Summary: Culture refers to the common qualities of a group, such as a country or community. It includes forms of communication, traits and norms, which help constitute a significant portion of its environment.
Culture, from an international perspective, is a vast and intricate tapestry woven from the threads of language, values, beliefs, customs, and more. When one thinks of culture, it's easy to associate it with festivals, music, food, or fashion. However, culture goes much deeper, influencing how we perceive the world, communicate, and interact with each other. For expats, navigating a new culture can be both a thrilling adventure and a challenging adjustment.
Culture can mean different things depending on one's background and experiences. Take, for instance, the concept of punctuality. In countries like Germany or Switzerland, being on time is viewed as a sign of respect and professionalism. Arriving even a few minutes late to a business meeting can be considered rude. In contrast, in many Latin American or African cultures, time is more fluid. A meeting set for a particular hour might not start until much later, and it's seen as the norm rather than an exception. For an expatriate coming from a punctual culture to a more relaxed one (or vice versa), this difference can be a source of confusion and potential misunderstandings.
Another illustrative example is the approach to communication. In countries like Japan or Finland, communication tends to be more indirect and high-context, meaning that much of the message's meaning is derived from the context, body language, or shared understanding. On the other hand, in the U.S. or Australia, communication is often direct and low-context, where messages are explicitly stated. An expatriate accustomed to direct communication might find indirect styles vague or evasive, while those used to high-context communication might perceive directness as blunt or insensitive.
The concept of personal space is another cultural dimension that varies. In Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cultures, conversations often happen at close proximity, with people standing just a few inches apart. This closeness is a sign of warmth and friendliness. However, in Northern European or North American cultures, people often prefer more distance during conversations. An expatriate from the Mediterranean might feel rejected if someone from Northern Europe steps back during a chat, interpreting it as a sign of discomfort or disinterest.
Cross-cultural training provides expatriates with essential insights into the values, behaviors, and norms of their new environment. Such training bridges cultural gaps, enabling expats to communicate effectively, avoid misunderstandings, and integrate seamlessly into their host community. For expatriates, this training is crucial not only for personal comfort and success but also for fostering positive relationships in both professional and social spheres.
The academic community offers various theories to explain and understand culture, especially in an era of globalization where cross-cultural interactions are commonplace.
Some notable theories include:
Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions: Geert Hofstede's theory identifies several dimensions of culture, such as power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, and uncertainty avoidance. These dimensions help in understanding and comparing national cultures.
Trompenaars' Model of National Culture Differences: Fons Trompenaars' model explores seven dimensions, including universalism vs. particularism and neutral vs. emotional. The model provides insights into how cultures solve problems and how they relate to each other.
Edward T. Hall's High-Context and Low-Context Cultures: As mentioned earlier, Hall's theory delves into communication styles, emphasizing how messages are conveyed either through explicit words (low-context) or through subtle cues and shared context (high-context).
Culture is a rich, multifaceted concept that deeply influences our behaviors, perceptions, and interactions. For expatriates, understanding cultural nuances is vital for successful integration and effective communication in their adopted homes. For those who prefer a deep dive, the academic theories provide frameworks to decode and appreciate the vibrant mosaic of global cultures.
What is Culture?: A Compilation of Quotations Compiled by Helen Spencer-Oatey
About the Author
Joshua Wood, LPC joined Expat Exchange in 2000 and serves as one of its Co-Presidents. He is also one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. Prior to Expat Exchange, Joshua worked for NBC Cable (MSNBC and CNBC Primetime). Joshua has a BA from Syracuse and a Master's in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Mr. Wood is also a licensed counselor and psychotherapist.
First Published: Jun 29, 2015