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The tip of the iceberg

February 03, 2008

Hello again,

The old chestnut that there is a simple type of cultural awareness won't go away. Unfortunately some teachers believe that cultural awareness consists of observing and aping the behaviour patterns...

... of different cultures. This is a start but it is woefully inadequate as a cross-cultural strategy.

The key to cross-cultural awareness is understanding of the deep-seated values that give rise to certain types of behaviour. We need to be aware of the work of Hall, Hofstede, Trompenaars, Schwarz, to name the main players, before we put a toe into the cultural water.

The behaviour people exhibit is the visible enactment of their deeply held cultural values, but the behaviour is not the culture. As teachers interacting with many different cultures we have to ask ourselves not what do we see (overt behaviour) but why do people do what they do?

Let us take Hofstede’s research as an example. He offers us the onion model of how culture operates. The outer rings of the onion are visible behaviour; the inner rings are culture’s rules that govern that behaviour and at the centre are the values that give rise to the rules.

A simplified view of key cultural dimensions might be:

• Individualism versus collectivism
I go my own way or I put the interests of the group first
• High context versus low-context
Nothing is what it seems or what you see is what you get
• Time matters versus time is unimportant
Punctuality is the politeness of Kings or time is fluid
• Large versus small power distance
Authority and seniority or we are all equal
• Masculinity versus femininity
Achievement or cooperation
• Strong versus weak uncertainty avoidance
Leave nothing unwritten or tolerate some ambiguity
• Long-term versus short-term orientation
It is the big picture that counts or I need it now.

Societies tend towards or away from the extremes of these dimensions and the resulting cultural mix influences the thought and behaviour patterns of the society’s members.

I will explore some of these dimensions in future posts.

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