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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

Understanding Different Cultures: How Cultural Differences Manifest

There are plenty of articles out there featuring long lists of differences between specific countries. In China they do X, in the United States they do Y, in France they do Z. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to remember all that for your next international business meeting? The key is to nurture your own cultural awareness, so you are able to recognize when a cultural conflict is arising and deal with it in a tactful way. Read on to learn five concrete ways that cultural differences manifest themselves in intercultural interactions.

Cultural differences cause people to act in ways that differ from what people of another culture are subconsciously expecting. Since you are probably not aware of your own cultural expectations, it can be hard to know when someone is deviating from them. Your first reaction will be to assign your own meaning to their actions. This meaning may be positive or negative, but usually is not in line with what the other person intended. Below are five of the most common ways people perceive cultural differences when they arise.

1. Lack of Manners

I once invited my new next-door neighbor in for tea and cookies. She had just arrived from China, I learned, and was eager to get settled in. Boiling some water, I prepared some tea and placed a dainty little homemade cookie and cup of tea in front of my guest. Taking up my own cup of tea, we continued the conversation. Five minutes later, I was taken aback when she began loudly chomping and slurping on the tiny little cookie and tea I had given her. Why was she being so rude?

Cultural differences are frequently perceived as a flagrant lack of manners. This can lead to unfounded resentment and endless awkwardness. In situations such as these, it is helpful to remember one universal truth: No matter where in the world you grow up, your parents have probably coached you from birth to be polite to strangers. The biggest difference is how you achieve the goal of politeness.

To differentiate rudeness from a cultural difference, put the person’s actions in perspective and interpret them within the context. My new neighbor had been very friendly, congenial, and polite up to that point. The loud chewing and slurping were the only things out of place. I concluded that this must be a cultural difference I had thus far been unaware of.

Chomping and slurping are generally considered bad manners in both Germany and the United States, no matter how much food you are eating. In China, however, loudly chewing and slurping is a way of showing appreciation for the food.

2. Awkward Pause

Shortly after moving to Germany from the United States, I attended a welcome reception for all of the graduate students at the university. There were drinks, hors d’eouvres, and a raffle. When it came time for the raffle, the professor in charge pulled my name! I excitedly ran up to claim my prize. When I arrived onstage, she handed me my prize and there was an awkward pause. I felt very strongly that she was expecting something more, yet I had no idea how to respond. Ending the interaction abruptly, I walked offstage feeling as if the interaction was incomplete. What was that about?

When you are interacting with people from other cultures, they may subconsciously expect you to act a certain way in specific situations. Failing to act in that way will cause an awkward pause, during which you may feel that an unnameable something is missing or a hidden expectation is not being met. Try observing how everyone else is acting in the same situation to discern what you did differently. Researching cultural expectations for similar contexts after the fact may also shed light on cultural differences such as these.

Once I got down from the stage and watched the rest of the ceremony, I recognized my error. In Germany, the handshake is a central form of greeting. This is especially true for formal and ceremonial settings. My failure to shake hands while receiving the prize had surely baffled the professor running the raffle.

3. Being Extra

It seemed like a given that I would check in frequently with my advisor while working on my master’s thesis at the Universität Bayreuth in Germany. For my bachelor’s thesis at the university in the United States, my advisors had always encouraged me to set up regular meetings to discuss my progress. That is exactly what I did for my master’s thesis in Germany. Not to do so would show a lack of engagement, right? Around the second or third time I came to see my German advisor, however, he looked me in the eye and said “Why are you coming in so frequently? Can’t you do this on your own? Americans! They can never work independently.”

You might notice someone doing something extra in a given situation that others do not feel compelled to do. The other person’s actions may come across as overbearing, annoying, dramatic, or needy. Other times they may seem like a pleasant surprise. When someone is putting in more effort than expected, it is important to notice if they are always doing the same extraneous thing. Consistent, identical extraneous behaviors are likely to be cultural differences. Recognizing this early on can help you communicate more effectively with the other person before one of you starts irritating the other.

In my case, I had run up against a cultural difference in how Germans and Americans work on long-term projects together. If a German worker is given a long-term project and a deadline, they will simply work on it with the assumption that they must be finished by the deadline. German supervisors and subordinates will only check in with each other if necessary to complete the project. If an American worker is given a long-term project and a deadline, they will expect someone to check in with them regularly. If no one checks in, the worker will probably assume no one cares and will not complete the project by the deadline. Clearly my German professor was not aware of this cultural difference and interpreted my comparatively excessive check-ins as a lack of independence.

4. It’s Not Working

Back at the welcome reception for graduate students my first week at a German university, I grabbed a drink and embarked on a quest to get to know strangers. Where do you start when you know nothing about someone? I decided to rely on what I thought were a few solid small talk standbys: the weather and food. It ended in disaster. As soon as I attempted to discuss the rain and atmospheric temperature of the world around us, I was met with silently mystified, semi-contemptuous stares. Clearly people thought I was being daft. How was I supposed to get a conversation going without first priming the pumps with meaningless chatter?

At times you may find yourself doing something completely normal and not getting a response. You may also get a different response than you were expecting. This usually means that whatever you are doing takes a different form or simply does not exist in the other person’s culture. It can be very disconcerting when this happens, since you may have no idea how to achieve the results you want in another way. In cases such as this, it can be helpful to take a step back and quietly observe for a moment. What are others doing and how does the group react? You may be able to uncover helpful patterns of interaction to use later. If you are in the thick of things and cannot bow out gracefully, it may be helpful to tactfully describe some of what you are experiencing. Tell people what you were trying to achieve and ask how it works in their culture.

I was at a complete loss. It couldn’t get any more awkward than it was, so I just stopped talking altogether and listened for a while. It seemed the greatest indicator of a topic’s success was whether or not it was directly relevant and logical. Discussing upcoming classes and plans for your academic career were ok. Discussions of the weather, food, sports, music, or irrelevant television shows were sure to go down in flames. I eventually gave it another try and met with relative success. Taking up a very serious discussion about a meaningful topic without any prelude still felt very strange, but it was doable.

5. Confusion

My first time visiting my German professor during office hours, or rather the single “office hour” they all maintained, I encountered a closed door. Puzzled, I searched the door for any indication of the schedule. Was the professor in the bathroom? Was there a holiday? Were they in a meeting? Why wasn’t she there? I checked and rechecked the schedule, certain she had office hours at this time on this day. Yet the door was closed. It wasn’t until another student came, knocked on the door, and waltzed right into the office that I realized my error.

Many cultural differences manifest as conflicting signals. You may understand one thing from an initial source, then get the opposite impression from another source. It is always best to ask for clarification when this happens. Give a brief explanation of why you think you are interpreting things in this way and ask what the true message is. People are usually happy to help.

At my universities in the United States, a closed door had always been used to indicate that the professor was away. The door was left open during office hours. In Germany, it is more common to leave doors closed even if you were free to walk in. I didn’t know that and was very confused by the conflict between the schedule saying the professor was there and the perceived signal showing the professor wasn’t. I talked with the student once she came out and learned that closed doors do not necessarily mean the professor is gone in Germany.

Remember these five things and you will be well on your way to better cultural awareness! Still need some help? Contact me for a free needs assessment.

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