Culture and cultural differences

All of these dialogues are small examples of situations in which a person can come up against cultural differences. At the same time, we must remember that cultural differences do not only occur between people coming from different countries, but also between people with different cultures all within the same country (Pavla and her right-wing tendencies, intellectual Magda, and Ali with his football will encounter cultural differences in the same way as Jami or Suong will). In these dialogues, we attempt to look in more detail at how culture influences us, how we can recognise cultural differences, and how we can deal with them.

  • Co je...?

Cultural differences and their manifestations: Cultural differences can generally relate to three levels of culture (creations, methods, and models of conduct and behaviour, ideals and values), specifically their creations, institutions, communication, lifestyle, customs, rituals, symbols, norms, values and conditions. Cultural differences must always be judged within the framework of a comparison of two specific cultures, since the way one culture differs from a second is not necessarily the way it differs from a third. The terms are relative. Cultures may differ in several aspects, and in others can be very similar. Cultural differences can manifest themselves thusly:
- both cultures find different ways of doing things, e.g. communicating – they create their own separate languages,
- the same way of behaving is applied to different causes and motives in both cultures (in certain countries, a smile is perceived as a sign of a good mood, while in others of a bad mood; in some countries, looking someone straight in the eye is the courteous thing to do, while in others it is highly discourteous; in some places the swastika is a symbol of fascism, in others of luck),
- in both cultures different ways of behaving have the same cause and motives (when people want to eat, some use chopsticks, others cutlery, and others their hands; when they want to negotiate something with someone, some feel a need to get to know the other person over time, while others get straight to the point at the very first meeting; when they want to show their pleasure at a gift they have been given, some will immediately give the gift to someone else, while others will keep it for themselves).
In certain situations, cultural differences can prevent effective communication and mutual understanding between two cultures:
- when someone has not learned a foreign language, it is difficult to communicate with someone from another culture,
- when someone does not recognise different ways of behaving and the different causes and motives of conduct in a given culture, they find it difficult to understand the people of this culture.

Causes of cultural differences: Most people grow up in a certain restricted environment (their natural environment, their family, town, country, etc.). The fact that a person reacts to their specific natural environment means they create specific daily habits, stereotypes, methods of satisfying their requirements, etc. Some people get up at five in the morning and go and water the rice crop, while others rise at nine and travel by tram to work. A person thus adapts to the environment, nature and society around them. In time, each society creates other methods for passing their cultural inheritance on to their children (or new members, e.g. foreigners), tried and tested methods of conduct in the environment and society in question. We call such processes a family upbringing, school training, socialisation, acculturation and globalisation. The family passes on to the child the basic emotional and knowledge potential, school offers them models of behaviour and the requisite knowledge and skills to live in society. Upbringing and other processes lead to the socialisation of the individual, while acculturation enables them to accept and understand the customs and norms of the society in question. Globalisation can also be understood in this light; it operates on the individual in such a way that they are able to live within their global environment.

When a person grows up in the environment of a single culture (learns to live in the local natural conditions, are brought up by their family and go to the local school, have experience with the local society, culture) they undergo a very intensive process of personality development. However, what they learn under specific conditions does not have to work under the conditions of another culture. This is why very often a person who has decided to travel to another country becomes a “small child” again in that country, who can’t speak the language (has not learned it and will never speak it as their native tongue), who hasn’t learned how to behave (is used to other norms of polite conduct which can differ in various cultures), and who lacks the requisite skills and knowledge (is used to catching fish, but has to travel to work by tram in the foreign country), etc.

Perception of cultural differences: We can perceive certain manifestations of cultural differences immediately (traditional costumes, special jewellery), while some we only perceive when a person starts speaking a different language, or when we hear their opinions and values, customs, etc. We should more frequently realise that people of various cultures do not have to have different folk costumes and a language, but rather an entire legal system, educational system, life values, experience, etc. If two members of different cultures meet, they may well be oblivious to their differences and fail to perceive them, so they are incapable of reacting to them, and do not know how to overcome them. And so we might speak for half an hour to a Polish person who looks like us but doesn’t know Czech. And we might feel sorry for someone because they don’t have money, while they themselves are proud of surviving without money. When a Chinese person sees a cross, they read the figure 10; when a Czech sees a cross, they might think of first aid, the Swiss flag, etc.

We can usually only understand cultural differences when we suddenly find ourselves in the environment of another culture. It seems obvious to us at home that you eat with cutlery and that you don’t eat with your mouth open. But this does not have to be the case in other cultures, where food is eaten with one’s hands and everything is discussed and resolved over food – what has been going on, what has to be organised, how to conclude a contract, etc. Only when we are willing and able to look at our own (for us natural) culture as something which is not natural or better, are we able to better and more appropriately understand other cultures, with their own customs and values which have come into being under completely different conditions.

Results of cultural differences: Cultural differences (as in the case of all other differences between people) may give rise to misunderstandings and conflicts of the types already referred to. It is often the case that cultural differences are used as the pretext for starting a war, discrimination against certain nationalities and cultural groups, etc. In such a case, there is a combination of misunderstanding between cultures and a clear political, ideological or economic motive to the conflict. The results of cultural differences can be many and various in normal life, ranging from misunderstandings which can be laughed away, to threats to the very existence of a person.

  • Topic

Culture is a multi-layered concept which also has a great many definitions. In this text, we shall focus on the form of culture which we meet in everyday life, and attempt to chart this complex phenomenon in order to be able to deal with it more easily. To aid us in this endeavour, we shall take a combination of models of culture by Hofstede and Trompenaars.

Both scientists agree that when people from different cultures meet, they come up against differences on many different levels which they then more or less cope with.

Symbols and rituals are what we see on first glance or at a brief meeting. This includes clothes, food and habits revolving around food, methods of greeting, ways to behave when visiting someone (do I take off my shoes, will there be firm seating around the dinner table, etc.). These are situations which can confuse us. However, they are basically easily resolved, and it is not too difficult to communicate about them.

Heroes represent the second, deeper level, which we discover during conversation, for instance. Whom do I take as my model in the best sense of the word? Which behaviour do I regard as worth following? What properties in these people are interesting to me? Do I tend to like shyer people or more outgoing types? The answers to these and other such questions are a signal of what is important for me.

It is not only everyday life which is involved here. We come up against cultural differences on the level of heroes in fairytales, myths and folk stories. Let us take, for example, the status of the devil. While Czech fairytales have the devil as the embodiment of evil, as Satan, who leads a person into temptation and often to hell, we also have the good devil, the little devil. This is usually a being who was banished from hell, a little elf who is jolly and good fun to be with.

This second variant on the devil does not exist in German fairytales. The devil is the embodiment of evil, full stop. And if someone has grown up with this idea of the devil, try telling them in a playful way during conversation that they’re the devil; the response might not be exactly enthusiastic.

Norms and values are another, deeper level which we can come up against. They involve a deeply rooted feeling of how things are done, what is good and what is bad. For instance, putting questions into conversations. In a Dutch context, a person can be considered something of a bumpkin if they don’t ask questions, because this is taken to be a sign of disinterest. However, the questions which a Dutch interlocutor would expect during a conversation would, within a Czech context, be regarded as too personal.

In these cases, it is not a question of courteous conduct but simply the fact that in another cultural group, things are done differently and norms and values can be displaced. This level can seem relatively complex, but it is still possible to speak of it as long as there exists an awareness of the fact that another might see a situation differently than me.

Basic pre-assumptions: “Grundannahmen” is a term for which it is very difficult to find an English equivalent. It is the attempt to describe the fact that there exist situations which are so unambiguous that it does not occur to us that another might perceive them differently than us. Expressed in the form of an image, it involves a situation in which I open a door and take a step forward without checking whether the floor continues behind the door. My experience has shown me that the floor continues.

The problem when meeting people from different cultures is often that this type of pre-assumption does not apply and that, for them, behind the doors there may be a chasm. People from different cultures have a different pre-assumption, caused by repeated (and different) life experience. If I regularly fell into a chasm upon walking through doors, I might be more careful.

And this is where the problems begin. It is difficult to speak of such deeply-embedded assumptions, and this often causes the most serious misunderstandings brought about by cultural differences. This involves the concept of time, space, taboo, the ability to endure insecurity, perceptions of the environment, etc.

In light of what has been said so far, let us try to think about how we recognise that we are face to face with cultural differences in a given situation. It is often only when both parties have the will to agree on something and yet cannot for some reason. They come up against the fact that for each party, something different is important, something so essential that it is not easy to communicate about. In addition, each of the parties perceives their own point of view so automatically that it doesn’t occur to them that the other is understanding and perceiving things differently. Let’s look at the individual situations in our dialogues:

Dialogue Exchange, ugh
Magda finds herself in a complex situation. She has made every effort, she feels she has done everything she could and maybe even more, she expects some kind of recognition or praise, more contact. Instead of this, she gets a cold shoulder in the form of pointed questions regarding when she will have the leaflets ready.
In this kind of situation, the problem arises as to how we perceive the concept of cooperation. Does cooperation mean that we do a professional job at work, that we don’t expect any great friendship to develop from contact with our colleagues, and there is therefore no real reason to make an effort to develop a relationship? Or on the contrary, within the framework of cooperation do we expect friendly chats, do we like to get on a personal level, go to the pub with our colleagues, and spend free time with them?
If our idea of cooperation fundamentally differs from someone else’s, we are faced with a cultural difference. We have different expectations, and because culture is embedded so deeply, it does not occur to us that the other person expects something diametrically opposite. If we do not clarify these divergent expectations, it can easily happen that both parties regard their view of the situation as the automatically correct one, and misunderstandings or even upset is just around the corner.

Dialgoue You’re late again
We face a very similar situation in this dialogue. The perception of time is a traditional sphere of cultural difference, not only in terms of precision, but the entire perception of the flow of time which we have delineated. There are people who live the present very intensively. Meeting a friend then means that past, present and future merge into one moment, which is important. The future ceases to exist, because only the here and now exists at any given moment. This applies to Jami in the dialogue. In his eyes, he hasn’t forgotten Magda. In short, his perception of time does not allow him to let a friend pass by with a quick “Hi, can’t stop, I’m in a hurry.”
And this is completely incomprehensible for Magda, who perceives time differently. Magda knows exactly what time she has a meeting arranged, and whatever happens she will be there at that time. And when she is subjected to the upsetting experience of waiting, she’s angry, sad and explains Jami’s behaviour within her own frame of reference. Jami is showing her that she means nothing to him, because it is clear that otherwise he would be on time.

Dialogue Ludo
In this dialogue, we again come up against one example of such a culturally-conditioned disharmony. In the sphere of teaching, we come across cultural aspects of games. Each game has a reason why we play it – it ritualises or processes some kind of content which is important in life. There exist four basic aspects to games which are represented to varying degrees in various social games; however, one will always predominate.
Chance – ensures the equality of opportunity (e.g. dice games, team-picking, etc.).
Competition – winning is important, the winner is visible, everyone speaks about them.
Repetitive mimicry – e.g. mimicry. This is about the truth. For instance, when acting out the character of a particular person, I can get at some truth of that person.
Vertigo – this involves rotation, merry-go-rounds and games involving trust.

In the case of Ludo, the game revolves around chance. A certain number will appear on the dice which will represent either victory or loss. Everything is determined by chance, by the swing towards good fortune or hard luck. One cannot influence anything, one can only wait and see what happens to them. In some cultures, this aspect of a game is important and desirable, and without this aspect the game is not in itself interesting.
Diplomacy or some such strategic game offers a completely different kind of experience. This mainly involves a duel, competitiveness and victory. I win by virtue of my craft, cleverness, the fact that I know how to trick my opponent. And again, there are cultures which need this aspect in their games.
When people are deciding what game to play and each needs their own experience, and each experience is diametrically opposed, it can be pretty difficult to agree on a game which is going to amuse everyone.

So what can we do?
Naturally, we find ourselves faced with a very pragmatic question – what should I do in such situations? The key to resolution is two steps. On the one hand, I have to admit that I find myself in a situation in which there is no bad faith but simply a cultural difference. This can happen not only in the examples cited above, but on various other levels. From the relationship with power, via the degree to which we reach a decision in accordance to the wishes of the group or our own individual wants, all the way to what is important for us in the sphere of veracity, freedom, our relationship to the boss, etc., it would be difficult to find a situation in life in which we couldn’t come up against cultural differences.
The remedy in such a situation is not only to admit that one is facing a cultural difference. It is often necessary to clarify what each of the two people expect, how they perceive the situation, and what it means for them. The ability to master these situations is not, however, natural, and it is necessary to train over time. This text should serve as an invitation not to fear such situations, but to begin to resolve them.

Dialogue Nothing’s Czech here
However, in the sphere of culture we still have one very important aspect which we come up against in this dialogue, above all. This is the dynamic aspect of culture. Given the speed of life, the possibilities of fast transportation, travel, the Internet, and other technical devices, we more and more frequently find ourselves face-to-face with the Other. We have to concede that an encounter with the Other will provoke a change in us. Culture is not a bell glass in which we are born and in which we remain. Culture is more an open, dynamic concept which changes during our life and is reorganised.
. Ali’s request, expressed in the dialogue, is the ordinary wish of a person seeking security and orientation. Our permanently-changing world is constantly confronting us with something new, and innovations and otherness always bring insecurity. This is natural.
At the same time, we live in a world which does not offer us many opportunities to make the most of our security. Otherness is all around us, and it is necessary to concede that this Otherness changes our culture. The ability to reflect and to be self-reflexive can help us find a moderate route between the extremes of a conservative and excessively open lifestyle – so that we always retain our integrity.

  • Sources


Bittl, K. (2001). 3x3 ist neunmal klug. Nürenberg: Fränkisches Bildungswerk für Friedensarbeit (FBF).

Caillois, R. (1998). Hry a lidé: maska a závrať (Games and people: mask and vertigo). Praha: Nakladatelství Studia Ypsilon.

Hall, E., T. (1976). Beyond Culture. New York.

Hall, E., T. (1959). The silent language. New York.

Hofstede, G (1991). Allemaal Andersdenkenden., Amsterdam.

Trompenaars, F. (1989). Riding the waves of culture. Fairfield.

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