Read on to learn about: What dictionaries have to do with icebergs. Why culture is so tricky. How cultural intelligence is hiding in the oceans. How an Italian economist is going to make your life much, much easier. Why you don’t have to be a cultural expert to be culturally savvy at work.
The Many Layers of Culture
In 2014 the Miriam Webster dictionary declared “culture” the Word of the Year. What they meant by this is that the number of people looking up the word increased more than any other word. In short a lot of people wanted to know what culture means. This is not because the general public doesn’t know what it means, it’s more that the word is used in so many contexts that it can be confusing. For example, Miriam-Webster itself has six different definitions for the word.
For Cultural Intelligence, we refer to the fifth definition, which can be simplified to: beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, values, goals and practices that are shared by a group of people, are characteristic features of everyday life and which are transmitted to succeeding generations. And remember, this definition is not limited to national cultures. We can use this for regional (ex: north vs south), family, and organizational which is what I work with most - departmental cultures, headquarters vs factory culture, work cultures in different divisions, etc.
But, this is not exactly the definition most people think of. In fact when I teach culture intelligence for business and ask “what is culture?” the answers are almost always the same:
And like all things confusing and not that obvious us teachers like to explain it using pictures, and in particular, an iceberg. Why an iceberg? Because like an iceberg only a small part of culture is visible (above the water) and the majority of culture is unseen (below the water) and invisible to us:
You may never fully understand all the parts that are under the water, and you also may not need to. You simply need to know and understand what cultural concept is in question when you experience a behavior you don’t understand at work. And, of course, how to deal with that difference in the best possible way for both sides to benefit. This is especially true in business because there is a lot to gain and lose for both sides. Understanding the different concepts that are beneath the surface can be crucial in getting the best deal possible in a negotiation, or getting the best results in a diverse team at work, or even working on matrix projects that involve different departments all with their own way of working, thinking and prioritizing.
How do you tell if this is a cultural difference or one person who is doing something you just don’t understand? Simple: pay attention to those around that person from the same culture, do they behave in a similar way or do they also find the behavior strange or not?
Working Smart at Culture
When working you really only need to focus on the values and beliefs that are most affecting your work and relationship with your coworkers. For this I suggest applying the 80/20 rule also known as Pareto’s Law.
The idea is simple: 80% of output is generated by only 20% of input. We can use this to our benefit by thinking that 80% of our issues at work are caused by 20% our differences/projects/clients, etc.
Applying this to culture means finding the 20% of cultural differences that cause the most confusion and frustration for you and addressing only those to solve 80% of your issues.
For example, if you regularly have issues with deadlines and authority but otherwise work well with your team then you only need to focus on three key concepts: time (deadlines) hierarchy / power (authority). That’s it, and let’s be honest, that’s not that much.
Now that we know that 90%* of culture is under the water, it’s not so hard to see why Miriam Webster named “culture” the word of the year, but I do hope that this explanation has made it just a bit easier to understand.
By: Shiva Roofeh
*percentage is based on highly sophisticated research by scientists of all sorts.
6. 3. 2
That's 6 countries, 3 languages and 2 religions. Expat, immigrant, refugee, TCK, there are lots of things you can call me, but I prefer Shiva.