Cultural Differences: Are We Oversimplifying?

Cultural differences may have many layers

Globalism, crossing borders and interacting with people from other countries go hand in hand with cultural intelligence, that is, being aware of cultural differences, and being willing and able to adapt to them. With that notion in mind, I would dare to say that the majority of international companies take at least some initiatives towards supporting the cultural adaptation of their international employees, and the cross-cultural preparation of their soon-to-be expats. Yet, what are the cultural differences we mostly look at seems to be a question in itself. I guess that an easy answer is that cultural differences are the differences between cultures of different countries…So, for instance, the differences between Germans and the French, or between people from the US and Japan.

Yet, if you have travelled the world yourself and have some sort of international experience, you might also agree that it is not always that simple. Have you ever noticed that you may feel much more at home with fellow expats or international students abroad, rather than back home in your local community? Or maybe you perceive more ‘sameness’ and less difference with your multinational colleagues at work, than with your boss of the same national background? Isn’t it paradoxical then that at times we may feel more cultural differences with the people from our own country than with people from other countries?! I guess it depends, on how we understand the cultural differences.

Andy Molinsky, professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, notes in his recent article for Harvard Business Review that ‘Cultural Differences Are More Complicated than What Country You’re From’. Specifically, Andy argues that the question of ‘what national culture does the person come from?’ is not all that is important. I totally agree.

Naturally, cultures do shape human behavior (to some extent), yet, we can find cultures on many different levels in a person’s environment. Apart from national culture, in the organizational context we can also speak about organizational culture, generational culture, and cultures related to industry, profession, geographical location, departmental designation etc. In this sense, it would be quite an oversimplification to rely only on German cultural attributes when relocating from Spain to Germany, for example. Within the German culture we are quite likely to expect that people in Berlin would be quite different from people in Munich, that the organizational culture of a multinational like BMW would be substantially different from the organizational culture of a more regional SME, that German employees in the banking sector would have quite a different work culture from German employees in a startup, and that within one organization the millennial employees would somewhat differ from the baby boomers. To bring a more specific example, take a look at Google. Google is well known for its laid-back corporate culture, which it maintains in the relatively more structured and rules-driven German society.

As such, Andy Molinsky proposes to look further than the national culture and explore the culture at the levels of region, industry, company, and finally, people themselves. I would emphasize that this notion of a more complex culture does not downplay the meaning of cultural intelligence and cross-cultural training in the context of national cultures. We should still look into differences in the values, etiquette and common behavioral patterns based on national cultures, yet we should also explore further and deeper. In other words, we need a more nuanced perspective on the people we are going to work with abroad. And one of the best sources of such nuanced knowledge could be the people, similar to you, who have already undergone the experience you are about to embark on. That’s right, we should ask the other expats 🙂

11 thoughts on “Cultural Differences: Are We Oversimplifying?

  1. Good post. I read your post with great interest and I find it useful.
    I am from Germany and I totally agree with you and your example that within the German culture people from Berlin are different from people in Munich. Also the organizational culture of a multinational like BMW is substantially different from the organizational culture of a regional German SME. Totally correct and thank you for sharing.

  2. The article is unclear about what author means by “oversimplying” and how presumably intercultural training (?) insufficiently deals with cultural differences. Of course, people abroad will find they share some similarities with others; how does this fact challenge the role of cultural differences? Who has ever advocated mindless use of cultural differences? If mindless, then who and how are they doing so?

  3. I appreciated the author’s recognition that those who share a similar lifestyle e.g. expats, do tend to feel at home with one another even when they come from very different national cultures. That is the original concept that the Useems talked about in the mid-fifties when they wrote about the “third culture”…this inbetween place where those from one culture living in another one develop a lifestyle that is neither full the first or the second but one shared with others living a similar experience. Those of us who then grew up as “third culture kids” or TCKs have long known this sense of affinity. In fact, it’s been part of Dave Pollock’s TCK definition/description since the mid 1980s! He states that TCKs are those who have lived outside their parents’ passport cultures for a significant period of developmental or first 18 years of life and while they may gain different things from each culture in which they lived, their sense of belonging is with others of shared experience. Yes, we are becoming a culturally complex world in many ways!

  4. Sounds like you are talking about sub-cultures. Sure that’s a point not to be overlooked in intercultural training. Hardly new though.

  5. I appreciated the author’s perspective in simply reminding us that our cultural values and beliefs stem from factors other than just National Culture. I believe for example that technology/social media has really been a defining force in the establishment of a strong cross-border Gen Y/millenial culture . Our value systems can also evolve as we live internationally.
    I fully agree with the ‘third Culture’ syndrome whereby we carve out a unique mindset that is neither from our home culture , nor from our host one.

  6. Yes. We are oversimplifying. Though this article doesn’t contain groundbreaking information about how we view/oversimplify cultural differences, it was a good read and an important reminder. I enjoyed the term ‘nuanced knowledge.’ So important for cultural competence.

  7. All local cultures lead their own culture to the global one. Although globalization comes with positive impacts on economy, technology, human rights, cultural dimension divide cultures and meet them on one denominator

  8. What a nice post. I read this article and analyse the discussion, i think its very useful for us. I belong to america and i am agree with your opinion and point of views.

  9. How do we make sense of today’s political divisions? In a wide-ranging conversation full of insight, even though we place our current turmoil in a broader context, against the ongoing disruption of our technology, climate, media — even our notion of what humanity is for.

  10. I arrived here googling complex vs simple culture by country because I am so frustrated with the French “culture”. No, I disagree with this post.. definitely there are “national” cultures (and overnational ones, but this is an other topic).
    Here in France everything must be complex.. I ended up to realize it’s a matter of aesthetics.. what is “complex” is deemed beautiful, what is simple is ugly.. wherever it is the cuisine, the language, the personal relationships (never be direct!). Not to speak on procedures with the public administration, but also private companies…. aaaarggghhhh

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.