Where did 'culture' come from? What does 'culture' do?
In order to understand cultural differences, you need to take a step back.
What actually is 'culture'?
How does it work? Why does it exist? Where does it come from?
What factors influence a culture and shape it's people and values?
Well, we're going to explore all these questions and provide you with some answers!
DON'T MISS THE FREE SAMPLE OF OUR CULTURAL AWARENESS COURSE AT THE END!
Imagine the following scenario.
You have been invited to play a game.
However, there’s a snag. You are not entirely sure of the rules for this game as no one has taken the time to explain them to you.
Although you understand the aims of the game, you’re not quite sure how to get there. As such, you don’t progress as quickly as your counterparts and you become rather frustrated when trying to establish the rules they are working to.
To make things worse, your fellow players become irritated with you for getting things wrong. One of the players even tuts and rolls their eyes at you during the game.
By the end of the game, you haven’t achieved what you’d wanted to achieve – (you certainly haven’t won) and you get the impression that your fellow players don’t entirely trust you. You’re confident that they won’t want to play with you again!
Culture and the Rule Book
You might be asking why we have presented you with this scenario? What has playing a game got to with culture?
Well, this scenario is actually an excellent example of what happens when we navigate different cultures. Each culture plays to its own rule book.
Someone with poor cultural awareness, travelling from the UK to the Middle East to negotiate a contract, for example, may well find that their counterparts are using a negotiation code that they don’t understand. This British person doesn’t know how to get the best out of the situation or how best to win the trust of their counterparts. In fact, they flounder and come away with a poor deal or no deal at all.
Although we could write reams on what this person should (or shouldn’t) do, what is of interest to us in this blog is why these rules exist in the first place. Why do we have different cultures? Why don’t we all just work in line with the same set of rules?
Culture and the Environment
A key reason is rooted in the environment.
The different cultures that we see around the world are primarily a response to the environments in which people live.
Due to global environmental diversity, it’s been necessary for human beings to respond in a way that’s appropriate to the unique demands placed upon them.
These demands and responses have, in turn, shaped many of the cultural differences we see.
Let’s look at some examples from the USA, Japan and the Arab world.
American culture tends to be individualistic, self-reliant, competitive and goal oriented.
The reasons stem from the experiences of the 17th century European settlers who migrated to the USA seeking freedom in a land of opportunity.
Their incredibly tough story shapes many of the features of American culture.
When the settlers first came to America, life was incredibly hard and, as such, they needed a strong work ethic to survive.
The conditions that met them on arrival made independence, self-reliance and the ability to compete essential qualities.
In the early days of European migration, there was no support system to accommodate the new arrivals. As such, they had no choice but to work incredibly hard and to make a success of themselves and their situations.
The focus on individualism, self-reliance and competition literally became life-saving attributes.
These values now endure in the American culture that we see today. For example, we see the value placed on self reliance across society.
In the business place, managers rarely micromanage. Instead, they place the onus on the individual to manage themselves within their role.
In the family setting, extended families rarely live together, and individuals typically leave home at a young age to carve out their own future.
Japanese culture tends to be collective with a value on perseverance and harmony.
Japan is very prone to natural disasters.
Throughout the ages, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, typhoons and volcanic eruptions have become part and parcel of life in Japan which has had a deep impact on Japanese culture.
These natural disasters have shaped a high value on the concept of Ganbaru in Japanese culture.
Ganbaru roughly translates as ‘persistence’. For example, after the devastating tsunami of 2011 in Japan, many firms turned towards Ganbaru and used it as a slogan to encourage workers to get through the tough times. This struggle with nature over many generations has promoted a greater interdependence in Japanese culture than we might see elsewhere.
As an island nation, cut off from outside influence and with a natural tendency to be insular, Japan has also remained ethnically one of the most of the most homogenous countries on earth (in face, some 99% of its inhabitants are ethnically Japanese).
This has further shaped the collectivism and interdependence that we see in Japanese culture.
An interesting feature of this homogeneity is that the Japanese communication culture tends to rely a great deal on body language and unspoken cues. This type of communication culture can only truly work successfully in a culture with strong bonds between its people.
Middle Eastern culture tends to value ancestry, loyalty and hierarchy.
Middle Eastern culture is deeply rooted in the nomadic life of the desert.
Although in most places the nomadic lifestyle has all but disappeared, the influence of the desert on Middle Eastern culture is still prominent today.
Tribalism was once an important way of organising people and systems during a nomadic desert existence. Families were tightly connected to a tribe and their name bore the name of the tribe to which they belonged.
This connection to tribalism translates in the modern day into many values, customs and behaviours. The extended family, for example, is still the most common set up with married couples and kids living with parents and grandparents in large houses.
In some neighbourhoods you may find whole families populating certain streets or a series of villas as most people tend to live close to their families. Free time, weekends and leisure is usually mainly spent with the family.
As a result, families in the Middle East tend to be very tight with loyalty to the family outweighing any other.
To maintain harmony and smooth governance within a tribe, hierarchy and leadership were important attributes.
Without hierarchy, the tribe would have fallen into disarray, threatening the well being and security of its members. You can still see the importance of hierarchy in the modern day Middle Eastern business settings. Most companies tend to have a well-defined organisation layout with clear lines of leadership and authority.
How Our Cultures are Shaped
These examples of American, Japanese and Middle Eastern culture demonstrate clear connections between the culture and the environments in which these cultures are rooted.
Take the time to think about your own culture.
What features are important in your culture? Can you determine any connections between your culture and the environment in which it’s rooted?
Learn More About Culture
If you are interested in culture and cultural differences, especially within the professional context, then our Online Cultural Awareness Course is a great place to start.
You can watch a sample of the course video here. Visit the course page for more information.
Some of our other fantastically free stuff includes:
1. Self-Study Guide to Cultural Awareness - a manual to cultural differences in the workplace and communication.
2. Country Guides inc. Business Etiquette - guides to 80+ countries, their cultures, society, language, social and business etiquette.
3. Cross Cultural Management Guides - perfect for managers working in foreign countries, these guides give an overview of management cultures in 50+ countries.
4. Business Culture Complexity Index™ - which country do you think has the most complex busines culture? And who has the easiest?
Main image by Jeanne Menjoulet on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)