by Craig Storti

This might be a good time, as this column gets ready to celebrate its second anniversary, to define this word “culture” we’ve been throwing around, just assuming everyone understands it and its relevance to today’s workplace. Most readers have an idea of what culture is, of course, and probably deal with culture—especially cultural differencesevery day. But it might be nice to define what we mean by culture in this space and, just as important, what we don’t mean.

We don’t mean capital C Culture, of course: literature, painting, music, that sort of thing. We’re using the word in a much broader sense to refer to the way a particular group of people from the same background think and act. Most interculturalists (that really is what we call ourselves!) define culture using the famous iceberg metaphor, to suggest that there are both a visible (above the water line) and a larger, invisible (below the water line) dimension to culture.

Culture has a visible component, above the water line, which we call behavior: the things people say and do. When you interact with someone from another culture, it’s not their culture you are dealing with but everything that other person is saying and doing. In other words, you will encounter other people’s culture in the form of their behavior; this is what you need to try to understand, interpret correctly, and ideally be able to anticipate. And those other people will be encountering your culture in the form of your behavior: all the things you say and do.

But the whole point of culture, in a way, is that the visible dimension—the things people say and do—is neither accidental nor arbitrary. People aren’t making this up as they go along or changing it when the spirit moves them. Behavior is largely predictable, or else there would be chaos. And it is the product of the invisible and subconscious dimension of culture (below the water line), the elements we have labeled values, beliefs, and assumptions. Values are what you have been raised to think of as good or bad, right or wrong; beliefs are those things you think of as true or real; and assumptions, the deepest level of culture, are those instinctive, internalized convictions you have about how the world works, what is usually referred to as your mindset or your worldview. Or where you’re coming from.

So let’s pick a cultural assumption—attitude toward risk and see how this all works. The chart (on page 11) presents the polar opposite extremes you’re going to find around the world in terms of how different people in different cultures instinctively “feel” about risk, based on their cultural conditioning. If you come from the United States, chances are you have been socialized the way people are in highrisk-tolerant cultures; if you come from Nigeria, you have probably been socialized the way people are in low-risktolerant cultures, all other things being equal.

“But the whole point of culture, in a way, is that the visible dimension—the things people say and do—is neither accidental nor arbitrary. People aren’t making this up as they go along or changing it when the spirit moves them.”

Remember that this socialization has been an ongoing process since the time you were born, and the effects are almost entirely subconscious and instinctive. You don’t realize you are risk tolerant/risk averse; you just naturally act that way. And voila: the crucial link between assumptions and behavior! And here’s where it gets interesting: In many instances, individuals who are the products of risk-tolerant cultures are going to behave very differently from individuals who are the products of risk-averse cultures, and yet each type of individual is going to consider his/her behavior normal and logical and the behavior of the other type to be abnormal and illogical. Or just plain wrong.

Impact in the Workplace

In today’s workplace, you’re bound to have individuals of all different types, that is, some highly or moderately risk-tolerant types, and some moderately and highly risk averse types. Needless to say, they’re not going to see eye to-eye on a lot of matters. And attitude toward risk is just one of many cultural assumptions that people have different ways of dealing with (see How Cultures Differ box).

Fine, you say. I get it. People from different cultural backgrounds are going to think and act differently. My problem is I’m trying to run a business here, and I need everybody to be more or less on the same wavelength. If some of my staff are highly risk-averse and don’t like to try new things, and some are highly risk-tolerant and like to shake things up—what am I supposed to do when it comes to implementing that new reporting system? Am I supposed to give the risk-averse types six months before they have to start using it and let the other group start after two weeks? Sorry, but that’s not an option in the real world. Everyone has to start at the same time or this isn’t going to work.

We could go on, but you get the point. So what are we supposed to do about cultural differences in today’s multicultural workplace?

Actually, you don’t have to do very much at all except try to be more aware of cultural differences, educate yourself about what forms they take so you’re not caught off guard when you encounter them on the job. They’re real and they can pose challenges, but they can also bring great benefits to your workforce: multiple perspectives, novel approaches, creative solutions to problems.

“So how do you answer my question about the riskaverse guy and the risk-friendly woman, both of whom have to start using the new reporting system?” Easy: you acknowledge that some of your staff are going to be happy and good at this, and some are going to be nervous and ham-fisted. And then you try to provide resources and support for the latter.

It’s really no different than dealing with any other difference among the various employees in your group, no two of whom are identical. You already treat all your staff as individuals, accommodating and capitalizing on their various personal qualities, allowing for their idiosyncracies. And culture is just one more variable, one more factor, that figures in the mix.

This article has been sponsored by:
Communicating Across Cultures

Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with No. Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: [email protected] or learn more at his website: