Culture Specific or Culture General: That is the Question!
- by Dr. Janet Bennett
Director, Intercultural Communication Institute
The senior manager was about to accept an assignment in India, and eagerly approached her human resources department for information about the specific do's and don'ts of her future life overseas. They had heard this request before, for dozens of countries and from hundreds of transferees. HR was well prepared with briefing books, websites, and a pre-departure program that would assure the manager and her family a relatively smooth transition.
But was she really well prepared? Upon her arrival, ably managed with organizational support, she found herself on a highly diverse team, with colleagues from over ten countries. Her daily emails bombarded her with perspectives from multiple Asian countries, many more than she had experienced in her most recent assignment. With constant video conferences and virtual team members, she found herself in a culturally complicated context that her briefing book on India could not begin to address.
She is not alone. Rare is the professional arena where we face colleagues from only one or two cultures. Instead, each of us operates with a wealth of cultural diversity that is rich, complex, and challenging. This reality suggests that learning a single specific culture serves us well, and learning about cultural difference in general serves us even better.
Our natural--and appropriate--instinct is to seek specific information when we are going to a specific place. Who among us, assigned to Bangalore, would not read everything we could find about India? This is certainly necessary, but unfortunately not sufficient. Without understanding culture in general, we may find ourselves with an insufficiently stocked toolkit, unable to handle many of the tasks at hand.
In the field of intercultural training, this contrast is described by the terms "culture general" and "culture specific." Culture general simply refers to frameworks that provide a perspective for comparing and contrasting cultures. Since these frameworks are based on abstract categories from anthropology, intercultural communication, linguistics, and organizational psychology, they do not refer to any particular cultures, but rather provide general categories that facilitate our exploration of values, beliefs, and behaviors in any culture.
For instance, one such framework might examine value differences related to status and power, exploring how culture influences individuals' attitudes toward power distance, hierarchy, authority, formality, class, in-group/out-group distinctions, etc. This framework could easily be applied to examining the potential differences among the ten colleagues of the senior manager noted above. It could be equally useful to a domestic manager at a local worksite, perhaps never far from his home, to resolve motivational issues with his diverse team.
Culture-general frameworks can help us compare our own attitudes with those of colleagues, clients, and friends, whether about communication styles, nonverbal behavior, values, rituals, conflict strategies, negotiation patterns, decision styles, learning styles, thinking styles, or other dimensions of culture.
And to accelerate the process of culture learning, the more that we can build on culture-general knowledge with detailed culture-specific knowledge, the larger our toolkit becomes. For instance, the Brazilian international student coming to California may want to read culture-specific information not only about U.S. American culture, but also about certain culture groups she may experience in the region where she is studying, including a variety of Asian and Latino cultures.
For the complex multicultural lives we lead, learning about others in both culture-general and culture-specific ways has become an essential skill. Culture-general understanding provides the foundation for the complex cultural interactions we experience, no matter which cultures we encounter through the day. Culture-specific knowledge builds on that foundation with deeper and subtler interpretations of cultural patterns, enriching the potential of our work across cultures. Each brings essential skills to our intercultural interactions.
For training others to master both sides of this equation, the Cultural Detective® provides both the necessary culture-general breadth of application across many cultures while developing the culture-specific depth. The Worksheet provides a unifying and consistent process for examining yourself and others, and for bridging differences as assets. CD develops intercultural competence by simultaneously improving culture-general and culture-specific expertise in a variety of realistic contexts. By examining key cultural similarities and differences in a culture-general way, we come to know ourselves, and are able to compare and contrast our own perspective with that of others. By focusing the Values Lens on a specific culture, we enhance our capacity to untangle problems, negotiate differences, and look below the surface within and across cultures,
Culture specific or culture general? That is no longer a question!
Some Pros and Cons of Globalization
|Advocates See That Globalization||Critics See That Globalization|
|Creates growth, spreads prosperity, and increases opportunity—note emerging market economies.||Does not result in promised levels of growth.|
|Promotes equality. Competition will ensure that the U.S. does not remain the world’s only superpower—is creating a new world economic profile, in which India, Korea, Brazil, China, perhaps Russia replace Japan, Germany, France …; free trade is defined as the absence of discrimination (against foreign suppliers or buyers).||Concentrates power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands—debt avoidance and relief, global tax evasion by the most wealthy.|
|Maximizes income and develops infrastructure, resulting in better lifestyles—everyone gains, on average, though some gain more than others||Promotes inequality and poverty, especially in developing countries: “haves” benefit more than “have nots,” salaries and dividends grow more than wages, unemployment is exacerbated.|
|Spurs an increase in productivity and efficiency, overcoming complacency. The U.S. had 20+ years of low productivity gains followed by a rapid 3-fold increase—half of these productivity gains are linked to globalization. Globalized companies are 10-20% more productive than domestic only companies and enjoy 2-4% higher sales growth.||Undermines democracy, both nationally and internationally—disproportionate corporate influence on the rule-making process.|
|Creates jobs by creating new industries (IT).||Ruins the environment—changes the climate, results in habitat and species loss, depletes resources with inadequate compensation to residents.|
|Broadens markets.||Disregards human and worker rights, especially those of indigenous populations.|
|Increases the choices available to individuals, groups and countries.||Encourages market failure, regulatory imbalance, and financial market volatility.|
|Lowers prices—the globalization of IT/hardware, for example, resulted in 10%-30% cut in prices beyond those due to technological advances.||Homogenizes (westernizes or Americanizes) the world, squeezing out cultural diversity and policy autonomy, eroding community values.|
|Promotes best-practice worldwide.||Requires macroeconommic austerity, privatization, and a laissez-faire approach to economics—the “Washington .Consensus” conditionality.|
|Requires high-level skills, rapid skill improvement, and flexibility, thus it encourages education.||Focuses on large infrastructure projects prone to corruption, indebtedness and environmental degradation.|
|Can suppress terrorist financing and support reconstruction efforts.||Does not result in promised levels of growth.|
|Ensures technological development.||Imposes expensive health, safety and environmental standards on developing economies.|
|Has been the dominant force for change in international affairs for the past 50 years.||Promotes secularism and “wasteful diversity”—excessive variety and provision of luxury.|
|Increases economic “fitness” and results in economies of scale.||Mortgages the future to reward those living now.|
A Cultural Detective seeks to manage these polarities by ensuring that the "cons" are lessened and that the "pros" truly happen.
Differences Map (Spanish)
Cultural Detective and Cross-Cultural Transitions
Do you ever talk about culture shock? Are you responsible for helping those relocating abroad or returning from an overseas assignment? In that work, do you reference the U-curve or the W-curve?
If so, your approach has some fatal flaws according to many academics (Pedersen, Berry) and practitioners, and has been completely rejected by others (Ward), as is explained in some depth in Kate Berardo’s research (Luton Business School, University of Befordshire UK).
The U-curve, which Kate tells us was developed by Sverre Lysgaard in 1955:
1. Oversimplifies the adjustment process.
2. Does not apply to everyone and may not apply to people you work with.
3. Has unsubstantiated predictability and inexplicable elasticity.
4. Does not address socio-cultural skill development or identity development.
5. Addresses only the “what,” not the “how” or the “why” of cross-cultural adjustment.
Kate (co-author of Cultural Detective Self Discovery and our upcoming Cultural Detective Bridging Skills packages) presents a new, more robust, process-oriented model for transition training, comprised of four key components (see graphic below). She herself cautions that the model is nothing revolutionary, but that it emphasizes the need to personalize transition facilitation.
Kate’s article provides various activities, exercises and designs for more effectively aiding cross-cultural transitions. It is definitely worth downloading if you have not already done so.
I’ve known about Kate’s research for quite a few years, but I recently had the opportunity to hear Kate talk about it again. And I heard what she had to say with fresh ears, as I saw the myriad connections between her model and the Cultural Detective method. Cultural Detective is a process, one of the only process-based tools in the intercultural field. By its nature Cultural Detective is personalized, guiding us to discover more about ourselves and how we have come to be the individuals we are.
Let’s start with her upper left quadrant: Experience/The What. Kate tells us that this quadrant includes:
• Experiencing cross-cultural challenges,
• Addressing assumptions, and
• Recognizing the emotional complexity of the intercultural experience.
Each and every Cultural Detective Critical Incident does exactly that; the Worksheet guides learners to make meaning from their experiences, to define their assumptions, and to go beyond recognizing the complexity to effectively navigating intercultural situations.
The upper right quadrant of Kate’s model: Understand/The Why, includes:
• Acknowledging the multitude of variables that influence cross-cultural interaction,
• Personalizing the adjustment/development process, and
• Generating with rather than generalizing to the learner.
Again, this is inherently what Cultural Detective is all about. The Worksheet addresses observable words and actions as well as underlying values and motivations. Values Lenses can be layered in order to look at the various cultural influences (gender, age, spiritual tradition, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.) each of us hold within us. The entire Cultural Detective approach is geared around dialogue and discovery, helping learners learn how to learn, how to resolve conflict, how to co-create mutually worthwhile solutions.
The lower right quadrant of Kate’s model: Personalize/The How, includes focusing on likely transition stresses rather than on a one-size-fits all laundry list, and using past transitions or stressful events as sources of knowledge and strength. Again, her model is a smooth dovetail with the Cultural Detective model. Incidents encourage learners to focus on the differences that make a difference to specific people in given situations. Personal Values Lenses (from Cultural Detective Self Discovery) take learners on a journey of understanding and explicating what is important to them and why.
The lower left quadrant, Apply/The What Now, is most clearly linked to the "Cultural Bridges: Skills and Systems" portion of the Cultural Detective Worksheet. Kate tells us this portion of her model involves:
• Developing strategies that are detailed, personalized and specific.
There are few tools in the intercultural field, sadly, that enable learners to develop strategies and skills in addition to awareness, respect and understanding, but Cultural Detective does just that.
We are fortunate to have some very talented members on our Cultural Detective team, and very much enjoy witnessing the organic, holistic way in which they work to develop new models and approaches for improving intercultural competence.
Those of you interested in this article may find a few of our business cases, helpful, namely those on Expatriate Success/Predeparture Orientation and Study Abroad.
Cultural Detective: A Tool for All Orientations!
by Heather Robinson and Laura Bathurst
The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity or “DMIS” (M. J. Bennett, 1993) is an important framework that helps people increase the effectiveness of intercultural training, coaching, teambuilding and organization development. Have you noticed that the Cultural Detective series is right in line with DMIS-guided development?
As Janet Bennett wrote in Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence, 2008:
The underlying assumption of the [DMIS] model suggests that as the learners’ experience of difference becomes more sophisticated and cognitively complex, the degree of intercultural competence increases (J. M. Bennett & M. J. Bennett, 2004). There are six stages of increasing sensitivity to cultural difference, and each stage reflects a worldview configuration, as well as attitudes and competencies associated with it. By identifying the underlying cognitive orientation that the audience has towards cultural differences, the trainer can tailor programming to intentionally and systematically address the learners’ developmental needs, without engendering unnecessary resistance.
Let’s take a closer look at how Cultural Detective can support and challenge learners at each stage of the DMIS, as they develop from difference avoiders to difference seekers.
First, Cultural Detective is intentionally presented with attractive and engaging images to evoke the curiosity of those new to thinking about their intercultural encounters. The look and feel of Cultural Detective provides an appropriately sequenced entry point. Those with a Denial orientation are particularly inclined to miss cultural aspects of their surroundings, and the aesthetic appeal, whimsical “detective” metaphor as well as the resource guide, music listings, proverbs, real-life critical incidents and Values Lenses are useful in orienting learners at this stage.
According to the DMIS, those with somewhat more experience thinking about cultural difference tend to notice more cultural contrast, but tend to experience these contrasts as threatening, simple and polarized. Those with this Defense orientation are also supported by the Cultural Detective look and feel. In addition, they are given the concrete and calming activity of identifying Words and Actions. This grounds learners at this stage in a more detailed and rich perception of their experience, and teaches them to channel or use negative judgments as clues to deeper discovery.
People with the next orientation, Minimization, continue to benefit from honing their skills at identifying Words and Actions. Identifying motivations (Positive Intent, Cultural Sense, Beliefs or Values) underlying Words and Actions is the growth edge for this group of learners and is precisely where Cultural Detective takes them next. The impact of this element of the Cultural Detective methodology is even more powerful when paired with the package. This deeper exploration brings individuals in Minimization to a richer and more nuanced understanding of their own personal Value Lens and how it relates to the group Values Lenses of the various cultures to which the person belongs.
Those with an Acceptance orientation, the first of the Ethnorelative stages, are ready for broader learning about other cultures. They are particularly served by viewing the Cultural Detective Critical Incidents through multiple Values Lenses. This fosters awareness of logical frameworks for understanding cultures. Learners at this stage are able to see the Cultural Detective Worksheet as an interactive system rather than as a set of linear or discrete “boxes.” They learn to compare similarities and differences in worldviews and make the link between values and behaviors.
The final step in the Cultural Detective methodology, and one very few other intercultural tools include, is how to put intercultural understanding into practice by Bridging the Culture Gap. The bridging activity is where those in Adaptation are challenged to exercise their cognitive intercultural capacity within the culture-specific context of the Cultural Detective Critical Incident, by identifying emergent alternatives. Learners develop their abilities to generate intrapersonal, interpersonal and organizational (systems, processes) bridges to encourage and sustain ongoing intercultural competence.
Finally, to support those with an Integration orientation and others who are internalizing a cultural identity derived from the experience of negotiating multiple cultural contexts, there is the . While the whole Cultural Detective approach encourages and supports learners to deeper understanding of their identities and how identity is influenced by multiple cultural experiences (gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, spiritual tradition…), this package provides focused insight to potential Blended Culture people. Those who benefit most from using the Cultural Detective Blended Culture, however, are those without such direct experience who want to live and work more effectively with this small but growing number of Blended Culture people. This could include family of Third Culture Kids, teachers and social workers working with refugee, immigrant and migrant communities, and corporate leaders managing teams of globally experienced employees.
Cultural Detective has much to offer intercultural work based on the DMIS. This support is designed into every package plus several specific packages to enhance intercultural learning along the DMIS in an even more targeted way. It’s important to note that while coaching can be geared to a specific orientation, it is rare that trainers working with groups can focus exclusively on one, as groups are usually mixed! In these cases learning activities are best sequenced to support earlier orientations before moving to more challenging activities. The order matters and the Cultural Detective methodology, as you can see, is in natural alignment with the DMIS.