Humans survive by getting the job done. It turns out there are many ways to do that.
Cultures evolve to meet human needs in different environments and historic contexts. Yet there are broad patterns. Anthropologist ET Hall talked about “high context” and “low context” cultures. In the West, we tend towards being low context, taking things at face value rather than weighing the context in which we find them. We take words literally, we look for printed records and believe they reflect reality.
In higher context cultures, people may weigh body language more than spoken language. They could rely on how something is done at least as much as what is done.
More of the differences follow. Check this list as you get to know your partners to see if the patterns help explain your encounters.
Task - Relationship
My ancestors were immigrants from the hard times in Ireland. Canada was a land of opportunity – only with hard work. The growing season was short. Having enough food and fuel to survive the winter required long days and individual effort. I have inherited the fundamental expectation that *I* have to complete tasks to survive. In other parts of the world people also work hard – harder than I do, frankly. And they have learned that the vagaries of floods and droughts and conflicts mean that hard work alone won’t ensure survival. Survival comes because in a bad year they can go to their brother, neighbour or community for help, which will be given in return at another time. Thus even more important than tasks is the building and maintaining of relationships.
In a relationship oriented culture, the building of trust is paramount. My word is better than my signature. I am generous with you because it builds an environment of generosity that I may need some time. I avoid injuring or embarrassing you – indeed I invest energy in building your respect in front of others. We weave together a fabric of relationship that strengthens each of us. In contrast, task oriented cultures tend to rely more on the words of contracts than in people.
Individual - Group Identity
Research confirms that Canadians (particularly urban professionals) tend to be individualistic. Ask me who I am and I will tell you about my education, my work, my hobbies … perhaps eventually about my family – but probably just my immediate family. In relationship based cultures, by contrast, my identity IS my place in family, clan and community. Ask me who I am and I will tell you about my father, my church, my school, my community. My motivations – including those in the workplace – are shaped by the impact on my family and community. My successes are theirs. My failures are painful because they reflect badly on them.
Outputs - Process
My reputation is on the line. I said I would have this note written by a given date. Will my colleagues embrace and use it? That is less important than the deadline. In relationship-based cultures, by contrast, product doesn’t matter if everyone has not been consulted and involved in its creation. The process takes a lot longer – and when the product emerges, it may well have been adopted already.
Direct - Indirect Communication
In task oriented cultures, people are programmed to be direct in their communications. It is part of a results orientation. In a relationship culture, however, rushing to the point risks misjudging, embarrassing or offending. It is more productive to be a listener, to allow common vision to emerge gradually.
There can be no offence if I am indirect and avoid simple “yes” and “no.” Indeed, the word “no” may not be part of my vocabulary. Yet even if I always use the word “yes”, it may contain a “probably not”. If you are from my culture, you will hear my reluctance in a small pause or my body language or my declaration that I will be delighted, if it is God’s will. The non-verbal plays a much larger role.
The patterns of beating around the bush are not deficient in any way. In their own cultural context they are an important part of getting the job done well.
Informality - Formality; Equality - Hierarchy
In individualistic cultures, people tend to be pretty informal. Whether brain doctor or bus driver, professor or politician, we are neighbours and on a first name basis. In a collective culture, by contrast, part of building relationships is understanding everyone’s ‘place’, and acknowledging it with a certain formality. Thus people may precede someone’s name in public with “Doctor”, “Mrs” or “Engineer”, even if they are friends. Titles are important because they demonstrate respect. There also tends to be more ceremony in collective cultures. Even when time is tight, go with it. Those opening ceremonies are a part of getting the job done.
“In Canada you have the watches. In Tanzania we have the time,” observed a friend who had studied here and returned home to Africa. Westerners tend to see time as a commodity. We “buy time”, “lose time”, “make time”, or “spend time”. In many other countries, time is more complex. The past may be more important than the future when it comes to making decisions. Judgments may be based on eternal time (life on earth is momentary… I will act in the interests of life after this life), or social time (everyone will understand if I am ‘late’ for a meeting because I was caring for my visiting parents) or western business time. Within my community everyone understands my juggling of these dimensions. These Canadians though! They think a 9 o’clock meeting starts at 9 o’clock!
As much as the food and scenery, this exploration of the human cultural environment is a part of both our challenge and our reward on an international assignment. We return seeing ourselves, as well as others, more clearly.