One of the biggest challenges of developing cross-cultural awareness is avoiding stereotypes. Identifying patterns in other cultures often helps us take the first step toward mutual understanding and effective intercultural communication, but it’s also important not to overgeneralize. Every country has some (or many!) subcultures, making it necessary to zoom in and pay attention to regional or local distinctions.
This is especially important in larger countries, where climate, geography, history, and many other factors often shape regional cultures in different ways. To illustrate these regional differences, I’d like to share what I have learned living in three different states across the US: California, Iowa, and Louisiana. Then, I’ll explain how these nuanced cultural differences can present themselves in the workplace—and what you can do to bridge these gaps and work effectively.
Southern Californians Tend to Be Independent, Transactional, and Informal
I grew up in Orange County, California, where authentic Mexican food was always nearby and the beach was always accessible. Instead of public transportation, everybody seemed to drive their own vehicle. Sprawling congested highways aside, this contributed to the fact that Southern Californians tend to be more independent than group oriented. This also means that interactions tend to be very transactional because people are accustomed to operating more independently from one another. Folks in customer service roles, for example, may smile and immediately get down to business rather than and ask how your day is going.
Southern California is also very informal. Many people wear shorts, T-shirts, or sandals to work, and even in a business context speech tends to be casual and direct, with a fair amount of slang.
While Midwesterners Usually Value Interpersonal Relationships
When I moved to Iowa, I quickly recognized what it means to be in the “Heartland.” My beloved Mexican food was replaced by fried pickles and cheese curds, I was over a thousand miles from the ocean, and the sense of small town community was pervasive.
I also learned that interpersonal relationships look different in the Midwest. While the style is informal and egalitarian like California, everyone is generally more openly warm and friendly. People on the street smiled at me as we walked past each other, and complete strangers would strike up a conversation while in line at the grocery store. Coming from California, these interactions felt unnecessary and even a little intrusive, but in this region of the US, they are natural.
And Those in the Deep South Tend to Be Formal and Hierarchical
I now live near New Orleans in southern Louisiana, and the transition to life in the Deep South has been its own adventure. I still miss Mexican food, but I am now surrounded by fresh seafood, gumbo, and po’boys.
Like Iowans, Louisianans tends to be more interpersonal and eager to spark conversations or engage in “small talk” before getting down to business. However, Louisiana (and the Deep South in general), tends to be more hierarchical than California or Iowa. Courtesy and etiquette are generally pretty important, especially when interacting with older folks. Titles and honorifics are also more commonly used—I think I’ve been called “Ma’am” more times in a single month here than the rest of my life combined.
In many ways, US values and a shared sense of national identity underlie my experiences in all three regions, but there are many cultural nuances that make each one of them unique. Of course, this paradigm is reflected in countries around the world, where many different factors contribute to local or regional cultures within a single nation.
Self-Assessment Tools Can Bring National, Regional, and Local Cultures Together
In a business context, these kinds of regional differences can manifest in varying styles of communication, expectations surrounding socializing with colleagues, or styles of dress. For example, a more hierarchical person from the Deep South may feel affronted if they are not called by their honorific title, especially during an initial meeting, when working with associates in California. On the flip side, an informal Californian is liable to cause offense if they wear shorts to the office (despite the sweltering 90 degree heat and 90% humidity of a Louisianan summer).
It’s not that Californians don’t respect dress codes, seniority, or experience, but their informality and egalitarian work style means that they will tend to express their respect differently. Cross-cultural assessment tools like the CultureWizard Culture Calculator are extremely helpful for navigating these types of cross-cultural differences. Not only do they provide insight into your own preferences and tendencies, but you can also compare yourself to other cultures and individuals. This can give you a sense of what to expect from other people’s work styles based on your personalized profile, feedback, and cross-culture tips so that you can collaborate effectively in any environment and successfully avoid misunderstandings or faux pas.