It is not uncommon these days to hear reference made to culture. In fact the word culture has become a buzzword in all kinds of contexts, not just in travel but in the places we work, in sport, education and politics, just to mention a few.
Culture is often treated in everyday language as synonymous with nation, custom or identity.
But the concept of culture is complex.
It can easily lead to confusion if not a sense of apprehension when used in a statement for example such as “that is what we do in our culture”, or similarly, “that is how we do things around here”. The summary points below are at the core of this:
Culture is not homogenous, providing clear instructions for how to think, feel and act; nor is culture synonymous with the customary way of doing things, or custom as in etiquette. Both these insufficient interpretations of culture underestimate the importance of individual agency demonstrated in attitude and behaviour.
Furthermore, culture is not evenly distributed among members of a group, nor does an individual’s identity reflect only one single culture (i.e. I am simply German or Australian). This approach ignores and/or dismisses deviance from the norm with potential negative stereotypes and discrimination as the result.
And while culture is often referred to as something “out there” and static, culture is internalized by individuals (to a larger or lesser extend) and dynamic, adapting itself to its environments (Avruch, 1998 cited by Spencer-Oatey, 2012 pp. 16-17).
Let me share with you a recent experience that brings to light some of the complexity of the term culture and its connection to emotions and communication.
About one week after returning home to Sydney, Australia, from a recent trip to Bali where I met up with my close and treasured Emirati friends from Sharjah, UAE, I had a cultural experience that had triggered mixed feelings in me; those associated with happiness on one hand and perplexity on the other.
While performing some outside work duties, I realised that I had lost my personal smart phone. To see where the phone might be, a colleague of mine called my phone number twice so that I could track its whereabouts. But to no avail; I could not hear a ring tone. "Oh no, I have lost my phone somewhere when getting in and out of the car!"
I felt this most immense worry come over me. I started to feel sick in my stomach.
Then there was an incoming call to my colleague’s phone; at the end of the line a male voice saying he had found my smart phone. My colleague handed me his phone so that I could personally talk to the finder – let me call him ‘John’ for this story. I felt so relieved and elated and expressed my sentiments to John accordingly.
He responded by saying: “The phone is safe with me. But if you want it back it will cost you – moment of silence - it will cost you a box of beer, a box of Coronas – moment of silence -
"That is what we do in our culture."
– moment of silence – you have to bring a box of Coronas.”
All of a sudden I felt a sense of confusion and bewilderment.
I said: “I understand. But what do you mean by 'that is what we do in our culture?”
John responded by stating that he is originally from XXX (the name of the country was left blank here intentionally to avoid any potential unconscious stereotyping). I interpreted this as him referring to national culture.
As it turned out, both of us were immigrants. We had both come from different countries, now living in Australia. While I have travelled to and lived in quite a few different countries, apart from Australia and Germany, I was not familiar with his country’s cultural practices, its values, beliefs and norms.
I sensed that while we both might share some appreciation of the common core concepts of the Australian culture, both of us also carried our cultural heritage imprints in our metaphorical backpacks that influenced our thinking, our feelings and our actions, how we organize things and how we communicate (Bennett, 1998).
I cannot deny that the ambiguity of this whole situation stirred feelings of
unease, anxiety and fear in me.
"Is what I am hearing suggesting that if I do not agree to bring a box of beer in exchange for my phone he might not hand back my phone?"
I could feel my heart sink. I was now engulfed by an increasing sense of uncertainty and insecurity. I felt powerless. realising that John could decide not to honour his stated good intentions if I did not abide by his expressed expectation. The trust I had felt initially had disappeared.
I detected some pride in John about his original nationality, about the country he had come from, its values, beliefs and customs. Accordingly, it was important to let it transpire that I was willing and committed to respect John’s cultural identity despite my feelings of vulnerability accompanied by a sense of resentfulness. I thought to myself:
“What might be appropriate and acceptable in one culture
is not necessarily the case in others.”"
However, despite all kinds of questions swirling around in my head and negative feelings rising, I knew I had to remain calm. I had to stay present in the moment, to focus on the positive indicators at this time without falling prey to my negative emotions, unwarranted assumptions and moral judgement.
So I took a deep breath; and while staying sensitive to the outer conditions of the situation I was also listening to my inner voice that told me to focus my attention on my most pressing needs: that of gaining possession of my mobile phone again, and also, my needs and desire for inner and outer peace. The result was a swift exchange of the box of beer for my smart phone the next morning.
As stated at the beginning, the term culture is inherently complex, captured aptly by Helen Spencer-Oatey's definition below (2008, cited by Spencer-Oatey, 2012, p.2):
"Culture is a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values,
orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions
that are shared by a group of people, and that influence (but do not determine) each
member’s behaviour and his/her interpretations of the
‘meaning’ of other people’s behaviour."
The above quote highlights that on one hand culture reflects a broad concept with notions of acting in conformity (to a greater or lesser degree) with the values and behaviour that represent any given culture. On the other hand it points out the significance of individual agency. These two major aspects stood out for me in my experience with John.
My personal life experiences have taught me that none of us are representative of only one culture. All of us at any given time belong to various different groups and categories of people that in some way or another impact how we think, feel and act in all kinds of diverse situations.
Common denominators include:
Nationality (one or multiple in the case of migrants)
Regional/ethnic/linguistic and religious association (across and within countries)
Role categories (i.e. parent-child/doctor-patient/teacher-student/host-guest/tourist)
Social class (education level/profession or work occupation/employed-unemployed)
Organisations (for those employed – socialised by their work environment) (Hofstede, Hofstede & Minkov, 2010, pp. 17-18).
Apart from the above, leisure contexts such as travel and sport also are major contributors to identity development, particularly during young adulthood. Our cultural identities, as much as our individual identities are a reflection of all our life experiences. They are a collage of a multitude of influences and include assimilation of stereotypes (positive/negative).
Our awareness of our own cultural identity and our own diversity, our own ways of seeing, doing and being in the world we share helps us to appreciate
diversity and qualities in others.
Culture is learned and provides us with a set of lenses, a set of filters through which we perceive and interpret all messages and experiences in our lives. While our espoused values (ideal/ethical values proclaimed by individuals and groups - value statements) are often listed when asked “what is important to you”, it is our lived values, our taken for granted assumptions, beliefs and attitudes reflected in our daily behaviour and practices that demonstrate who we are as individuals and groups (Schein, 2004).
Culture influences us in various ways. Nonetheless, it does not determine our behaviour, nor for that matter, our interpretation of the ‘meaning’ others attach to their behaviour. In the end we are all individuals with our own personal experiences and personal character traits.
We can choose whether or not to act based on old established
cultural patterns or to embrace new and different
ways of going about things.
We can choose how we communicate and interact with others, whether to view an individual or a group of people as whole human beings or as cultural, categorical and/or role stereotypes. We can choose to consider other people’s reference points without compromising our own. We can choose to see the richness of cognitive diversity and emotional breadth in people. We can choose to appreciate both negative and positive feelings, which offer insight into individual and group needs and actions (Rosenberg, 2015).
Reflecting back on my experience with John, I can once again see how important trust is in any kind of interaction and relationship. Trust is based on two orientations: inside and outside orientation - our character (intent and integrity) and our competence (capability and results) respectively (Barrett, 2014).
We all have this innate desire and need to establish people's warmth and competence (Cuddy et al., 2009).their motivations, their goals, their intent (positive or negative), along with their capabilities to act on their intent.
I am happy to say that despite my initially present negative voices and emotions (and that of people around me), I was able to regain my sense of trust in John. I embraced the ambiguity of the situation, my feelings of vulnerability and apprehension, being mindful of my immediate stereotyping that was lurking in the background (Ting-Toomey, 1999, cited by Spencer-Oatey, 2013, pp. 8-9, 10).
I trusted in my positive outlook, which allowed me to see that John was demonstrating his helpful intent by proactively and constructively suggesting time and place for exchanging my phone for the box of beer. Then on the following day he demonstrated his integrity and competence through all his actions, including his friendly verbal and non-verbal expressions (authentic and transparent friendliness): a win-win outcome for both parties.
I believe that approaching people and circumstances with a positive and mindful attitude empowers us to contribute to the way events evolve, to create positive energy around us and to realise the outcomes we desire. I believe that people are essentially good and that deep down people are keen to collaborate and help. I believe that every little positive action has a multiplier effect in any situation and context: that what is given in good will, without any qualifying conditions, grows in magnitude and finds its way back way to the sender.
Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek,
but a means by which we arrive at the goal.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Barrett, R. (2014). The Values-Driven Organization: Unleashing Human Potential for Performance and Profit. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
(see Annex 10, p, 211 – Trust Matrix).
Bennett, M, J. (1998). Intercultural communication: A current perspective. In Milton J. Bennett (Ed.), Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Selected readings. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press. Accessible via: