What do we mean when we talk about culture?

Culture is becoming such a buzzword that it’s easy to assume that we all know what we mean by it. Organizations use it to refer to their amenities and ideals, while individuals use it to describe unfamiliar flavors, fashions, music, and manners. These understandings are not necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete.

In my work, when we talk about culture, we usually mean the underlying values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations that shape the communication styles, behaviors, etc. that we see on the surface. Because these are often hidden, some people use the metaphor of an iceberg (1). Another way to describe culture is as the “software of the mind” – an operating system that we take for granted until we switch to another (2). In these senses, culture goes way beyond customs and gets at what makes people click.

Who has culture?

Everyone has a culture – or many. Common categories include nation, region, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Organizations and institutions also have cultures, as do professions, fields, and industries. Although in many cases they are social constructs, they become a kind of reality by shaping our perspectives, priorities, policies, and practices.

Does culture change?

Culture is not static, yet the strongest values often hold, even if their expression or interpretation shifts. For example, in the U.S., we tend to be casual and egalitarian. While culture is not causal, and there are many other factors at play, we still see that politicians who can tap into to these values are more successful than those who cannot. (Consider Bush versus Kerry, or Obama compared to Romney).

How is culture related to identity?

Culture and identity are related, but are not exactly the same thing. Whereas culture tells us how things work, how to act, and what is important, identity tells us who we are.

Identity is shaped by how individuals see themselves and how others (both those who are in their groups and outsiders) see them (3). An identity may not be salient for an individual, but may still present obstacles or opportunities because of how others see it. Conversely, an identity may be personally significant, but go unsupported because others deny or discount it.

The process of navigating through the maze of one’s own self-concept and others’ opinions is called identity negotiation. While we are doing this for ourselves, we are also trying to size up others. Because our brains like shortcuts, this is often steered by assumptions, biases, stereotypes, and prejudices. And, because these are so ingrained and reflexive, we may jump to conclusions without even realizing that we are doing it. We increasingly hear about this implicit (subconscious) bias when we talk about issues like police shootings, diversity pipelines, and gender imbalances in the workplace.

When do we get cultural conflict?

Those experiencing displacement or upheaval may sense that their identities, way of life, and cultural values are threatened. They may therefore feel betrayed, marginalized, abandoned, confused, or lost. Change can thus spark fraught cycles of holding on and letting go before acceptance, cohesion, and new meaning can emerge (4). In these conflicts, the big questions are “who are we?” and “where do we go from here?” We see this phenomenon for migrating families, communities experiencing demographic change, and societies fighting culture wars. We also observe it in organizations, particularly after mergers and acquisitions, or during a transition to new management.

A second conflict is less existential and centers on the practical difficulties of crossing cultures: communicating, building trust, establishing an esprit du corps, and accomplishing tasks. Here the question is more about “how do we do this?” “how do I get you to understand me?” and “how do I deal with myself while I’m dealing with you/this?” We see these clashes between those who must collaborate across differences, such as among multinational team members, or between doctors and patients, teachers and students, and neighbors.

A third cultural conflict is personal and internal. When a situation requires ways of thinking and doing that challenge our own cultural values and norms, we may feel like a fish out of water. Even if we grasp what is expected, we may resent it, experience disequilibrium, or wrestle feelings of inauthenticity (5). Here the question is “how can I behave appropriately without losing myself?” We see this among expats and immigrants who must display behaviors at school and work that contradict the way they were raised.

Cultural conflict comes in all shapes and sizes, and can manifest as a personal crisis for individuals, disengagement and turnover in organizations, and hostility and distrust in communities. It is not easy to address because it forces us to recognize that we do not know everything, that our way is not the only or even best way, and that our own assumptions are not universal. It also requires us to suspend judgment, be curious, and become more self aware.

Yet, if the stakes are high, the rewards are, too. Truly, it is only by understanding ourselves and each other – and figuring out how to work together – that we can achieve the success and satisfaction that we seek in our personal, professional, and social lives.

Why work with an expert?

Working with an intercultural specialist is much more manageable, efficient, and comforting than trying to go it alone. We help you understand culture in a way that is relevant to you and your unique context, and help you develop the specific skills and solutions that you need to make things better. Best of all, you get a partner and a sounding board throughout your journey. It’s a win-win, and all you have to do is ask.

For further reading:

  1. Weaver, G. R. 1998. Understanding and coping with cross-cultural adjustment stress. In G. R. Weaver (Ed.), Culture, Communication and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations, 2nd edition. Simon & Schuster: New York.
  2. Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. 2010. Cultures & organizations: Software of the mind, 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill Education: New York.
  3. Huang, L.N. 1994). An integrative view of identity formation: A model for Asian Americans. In E. P., Salett & D. R. Koslow (Eds.), Race, ethnicity and self: Identity in multicultural perspective. National MultiCultural Institute: Washington, D.C.
  4. Bridges, William. 2003. Managing transitions: Making the most of change, 2nd edition. Da Capo Press: Boston.
  5. Molinsky, A. 2013. Global dexterity: How to adapt your behavior across cultures without losing yourself in the process. Harvard Business Review Press: Brighton, MA.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s