During a recent lesson with one of my long term students, the discussion ventured into the realm of cultural differences. As source material to further the dialogue I shared 3 articles from the Mind Tools website; Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, The Seven Dimensions of Culture and Avoiding Cross-Culture Faux Pas.
In his very informative study, Geert Hofstede established 5 dimensions relating to cultural differences and made comparative measurements between 40 countries. The criteria used were: Power/Distance — the degree of inequality between people with and without power, Individualism — the strength of ties people have within the community, Masculinity — the value a society places on traditional male and female roles, Uncertainty/Avoidance Index —the degree of anxiety members of a given society feel when faced with uncertain or unknown situations and Long Term Orientation — the importance a society places on established traditions and values.
In another analysis conducted by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner as reported in their 1997 book titled, “Riding the Waves of Culture”, they developed a model citing 7 dimensions;
- Universalism versus particularism — Rules -v- Relationships
- Individualism versus communitarianism —The Individual -v- The Group
- Specific versus diffuse —The degree to which people get involved.
- Neutral versus emotional — How people in a given culture express their emotions.
- Achievement versus ascription — What role status plays in a society.
- Sequential time versus synchronous time — How people manage time.
- Internal direction versus outer direction — How people relate to their environment.
The third article offered some very useful guidance on how to be culturally aware and to help avoid making inappropriate gestures or actions. The article addressed areas related to food/eating, body language, clothing and color and the concept of personal space.
These articles are primarily meant to approach the subject as it pertains to business situations and of course, any study of cultural differences is limited in its scope, but having an awareness and being prepared to accept differences between cultures is a first step to reduce the potential for damage to personal and work relationships.
For further reading on the topic of cultural awareness here is another link to broaden your knowledge.
You may also be interested in reading about the “Art of the Handshake“. Shaking hands is a common occurrence among Westerners and has become accepted almost universally.
As an American I can tell you that many of my countrymen lead somewhat insular even provincial lives. Though it is worth noting that the current number of Americans who possess valid passports is up substantially in recent years. According to an article published in Forbes Magazine that number is reported to be roughly one third of the population (110 million). The figure is drawn from State Department statistics.
You may be familiar with the concept of the “Ugly American”. This refers to the arrogance, insensitivity and rudeness of American diplomats in their dealings with native people abroad. In contrast to the boorish behavior of some government employees, most Americans engaged in international travel are generally aware of cultural differences and will make an effort not to intentionally offend the locals. I think it is important to state that there is a distinct difference between the American people and the government of the United States. It is quite often the case that government policy is at odds with the general will of the people that the government purports to represent.
It is my estimation that people who endeavor to see the world are also interested in experiencing the various cultures to which they travel. Part of the adventure is to experience life through the eyes of the other. Sharing foods in a foreign land, communicating with a smile and other non-threatening body language can often help to break down barriers. A smile will go a long way to melt tension. Expressing a sincere interest in other cultures and people is helpful to building trust. Humility is an integral part of meaningful exchange across cultural boundaries.
As the world becomes smaller through dissemination of information across borders we should all seek to understand those things that are not familiar to us. We may come to discover that our differences are smaller and our common ground is greater than we may have previously realized.
In closing, I offer this link for an overview of what is accepted as standard protocol and proper etiquette in the United States.
“A smile is the universal language of kindness.”
William Arthur Ward