The one thing we all do when heading out
international trip is pack a bag. We may pack different things
depending on the climate, availability of products, and other personal
needs. But a suitcase full of socks and toothpaste isn’t the
bag we lug around with us. Whether or not we know it, most of us also
tote around at least a few pieces of cultural baggage. Like any good
suitcase, our cultural baggage contains loads of compartments and
hidden pockets—but they are stuffed with things that are less
tangible and more likely to get you into trouble when crossing borders.
What is Culture?
Before you start sorting through your cultural baggage,
helpful to understand what we mean by “culture”.
can mean many things—it’s a vast concept that can
defined in a wide variety of ways. One of the simplest and most
comprehensive ways to think about culture is as the complete way of
life of a group of people. For the purposes of the Culture Crossing
guide, we focus on aspects of culture that relate to etiquette,
communication, social and business interactions, and other elements
critical to fostering sensitivity, awareness and understanding in our
ever-expanding global community. To read more about the kind of
cultural information featured in the Culture Crossing guides, click here.
What’s In Your Cultural
Our values, assumptions, biases, and communication styles are
of the things that turn up in our cultural baggage. Neatly folded into
one corner of the bag might be your views of time. In the other corner,
your expectations about gender roles. Check that zippered side pouch
and you may find your sense of personal space and comfort level with
confrontation. And then there are the countless gestures and mannerisms
that inevitably tumble out of your overstuffed bag when you least
Are You Culturally Aware of
When you are immersed in a foreign culture, lack of awareness
your own cultural traits can make you feel vulnerable, frustrated and
fearful. Interactions with people from other cultures might leave you
thinking; “That’s so backward”,
so lazy! How uptight!” Although some of these
judgments—are based on individual personality, many of them
based on a set of expectations and perceptions instilled in us by our
respective cultures. Becoming aware of the nuances that comprise our
own cultures can result is some serious self-discovery. Here are a few
things to chew on as you begin to take stock of your own culture:
- How close do you usually stand from a friend
while talking? How about a business colleague? A stranger? How close is
- How much eye contact is too much? Too little?
- How comfortable are you
when a friend touches your shoulder or pats your arm while talking with
you? A colleague? An acquaintance? When does it become too much?
- When do you show up for a party: on time? 10
minute late? 2 hours late? 5 minutes early? How about a business
- Do you usually get directly to the point?
Beat around the bush? Somewhere in between? Why?
- What’s more
important, the group or the individual? Are you more concerned with
maintaining harmony with those around you or achieving the best results
- When showing someone where
something is, do you point? Gesture with one finger? The whole hand?
How do you beckon someone? Fingers inward? Outward? What’s
sign for money? What gestures are taboo?
The way you answer these questions may be based on culture as
as (or more than) individual personality. Culture influences our
behavior in countless ways—subconsciously guiding our
reactions and interactions. One way of becoming more self aware and
discovering some of the origins of your behavior is by examining some
of the key aspects of culture including: views of self, perceptions of
time, and verbal and non-verbal communication styles. Note: not all
individuals from a given culture will fit neatly into these groupings
and definitions, but there is usually some truth in these
ME or WE: How Do You See Yourself?
Around the world, people have differing views when it comes to
personal identity. Some see themselves as individualists while others
are more collectivist. While most cultures/countries lean toward one of
these extremes, you would be hard pressed to find cultures in which
people are exclusively one way or the other.
Individualist (Me) Traits:
- Personal well being is more important than
the group’s well being
- Individual achievement is valued over group
- Standing out from the group and being
acknowledged is encouraged.
- Personal freedom and individual rights are
- Being a member of a group does not define
who you are.
Collectivist (We) Traits:
- The well being of the group (company,
family, country, etc.) is more important than personal well being.
- The success of the group takes precedence
over the individual.
- Standing out from the group is looked down
upon and discouraged.
- Group harmony, interdependence, and saving
face is paramount.
- Being a member of a group is essential to
one's identity, success, and/or survival.
ON THE CLOCK: Views Of Time
You probably never thought of time as something that can be
in more than one way. It turns out that some cultures view time as
linear and others view time as cyclical.
Living by a linear clock means:
- Time is limited and must be used carefully
- Sticking to schedules, plans and meeting
deadlines are highly valued.
- Punctuality takes precedence over personal
For those who live by a cyclical
- Time is unlimited; there is always more of
it, there’s always tomorrow.
- Deadlines, plans, and schedules are
- Personal needs and relationships tend to
take precedence over punctuality.
SAY WHAT? Verbal Communications
Some cultures communicate directly, that is, they say exactly
they mean (no beating around the bush). Other cultures take a more
indirect path when communicating, requiring creative speaking and
- Say what you mean—very little
need for reading into things.
- The idea of saving face is not of major
consequence in most situations.
- Silence in conversations is viewed as
uncomfortable. Interruptions are common.
- Imply what you mean. Reading into things
is the definitive way of communicating.
- Saving face and maintaining harmony is
- Silence in conversations
is expected and appreciated. It is usually associated in a positive
sense. Interruptions are to be avoided.
WHAT’S NOT BEING SAID:
Non-verbal communication encompasses a wide variety of things.
the purpose of this website we have chosen to focus on a few factors
that tend to have the greatest impact on interactions when crossing
How far or close you stand, sit, or walk with another person varies
widely throughout cultures. Personal space requirements can also vary
within a single culture, depending on if you are interacting with
family, members of the opposite sex, or business colleagues. Generally
speaking, there are some cultures in which people are comfortable at
less than an arm’s length away from one another and will try
close the gap if the other person feels to far away. In other cultures,
people may keep a buffer zone of three to four feet between one another
and might try to widen the gap if the other person is too close.
How much touching goes on during conversation is often a cultural
trait. People from a “touchy” culture tend to be
comfortable with hugs and kisses on the cheek when greeting and
departing. During conversations touching on the arm, shoulders, hands,
elbows, leg, etc. is very common. People from a “keep your
to yourself” culture are comfortable with little or no
when greeting and departing. During conversations touching is virtually
non-existent and if it does occur, it can be a major faux pas.
To look or to look away, that is the question. In some cultures, direct
eye contact is the way to go—it suggests confidence, respect,
interest in what the other person is saying. To look away may suggest
being suspicious, shifty, and untrustworthy in most situations. In
other cultures, people expect and appreciate indirect eye contact when
interacting. For them indirect eye contact us often viewed as a show of
respect, politeness, and reverence, while direct eye contact may
suggest that a person is untrustworthy or aggressive.
Each culture has its own set of gestures including hand movements, head
nods/shakes, facial expressions, etc. Some cultures have gestures that
look similar but mean VERY different things. For example, the popular
“O.K.” hand signal used by many Americans usually
“go screw yourself” in Brazil.
The thumbs up signal means “good job” or
“yes/O.K.” in most countries, but in Iran
it can mean “up yours”.