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Cultural norms and their influence on the business world

Do you shake someone’s hand when you meet them? Hand-shaking is a common practice in the United States when meeting someone for the first time. Are you comfortable blowing your nose in public? Japanese culture does not appreciate public displays of mucus, thus blowing your nose is best saved for private. Is it rude to finish your plate during a meal? In China it is considered polite to leave food on your plate, otherwise you imply that the host didn’t offer a fulfilling meal. Your answers to these questions is heavily influenced by your culture. When in a culture other than your own, the wrong approach to these situations can put you at risk of causing offense. Culture creates and develops explicit and implicit guidelines for what is seen as appropriate behaviour and thought.

Before we go on, we’ll take a moment to clarify what you can expect from this article. We will define and explore what culture actually means before defining and highlighting cultural norms. We’ll finish the article with some examples showing some typical, yet not often recognised areas in which cultures commonly differ. Now, we’ll get back to it:

What is culture?

“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 [heck] is water?’”

This is a quote from the American novelist, David Foster Wallace, which was said during a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College. He went on to say: “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Culture is to people what water is to fish. It is so fundamental that it can be completely overlooked.

Culture is the learned and shared patterns of behaviours, beliefs, and values, held by a group of interacting people. It is everywhere and influences almost everything. Culture does not only describe a country or nationality, but also communities and groups, for example companies, teams, sports clubs, or other sub-groups like different generations, people with the same educational level, sexual orientation, etc. All these different cultural groups have something in common: they all shape their group members’ beliefs, values, and behaviours.

Culture is also commonly used when discussing art and food. While this is a valid use of the word, the definitions are contextual(since the rest of your article does focus on national culture and global business, then I would make the paragraph about other kinds of understanding of the word culture, albeit important to point out, a bit more condensed.

When someone has spent most of their time within their own culture, it can be difficult to recognise and accept cultural differences. What is normal to one culture, may be completely inappropriate and misunderstood by another.

What are cultural norms?

Let’s start with a clear definition of what a norm is. A norm, according to the Cambridge dictionary, an accepted standard or a way of behaving or doing things that most people agree with. There are three main types of norms: universal, cultural and personal. A universal norm is something that all humans do, such as eating and drinking, while a personal norm might be a specific routine.

So what are cultural norms? We see a culture norm as the accepted expectations of thoughts and behaviour based on the shared patterns of behaviours, beliefs and values found in a culture. Some more examples are that In France and Germany, it is a cultural norm to use formal lanugage such as titles and honorifics, especially with strangers. In Russia, it is normal to smile less than many western countries as they view people who smile as less intelligent.

To further highlight cultural norms we’ll take a closer look at two distinct themes in which culture has a strong impact, especially in the business world: These are by no means the only cultural differences people experience, nor are they more or less important than others.

The differences between direct and indirect communication

This theme, or cultural dimension (dimension in which cultures differ), is all about how people get their message across. The labels ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ represent either end of the range of communication styles. Some cultures prefer to communicate clearly, with direct and potentially abrupt messages. Paralinguistics (Tone, pitch, rhythm, etc…) and wording are the main indicators of meaning for direct cultures. Direct communication is often favoured by Anglo cultures, such as Northern European and North American. The Dutch, in particular, are famous for their directness, this cultural norm is seen as honest, polite, and respectful. To not be direct with someone can be seen as dishonest, or that you don’t care about them.

In a culture which prefers indirect communication, messages are often a subtle combination of wording and paralinguistics which requires that recipients pay attention to what is not said, or how things are worded. Messages are often said in a way that requires interpretation beyond what was clearly communicated. There is strategy involved in indirect communication. Typically, indirect communication is preferred in Arabic, Asian and Latin cultures. Avoiding direct negative feedback cultural norm often seen in cultures with indirect communication.

Task-focused cultures versus relationship-focused cultures

Another way that cultures differ is in the focus of professional relationships. What is the foundation of a professional relationship in your culture? In some, the foundation and value is found in the tasks at hand. In others, it is found in trust and interpersonal connections.

Some cultures which favour direct communication also favour task-based relationships. The US, Germany and the Netherlands are all examples of this. Brazil, Saudi Arabia and India lean towards indirect communication and relationship-focused business interactions. Looking at interactions, Poland and Austria highlight the centre. France leans towards relationships and the UK leans towards tasks.

In the US and the Netherlands, the cultural norm is that professional relationships are built upon the professional interests of each person or group. Someone who can get their work completed efficiently and in a relatively good amount of time is seen as productive and successful. Strong relationships in these cultures are often created through repeated demonstrations of clear communication and accountability, both individual and shared. These relationships are further strengthened by displays of trust and respect.

Alternatively, in relationship-focused cultures such as Brazil and China, the cultural norm is to build a personal connection before any business is discussed. This connection allows for the development of trust and respect. In these cultures there is a high value placed on building and maintaining positive relationships in business. This includes getting to know each other on a personal level. Additionally, strong relationship-focused cultures put value on communication, reciprocity and time.

Knowing what is normal, and appropriate in a culture is important, especially when you’re working with or in it. Without some base knowledge, there is a higher likelihood of behaviour which can cause offense when none is meant.

Learn more about cultural norms

As providers of Intercultural Communication training, we are well positioned to interact with and understand where cultures and similar and different in their approaches to professional and private life. These are just two important areas which have a strong impact on intercultural relationships. Its’ also imperative for multicultural environments to have a shared approach to communication. That typically takes the form of a language backed-up with various structures to enable equity. Want to know more? Take a look at our Intercultural Communication training or our communication skills and language courses. We would also be happy to arrange a free 30-minute chat to see exactly how we can enable you to get the most out of your talent, regardless of their language skills or cultural background.

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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