4 Methods of Learning Culture


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“…the things we take for granted can trip us up and cause untold discomfort and frequently anger.” Edward Hall (“How Cultures Collide,” Psychology Today, July, 1976.)

It is generally acknowledged that it is important to understand one’s own cultural values before we can begin to understand another’s worldview, let alone develop intercultural competence. Cultural Detective Self Discovery offers a way to investigate our own values through a series of guided questions designed to help us discover more about ourselves. Below is an excerpt from Cultural Detective Self Discovery by Dianne Hofner Saphiere, George Simons, and Kate Berardo in which we address various approaches to culture learning.

Why learn about such a complex thing as culture? Certainly no one can learn everything about every other culture or even about one’s own, so why try at all?

At a very practical level, having the ability to work across cultures is a key skill in daily life and the workplace. When we think about “culture” as different organizational departments, communities, regions, companies, nations, genders, or religions, we realize that we cross cultures daily and constantly.

While we can never learn everything about every culture, what we can do is know our own values and how they affect us. We can be determined to go beyond auto-pilot thinking and to question our assumptions. We can approach working across cultures with curiosity and the intent to learn about others. Doing all this helps us to communicate more effectively and to avoid misunderstandings that lead to bad feelings and conflicts. In communities, this translates into greater cohesion. In the workplace, it means higher productivity, creativity, and synergy.

Encountering people who see the world differently, act differently, and speak differently challenges us to understand others and become more open and creative.

As Cultural Detectives, we want to understand what makes people tick. So where do we begin? There are a number of approaches to learning about cultures:

The Etiquette & Customs Approach
First of all, it is useful to know about people’s customs and habits, for example, when and how they greet others. There are many books on this topic, from professional studies to popular travel guides. There are videos and websites that help us know how to behave in everyday encounters with people who are different from us. Knowing what behavior is expected in particular situations can help us enormously—we can more quickly feel comfortable and blend in a bit, and we can prevent some unintentional insults. The downsides to this approach are that it is 1) difficult to memorize a long list of do’s and don’ts; 2) too easy to misunderstand which situations call for which behavior; 3) too easy to act stereotypically—in other words, the rules will not apply in all situations; and, of course, 4) most people do not expect outsiders to behave like insiders. Learning customs and habits is one way of getting to know others, but is not the only—nor necessarily the most effective—strategy.

The Language Learning Approach
We can also learn the language of our colleagues, clients, students, or neighbors. This could mean anything from learning their slang or TLAs (three-letter abbreviations) to mastering Arabic, Mandarin, or Verlan. Language is, of course, a key to understanding how people think, how they see the world, and what is important to them. It is supremely valuable for communicating across cultures. But, learning another tongue takes a long time. Learning their language may not be a step that you have time to take before interacting with people from another culture. Yet, you will certainly benefit from picking up that phrase book and learning at least a few polite words. So what then?

The Cultural Dimensions Approach
Another approach is to learn models of culture that help alert us to those areas where in our differences are likely to show up and where the differences will make a difference. For example, some people have a deep respect for authority and hierarchy—the boss is important and is to be treated accordingly, while other groups are very egalitarian—in meetings it is hard to tell who the boss is or even whether there is one. Or, you find that some people are likely to proceed on their own as individuals while others are inclined to act only when everybody in their group is in agreement.

To catch sight of the broad range of differences within which people think and act, it sometimes helps to use the dozen or so dimensions of difference developed by Western intercultural researchers. These models can help us recognize, classify, and respond appropriately to differences. They are categories of the ways in which people may be different. But they do not necessarily tell us why these differences work the way they do, or how these differences are viewed by our colleagues and neighbors.

Some of these categories of cultural difference ask us to look at ourselves and others to see whether…
  • We feel in control of our lives and our world, or if fate, destiny or other forces outside of us have a decisive impact on our lives.
  • We think deductively or inductively.
  • We focus, when we first work together, on taking action or on forming relationships.
  • We believe that rules and laws apply uniformly to everyone, everywhere, or that rules and laws need to be applied differently in different circumstances.

You can learn more about such categories from the work of Edward Hall and Geert Hofstede, who are among the pioneers of modern intercultural studies.

The Cultural Detective Approach
A powerful way to understand the motives of others and ourselves is by learning about core values. As a Cultural Detective we want to know what lies behind peoples’ many differences and what drives the gestures, words, and preferences of the people with whom we interact. What better way to learn than to have people themselves tell us what they value and how it motivates them to speak and act? The Cultural Detective Method begins by looking at a culture’s core values as they are seen by the people in that culture and by people who have experienced the culture deeply.

We encourage you to learn more about yourself and your core values via the Cultural Detective Self Discovery package. It has been used extensively by educational institutions, businesses, NGOs, and individuals throughout the world, and is currently available in a printable PDF format.

We are pleased to announce that Cultural Detective Self Discovery will soon be available as part of your subscription to Cultural Detective Online. Watch here for details in the coming months!

3 thoughts on “4 Methods of Learning Culture

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