Negotiating cultural values

One of the most fascinating, and sometimes difficult, element of travelling and moving abroad is negotiating differences within culture. Culture is essentially how a group of people view the world and how this shapes their behaviours and response to the world around them. Nationalities have their own cultures, as do regions, cities, organisations and families. (Institutional and organisational cultures especially fascinate me; I love finding ways to influence the culture of the contexts you find yourselves in.)

Often, cultural issues provide for hilarious and awkward moments. It’s also great to let yourself be positively influenced by new cultures. Just because your culture tells you something is important, it doesn’t mean it is. Exposure to different cultures allows you to reflect on that and to have more empathy about why people behave in different ways.

I have the rich blessing to be British: I find our culture hilarious. Mainly because we a hell-bent on making every social interaction awkward and exhausting.

A couple of years ago I was doing volunteer work in Indonesia. The team I was with was made up of both British and American members. The Brits among us were trying to explain how our culture is quite different from theirs, so I told them this example.

That same year, I was sitting on a train. The person next to me was reading a newspaper, and the headline of the article he was reading caught my eye. I began reading the article over his shoulder. After a few minutes the man asked if I would like to have the newspaper after he had finished.

When I was relaying this story, all the Brits in the group cringed, and one person said, “How embarrassing.” The Americans were obviously confused at what the problem was.

“How did you respond?” one Brit asked.

“Obviously, I said no!”

The Americans were puzzled as to why this situation was so embarrassing and why I refused an offer to have a newspaper I was obviously interested in reading. We translated the interaction and explained how it showed two crucial British culture values: privacy and politeness.

British people, probably because they live on a small crowded island, highly prize privacy and personal space. If you go to a British home, bedroom doors will probably be closed as an indication that this is private space and you’re not to go in. This desire for personal space makes negotiating public settings quite difficult. On public transport, for example, we will create private, personal space through the use of newspapers, books, headphones and music, pretending to love the view out the window (even if you’re passing through Salford at the time) or just falling/pretending to fall asleep. These provide a barrier between our space and the world, as well as being an indicator to those around us that we don’t want to be disturbed. The gentleman who was sitting next to me on the train was purposefully creating private space; I was breaching it by reading over his shoulder.

The second value of politeness means that British people speak in a very indirect, nuanced manner. These subtleties are often lost of foreign travellers. On the same trip, one of the Americans offended me. I responded by saying, “pardon?” Rather than picking up on the fact I felt he was being rude, he merely repeated what he had said. There is a fantastic table of “What British people say and what they mean” that has been floating around the internet (you can see it here) and there is also a brilliant Twitter/Facebook feed, called VeryBritishProblems that often comments on the indirect British use of language.

In the example of me travelling on the train, when the man asked me if I wanted to have his newspaper after he had finished, he was actually asking me to stop reading over his shoulder. He was rebuking me, but also politely negotiating with me by offering me an opportunity to read the article later. I was obliged to gratefully refuse his offer as a way of letting him know that I had no further interest in breaching his personal space. The gentleman kindly “forget” his newspaper as he left the train and thus gave me a chance to finish the article.

After we had explained this, the Americans asked, “So are British people stressed all the time?” Yes. Yes we are. British people are constantly negotiating their social settings in quite complex ways, but we don’t even realise we are doing them as it’s all subconsciously ingrained.

Here are some broad brush-stroke differences in cultures and how it can affect perception of one another and how particular stereotypes are perhaps created.

Privacy vs openness

Private cultures can often appear cold and aloof to outsiders. Open cultures can appear insensitive and superficial to the more private among us. I had to explain to someone of a more open culture that saying that British people are not friendly is a bit unfair. We are likely to think that people around us would rather we didn’t talk to them, and we try to respect that. It doesn’t make us horrible people. While open cultures are warm and welcoming to everyone, private cultures tend to build fewer relationships that they view as meaningful. Sometimes private cultures can view the friendliness of open cultures with suspicion as a result.

Task orientated versus relationship orientated

Some cultures think the most important thing is to get the job done. If you are asked to do something, you do it and to a high standard. For other cultures, the people involved are more important. Therefore, for them, it is less important to meet a deadline than it is to build relationships between colleagues. Also, in businesses, task orientated cultures will go with the organisation that has the best reputation in getting the job done, relational cultures will decide deals on the relationships between you and the representatives. Where nepotism is perceived negatively in some countries, it is viewed positively in others.

Perceptions of time

Some people will view time as a linear progression that is under your control. For others, it is relaxed and cyclical based on seasons and days. For other cultures it is completely elastic. When you say “We’ll meet at 8pm” to someone with a strict linear view of time, it means 8pm (and get there early to make sure it happens). For someone with a relaxed view of time it means after 8, possible 9. For those with elastic time, it can mean 7pm to 9pm. Often perceptions of time are linked to the culture’s orientation around task or relationships.

Indirect versus direct

Indirect cultures do not wish to cause offense to those around them and social interactions are done through a serious of complex negotiations. In direct cultures, it is more important to be honest and truthful and to not create potential confusion and ambiguity. An indirect culture may feel direct cultures are sometimes rude, condescending or unnecessarily obnoxious. A direct culture may think indirect cultures never mean what they say, or are disingenuous liars. In Indonesian culture, it is better to agree to do something then not do it (as it prevents social embarrassment) than it is to say you’re not going to do it.

Status indicators

In different cultures, different things will give you status. It may be money, gender, age, education levels, job, class, where you are from, connections, family name, ethnicity, appearance. Each society ranks these differently. In Britain, you’ll have more social status if you’re posh but bankrupt than someone who is rich but middle class. Each culture will have things that indicate these determiners of status to those around them. Britain has a plethora of these indicators. For example, how you decorate your house at Christmas will illustrate what social class you belong to. As these status indicators may mean different things to another culture, they can cause misinterpretation. For example, if the way you dress is important in a particular culture, that culture may be perceived as vain by others.

Culture shock

Culture shock is when it has become difficult to negotiate these cultural differences. It often arises when we can not identify the cultural value that is seemingly under attack. It often makes us view the opposing culture negatively and we may even begin to retreat into our own world. Even in the short time I have been here, I’ve had to remind myself of differences in culture values. I’ve often had this conversation with myself: “I feel upset/hurt/confused/frustrated/out-of-place because the value of _______ is important to me. The person did not mean to make me feel this because the value of ________ is more important to them. They did not do anything wrong, but nor is it wrong for me to react in this way.”

I’m hoping to practice this because true culture shock usually doesn’t set in until later. It is when these constant negotiations become overwhelming and can be a cause for stress and anxiety.

Embracing differences

In the short time I was in Indonesia, it taught me that a lack of punctuality in others needn’t be a cause for offense. I hope that whilst on this trip I’m able to see the best in different cultures and to learn from them. It’s easier said than done, especially when I’m a stereotypical, uptight, awkward Brit.