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.
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:
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.
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
Dialgoue You’re late again
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.
So what can we do?
Dialogue Nothing’s Czech here
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.