goal of most communication exchanges is preserving and strengthening the relationship with the other person. 

Japan is a good example of an Indirect communication culture. 

ii) Direct (Low Context): Direct cultures tend to be less collectivist and more individualist than indirect cultures, with less well-developed ingroups. People lead more independent lives and have fewer shared experiences; hence, there is less instinctive understanding of others. People need to spell things out and be more explicit, to say exactly what they mean rather than merely suggest of imply. There is less context, less that can be taken for granted. The spoken word carries most of the meaning; you should not read anything into what is not said or done. The goal of most communication exchanges is getting or giving information. 

Germany is a good example of a Direct communication culture. 

A lot of cultures fall between the continuem where Indirect and Direct communication styles are the opposite poles. 

11. To realize it takes all sorts to make a world, one must have seen a certain numbers of the sorts with one's own eyes. There is all the difference in the world between believing academically, with the intellect, and believing personally, with the whole living self. - Aldous Huxley