Understanding culture isn’t easy. If you travel a lot abroad, you are probably are familiar with the feeling of being in an unfamiliar culture. The street signs you can’t read, different foods and drinks than at home, weird customs and traditions are all around you. All of a sudden, you feel like a toddler who can’t read and write, and maybe not even understand what the people around you are saying. To make matters worse, even gestures and mimic can be confusing.
What is culture? Is it more than those stereotypical ideas that Germans drink a lot of beer and are very accurate, and that Americans have drive and yet are easy going, and the French take 3 hour lunches? Understanding cultures is a bit more complicated than those platitudes. According to Gary Wederspahn, culture is the shared set of assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people by which they organize their common life. In our world we can distinguish lot of cultures because of the number of countries for example, but also we can see some scales in these ‘country cultures’.
When you travel all over the world, you have to face these different cultures with their own meaning and perception of words or gestures. Understanding culture will help you to be more aware of these differences and so avoid big mistakes in your behavior, what we call ‘cultural adjustment’.
How does culture “express” itself?
Even if the contrary can be thought, we are not spontaneous in our behavior. Our traditions, our values, our education, and so on, influence us in everyday situations. That is why once you know people’s values and beliefs, you can often expect and predict their behavior. We can say that our behavior is a reflection of our culture.
Culture is often compared to an iceberg: the visible section of the iceberg is only a fraction of the invisible part under water. Each culture has some aspects which are observable and others that can only be suspected or imagined. Thus the part of culture which is visible, such as behavior, is only a small part of a bigger picture. If you really want to understand a certain culture better, you need to spend time immersed in it.
To give you a better idea of all the small parts that our culture is made up of, here are listed some examples of cultural expressions: facial expressions, religious beliefs, religious rituals, importance of time, paintings, values, literature, gestures, holiday customs, nature of friendship, notions of modesty, foods and eating habits, understanding of the natural world, concept of self, work ethic, concept of beauty, music, understanding of authority, concept of family, style of dress…
Where does Culture come from?
How do people get their culture? How do they learn all the behaviors that are regarded as right and wrong in their society? This process, also known as cultural conditioning, is present in every culture, but the specific behaviors that people have, the precise content of their conditioning, is different from group to group.
Everyone knows that common culture come mainly from a common history which shapes our mind and so have influence on our behavior or way of thinking.
The most important part of your culture will be acquired during your childhood, but you will acquire new behaviors until the end of your life:
- In Childhood: children learn basics activities as eating, walking, talking, dressing, bathing, etc. These basics are the origin of the future children’s behavior.
- As Adults: people learn new behavior or new ways to perform thanks to education, travels, etc. Adults learn how to adapt themselves.
How to analyze culture? Or how to have the right behavior?
We can find five steps of culture analyzing:
- Observation/Instruction: you become aware of a particular behavior but have not yet tried to do it yourself.
- Imitation: now you try to have the same behavior
- Reinforcement: people help you by correcting you or showing you.
- Internalization: you know how to behave but you still need practice.
- Spontaneous Manifestation: you no more need to pay attention to your behavior, it comes naturally.
To go further in behavior/culture analysis, you can research about Hofstede’s parameters and Hall’s parameter.
Why is understanding culture so important?
When you go to another country, you will be confronted with different behaviors, different foods, and different ways of life. Most of people are see that as the main reason why they travel abroad in the first place. They want to open their minds and learn about other cultures, educate about a different way of doing something.
Understanding culture is important, as it makes you aware and more sensitive to differences, and you could avoid big mistake in your behavior or maybe adjust, but at least to respect the people that belong to other cultures than your own.
Moreover understanding culture does not only exist in the aim of helping poor little students but it is also a real challenge for international businesses. You will not promote a product in the same way in France or in Germany or in Russia.
Understanding culture is the most important thing when dealing and respecting people. It does not mean, you have to go out of your way to mimic a culture that is different than your own, but you should respect the other culture and treat it a different, not inferior yours!
Thank you for your post. You are exactly right. Culture means many things to different people and in my opinon we must take time to learn from one another’s diversity rather than hide from one another. We must also exercise patience. I am currently a school nursing supervisor. Once we had a student who had a very infected area on his hand. We tried and tried to explain to the parents that the child needed to see the doctor but instead of doing so, they took an onion, heated it on the stove, and placed it on the infected area. The father shared that in their culture this was done and an acceptable way of dealing with infection. We shared that we did not think that would work in this case and the child eventually was taken to the doctor to get antibiotics. He is fine now but we were scared for a while. I had to step back and realize that these parents were not neglecting their son, they just believed differently than I did in the healing process.
Thank’s for your explanation, I get your point …
Now, I can do my assignment clearly…..
Maria, you ROCK and your blog too! That’s why I ALSO named you and your blog for the Liebster Award.
Here is the article where I nominated you! Hope you’ll love and appreciate this. I’ll keep on reading 🙂
What an insightful read – growing up in the Middle East, which is such a melting pot of different nationalities, really helped me embrace the similarities and differences of cultures. I think the more you travel the more you become aware of the need to be sensitive to other cultures.
I agree Christabel, traveling and living abroad opens your mind and once you have lived somewhere as a “foreigner”, you will forever remember that feeling. I think, travel teaches you understanding and empathy of others, because you realize, that despite all the difference, we are not that different after all.
Great post! A lot of people like to travel to explore cultures but then a lot don’t go further than reasserting their preceonceived notions and stereotypes. Also really liked that you pointed to Hofstede. His dimensions have always fascinated me because they hold so much truth.
Hi Annemarie, thanks for your comment. I agree, it is hard to overcome the stereotypes, especially some countries tend to play to into this as well, because they think the tourists want to see this. The tourists book a two week all inclusive vacation in a resort, attend a “cultural” night with some singing and dancing and then think they really were in this country. Technically yes, of course, but did they really experience it? Did they share a meal with locals? Did they get a glimpse of what everyday life is about in this country? Probably not.
Oh, and Hofstede ROCKS! I discovered his studies while I was living in China and spent hours researching his findings. Interesting stuff 😉
This is an amazing article! I especially love the last bit. Understanding culture is beneficial to everyone and there is always more to learn. More businesses definitely NEED to take more of an effort to understand different cultures so they can better target people into interacting with their product.
I absolutely agree, Anshula. In today’s world, companies need to understand that they are selling to a global customer base and need to adapt their strategies. I actually do that for a living, by helping companies with their online marketing abroad. There is a lot to think about and consider, but if you do it right, the rewards are endless.
Nice post Maria – well thought out and articulated. And you’re right, culture is so much more than the platitudes we throw on a group of people. Whenever I’m in a new place, I like to take it real slow. I love just sitting at a coffee shop and watch people walk by, hear them talk, look at the way they go about their lives to try and understand a little bit more of what it means to live there. Also, your newsletter sign-up pop-up isn’t working for me. I can’t click on the fields to fill in my information.
Thank you so much for your comment, Hung. I love to people watch as well and try to include as many “every-day” activities, like taking public transportation, going grocery shopping (and then having a little picnic in the park), walking through residential neighborhoods etc.
Thanks for the heads up on the pop-up. I actually got a notification that you signed up for my list, so it should be all good 🙂
Great post Maria! I completely agree with Hung! There is something about taking your time to observe, listen, and seeking to understand all that surrounds you. You’re absolutely right about internalisation!