The Importance of Hidden Differences When Working Across Cultures

The Importance of Hidden Differences When Working Across Cultures

by Felicity Menzies

Recently, I met a friend of mine from Australia for a casual meal. Paul is a Professor of Organisational Psychology and is in his first term teaching advanced statistics to third-year students a university in Singapore. On the morning of our dinner, he’d had a difficult conversation with the Dean of the University. A group of Paul’s students had lodged a complaint against him relating to a comment he’d made in class a few days prior. I asked him to explain.

“Much to my embarrassment,” he started. “I lost my temper in class earlier this week. It is out of character for me to get frustrated with students. In my 15 years of teaching in Australia, I have experienced it all—tardiness, mobile phones ringing, texting, chatter. I’ve even had students heckle me, but I’ve never before lost my cool.” Paul paused. “This week, however, in a moment of frustration, I insulted my students by asking them how it was possible they could all be so ignorant?”

Paul explained that, in Australia, he liked his classrooms to be interactive. He thought it was important for his students to ask questions, check their understanding, even challenge him. “When my students participate, I get a feel for how much they are understanding, whether my pace of instruction is appropriate, and which areas I need to focus more on”, explained Paul. “But more importantly, I believe that when students interact with me and the material, they learn more. Through reflection and interaction, students discover problems with their understanding and make new connections, extending their learning”.

But Paul experienced markedly different classroom dynamics in Singapore compared to Australia. In Australia, education is student-centered—students are expected to find their own intellectual paths. The purpose of education is to teach students how to learn. Teachers are afforded the status of experts who transfer impersonal facts to students. Students may argue with teachers and express disagreements and criticisms in the classroom. Teachers expect initiatives from students. Students may make uninvited interventions and are expected to ask questions when they do not understand.

The educational process in South East Asian societies, in contrast, is teacher-centered—the teacher outlines the intellectual paths to be followed by students. The purpose of education is to teach students how to follow. Teachers are accorded the status of gurus who transfer their personal wisdom to students. Teachers should take all initiatives in the classroom. If students do not understand the teacher or respond incorrectly to his or her questioning, this can be interpreted as compromising the teacher’s reputational standing or face.

Also, a student’s participation reflects on the reputation of his or her ingroup. If the student makes an error in his or her response, then the student’s ingroup—possibly the entire classroom—would be shamed. Because of this, students are less comfortable responding individually in class. Even if the student’s response is correct, speaking individually questions their group loyalty. They might be perceived as acting in accordance with their own self-interest rather than promoting intergroup harmony. Students that draw attention to themselves risk being rejected by their peers. In those contexts, group work might be less confronting and more effective than inviting students to speak individually in class.

Similar differences in classroom dynamics occur in workplace settings. In Australia, the relationship between subordinate and supervisor is more egalitarian compared to Singapore. Australian employees desire and are expected to take initiative, respectfully challenge authority, and actively participate in discussions regarding how their work is performed. Also, Australian employees strive to distinguish themselves from their peers through higher performance. The workplace is competitive, and workplace debate is encouraged.

In Singapore, employees are less comfortable with challenging authority and taking the initiative. Subordinates are closely supervised and are expected to comply unquestionably with the directions of their managers. Workers are less comfortable distinguishing themselves from their peers and are less likely to speak out individually during workgroup meetings unless they have been sanctioned by their workgroup. The workplace is cooperative, and there is an emphasis on harmony and avoiding conflict.

Differences in classroom and workplace dynamics between Australia and Singapore reflect variations in national cultural values. Whereas Australians value egalitarianism and individualism, Singaporean culture emphasises hierarchy and group membership. Had Paul understood those differences, he could have better managed his responses and avoided tension with his students.

Understanding Cultural Elements

Some cultural differences are visible. Others are hidden. Visible cultural elements include artefacts, symbols, and practices such as: art and architecture; language, colour, and dress; social etiquette and traditions. Although they are the most obvious, visible cultural differences comprise only ten percent of our cultural identities.

The iceberg provides a useful analogy. The small ‘tip of the iceberg’ that can be seen above the water level represents visible cultural elements. The 90% of the iceberg that remains unseen below the surface represents the hidden cultural differences.

Hidden differences include cultural values and assumptions. Values are the worth we attach to something or a broad tendency to prefer one state of affairs to another—for example, freedom of speech, group harmony, or gender equality. Assumptions are ideas that are accepted as truths to even when there is no proof—for example, ‘I control my own destiny’.

Others prefer to explain culture by using the onion analogy. In this model, culture is the deep inner core of abstract ideas that manifest as increasingly tangible outer layers. The inner core equates to the submerged base of the iceberg: values and assumptions. Those fundamental building blocks are encircled by specific beliefs, attitudes, and conventions.

Beliefs are like assumptions but more specific. Attitudes involve a positive or negative evaluation of an object or idea. Conventions are acceptable behaviours.

Beliefs, attitudes, and conventions drive cultural systems and institutions. Systems and institutions organise culture into formal practices. Political systems make decisions for societies; economic systems facilitate the production and distribution of products and services; legal systems impose sanctions for deviance from cultural norms; educational systems enable the transmission of knowledge; social systems guide reproduction and child-rearing; and religious systems manage uncertainty.

Using the onion analogy, the outer layer corresponds to the tip of the iceberg. It comprises all those visible features that characterise a particular culture. Symbols, for example, and the symbolic behaviours that make up rituals, hold particular meaning that is recognised only by those who share the culture. Man-made artefacts and products— including tools and even computers—are invested with cultural significance. Heroes and legendary figures—people who are dead or alive, real or imaginary—embody the characteristics that are prized in a culture, and serve as models for behaviour.

Values are the central feature of a culture. They shape tangible cultural differences. A cultural emphasis on success is reflected in achievement-orientated characteristics like competitive economic systems— for example, capitalism—, child-rearing practices that encourage and reward achievement, a high prevalence of status symbols such as luxury goods, heroes who have accumulated great wealth or fame, and the acceptance and promotion of assertive and ambitious behaviour.

In last week’s post, I showed how differences in core values of the relationship between the individual and the group manifest as differences in thinking styles, social behaviour, language, and food-sharing customs across cultures.

The Relative Importance of Cultural Intangibles

Both the iceberg and onion analogies highlight the relative importance of the hidden elements of culture. Cultural problems cannot be resolved at the surface. Focusing on the visible features of culture alone will not prevent misunderstanding and conflict. Tangible cultural features, such as differences in language or dress, might present barriers, but the less obvious characteristics of culture cause the most problems.

Knowing that one should give and receive business cards with two hands in Asia is not the same as knowing why that is important. Underpinning business card etiquette in Asia is a deep respect for a person’s standing in society—their relative status in the social hierarchy and their connection to others.

Understanding the values, assumptions, and beliefs of a cultural group is critical for bridging cultural differences and for establishing productive and harmonious relationships with diverse others.  Focusing on the superficial elements of culture alone, such as symbolic gestures, language, or artefacts, or political, economic, or social institutions, without an understanding of the values, beliefs, and assumptions that underlie them, is unlikely to be adequate for overcoming the misunderstandings, misconceptions, and conflicts that characterise intercultural encounters. For an effective resolution, it is necessary to dive beneath the surface or peel away the outer layers and focus on core values. These elements are invisible and subconscious. They are often overlooked.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.