The cornerstone of cultural competence is the recognition that each culture is unique, people from different countries behave differently, and everyone has different values and beliefs. Once we’re able to grasp the fact that each of us is the product of a specific culture (or even a blend of cultures), we’re in a better position to accept others on a non-judgmental basis.

Still, cultural competence can be hard to teach—and even harder to achieve—because it requires a deep understanding of the nuances of cultural preferences. To help businesses and individuals develop their intercultural skills and learn to work together effectively, we’ve updated our RW3 CultureWizard Culture Calculator self-assessment tool.

In honor of the upcoming launch, I will be writing a three-part series explaining why it’s so important to recognize and understand the nuances of cultural preferences. To start, I’ll overview the many layers of culture, then briefly explain the eight dimensions of culture and why they are the foundation of intercultural competence.

Understanding Culture: A Broad Landscape

On the surface, a country’s history, mythology, heroes, and religious heritage are woven together to form its culture, traditions, values and behaviors. These traditions and values tend to unite a country with a common sense of values and establishes interpersonal behavioral standards that make for effective collaboration within a country.

Yet, since each culture is different from one another, people across cultures can be divided as well. It’s easy to see these cultural differences even at first glance. People in some cultures seem very warm and friendly—they smile at strangers and will even offer support when a stranger seems to need it. However, in other cultures that are more private, where people reserve smiles for close friends, one would never think about approaching a stranger.

As subtle as our cultural differences may be, they illustrate how different expected behaviors can be around the world. I could give hundreds of examples like this, but you get the point: Cultures are different! As a global businessperson, it’s important to recognize these differences so you can adjust your behavior and expectations accordingly. That way, you’ll be able to work across cultures successfully.

Understanding Culture: Through a Microscope

If you go deeper, you’ll find that many aspects contributing to culture are especially nuanced, and often can be traced back to a person’s individual experiences. The simple fact is that regardless of the roots of a country’s culture, individual behaviors can be incredibly distinct from one another—even within the same overarching culture.

For example, you may come from a culture that values promptness, yet you may not always be on time. Individuals express their culture’s values and behaviors in unique ways. So, while we need to generalize about cultures in order to teach about them and enable people to be effective in working across cultures, you need to remember that national characteristics will not apply to everyone within that culture. If you acknowledge the risk of stereotyping, you’ll be more likely to remember that people are individuals!

The Eight Dimensions of Culture

Anthropologists and sociologists have long been studying and recording cultural and individual behaviors because understanding each other can help ease intercultural interactions. Inspired by these findings, we’ve developed a cultural learning model that makes these cultural behaviors readily recognizable. Understanding how you—and others—fit into these eight dimensions of culture can help you adjust your behavior and expectations accordingly so you can work effectively across cultures:

1. Hierarchy: The way people view authority, power and how much they defer to people in leadership positions. It also includes whether people feel entitled to express themselves, make independent decisions, and take initiative.

2. Group: The importance and well-being of the individual versus the group or society. This includes whether or not accomplishments are considered an individual or group endeavor.

3. Relationships: How important it is to devote time to building relationships and developing trust. For example, what takes precedence in making a business decision: the people involved or objective business criteria?

4. Communication: The way societies communicate, including verbal and nonverbal expression, the amount of background information people need for understanding, and how directly or indirectly people speak.

5. Time: The degree to which people believe they can control time and how important it is to maintain a strict schedule. This includes attitudes towards punctuality and keeping time.

6. Formality: The importance of appearance and demeanor as an indicator of status, the importance of protocol and etiquette and use of titles, surnames, and honorifics.

7. Change: Openness to change, innovation, and risk-taking. This also includes whether people feel they have control of their destiny or if their environment controls them.

8. Motivation: The relative importance and value attached to professional vs. personal lives, including how status and success are defined by society. Motivation also includes the source of an individual’s identity and self-esteem, such as being status-motivated or family-motivated.

While all of these cultural dimensions can be reflected in cultural differences, it’s critical to remember that each individual is unique and may not conform to the expected standard. When combined, each of the eight cultural dimensions interacts with one another to create an individual’s so-called cultural fingerprint. Of course, every culture is different, and every individual within each culture is different. But recognizing the many nuanced layers of culture is key to developing the intercultural competence skills needed to thrive in a global business environment.

In the next blog post in this series, we’ll take a look at the RW3 Culture Calculator and how it enables you to discover your own cultural preferences and compare yourself to other countries and colleagues. We’ll also look at how you can use cultural insights to create better and more collaborative teams, lead more effectively, and collaborate with greater ease and success.

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