Understanding Cultures to Embrace the Commonalities and Respect the Differences

Understanding Cultures to Embrace the Commonalities and Respect the Differences
Understanding Cultures to Embrace the Commonalities and Respect the Differences

“Culture” which is defined as a set of customs, traditions, values and conventions specific to a social or ethnic group impacts us throughout our life and in every aspect of it. The intricate behaviors and connotations that are instilled in each of us comprise our culture. Moreover, you might not even realize that it is not as much your personal culture that impacts your life as that of those who surround you. If you belong to a group who has “reserved culture” where open communication is not encouraged, and being persuasive is not viewed as a merit, but is frowned upon then be prepared to get your manners out of your system if you are a student and your English language instructor is coming from the US, i.e. he or she will likely have a communication style typical of “expressive culture”.

At this point I don’t mean personality features, but “different frames of reference” – a set of assumptions and standards that determine individual behaviour. At the very least these assumptions will determine if the quality of your assignments meet your instructor’s expectations and how your “reserved culture” with such connotations as appreciation of subordinacy will be understood by him or her. Most likely in educational context it will not be viewed as an “acceptable behavior” by your instructor. In such situations many learners will do whatever it takes not to put themselves in a position where they might ‘lose face’, i.e. their answer is “yes” to everything when in fact, they ultimately mean “no”. Who likes to be embarrassed after all? Another example of a typical miscommunication would be when your teacher coming from an “expressive culture” in order to encourage you would say that you did an “awesome job” on your paper, while your grade would mean quite the opposite to you – your work was “not too bad”. Thus, your teacher who is from an effusive culture might think that students need or even expect constant praise to stay motivated, while students who belong to reserved culture may sense insincerity in such incessant praise.

What complicates matters further is the fact that in expressive cultures verbosity is not expected when it comes to written assignments – for example your American instructor will not appreciate your verbosity on paper, they are proponents of the concept of ‘plain English’ which involves clear and concise sentences, but their own writing style might be far from being concise – they might have a tendency to fill all the white space on paper or white board. To say the least, this is strange, but for you as an English learner it is also very frustrating. So far we have discussed how culture impacts learners in educational setting. Can you see how it will be affecting your future career?

In organizations “culture” is the stated or implied “way of how things are done”, which is reflected in daily interactions between employees and managers, and cultural differences between people can easily complicate matters. You might be used to “expressive” culture where open communication is encouraged and individuals are welcome to make their remarks, as it is the case in most countries in Western Europe and in the United States. If your company is doing business with China or Japan, you should be prepared for negotiating with people who have very reserved culture and are used to relying on internal communication which is kept to the minimum, as it is the case in many Chinese and Japanese companies. In their cultures strict subordination is expected of employees, often the minority is subordinate to the majority, and decisions can only be made on a collective basis.

Consequently, to minimize your communication blunders, which might be costly to your organization, prior to communicating with your foreign partners you should fist find out about their culture, i.e. if they belong to reserved or expressive culture, and adjust your expectations accordingly. It is such subtle factors, as personal assumptions and unawareness of others’ culture and expectations about anything related to your behavior that have a negative impact on your business affairs and career.

Depending on “culture” the level of expression in communication, attire, mannerism and courtesy vary from one person to another, and keeping things strictly professional and relatively impersonal – as opposed to professional with a clear personal touch is the ultimate solution. Take a look at your organization and how it operates – what best describes the cultures and subcultures with whom you communicate on a daily basis? Who are those “specific personalities” that you should adjust your communication style to deal with?

The sooner we identify, adopt and imbibe the best bits from different cultures – both local and foreign the sooner we will excel in our work. I am sure cultural awareness will boost the quality of our lives too.

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