Cultural Comparisons

My fourth grade daughter told me the other day that the latest craze in her class is writing those magazine-style quizzes for each other. She had written one for me as an example. ‘Answer these five questions and I’ll tell you what kind of person you are.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cringe at the idea of ten-year-olds applying their vast knowledge of the world to categorizing each other, but I did find their fascination with it interesting.

Categorizing the world is a natural human instinct, a way to figure out where you fit in relationship to everything else. It’s a dangerous habit, to be sure, especially if we cling to our categories and refuse to see the nuance of real life. But categories are useful if you think of them as a tool rather than a rule. There are a lot better personality profiles than magazine quizzes, of course, and the best of them, while not coming close to defining us completely, give us language we can use to understand ourselves and others.

The same is true of cultures. Below I’m going to outline some of the categories most commonly used to describe the “personality profile” of a culture. The list is not comprehensive by any means, but it does give us some language to use moving forward. Note that each category is a continuum, not an either/or proposition. Some cultures may fall way to one end or the other, but most are somewhere in between.

(This isn’t an academic paper, so I’m not citing sources for all of this, but I do want to acknowledge where I got some of these ideas. While this is mostly a collection of knowledge I’ve picked up here and there over the years, some is specifically drawn from the book FOREIGN TO FAMILIAR by Sarah A. Lanier, where the author makes a distinction between hot-climate cultures and cold-climate cultures and shows how they fall on opposite ends of most of these spectrums. Some is also drawn from more recent reading in places like here and here.)


Relationship vs. Task

The orientation of a culture indicates which value society tilts towards. In relationship-oriented cultures, connnection to other people is what matters most. These cultures always prioritize a person over efficiency and accomplishment. It’s important for communication to feel good to both parties, and it’s considered rude to dive right into business talk without personal chat first. Even though individuals may be different, society is oriented toward feelings.

In task-oriented cultures, accomplishing tasks takes priority over relationship. Efficiency is highly valued, and taking up as little of someone’s time as possible is considered a sign of respect. In communication, accuracy and directness are desired. Again, while individuals will differ, society as a whole is oriented toward logic.

Lanier says that cold-climate cultures, such as our own, fall on the task-oriented end of this spectrum, while hot-climate cultures fall on the relationship-oriented end. I would certainly say that my slice of American culture is pretty far down toward the task-oriented end of the spectrum (though not, perhaps, as far as the German culture of my ancestors).

You can see what problems arise when relationship-oriented cultures meet task-oriented cultures. The one finds the other cold, rigid, and offensive, while his counterpart sees him as distracted, inefficient, and lazy.


High Context vs. Low Context

High context communication relies on the surrounding context to provide most of the meaning in communication, rather than relying on the words themselves. High context cultures depend on all parties having a shared understanding of these unspoken communications. In a high context culture, great significance is found in social standing, dress, posture, nonverbal cues, greetings, etc. Who you know matters more than what you know. For clear communication, you must know where you fit in the bigger scheme of society, and where the person you are speaking with fits. The atmosphere in such cultures tends to be more formal.

Low context communication depends much more on the actual words spoken. Low context cultures expect more direct and explicit communication and do not have as many rules governing interactions. Who you know still matters, but what you know is more highly valued. The resulting atmosphere tends to be more casual.

U.S. culture is very low-context, even more so than other cold-climate cultures like England or France. Certainly most Asian cultures fall far on the high-context end of things, and most African and Latin-American cultures are also on that end, though maybe not as far. Argentine culture, for example, is a high-context culture, but in Buenos Aires’s I found it to be significantly less so than what I had experienced in other Latin American cultures.

Communication between members of high-context and low-context cultures is obviously fraught with difficulty. A low-context person who doesn’t know the unspoken rules of their high-context counterpart will miss a good deal of what’s being communicated, misinterpret the message, be confused by the outcome, and often feel intentionally misled or lied to. A high-context person will often not be aware that their low-context counterpart has misinterpreted the conversation, while they’ll find her direct and explicit communication rude at best and confusing and misleading at worst.


Group vs. Individual

In group identity cultures, who I am is tied to the group (family or tribe) I belong to, and what is expected of me is determined by my role in the group. The group will protect and provide for me, and I do not expect to have to do that alone. In return, my behavior will reflect on the whole group. Direction from the leader of the group is valued and desired by the members of the group.

In individualistic cultures, who I am is determined by me alone. I am expected to have my own opinions and to speak for myself. I am also expected to stand alone and provide for myself. Initiative is encouraged. I make my own decisions, and my behavior reflects on me and not on anyone else.

U.S. culture is very individualistic. Possibly we corner the market on that end of the scale (though we likely share it with Australians). Other cold-climate cultures also fall on that end of the scale, while most hot-climate cultures lean toward a group identity.

The clash of cultures in this category is significant. The individualistic definition of success as personal accomplishment is baffling and selfish to those who primarily see success as the flourishing of the group. In the meantime, individualists are judging group cultures for being restrictive or encouraging laziness and dependence.

Attitude toward Time

Polychronic vs. Monochronic

Polychronic cultures see time as fluid. They like to do many things at once, and therefore have no problem with interruptions because they don’t exactly see them as interruptions. They don’t see time as a commodity which can be wasted, stolen, or lost. Time is simply here to be filled with anything of value. There will always be more time later to do whatever needs done.

Monochronic cultures see time as a straight line. They like to do one thing at a time and complete a task before moving on. For that reason, interruptions are very irritating because they are breaking up the timeline. Time is seen as a very valuable commodity, and schedules are important because they make wise use of the resource of time.

Most cold-climate cultures, including U.S. culture, are monochronic. Most hot-climate cultures are polychronic. The differences in this category are more readily apparent than other categories, making them very common sources of friction but also somewhat easier to identify and treat with understanding.

Locus of Control

External vs. Internal

Locus of control is more often discussed in terms of individuals but there is some value in seeing how it applies to cultures as well. A person’s locus of control indicates the degree to which they feel they have control over their own life versus outside forces controlling it.

Cultures with a strong external locus of control believe that events are not in the control of each individual but of some outside force. Whether those forces are considered to be natural or supernatural, the underlying belief is that what happens is not within human control. This results in a degree of fatalism about life and a tendency to value the present or the past over the future, which cannot be predicted or shaped.

Cultures with a strong internal locus of control believe that humans are capable of controlling what happens to them and shaping their own lives. While outside forces are acknowledged, the underlying belief in human ability to predict and overcome them remains intact. This results in an emphasis on personal responsibility, a value on planning and regulating, and a tendency to value the future more than the present or the past.

The bigger divide here is really between socio-economic groups more than climate based groups. Dominant U.S. culture believes in internal locus of control. U.S. culture in general falls on that side of the continuum because on a world-scale, the U.S. is economically powerful, but the degree to which this is true of various sub-cultures is also generally the degree to which they share the internal locus of control.

These five categories will be the basis for discussion of how close or far we are culturally from others. For example, my white American culture is task-oriented, low-context, individualistic, monochronic, and with an internal locus of control. What does that mean about how I order my life, how I evaluate my success, how I judge others? How does my way of viewing the world compare to others? Which cultures are only a little distant from mine and which sit a world away on the other end of all the continuums?

In the next few posts, we’ll use this new language to look at what an individual’s cultural identity means and how can we take all of our understanding and apply it to the real-world situations we’re trying to navigate. That’s the end goal we’re always leaning toward: more understanding, more compassion, better communication, better choices, better relationships, better systems.

Because this is all fascinating stuff, but it’s in applying the language to real life that we show our maturity. That’s when we stop being children with questions written in crayon and start being productive citizens of the world.

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