Concepts of Culture

Inter-Cultural Skills

A workshop on Inter-Cultural Leadership would be incomplete without a thorough review of the concepts of culture.  Considering that this is written for a three-day seminar and there are doctorate degrees devoted to cultural studies we will consider this to be notes on the Cliff’s notes version.    But we will cover it sufficiently for students to understand how to enhance their cultural confidence / competence and how that directly influences their ability to lead.
The answer to that question is a varied as the audience that answers it.  As we transition from one role to another we often transcend cultures.  The relationships we develop in every area of our lives exposes each of us to different cultures whether we realize it or not.  Some are very similar to our own and the subtle differences go unnoticed while others are extremely different and we might experience culture shock when first experiencing the difference.   But as leaders, we are the hub of a wheel with an infinite number of spokes – each connecting to a different relationship and can be in a wide variety of cultures.  This course is about fostering those relationships and being the hub for others to foster theirs.

While operating in our homes we find ourselves in one cultural setting with the material artifacts and immaterial VAB, underlying assumptions, and patterns of behavior of our familial heritage.  While at work we will find ourselves in another, the culture of our organization with its material artifacts, and immaterial VAB, underlying assumptions, and patterns of behavior.  Then at church, the grocery store, the gym, or the bar we find ourselves exposed to so many other cultures.  Perhaps most complicating is that within each of the aforementioned cultures we find ourselves interacting with subcultures.  At the dinner table a mother may find that her pre-teen son has changed his clothing style to match the latest trends of his peers, acquiescing to the material manifestation of their culture.  At work, on the night shift we might find the patterns of behavior of the day-shift oriented IT staff frustrating when attempting to resolve a computer issue.  Culture is all around us, every day, in all that we do, with everyone we interact with.

Culture[1] and Subculture[2] Defined

A check of Wikipedia for a list of subcultures reveals more than 100 and police didn’t make the list, nor did the military.  Both are certainly sub cultures in American society.  In the Inter-Cultural Skills and Leadership Workshop we will discuss in detail some of the different subcultures in America and within our organizations.  Quickly, think about your organization and the section or department that you are a member of.  Now, think about the ones that you are not.  Each of these has certain cultural attributes that make them unique.  In the police culture for instance (a subculture of its own), we find sworn and unsworn employees.  Within the sworn employees there are patrolmen, detectives, special operations, correctional officers, etc.

Up to this point we have only talked about cultures and subcultures that exist right in front of us – of course the reader realizes that if they were to travel to a foreign country they would probably experience a culture different than what they are accustomed to.  However, in the interest of brevity let’s focus on the cultures in a more limited context where they are most likely to affect our organizations.   The inter-cultural skills are the same if we’re traveling abroad or integrating the newest member of our team.  We will learn how to explore a culture that we are not a member of objectively, without bias in an attempt to learn to lead with increased respect toward them.

Layers of Culturelayers

According to MIT Psychology Professor, Edgar Schein, cultures and subcultures exist on three levels; artifacts, values, and basic assumptions/beliefs[3].

  • Artifacts: All the phenomena that one sees, hears, and feels.
  • VAB: Values, Attitudes, Beliefs
  • Underlying Assumptions: The implicit, core assumptions that guide behavior, that tell group members how to perceive, think about, and feel about things.

Why does cultural confidence matter?

Put simply, culture is a dynamic and multi-level phenomenon that is built one relationship at a time.  Culture exists on three very distinct levels that range from the individual person (1:7.2 billion) to the world culture (7.2 billion people).

First, culture is a phenomenon occurring on multiple levels simultaneously.  On the largest scale, the macro-level culture exists in terms of entire societies, professions, and large organizations.  At the meso-level smaller organizations and groups take on their own cultural attributes.  And at the interpersonal, micro-level cultural attributes are displayed and manifested in individuals and their personal environments.  Second, culture is dynamic in that it is constantly evolving.  As Raymond Williams points out in, “Culture is Ordinary[4]”, “A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested.” Culture is constantly evolving.  At the macro and meso levels culture changes as laws/policies change, relationships with other organizations evolve, and organizational dynamics (such as leadership and economy) change.   At the micro level our interpersonal influence on the cultures that we are a part of (especially as leaders) cannot be overstated.  Every decision we make effects our various groups in one way or another.

Cities all over the United States are becoming more and more diverse.  Between 2000 and 2010 nearly 14-million immigrants entered the country legally[5].  An organization’s ability to effectively serve the community depends on its ability to understand and include the entire community.

A deeper look at culture

Let’s reverse engineer the definition of a culture to fully understand its components.  Remember, culture is the

  • Learned and shared
  • Behaviors and perceptions
  • Transmitted from generation to generation
  • Through a shared symbol system

First, learned and shared: We become members of a culture through the process of enculturation.  Enculturation is the gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture or group by a person, another culture, etc.  This is where culture and socialization begin to overlap and we will explore some of this in much more detail in the socialization module.  We will especially cover behaviors and perceptions in the module on, “The foundations of Bias.”  It is through enculturation that we achieve our various statuses and learn to play our roles within a culture.  For instance, a father might teach his daughter to say please and thank you – or he may not.  In either case this is an example of enculturation and role-modeling.  This is how culture is transferred from generation to generation.  We should be careful to note that generations may not directly correlate to a person’s age, but rather their time as a member of the group.  A middle-school clique is an example of a subculture and the “new kid” is basically the next generation.  This is a good time to point out that cultures may view the roles of men and women differently.  Learning how to play these roles is through a process called, “Gender-Role Socialization.”  The same is true for an organization’s culture.  If men and women traditionally perform gender specific functions in an organization new employees learn about the organization’s views on sex and gender.

Shared symbol systems are worthy of their own module, unfortunately time will not allow for it so a separate slide and paragraph in the student guide will have to suffice.  Objects of any type and actions of any sort have inherently no value.  The value we perceive items and gestures to have is based on how we were socialized to value them.  Take for instance, cows… how are cattle valued differently in Texas, USA versus India or Spain[6]?    Some of the attributes that vary from one culture to the next are; language, symbols, clothing, patterns of thinking, use of space, gestures, VAB, and customs.  Some of these may seem a bit strange to us as we look in on other cultures.

Aspects of Culture

  • Artifacts: The artifacts of a culture are the objects made by members of the culture.
  • Arts and recreation: historically some cultures were known for their artistic endeavors and contributions to humanity.  How a culture or group spends its leisure time can tell a lot about their values.
  • Customs and traditions: the stewardship of a culture lies in how its passed from one generation to the next.  For instance, how one family observes a holiday may be different than a family of the same meso level culture.
  • Clothes: There is nothing inherently natural about the clothes that a culture wears.  A Kuwaiti man wearing a Thobe (long white robe) is as natural as a German man wearing jeans.
  • Food: As one of the most primitive basic needs, food speaks volumes about cultural resources, pride, and is often a rallying point for cultural gatherings and celebrations.  Recipes being passed from generation to generation is an example of passing along a shared symbol system – a specific marinade or delicacy has no value other than that assigned by the culture that values it.
  • Government: whether it’s an internationally recognized institution (British Parliament or the American Presidency), a corporate board of directors, or a family meeting how a culture governs itself depends on the VAB of the culture.
  • Knowledge: The history and heritage of a cultural is persevered thorough stories passed from one generation to the next.  As members of one group read the books or hear the tales of another their own culture and values may be tested.  Knowledge adds to context in communications.
  • Language: Communication, both verbal and nonverbal is the most obvious and easily recognizable of the sign vehicles (see socialization).  Vocabulary, accents, use of context, inflection, tone, etc., are all examples of language in a culture.  Obviously this applies to national societies but it equally applies to social groups (military acronyms, religious scripture).
  • Religion and faith belief systems: While some cultures have a strong belief in a supernatural powers and beings, others have explicitly opposite views.  Values placed on such beliefs have led to wars and peace.
  • Shelter: Another of the most basic needs that speaks to the VAB of a culture.    Shelter is much more than protection from the elements.  Shelter, specifically architecture and the functional design of a cultures shelters are a testament to their values.  While a lavish home might be evidence of a culture’s economy simple homes may not specifically imply the opposite.  Large common areas might suggest valuing companionship or unity.
  • Tools: Tools are objects used by a culture to improve the performance of a task.
  • Values, Attitudes, and Beliefs: In the socialization module we will explore cultural values in greater detail.  Values are the rules by which we make decisions about right and wrong, should and shouldn’t, good and bad. They also tell us which are more or less important, which is useful when we have to trade off meeting one value over another.  It is important to point out here and now that nether our material items or perspectives on a topic have a universally accepted and defined value.  Beliefs are often the foundational aspect of a culture.  When a group believes the same thing a culture begins to form.

Non-Aspects of culture

Certain attributes of individuals and groups are often perceived as cultural, though they are not.  Race, for instance – the color of a person’s skin – is not a cultural attribute.  Through socialization a person may inculcate certain attributes of a culture or group with a similar race.  But, race in and of itself is non-cultural.  Sex is the same.  Remember, gender and sex are different and the sex organs a person is born with are not a cultural attribute.  Gender on the other hand and a person’s role association with it is attributable to their culture and group memberships.  Ethnicity and other genetic characteristics are not cultural.

Comparing cultures

It’s completely natural to have a world view that limits our awareness to that of only our culture, this is called, Ethnocentrism.  When we use our own culture as a yardstick for judging the ways of other individuals or societies.  Unfortunately, this generally leads to a negative evaluation of their values, norms, and behaviors.  Often, due to the comfort we have with our own way of life we see our culture as superior to others.  An effective leader (a graduate of our Inter-Cultural Leadership Skills Workshop) is able to effectively and objectively observe another culture and overcome the all too normal culture-shock often experienced when we are first exposed to a new culture.  More importantly the leader is able to lead others through the experience to truly leverage a shared understanding.

One way to avoid ethnocentric thinking is to look for the value in terms of how the other group sees it.  This is called cultural relativism or Ethnorelativism and is a neutral or positive way of looking at other cultures.  This requires the leader to look at an aspect of the culture exclusively through the lens of the other culture without measuring it against one’s own culture as inferior or superior and simply accepting it as it is.  This sort of thinking is the hub of inter-cultural leadership and is the true essence of cultural competence.  By looking at aspects of a culture relative only to that culture we become more empathetic (a quality of a leader of character).

Remember, a Venn Leader has a clear sense of identity and are a fair judge of right and wrong.  This enables the leader to maintain his or her own perspectives, VAB, and cultural heritage while respecting others.  It is by this sort of moral maturity that we are able to assimilate to other cultures without losing our own and adapting best practices of the multi-cultural talent employed by our agencies and in the communities we serve.

Conclusion: Five Reasons to increase cultural competence

Cultural competence is a cornerstone of effective inter-cultural leadership.   When individuals learn how to build relationships with a wide variety of cultures it is not only personally enriching but will contribute to the effectiveness of an organization’s ability to serve its community.

  1. Problem Solving: An organization that is representative of the community it serves leverages not only the perception of inclusivity but also the diverse talents and strengths that each culture brings to the team.  From knowledge and patterns of thinking to tools and unique VAB each group’s involvement in organizational development will have immeasurable second and third order effects.
  2. Reduced Bias: Increasing an organizations cultural competence can reduce bias and prejudice significantly.   Whether intentional or unintentional an organization that does not represent the community it serves by equal inclusion of all groups will inevitably experience some type of actions based on bias.  Expensive EEO complaints and accusations of biased based violence are among the top concerns but, so are lost economic opportunities and embarrassing misunderstandings.
  3. Loyalty: When people feel appreciated and included they are willing to work harder and deliver higher quality.
  4. Reaching Customers: Isolated populations are more difficult to reach.  Initially this program was developed for law enforcement and public safety organizations.  For them, inter-cultural cooperation during an investigation is a concern.  For that matter, whether or not a victim even calls emergency services or a suspect respects their authority is an inter-cultural concern.  But looking at this with a broader scope – the industry is irrelevant.  Whether attempting to provide medical services, mental health services, or sell internet service and cable TV an organizations ability to reach a community, culture, or group is essential.
  5. One Story: When an organization is inclusive of all cultures and groups associated with it and attempts to achieve demographic influence the community’s story will be the same as the organization that serves it.  But when the values of the community are not represented in the organization the recollection of historical events will differ.

[1] Culture is the learned and shared behaviors and perceptions of a group, which have been transmitted from generation to generation, through a shared symbol system.

[2] Subculture is a group of people within a larger society who share cultural and linguistic characteristics which, are different enough to distinguish it from others within the same society

[3] Learn more about Schein’s work,

[4] Culture is Ordinary,

[5] Learn more about the rate of immigration,

[6] Learn more about the world-view on cattle,

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