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Preparing to Cross Cultures

Understanding Common Differences

By David Armstrong

When you meet someone, what questions do you ask? What do you talk about? This reveals how relationship oriented you are, as opposed to accomplishment oriented. Now, apply the same observational questions to someone else. Does this person spend the first ten minutes getting acquainted with you as a person or do they move quickly to the request, the task, the needed communication at hand?

As you prepare to travel overseas, it’s valuable to be aware of common cultural differences. Several basic values cause people to act the way they do. You’ll need to observe and learn how those in your host community live out these values, and in the process you’ll better understand how you live out those values.

As you read through the eight continuums below, your task is to discern where you and others live on each of them. Each continuum is followed by questions that help define the spectrum and that help place people on it. Most of us are somewhere in between the extremes. The greater the difference in values, the more dissonance you will feel with what’s happening around you.

These values can be phrased in various ways, and each way highlights different nuances. Some phrases combine two values together. Don’t worry about which phrase is better. The key is understanding the opposing values on each continuum and being able to observe them. Also, don’t think of one as right and the other as wrong. Rather, think of them as your thumb and fingers—they are “opposing” so that you can better grasp things. You need both.

Individualism ↔ Collectivism

  • Which do you/they value more—individual-ness or group-ness?
  • Do you think of yourself as part of a group? Do you give preference to your family or people in your community when making decisions?
  • To what degree do you/they make decisions individually, or make them as a group? Do certain members of your group such as parents or elders heavily influence your decisions?
  • Are your things (house, car, money) “yours” or “ours”?
  • What obligations do you/they have for the welfare of others in your/their group/extended family?

Accomplishments ↔ Relationships

  • Are you/they goal oriented or people oriented?
  • Do you sacrifice to help others or do you strive to accomplish the most yourself?
  • Is your goal to accumulate/win or to learn?

Avoidance of Uncertainty ↔ Accepting Risk

  • Do you/they avoid confrontation or embrace it?
  • Do you/they welcome differences or try to avoid them?
  • Do you/they freely discuss risks and differences of opinion or do you/they quietly work for a common agreement?

Transparency as Strength ↔ Transparency as Weakness

  • Is openness and transparency about your/their failings and weaknesses acceptable or is it embarrassing?
  • Do you/they strive to maintain a good image to outsiders even when you know things aren’t going so well?
  • Do you/they laugh at your/their blunders or mistakes?

High Physical Contact ↔ Low Physical Contact

  • How close or far away do you/they stand or sit when conversing?
  • How much do you/they touch when greeting one another?
  • How much eye contact is used?

High Power Distance ↔ Low Power Distance

  • How much do employers and employees associate with each other?
  • How freely do you/they discuss things with bosses?
  • How open are bosses in sharing their thinking?
  • How much input do you/they have in decisions at work that affect you/them?
  • How much difference is there between your office and the office of your boss?
  • How approachable are the authorities in your/their life?
  • Do you have to be careful to talk to certain groups of people differently than you treat the rest?
  • Do certain officials usually arrive later than everyone else but you are expected to be on time?

High Context ↔ Low Context, Degree of Nonverbal Communication

  • How much of your/their communication is implied versus spoken?
  • Do you bluntly say what you are thinking, or do you hint at what you're thinking?
  • Are there a lot of unspoken rules in life? Do you have to understand the system and play by its rules to get ahead?
  • Does there seem to be a large degree of ambiguity in the conversations, leaving you wondering what exactly was decided on?
  • Do people seem to commit to doing things yet never do them?

Time Oriented ↔ Event Oriented

  • Do your/their meetings start and stop on time? Or do they happen when everyone is there?
  • Are you/they known for arriving early or late?
  • Is the process of getting there as important as the fact that you got there?
  • How punctual are you/they in completing things?

It’s important to remember that, although we generalize and think of people as having a common set of values, in most cultures there are people who are different from the majority. In general they appear to think and act like the majority, but in particular they may be quite different from the majority. Allow people to be who they are; don’t expect everyone to be the same, but still observe and identify where the group as a whole stands on these value continuums. You are after generalizations, which you will continue to refine as you get to know the people of your host community better. This is quite different from stereotypes, which some people lock onto regardless of the fact that people vary.