Understand Cultural Differences - Beyond Culture

Friday, October 12, 2018

Do you know you need to understand cultural differences to understand people? And why is it important to learn about different cultures? A person’s culture decides the way he will behave with others. How they walk or talk, or resolve conflicts, all depends on the culture they have grown in.

We are a global citizen now. People from different countries live together, and we can travel to distant places in hours. And we all are experiencing different cultures every day. But one can easily misunderstand unique cultures around the world if s/he doesn’t know about them. Thus, the importance of understanding cultural differences increases significantly.

The book – Beyond Culture – contains examples of cultural differences between countries. Written by Edward Hall, the book delves deep into the cultural subtleties of the world. Edward was an American anthropologist and a cross-cultural researcher.  He conducted extensive research to understand cultural differences and wrote many books explaining the relationship between culture and communication.

Listen to the summary at Blinkist or listen to the book at Audible.

Why is it important to respect other cultures?

Learn how to respect other cultures and experience their perspectives on things for yourself.
Learn how to respect other cultures and experience their perspectives on things for yourself.

It doesn’t matter where you were born; culture has a significant effect on the daily activities. Two people born at the same place but raised in a different neighborhood will act in ways they learn from their direct cultural environment. It even affects the way/s they think and make daily life decisions.

You start learning from the people around you right from the birth. And the cultural environment thus shapes your actions. Give them enough time to develop, and those actions become habits. They are engraved inside and are almost of a subconscious nature. And one such example is the difference in the signs of respect in different cultures.

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While the Japanese bow to greet, Inuit rub their noses. It’s automatic, and both actions convey respect into respective people. Also, there is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which, the language variations among cultures have a significant effect on how someone sees the world. Those differences also affect the way someone thinks.

Thus, it becomes important to understand cultural differences and languages.

How culture influences communication?

Cultural differences can result in various communication barriers.
Cultural differences can result in various communication barriers.

Not only verbal but also the nonverbal communication, people of other cultures behave differently. You can even observe such patterns in how people are settling disputes. For example, people in America may undertake legal action to solve disputes, but those in the Mediterranean, try to avoid any such confrontation.

Asiainfo-icon offers excellent examples of cultural differences in nonverbal communication around the world. Japanese give physical gestures along with verbal symbols while they communicate and other people understand without efforts. They don’t have to pay attention to words, and the communication happens as if it’s hard-coded in them.

Some European countries, on the other hand, pay more emphasis on communicating explicitly. Instead of verbal cues, they like communication with words laid out clearly. But the speed of communication, however, slows down in this format. Why? 

To be clear, messages most of the times get long and difficult to follow. But it also has advantages. As the culture changes, the meaning of those words can be adapted to accommodate the new culture. It’s natural that way, something on the line with computer updates.

While the explicit way is flexible, implicit communication is difficult to update. People inherit physical gestures from an ongoing tradition and adopting new ones isn’t possible in an instant. The communication is also a huge part where you have to understand cultural differences.

Why is cross-cultural understanding needed?

It will amaze you how punctuality is perceived differently in different cultures!
It will amaze you how punctuality is perceived differently in different cultures!

OK, what is cross-cultural understanding? The world is getting more connected every day. You may witness funny or shocking cultural differences, which may not feel appropriate to you. And that’s when you need to understand cultural differences, to know things unique to a particular culture.

For example, punctuality in different cultures is perceived in various ways. In Latin America, getting a bit late for an appointment means you had to attend something more urgent. But, in the US and some parts of Europeinfo-icon, the last-minute change in schedule is seen as rude. People there expect you to plan things in advance.

Another reason for understanding cultural differences is to stay away from shocks. In Japaninfo-icon, hotel staffs move your belongings to another room, if they need your room for some urgent purpose. It’s normal there and infuses a sense of closeness among the guests. But those from the western countries, often feel insulted with strangers moving their things without permission.

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They associate their room with privacy, inside which, they own the things and don’t like any disturbance. Work culture and even study culture vary across regions. And understanding them all requires efforts. You need to be aware of the historical and social aspects of the region which affects the culture.

While in the Western cultures, children are taught to be competitive and job-ready, Pueblo Indians help the children learn by playing. They let them learn at their pace. 

If you too want to learn about cultural differences –

  • Remember that your way to view things isn’t the only way.
  • Interact with people from different cultural backgrounds.
  • Ask questions before you judge someone’s behavior.

By meeting people having different cultures, you make yourself open to see how things work with a different perspective. It will help you understand yourself better. And you also will learn new things.

Abhijeet Kumar a freelance content writer for aSabbatical.com
We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.