What makes cultures different: how do you relate to the past, present and future?

The relationship we have with our past, present and future is guided by cultural factors. For instance, cultures that attach more importance to tradition will look more to the past to guide how they should behave in the present and future. Cultures where innovation is more the norm will pay less attention to the past and focus more on the future.

Only the present exists. The past has gone and what you know of it is not the past itself, it is your memory of it. The future has yet to come and also you can shape your future with what you do in the present, you do not know the future.

How can you know how you relate to your past, present and future. Research has used a clever exercise. Imagine each of them is a circle. What would your three circles look like? Would they have the same size? Would they touch each other? Would they overlap? Would they be completely separate? Maybe two touching or overlapping and one further apart?

Our ideas and feelings about past and future will affect our thinking in the present. They will affect our decision-making, how we see life and so on. All three, past, present and future will dictate our actions in the present. Our past experiences, the importance we give the future will influence the actions we take now. After all, all what we experienced in the past makes us what we are today. But it doesn’t have to decide completely who we will be tomorrow. It depends how much you relate to your past and your future.

Most of us are not good at delayed gratification. This is because we have a hard time imagining something happening in the middle or long term future. It is why we need milestones and successes to celebrate regularly when we are on our way to reaching a goal in the not near future. It is why we are good at instant gratification, whatever it is, and are not so good at imagining the consequences of it in the future.

How people or cultures relate to their past, present and future is not easy to appreciate. So what can you do to try and make sure there are no misunderstandings and blunders because of different appreciations of past, present and future?

If you deal at the level of an organisation, what that organisation says about itself with give clues. Is it emphasising its reputation, its long established brand (past), its customer service (more present) or its ability to innovate (future)? Looking at the organisation’s values will give you aan idea.

When it comes to dealing with individuals, it is more difficult. The best is just to be cautious. If you are more future or present oriented, don’t dismiss people’s ideas and feelings if they talk about their past or if they are wary about change and think future is uncertain and scary. As with everything else when you are in a different culture, being open and curious and explaining your own view will help.

What makes cultures different: one thing at a time or OK to juggle?

The person was 10 minutes late for the meeting. After 15minutes, she took a phone call. Then, her colleague came twice to ask questions. Now, she had to go talk to somebody else. The meeting is supposed to finish in 15 minutes and you haven’t got to the heart of the matter.

What is your reaction? Do you find it exasperating or is it normal? Well, it all depends on your culture. It depends what time means for you.

There are two main ways of seeing time: monochronic or polychronic.

In monochronic cultures, you tend to divide your time into tasks that you get done in sequence. Time is about doing. In these cultures, it is expected meetings will begin on time, follow the agenda, people are focused on the task. People apologise if they are late. For such cultures, time is finite, it comes and goes and that’s it. People in monochronic cultures have a more rigid view of time. Examples are North America, Northern Europe and some Asian cultures.

In contrast, polychronic cultures, such as in South America, the Middle East and Southern Europe, time is more about what you are doing at any one point rather than on timeframes in which to do it. You do what is important at the time and time is about forging and nurturing relationships. It is not so much people are multi-tasking (we cannot efficiently); it is they switch more easily from one task to another, and do not see as distractions what could be seen as such in monochronic cultures.

So, what do you do?

  1. Whatever your cultural orientation, if you are to meet with people you do not know, aim to arrive on time. Take something with you to read or do if you have to wait. Or see about having chats with people. This will build the relationships so important in polychronic cultures.
  2. If you are more a polychronic person, try to focus a bit more on your interlocutor especially if this person is more monochronic in their orientations. You will build a relationship with this person this way.
  3. If you are more monochronic in your approach, do not take personally the behaviours of people who have a more polychronic approach. They are not ignoring you.
  4. If mismatch prevents progress, just stop and discuss what is happening.

What makes cultures different: time flies like an arrow or is it meandering?

How we see time and our relation to it is deeply cultural. It will define how we plan our days and how our relationships with others are managed.

Do you get angry if meetings begin late, don’t follow the agenda or run late? Do you get upset and worried if intermediate deadlines and milestones are not met? Have you ever wondered that these behaviours are normal, indeed expected, for other people?

There are two main ways of seeing time. On one side, time is a linear process. Time is scarce. Time goes in one direction, second after second. In Western cultures for instance, aren’t we not talking of time flying, being spent or being wasted? Time is a succession of tasks to be done. Time is to be used efficiently. All time management advice go towards this: some type of to-do list, no procrastination. I know this: I have designed an online course for people needing to manage their time this way.

On the other side, time can be seen as more cyclical. This will be the case in a lot of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Time is seen as plentiful, instead of being scarce. When people see time this way, they take time to take time. They do not rush from one task to the next. They also tend to live more in the present, noticing the present, being in the present more. Time is not about completing tasks. Time is about building relationships, being there when needed for others.

One view of time is not intrinsically better than the other. They are different. When you are not aware of this distinction, can you imagine the frustration it might bring on both sides? If you see time linearly, you probably will have wondered and maybe be annoyed at somebody who seemed to be in no rush at all and not paying attention to the minutes passing by. In contrast, if you see time as less linear, you may not understand why some people seem to be so pushy, wanting you to rush.

Now that you know this, analyse which type you are closer to. When you interact with somebody closer to the other type, remember that their behaviour is not meant to annoy you. Instead, try to adapt your tendencies to accommodate a bit more the other person.

What makes cultures different: thinking analytically or systemically

In the last post in this series, I explained how cultures can define how we think, whether we think more in terms of from ideas to applications or from data to ideas.

There is another big way in which our culture will dictate how we think and this is whether we’re going to chunk down our thinking, that is divide bigger things into more manageable tasks, or weather we look at things in a systemic way, looking at the whole picture.

As with a lot of things each method has its advantages and disadvantages.

In the West, we are usually taught from a young age to think analytically, to breakdown big problems or tasks into smaller ones. It is a mainstay of all problem-solving techniques. The rationale for that is that it will be more manageable and probably less daunting. However, doing that, it is very easy not to realise the consequences of one small tasks on the whole area and sometimes that single smaller task can have devastating effects. It can also bring you into a wrong direction in terms of your overall goal.

Think in terms of an ecosystem for instance. Having this kind of thinking is looking at one species that is getting a little bit too invasive. Thinking analytically will be bringing in a predator to eat that first species without looking at all the potential consequences. And then you realise that that first predator well, not only preys upon the species you wanted it to prey upon but will also prey on other species and begin to wreak havoc in your ecosystem. So, what do you do if you keep with that same type of thinking? You’re going to bring a predator of the first predator you introduced and so on. Basically, that kind of thinking will not look at the big picture.

I contrast, in a lot of Asian cultures for instance and some other cultures too people tend to think looking at the whole picture. This has advantages because you don’t lose sight of your end goal. On the other hand, it can have the disadvantage that things can look rather daunting and it can be difficult in some cases to design a way forward to reach that end goal.

In terms of our ecosystem example, it means that you look at everything that could be done and assess their global consequences, which is good, but then maybe have difficulties prioritising what to do. The good thing is that although our culture has sent us into one direction or the other in terms of this thinking, it doesn’t mean we cannot think the other way. We can practice and learn to think differently. We need to be aware of this thinking and how it affects what we want to achieve. We need to learn to be able to adapt our thinking to the context. It is good for instance that a project manager is very analytical: it allows the manager to plan the project. However, at the same time, the manager needs to be able to think systemically because the project always fits into a wider organisation.

What makes cultures different: from ideas to data or the opposite in though process

Are you aware that your culture defines how you think? No, probably not, it’s not something that we think about very often.

But actually within your own culture you’ve been trained to think in a certain way. So what are the various ways of thinking depending on your culture?

Basically they are two main types. They are usually called deductive and inductive thinking. Again as for everything else about culture, there is a continuum between these two ways of thinking. Of course your culture will train you more into a certain way than the other but it doesn’t mean that you cannot think differently. It will depend a lot on the context and although most of us will have a preference for one style or the other, we will be able to think when necessary using the other type.

So what is deductive thinking? It is when you begin by thinking of ideas abstract concepts and then you will look at how some of them could be applied in real life. This is quite a powerful way of thinking because it allows you to take into account the complexity of the world around you.

This deductive thinking is the main way of thinking in for instance a lot of Europe and also in some Asian cultures. I guess this is where The French culture has got its reputation of being an intellectual one. People like to talk and debate about ideas which is great but with this type of thinking you have to be conscious that your thoughts can take you a long way from the real world.

In contrast, inductive thinking is when you begin with facts, observations and that then you try to categorise make sense of them and induce rules and principles from these observations.

One advantage of this way of thinking is that your rules and principles will for sure be rooted in the real world if I can say. However, the disadvantage of this way of thinking is that what you can see, observe, grasp from the real world is limited. You cannot grasp the whole complexity of it, which means that the rules and principles you will infer from your observations can be in many cases just too simple because they cannot take into account the full complexity around you.

It is very easy to find somebody from the other side of the continuum quite frustrating in their way of thinking. For deductive thinkers, an inductive approach will seem a bit simple and too much focused on applying every ideas, rules and principles. In contrast, for inductive thinkers, deductive ideas and abstraction will seem too detached from the real world, maybe missing the point. Inductive thinkers may not really understand what such abstract concepts can bring.

So what is your way of thinking and how do you deal when you communicate with people who have a different way of thinking about things around themselves?

What makes cultures different: do you need all the details laid out or can you read between the lines?

Let’s be honest, this is a tricky one. The difference between the two extremes of the continuum of this variable is huge. When people from different sides communicate, the scope for misunderstanding and for completely missing information is great.

So, what is it about exactly? This cultural orientation in communication is usually referred to as low context and high context.

In low context cultures, the purpose of communication is to exchange information. So, most of the meaning of the communication is carried in the words. Low context people like clear and detailed instructions, guidance, procedures, lengthy contracts. All the better if it is written and signed. Everything in the communication is taken at face value.

In contrast, in high context cultures, the purpose of communication is to build relationships. Words in themselves carry little importance. Most of the meaning comes from non verbal communication: body language, gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. It is about how it is said, the context around the words. No meaning can be put on the words without noticing and understanding the context.

From this two descriptions, you can easily imagine how communication could go astray. Imagine a low context person listening to the words and not noticing the body language and expression of their interlocutor. Or taking a yes for a yes when the whole context makes it clear for the person saying yes that it is actually a no.I told you it was a tricky one!

Another difficulty is that context is what it says on the tin: it is very contextual. So, even two persons from high context cultures may have different contexts and will not fully understand each other either. For instance, think about a gesture you could make with your hand. You make it because to you it means something. For another person, it could mean something very different or nothing at all.

Then, what can you do to reduce confusion and misunderstanding? First observe and be aware of the non verbal communication. It can be hard and will take time when you are not used to it. Second, observe the outcome of communication, especially when you are not involved. This will help you relate the meaning, outcome to the non verbal communication you have observed. Third, do not try to interpret when you don’t know. You don’t know the context because it is not your culture, so the likelihood is that your own interpretation will be off the mark. Fourth, accept you will miss or misinterpret some information. So, when you do not get the results you expect, clarify to understand where the meaning has been lost.

Understanding fully all the details of a high context culture may be out of reach in the time you have in this culture. You will still definitely improve with practice and with awareness. When you go from a high context to a low context culture, remember that people will likely miss the meaning of your non verbal communication. Don’t be surprised if they misunderstand you and try to put a bit more of the information you want to convey in your words.

Whatever happens when you meet somebody from the other side of this continuum, accept it will make for interesting conversations.

What makes cultures different: the place of emotions in communication

Most of us show some of their feelings with family and close friends. In contrast, whether to show your feelings with people you don’t know or in a work situation is another matter.

It is very easy to recognise if somebody shows their feelings or not. It is one of the most obvious differences to notice between different cultures. Paradoxically, it is one of the hardest to change, to adapt to and to acknowledge.

In some cultures, such as in Northern Europe, you are not expected to show your feelings in work situations. You’ve got to take everything on the chin, bottle up, or not be too enthusiastic when things go well. It can be even more repressed in some Asian cultures.

In many places, showing feelings, particularly such as anger, will make you appear extremely unprofessional.

In contrast, in other cultures such as in Southern Europe, it is considered that feelings are part and parcel of who you are. Feelings are used in decision making. Feelings are used to convey messages that your words cannot. Not exhibiting any feelings is considered as dubious. People will think you may be hiding something, you are cold and unapproachable.

When people from these two different sides meet, it is easy to see that there will be an obvious mismatch. One person might think that they cannot trust the other person because they feel so distant and cold, while the other person might think the other one is like a child, throwing a tantrum or getting excited.

You’d think that when the difference is so obvious to notice, it should be easy to adapt to the situation. This is not the case. If you are on the side of not expressing your feelings, how is it when you force yourself to express them? You are likely feeling like playing a role, not really being you. On the opposite, if you try to repress your feelings, you will likely be like boiling inside.

So, how to make things a bit easier when you communicate with somebody on the other side of the spectrum in terms of expressing feelings?

First, try to move a bit towards the middle of the scale. Try to express yourself slightly more if you usually hide your feelings. Try to be slightly less expressive if you are used to show your feelings plainly.

Second, discuss it openly with your interlocutor. Acknowledge each other’s attitude, do not judge and explain what it means for each of you. Do not interpret somebody’s actions, attitudes and behaviours by your own standards because they just don’t apply to people from other cultures.

What makes cultures different: the level of formality in communication

We all know about that if you compare “Hi mate, what’s up?” with “Good afternoon Professor Martin, I hope it is okay to ask you a question?”, we all recognise that these two expressions demonstrate a different level of formality.

How formal we are when we interact with people is significantly driven by the culture we are in. For instance, especially in countries using English where you do not have a distinction between a formal and more informal way of addressing people – where “you” is used for everybody – things tend to be much more informal. In cultures and societies where in the language you have various forms of formality when you address people, then things tend to be more formal and you have to be a little bit more careful when addressing people.

As an example, in America and in the UK it is quite normal that even people I don’t know just call me by my first name. In contrast, when I was living in Germany and Austria, it was much more likely that people would use a title and my last name to address me when they did not know me. And I had to adapt and do the same as they did in the different countries I lived in. That was the same in France where I grew up, where I would use the polite form and usually the last name to address a person I didn’t know and especially an older person or higher up in the hierarchy.

This is one aspect of formality: it is in the words you use. However, formality or informality express themselves in many more different ways than that.

It is not just about what you say it is also how you say it. For instance, how much eye contact will you make with the person you are interacting with is another aspect of the level of formality. It will be your behaviour too. Will you tend to be a bit closer or more distant physically from the person? How will you be sitting on your chair when talking to that person or standing when you talk?

Formality levels are also expressed for instance in what clothes you wear. Is it OK to have a pair of jeans and a sweater to go see your boss or not?

Being formal or informal seems superficially to be quite an easy aspect of culture to see and to implement. However, as you could see from the above, this formality level will be exhibited in many different aspects of behaviours and communication. So it is actually not as easy as it seems to ensure that you have the right formality level when you communicate with people you do not know and people from different cultures.

And this could lead to potentially serious consequences, like not closing a sale because you haven’t exhibited the correct level of formality. You could easily upset people because you were way too informal compared with what they expected.

What makes cultures different: directness or indirectness in communication

When I began writing my doctorate thesis, I gave what I wrote to my supervisor. Two days later, he said he had read it, handed me the sheets of paper and said “You can put it in the paper bin.” .

Well, that was directness in its purest form.He did not think about the possibility of hurting me with his judgement. Was I hurt? For sure, I wanted more positive feedback but I knew him and how we were direct with one another. I wasn’t hurt, disconcerted maybe.

Had he been of the indirect kind, he probably would have said something like “It was an interesting read, you covered a lot of literature but I would like to make some comments.” The end result would have been the same, me rewriting that piece.

However, the manner of conveying the information would have been completely different. You must have yourself many examples of this kind of situations. So, what characterises the two sides of this communication continuum?

In short, being direct is calling a cat a cat. When you are direct, you say things as you see them.You talk to the point, without wrapping your words in what you consider unnecessary considerations. In contrast, being indirect is being careful about what you say and how you say it.

What makes a culture more direct or indirect is related to the separation put between an individual and her/his thoughts and actions. In direct cultures, when somebody says “It is rubbish” , other direct people understand that it is a judgement of the idea or action, not of the person. In contrast, somebody from a more indirect culture is more likely to take it personally. Indirect cultures are about not losing face.So, people in indirect cultures will speak in a way that always gives credit to others, a way that cannot be understood as a criticism.

We all have a preference towards directness or indirectness. At the same time, most of us are able to use both styles of communication. Do you really speak to your boss and your kids in the same way?

So, when you move to a new culture, a new country, observe carefully what style people usually use and be conscious and aware of using this style when interacting with people. You will avoid upsets for everyone and make communicating a lot more positive experience.

What makes cultures different: an introduction

In this new series of posts, I will explain where the main differences are when it comes to culture. It is based on research in cultural differences and focuses on our relationships and how they differ in various cultures.

Research has categorised the interactions we have with everything around us into four main categories: others, activities, time and environment.

Most of us will have trouble with one of them at a time at some point in our life. You may have problems with a relationship. You may be doing things you do not like and want to change, or you may feel overwhelmed with not enough time in your hands. You may feel disconnected from the world around you.

In contrast, when you are an expat, you are confronted with drastic changes in all these four areas. No wonder the transition is so difficult. Being in a different culture requires to adapt all interactions at the same time.

In these posts, I will discuss the different components of each category so that you understand what they are and how you can use them to perform better in a different culture.

Cultures and people differ widely on how they relate to the four categories of others, activities, time and environment. For instance, when communicating, directness, formality or the use of non verbal communication will be different. People will have different relationships with the past, present and future. They will see time differently, more sequential or more cyclical. Their relationship with nature can be more about control, harmony or humility. Cultures will be more individualistic or group oriented.

These are examples of traits on which cultures will differ. In the following posts, I will discuss the main categorisation of cultural differences. I will explain for each what it means and how it leads to misunderstanding and inadequacy when people are not aware of each other’s culture and are not able to adapt and integrate, leverage components of other cultures they interact with.

Each aspect of cultural differences is not a discrete entity. We are not one or the other. We are somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes. We also have flexibility to move along the continuum. It is this degree of flexibility that will determine abilities to adapt, integrate and leverage cultural differences.

If at any moment, you personally relate to the inadequacies I describe, contact me. You may be in a state of culture shock, preventing you from performing at your best professionally and personally. My specialty is to help people in such situations.