Learning about differences can be tricky as it may well lead to putting (groups of) people in boxes. ‘Men are from Mars’ is one example for the stereotyping risk, and many traditional cultural models fostered categorisation – even in categories that did not exist before. Exploring the realities of cultures as they exist is an intriguingly easy alternative.
Experiencing and describing cultures from our own perspective
When we travel abroad, we are alert of cultural differences that may occur. Especially when the journey takes us to faraway places. When we meet people from neighbouring countries, regions or cities, potential cultural misunderstandings or mismatches do not tend to be on our radar, let alone the value these could provide. Cultural diversity presents hence a very common topic everybody can relate to and, at the same time, a concept that may well have very different meanings to different people.
Even Diversity specialists, however, encounter challenges to sort out the various paradigms that are connected with ‘culture’, including national cultures, ethnic cultures, religious cultures or the dynamics between generations and genders that can be considered cultural differences as well. For decades, researchers examined cultural differences between people from different countries. They either looked at what was different from their own country culture or created dimensions to map out cultures, including their own. Both approaches today are considered ethno-centric, which had always been apparent for the first ‘deviation’ model.
Understanding cultures by exploring them
Diversity management aims at making the most of existing potential. Hence, it is recommended – and adequate – to start from examining what is existing. This is how we have moved from modelling cultures to exploring them. To observe common dynamics and understand them from their underlying values and deeper assumptions. This process also includes an exploration of our own culture that serves two main purposes: To define the perspective from which we look at others and to create self-awareness for who we are and hopefully how we – as a culture – became what we are.
The exploration approach for cultures, which is for instance followed by Clotaire Rapaille’s Culture Code or Lewis’s Cultures Colliding, also reduces the tendency to stereotype cultures or subgroups as the diversity within becomes apparent through the exploration process. It also leads to the insight that adapting ourselves to other cultures might not be the most effective approach. More so, if the other side simultaneously tries to adapt to ourselves. Therefore, today’s focus on individuality suggests that practicing empathy consistently can be a powerful guideline to manage cultural differences. This, however, requires a strong element of self-management including self-reflexion and self-awareness, clarity of practical issues or helpful tools in a given cross-cultural situation, and – may be most importantly – an awareness for the unwritten rules and invisible norms of our own culture(s) and those of the others. This latter element reflects to a large extent the basic assumptions of Schein’s three-layer model of corporate culture.
Consequently, this approach cannot stop on the level of a national or regional culture. For cultures present collective appearances of individual values. But everyone involved is called to reflect about their personal heritage and how ample influences over the course of one’s life has contributed to what we today belief, think and feel. In a mobile society, this will hopefully lead us to experience – very concretely – the following thought: The first person we get to know when we travel to foreign countries is … ourself.