Cultural Differences

International Community Resources

Cultural Differences

Time orientation

digital watchThere are cultural variations in how people understand and use time. Researchers have found that individuals are divided in two groups in the ways they approach time.

Monochronic individuals are those who prefer to complete one task at a time. For them, task-oriented time is distinguished from socio-emotional time. In other words, there is a time to play and a time to work. These individuals value punctuality, completing tasks, and keeping to schedules. They view time as if it were linear, that is, one event happening at a time. Examples of monochronic cultures include the U.S., Israel, Germany, and Switzerland.

unfocused analog watchPolychronic individuals, on the other hand, are more flexible about time schedules; they have no problem integrating task-oriented activities with socio-emotional ones. For them, maintaining relationships and socializing are more important than accomplishing tasks. These individuals usually see time in a more holistic manner; in other words, many events may happen at once. Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa are places where the polychronic orientation prevails.

In certain cities in the U.S., it is not uncommon for us to find timetables or daily schedules for buses or trains. If the bus is to be at a certain stop at 10:09 PM, for example, one can expect that to happen at the designated time, give or take a minute.

For polychronic individuals such precise timetables are mind-boggling, as many of them are simply used to going to the bus stop and waiting – not knowing whether they will be waiting for five or forty-five minutes. That is just the way things are.

This difference in time orientation is reflected in the complaints of U.S. business people conducting business in Saudi Arabia or in Mexico, for example. A big source of frustration for them is the difficulty of getting through a meeting’s agenda. That is because in these countries meetings begin with an extended socializing time in which time is spent establishing social rapport – usually over many cups of coffee or tea.

The context of communication

coffee cup - no labelThis dimension has to do with the way people communicate with each other. Some cultures value a high context communication style while others value a low context style.

In high context cultures, information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person. Behavioral rules are implicit; in other words, the context is supposed to give you the cues you need to behave appropriately. In these cultures, members tend to use a more indirect style of communication. Examples of societies that value this communication style include Japan, Korea, China, and many of the Latin American countries.

coffee cup - with warning label: caution, hot beverageIn low context cultures, information is part of and conveyed through the verbal content of the communication. The rules and expectations are explained and discussed; individuals tend to prefer a more direct communication style. Examples of countries that would prefer this communication style include the United States and most European countries.

In the U.S., for example, it is very common for college students to receive a course syllabus at the beginning of the semester. In it, students find detailed information such as the course description and learning objectives. It is not uncommon for the syllabus to also provide the instructor’s policies regarding attendance, course assignments, course preparation, how grades will be determined, and even a tentative course schedule. That is because, in a low context culture such as the U.S., expectations are often communicated directly to the individual. In a high context culture, students may not be given all this information directly. As a student, it is your job to find out what the rules and expectations are.

light switch with label: Last one out? Lights Off!Need another example? A quick look around campus will reveal signs such as the one at left.

In high context cultures, this type of information is less likely to be displayed. There is no need for them to post a sign telling you to clean up after yourself. The expectation is that you should know what to do in situations like this.

Given the differences between high context and low context individuals, can you think of other potential sources of conflict or misunderstanding between them?

Individualism versus Collectivism

This cultural dimension is concerned with the extent to which the welfare of the individual or that of the group is more valued in a society.

In individualistic societies, the goals of individuals are valued more highly than the goals of the group. Individuals are rewarded for behaving independently, making their own plans, and working toward achieving their personal goals. In these societies, individuals are hired and promoted largely based on individual achievement and qualifications. Examples of individualistic societies include the United States and Northern and Western European countries.

In collectivistic societies, on the other hand, the needs of the group are considered more important than those of the individual. In these societies, kinship ties are much stronger and may take precedence over expertise in matters of appointments and promotions. Collectivism is a value in Asian, African, as well as South American cultures.

Take, for example, the case of arranged marriages, still common in countries such as India or Pakistan. In those cultures, marriages are times to form family alliances. You marry whomever your family chooses or whoever is best for the family. In the U.S., on the other hand, you marry whomever you choose, the implication being that it’s your decision and you choose the one best for you. In this case, the welfare of the individual takes precedence over the welfare of the family. The same can happen in your professional life. A student from a collectivistic culture may be sent to the U.S. to study whatever his/her government or company needs and not necessarily what he/she wants to pursue; whatever the group needs (i.e., country or company) takes precedence over what the individual wants.

Given the differences between individualistic and collectivistic individuals, can you think of potential sources of conflict or misunderstanding between them?

Differences in value orientation or “cultural baggage”

When you visit another country, you take along a lot more than what is in your suitcase. You will also be carrying your “cultural baggage”.

Your cultural baggage (or culture) is the collection of all the values, beliefs, concepts, and behaviors that you learned as a child and that will have a great effect on the way you see the world. Keep in mind that your cultural baggage is unique and will most certainly differ from that carried by members of your host culture.

Cultures vary in many ways; we have discussed just a few of those ways. It’s important that you realize, though, that the cultural dimensions presented here do not apply to all individuals within a culture. An individual’s behavior may also vary depending on the situation. In other words, treat the differences discussed here as general guidelines and understand that there will always be individuals who don’t fit the dimensions discussed here.

Information on Cultural Differences, thanks to Iowa State University Study Abroad Center.