There is this famous commencement speech by David Foster Wallace titled “This Is Water”. He starts it with this story: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
This story reminds me of a similar question, of equal importance: “What is culture?”.
Just like with the water metaphor, the culture seems elusive and difficult to see, and yet it is essential to our survival. We take it completely for granted and rarely give it a second thought, and yet without it we couldn’t function successfully in our social and professional networks.
So what is culture, and why is it as essential to us as water?
The British cross-cultural communication expert Richard D. Lewis put it really well in his book “When Cultures Collide”and I would like to repeat his explanations and observations here. I hope this will give you a better understanding of what culture is, how it is formed and the extend of influence it has on our daily life, our behaviour, our reactions and last but not least, on the way we conduct business.
And once you develop a better understanding of the impact of culture, I hope you will appreciate the need to develop your skills in this field in order to perform successfully in multi-national setting of global business.
Here is the explanation of culture from “When Cultures Collide” by Richard Levis:
“Geert Hofstede defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.” The key expression in this definition is collective programming.
Although not as sinister as brainwashing, with its connotations of political coercion, it nevertheless describes a process to which each one of us has been subjected since birth (…). When parents returning from the hospital carry their baby over the threshold, they have often already made one of their first culturally based decisions—where the baby will sleep. A Japanese child is invariably put in the same room as the parents, near the mother, for at least the first couple of years. British and American children are often put in a separate room, right away or after a few weeks or months. The inferences for the child’s dependence or interdependence and problem-solving abilities are obvious.
Parents and teachers obviously give children the best advice they can to prepare them for successful interactions in their own culture and society, where good and bad, right and wrong, normal and abnormal are clearly defined. It is perhaps unfortunate in one sense that each cultural group gives its children a different set of instructions, each equally valid in their own environment.
As we grow up, these learned national and/or regional concepts become our core beliefs, which we find almost impossible to discard. We regard others’ beliefs and habits as strange or eccentric, mainly because they are unlike our own. There is no doubt about it, the Japanese are not like Americans!”
In further blogs we will explore the types of culture and the cultural differences in values and world views. We will look at how culture impacts the way we communicate and interact with each other on personal and business level. And finally, we will also look into the importance of cultural competence for the global workplace.
Over to you:
Do you agree that culture is one of the most basic and most powerful factors influencing behaviour? Would you agree that cultural competence is an essential job skill these days?