Culture Specific or Culture General: That is the Question!

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The senior manager was about to accept an assignment in India, and eagerly approached her human resources department for information about the specific do's and don'ts of her future life overseas. They had heard this request before, for dozens of countries and from hundreds of transferees. HR was well prepared with briefing books, websites, and a pre-departure program that would assure the manager and her family a relatively smooth transition.

Cultural Detective (Image)

But was she really well prepared? Upon her arrival, ably managed with organizational support, she found herself on a highly diverse team, with colleagues from over ten countries. Her daily emails bombarded her with perspectives from multiple Asian countries, many more than she had experienced in her most recent assignment. With constant video conferences and virtual team members, she found herself in a culturally complicated context that her briefing book on India could not begin to address.

She is not alone. Rare is the professional arena where we face colleagues from only one or two cultures. Instead, each of us operates with a wealth of cultural diversity that is rich, complex, and challenging. This reality suggests that learning a single specific culture serves us well, and learning about cultural difference in general serves us even better.

Our natural--and appropriate--instinct is to seek specific information when we are going to a specific place. Who among us, assigned to Bangalore, would not read everything we could find about India? This is certainly necessary, but unfortunately not sufficient. Without understanding culture in general, we may find ourselves with an insufficiently stocked toolkit, unable to handle many of the tasks at hand.

In the field of intercultural training, this contrast is described by the terms "culture general" and "culture specific." Culture general simply refers to frameworks that provide a perspective for comparing and contrasting cultures. Since these frameworks are based on abstract categories from anthropology, intercultural communication, linguistics, and organizational psychology, they do not refer to any particular cultures, but rather provide general categories that facilitate our exploration of values, beliefs, and behaviors in any culture.

For instance, one such framework might examine value differences related to status and power, exploring how culture influences individuals' attitudes toward power distance, hierarchy, authority, formality, class, in-group/out-group distinctions, etc. This framework could easily be applied to examining the potential differences among the ten colleagues of the senior manager noted above. It could be equally useful to a domestic manager at a local worksite, perhaps never far from his home, to resolve motivational issues with his diverse team.

Culture-general frameworks can help us compare our own attitudes with those of colleagues, clients, and friends, whether about communication styles, nonverbal behavior, values, rituals, conflict strategies, negotiation patterns, decision styles, learning styles, thinking styles, or other dimensions of culture.

And to accelerate the process of culture learning, the more that we can build on culture-general knowledge with detailed culture-specific knowledge, the larger our toolkit becomes. For instance, the Brazilian international student coming to California may want to read culture-specific information not only about U.S. American culture, but also about certain culture groups she may experience in the region where she is studying, including a variety of Asian and Latino cultures.

For the complex multicultural lives we lead, learning about others in both culture-general and culture-specific ways has become an essential skill. Culture-general understanding provides the foundation for the complex cultural interactions we experience, no matter which cultures we encounter through the day. Culture-specific knowledge builds on that foundation with deeper and subtler interpretations of cultural patterns, enriching the potential of our work across cultures. Each brings essential skills to our intercultural interactions.

For training others to master both sides of this equation, the Cultural Detective® provides both the necessary culture-general breadth of application across many cultures while developing the culture-specific depth. The Worksheet provides a unifying and consistent process for examining yourself and others, and for bridging differences as assets. CD develops intercultural competence by simultaneously improving culture-general and culture-specific expertise in a variety of realistic contexts. By examining key cultural similarities and differences in a culture-general way, we come to know ourselves, and are able to compare and contrast our own perspective with that of others. By focusing the Values Lens on a specific culture, we enhance our capacity to untangle problems, negotiate differences, and look below the surface within and across cultures,

Culture specific or culture general? That is no longer a question!

Dr Janet Bennett
Director - Intercultural Communication Institute


About

Dr. Janet Bennett is the executive director and co-founder of the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI) and the ICI director of the Master of Arts in Intercultural Relations program.

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