Globalization’s nightmare: 3 cultural differences and how to understand them so they would work in your favor.

Have you ever been in a country where you constantly wonder why people do this and that? Why handshake is not enough and why they want to kiss you, why they don’t understand ‘’no’’ as a legit answer for invitation to dance, but instead they drag you to dance floor and torture you until you start moving in salsa rhythm? Why they are always late and why you need to talk about your entire family just so they would understand who you are? This sounds intimidating but we all face this kind of intercultural clashes.

It is culture shock- the moment when you face a culture that is so much different than anything you have seen before. Those kind of moments we all feel like within that culture they even count backwards, clock goes the opposite way and black is white.

As much as it can be frustrating it can also be very exciting. Alongside with wondering how people can live the way they do it also brings us great deal of appreciating the differences and learning from them. However, you need some knowledge of how the culture functions, and I am not talking about traditions, language or customs.

As international communication student I have studied about cultural anthropologists like Edward T. Hall and Geert Hofstede in order to understand cultural differences and how they affect our way of perceiving the world, people and ourselves.

In this article I will tell you about 3 cultural dimensions that you should know so you could enjoy your experience more.

High and low uncertainty avoidance.

Theory: The dimension Uncertainty Avoidance has to do with the way that a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? This ambiguity brings with it anxiety and different cultures have learnt to deal with this anxiety in different ways. The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these is reflected in the score on Uncertainty Avoidance.

Example: Colombia scores 80 on Uncertainty Avoidance while Singapore score just 8, meanwhile Netherlands score 53. Colombians have a need to avoid uncertain situation, same a Dutch people, however their approach is very different. Colombians find the way how to deal with unknown in religion, 90% of Colombians are Christians. This way they follow rules dictated within their religion, while Dutch people follow administrative rules and obeys law. Both cultures don’t feel comfortable when events and decisions are left to go with a flow- they search for organization in order to have control over actions and events. On the opposite side is Singapore where people clearly accept that life happens, they don’t try to have control and explanation for every, if any, unpredictable situation.

Tip: On daily basis you can use this dimension to act according the culture you are interacting. For example, when visiting Netherlands be prepared that your Dutch friends will have planned the day they spend with you, you will have set schedule and places to visit, there will be little time left for wandering around and spontaneously deciding where to have dinner.

Don’t think that people from high Uncertainty Avoidance culture are less relaxed, for them relaxation means to know that everything is organized and they don’t have to worry about the unexpected.

High and low context culture

Theory: This is a key aspect of a culture in order to understand how the society communicates. In high context culture you need to take into account that meaning of actions and words lies in the background information like gestures, facial expressions, one’s social status that is often related to one’s family’s status, space is considered as communal therefore people stand very close, also relationships are expected to be close, built slowly and depends on trust. They consider time as something that goes its own way, timekeeping is less important as long as the job is done. On the opposite side there is low context culture- meaning of a message is spoken out verbally and is very explicit, unwritten rules doesn’t exist unless they are not written; relationships start and end quickly because they depend on the task; one’s social status is built by oneself and its accomplishments; time is considered as strict guideline and personal space is treasured with great care.

Example: Currently I live in Netherlands which is a high context culture, however i consider myself as low context person. I see myself clashing with Dutch culture a lot. One day at my work I came 10 minutes late, i was worried about being late so when coming in I just threw my things and started to work immediately, didn’t say anything else apart from being very sorry. However later that day my manager asked me to come to the office and had serious talk about not being reliable and letting down my colleagues. I was surprised, because in my opinion it was clear that it was not my intention to be late, I obviously felt bad for that and was very sorry. However, this message didn’t come across. At that point I said that it was just the inconvenient traffic that stopped me. My manager blamed me for not explaining the situation and not calling to say that I will be late. You can see that my apology and body language didn’t work out because they expected warning, explicit reasoning and explanation. I wondered how one can be so strict if you see that I am truly sorry for what happened, I even said that as a human being it is normal to make a mistake and I shouldn’t be blamed for such a minor mistake, her answer was: ‘’Next time you have to explain why you are late otherwise I won’t count your first hour of work.’’ It might sound harsh, but all of the situation could have been solved if i would have been more explicit and they would have looked beyond the words, like how worried and apologetic I was.

Tip: You should always consider adapting to the culture you interact. Especially if it is a business matter, because it will increase you chances for successful deal.

Masculine and feminine cultures

Theory: A high score (Masculine) on this dimension indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner/best in field — a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organisational life. A low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. The fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).

Example: To see how this dimension reflects our cultures you can simply look cars. Americans often have very big cars like Dodge pick-up trucks, while in Europe you can barely see them. USA is highly masculine country where people like to prove their success with visually expensive things like cars and houses. Meanwhile most of European countries are relatively feminine cultures. People often prefer the place and environment over the size of a house. In Netherlands you can see that vehicle is not a sign of wealth or power as so many people use bicycle as their main transportation, car is used more for practicality rather than any other reason.

Tip: Masculine cultures often tend to have strong gender roles like- woman is housewife and man is taking care of finances. Keep in mind that feminine cultures has reduced the gender roles, therefore feminine cultures like Nordic countries it is acceptable for a man to take care of the household when a woman has successful career.

If you would like to know more about these or other cultural dimensions you can visit the Geert Hofstede website where you can compare countries and see how they differ on six dimensions

I hope you enjoyed my article and found it useful. There are many theories about how cultures are divided, however understanding these three dimensions you could improve your experience so there wouldn’t be any hurt feelings when culture shock happens.