Can we talk about culture without falling into generalizations? [Intro to Intercultural Communication]


Pick a country on Earth, and I shall give you an unverifiable list of cliches about that country's culture. And somehow, it's the least flattering ones that seem to stick!

So let's pick one: "Americans speak loudly." I have heard this one a few times here in Japan, where people usually refrain from being loud (unless drunk, at karaoke/bar, deranged or from the mafia), which is considered crudely impolite.

One way to understand this statement is to see it as meaning, "Americans speak loudly compared to the cultural and personal expectations I have of what degree of loudness is normal when talking." But you will always find soft-spoken Americans that speak less loudly than some Japanese. So isn't the statement wrong in the first place? Besides, isn't it just that our brains select what we notice? I heard that Americans are supposed to talk loudly, so I only notice when they do, reinforcing the sense that the cliche is true.

This is, in a nutshell, the headache that Intercultural Communication tackles. We cannot deny the influence of culture on our behaviors and expectations, but at the same time culture does not define us. And we are the victims of many perception biases when looking at the world around us.

In this post, we'll set out through a rapid introduction of what "Intercultural Communication" is.


Let's talk about cultures, not people

Notice the difference between:

“Americans speak loudly.” This seems to mean that there's a necessary relationship between "being American" and "speaking loudly." Not only is the statement wrong, it can feel personal and be insulting.

“American culture tolerates loud speakers.” (a bit of a mouthful, but probably more accurate)

“American culture tolerates loud speakers relative to my culture.” (a proper mouthful, but with improved accuracy)

In other words, we need to refrain from being lazy speakers if we want to avoid generalizations that are by nature erroneous and insulting. That's the first teaching of Intercultural Communication. Check!


Culture and Individual are not equal

Below is how we propose to model the relationship between culture and personality. We're getting the graphs warmed up from now on.

Link between Culture & Personality.png

Personality here refers to the set of individual preferences and expectations. Personality stems from the interaction of one’s genetics with their culture, family environment and personal experiences. The main vector of “culture” is the educational system.

Like any model this representation is flawed, but it allows us to model the statement "Culture influences us but does not define us."


Culture is a Probabilistic Phenomenon

This is where a notepad and a pen might come in handy, but nothing to be afraid of. We are going to try and model culture.

Let’s take one dimension of behavior: being on time. Now, imagine country A has five citizens. We ask each of them “On average, how late or in advance are you to a meeting?” (where a negative number stands for being in advance)

We receive the answers as follows.

Citizen 1: Average lateness of +10

Citizen 2: Average lateness of 0

Citizen 3: Average lateness of +5

Citizen 4: Average lateness of +5

Citizen 5: Average lateness of -5

Now, let's plot “number of people” against “average lateness” like there's no tomorrow. We get the following graph.

Lateness in Country A.png

We have just modeled the “lateness pattern” of Country A’s culture! High five.

Now, let's say the country is the United States and we ask the same question to every one of its 323+ million inhabitants. The graph we obtain is closed to what is called a "normal distribution," and it looks something like this.

normal distribution.png

This graph tells us the number of Americans that will be x minute(s) late, as read on the x-axis. We see that the most frequent value was 0.

Now, let’s ask the inhabitants of Japan about their average lateness. We graph the results in green, on the same graph as before. Americans are now in red.

modeling culture.png

We see that the answer “8 minutes in advance” was given the highest number of times by Japanese respondents.

The majority of Japanese fall in the range -4 to +4, while the majority of Americans fall in the range – 15 to + 15.

It creates the impression that not only are Japanese more punctual, but they are more reliably punctual.

Yet if we look at where “8 minutes in advance” falls on the American graph (when American B is) we can see that American B is not alone in being on average 8 minutes in advance. In fact, there are many other Americans who are just as in advance as the Japanese most frequent value.

And then, of course you can always find an American who is much more punctual than his Japanese counterpart; for instance, if we compare American A with Japanese C.

Now, let's take a meditative break... And we're back.


Culture creates patterns in a population, but does not predict personality

And this is what this exercise in modeling culture across countries teaches us: that,

  1. Culture creates patterns of expectations and behaviors in a population, where the majority of people will fall within a defined range.
  2. But culture does not determine personal behavior; there is no causal relationship. You will always find outliers in a given culture.
  3. Cultures can only be compared relatively. When assessing another country’s culture, what we’re truly saying is how this cultures compares to our expectations.
  4. Intercultural proficiency is the ability to take into account and navigate differences in perception when communicating with people from different cultures.

And with this, you have survived a solid introduction to Intercultural communication! 

Feel free to comment below, and check our Intercultural Communciation seminars on our website.