Hidden Rules of Culture

Hidden Rules of Culture by Dr. Greg Waddell

Traditonal Dance from Salta, Argentina; Photo by Author

If you are an American who has taken an assignment in another part of the world, you may be unaware of the rules that govern how people interact in that culture. That lack of awareness could lead to serious misunderstandings and even sabotage the launch of an important international project. As a missionary in Uruguay and Argentina, I fell prey to these cultural traps myself. I have also observed how Americans in general sometimes seem oblivious to the impact that their cultural ignorance can have on the people they are working with.

Too often aspiring global leaders work under the assumption that all people play by the same rules and that their cultural perspective is the only perspective. If you approach your international assignment with this assumption, you may find yourself blinded to the real issues of intercultural misunderstanding.

This misunderstanding can become the intangible force that frustrates your efforts to achieve tangible goals. You may find yourself in an escalating state of frustration and the members of your international team may become disillusioned with the whole project. Until you identify these hidden principles of culture, the tension will grow and the success of your project may be threatened.

Cultural principles are similar to the laws that govern the physical universe. They are invisible and intangible theories, yet they exercise a profound influence on our daily existence. Ignoring them can be fatal; understanding and channeling them wisely can bring practical benefits to our lives. If you want to be successful as a global leader, you have to understand the laws of culture that govern the social universe of the host culture.

Culture is the invisible code that unconsciously leads people to interpret situations in particular ways, establishes what is right and what is wrong, informs them about what works and what does not work, and defines for them what is normal and what is bazaar. Most people are not even aware that the way they think is an aspect of their culture–they simply assume this is the way it is.

Since culture is assumed, and therefore invisible to direct observation, it’s important that we have some kind of framework for interpreting culture. Geert Hofstede has given us one example of such a framework with his five dimensions of culture: Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Long-term Orientation.

Hofstede’s model has been criticized for not being nuanced enough, but I have found it to be extremely helpful in understanding many of my experiences in Latin America. I agree that culture if far more complex than what the model depicts, but isn’t that the case with any model? I think his model helps us to understand both the similarities and also the differences between our assumptions and those of host culture of our global assignment.

I hope to go into more detail in future posts about these dimensions, but meanwhile you can check out Hofstede’s book that goes into detail. The main thing I wanted to say here is simply that leaders in today’s world cannot afford to be ignorant of the role that culture plays in our interactions with others. To some degree, we must all become cultural anthropologists.

What do you think? Have you experienced the invisible force of culture?

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