Working professionals, German or American, usually sign up for an intercultural communication training because they want to learn how to deal with their foreign counterpart/s. Their expectations are simply to learn what things they should say, or do, which will make the American or German do as they think is most pragmatic or logical for a given situation. This expectation is based on the belief that cultural differences are easily dealt with if you know what “buttons” to push. Life would be so easy if this was the case, unfortunately the reality is much more complex. This example shows too that many people are not fully aware of what “culture” is and how it can influence behaviour.
The term “culture” is derived from Latin and means to “cultivate”. Earlier usages of this term were used to refer to agriculture, later extending to education and upbringing. In the 20th century, “culture” became the central notion of anthropology and was used to explain human actions and activities. There is a plethora of works dedicated to defining and explaining culture, which hints at the complexity of the notion. While it is all very interesting, most of this literature is too cumbersome and theoretical for a 2 day culture and communication training in which working professionals look for solutions to help them deal with the challenges of a globalised economy. For this reason, intercultural communications trainers tend to rely on metaphors that represent “culture” in a tangible and helpful way; and there are several.
The first metaphor I learned was in one of my first anthropology lectures during my undergrad studies. The professor teaching that class said that “culture” can be likened to a “city map”. According to this metaphor, culture provides its members with a representations of how to do things. Keep in mind that there is more than one road leading to Rome! For example, a city map shows us how to get from our house to an address where our next doctor appointment is, and it helps us find the best way to get there in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort. Culture functions similarly: it is a map that contains information we need so that we know how to interpret behaviours, whether linguistic or non-verbal. For example: if someone says “I hate to bother you, but…” most Americans will recognise that a request is about to be made because it is a cultural pattern typical to Americans, as well as other English speaking communities. Germans don’t use this linguistic pattern because they find the word “hate” to be too strong. Instead, Germans prefer to begin a request with background information concerning a situation that needs action, and then end with a request formula. (Naturally these are not the only ways to make a request). Our map is learned over the many years that we are socialised when we were children, youngsters and young adults.
Other metaphors include Hofstede’s “software of the mind”: a reference that fits well in our technologically dominated world. We all have the same “hardware”, or ability to become socialised, but during our socialisation, we learn “ways of doing things” that differ from social group to social group. Although Hofstede didn’t mean it, this representation also suggests that one only needs to know the right button in order to behave appropriately. As attractive as that may be, it is not realistic because people are not machines. We don’t always act the same way simply because each situation is different. Humans are able to differentiate and choose behaviours they believe to be appropriate for the situation.
Culture has been compared to an onion, a metaphor that suggests it is multi-layered. For example, someone like myself is American of Irish-English background, white, female, born in the 1950s, educated in the social sciences, hobby musician, etc. Each of these layers come together to make up me. In this way we should see that as individuals we belong to many different social communities, each of which has its own rules, languages and conventions, and ways of seeing the world. It helps to point out that people are individuals and not just nationalities. In other words, people of a particular nationality are not all going to behave in the same way in any given situation.
The metaphor I like to use is the “cultural iceberg”. With this representation, the notion of culture focuses on observable and unobservable phenomena. Above the waterline we have eating habits, dress, architecture, music, greeting styles, language, etc. Values, attitudes and beliefs are those aspects of a culture that one cannot easily observe and are therefore placed below the waterline. The behaviours above the waterline are relatively easy to learn, or even imitate, mainly because we can see them. As a classic example take Japan greeting style: it is not uncommon to observe westerners automatically bow back to Japanese business partner. As humans we want to appear polite! But to understand the “why” of bowing, and its complexities (e.g., how low to bow to whom?), we need to take a look below the iceberg’s waterline.
It is important to keep in mind that rather than prescriptions for behaviour, cultural values, attitudes, beliefs are filters for interpreting observed behaviours and making decisions for one’s own behaviour. In the next contribution we will look at German and American icebergs.