Join Wayne Cascio for an in-depth discussion in this video Understanding global cultures, part of Human Resources Foundations.
- Have you ever visited a foreign country where the language or customs were vastly different from your own? Often that results from a lack of understanding why people do what they do. Culture is software of the mind. It refers to characteristic ways of doing things and behaving that people in a given country or region have evolved over generations. It helps people to make sense of their part of the world, and it provides them with an identity.
Cultural differences profoundly affect how different people view the world and operate in business. To help you navigate cultural landscapes let's briefly consider 10 factors. This framework does not consider every aspect of culture, and by no means is it the only way to analyze culture, rather it's a useful beginning for cultural understanding. The first factor is sense of self and space. People may adopt humble bearings in some places, and macho behavior in others.
Americans have a sense of space that requires more distance between people, while Latins and Vietnamese prefer to get much closer. Each culture has its own unique ways of doing things. Dress and appearance may vary dramatically around the globe. Dress includes outward garments as well as body decorations. Many cultures wear distinctive clothing, the Japanese kimono, the Indian turban, the Polynesian sarong, even uniforms that distinguish wearers from everybody else.
Food and feeding habits also vary extensively. The manner in which food is selected, prepared, presented, and eaten often differs by culture. Most major cities have restaurants that specialize in the cuisines of various cultures, everything from Afghan to Zambian. Feeding habits also differ, ranging from bare hands to chopsticks to full sets of cutlery. Communication and language may appear impenetrable to an outsider, moreover in many cultures directness and openness are not appreciated.
An open person may be seen as weak and untrustworthy, and directness can be interpreted as abrupt hostile behavior. Providing specific details may be seen as insulting to one's intelligence. Insisting on a written contract may suggest that a person's word is not good. Time and time consciousness, to Americans time is money. We live by schedules, deadlines, and agendas. We hate to be kept waiting, and we like to get down to business quickly.
In many countries, however, people simply will not be rushed. They arrive late for appointments, and business is preceded by hours of social rapport. The opposite is true in Switzerland, Sweden and Germany where prompt efficiency is the watchword. Relationships may be based on age, gender, status, and family relationships, as well as on wealth, power and wisdom. They also vary by category.
In some cultures the elderly are honored, in others they are ignored. In some cultures women must wear veils and act deferentially, in others the female is considered the equal if not the superior of the male. While most US firms frown upon the practice of hiring or contracting work directly with family members, in Latin America or Arab countries it only makes sense to hire someone you can trust. Values reflect what is important in a society.
One such norm is that in Eastern countries businesspeople strive for successful business outcomes after personal relationships have been established, while Westerners develop social relationships after business interests have been addressed. International managers ignore those kinds of norms at their peril. Beliefs and attitudes, in many countries religion expresses the philosophy of a people about important facets in life.
While Western culture is largely influenced by Judeo Christian traditions, and Middle-Eastern culture by Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Hinduism dominate Oriental and Indian cultures. Work motivation and practices, your knowledge of what motivates workers in a given culture combined with the knowledge of what they think matters in life would be critical to your success as an international manager. Europeans pay particular attention to power and status, which results in more formal management and operating styles, in comparison to the informality found in the United States.
In the United States individual initiative and achievement are rewarded, but in Japan managers are encouraged to seek consensus before acting, and employees work as teams. Finally, consider mental processes and learning. Linguists, anthropologists, and other experts who've studied mental processes and learning have found vast differences in the ways people think and learn in different cultures. While some cultures favor abstract thinking and concepts, others prefer rote memory and learning.
What can we conclude from this? What seems to be universal is that each culture has a reasoning process, but it manifests that process in its own distinctive way. If you don't understand or appreciate those differences you may conclude, erroneously, that certain cultures are inscrutable. Admittedly, all of this information is complex, and this is a very broad area, but you need to start somewhere. This framework should help you understand global cultures better, even though it's a journey that has no finish line, so continue to research and be curious about global cultures, doing so will have immediate payoffs for you and for your organization.
- Administrative vs. strategic HR
- Managing talent
- Developing employees through training and career development
- Managing performance
- Managing international employees