The 10 Cultural Universals

The word, “culture,” covers a broad spectrum. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what falls under the umbrella of culture by drawing more definitive lines.

When you talk about culture, what can you expect this word and the discussion to encompass?

These 10 cultural universals will guide you.

10 Cultural Universals

  1. Geography – Location, location, location. Location defines so many aspects of a culture – from the clothing worn to the food prepared and eaten – that it would be remiss not to include geography when discussing culture. Consider the landscape of the region, the natural resources it offers, and of course the rich history generated from the region.
  2. Language – Language is significantly important to culture and can afford those studying culture some insight into what’s important to any given group (think: polite language, masculine/feminine use, slang, etc.). When discussing language, you should also consider the written language, body language, sign language, and numbers systems of the culture.
  3. Family – Family dynamics are a key part of cultural studies, from the roles of each family member, child to grandparent, to the rites of passage that members go through. Labor division across genders are also part of this cultural universal.
  4. FCTS (food, clothing, transport, shelter) – The basics of survival are arguably the very foundation of culture. Think architectural styles, building materials, modes of transport, traditional and everyday cuisine, traditional and everyday clothing, etc.
  5. VBR (values, beliefs, rituals) – We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab. This category also includes the rituals, beliefs, and religious practices of a culture, such as myths and legends, ceremonial rituals and holidays, and stances on contemporary science versus traditional beliefs.
  6. Economics – Jobs, the market, money, goods and services, production, consumption, and distribution are paramount to a culture’s development and quality of life, making a group’s economic circumstances a cultural universal.
  7. Education – This category includes not only formal education, but societal education – i.e. passing cultural values, survival skills, and various types of training onto the youth.
  8. Politics – The type of government and the organization of a society impacts all parts of culture, from rule of law to enforcement of these laws. The politics of a nation can also determine whether that nation is prone to war or peace.
  9. Technology – The degree of technology available to a culture – whether that technology be tools, weapons, digital advancement, etc. – contributes to all aspects of everyday life, as well as to the bigger picture, the way society runs.
  10. Cultural Expression – This is often the category one might first think of when they hear the word, “culture.” It includes art, music, literature, sport, etc. Every expressive aspect of a culture that brings it to life.

Now that you know what constitutes “culture,” we’ll put each of these universals under the microscope in the coming weeks.

Adoption: True Cultural Integration

How long would you need to live in Africa to find termites delectable?

Over the course of the past few weeks, we’ve talked about what types of norms you should adapt, which norms you must adapt, and what to do when you can’t adapt.

And, while adapting does demonstrate respect of your new culture, true cultural integration involves adopting.

Adopting vs. Adapting

What’s the difference between adopting and adapting?

Let’s take a look at our Monkey Strategies:

behavior

Adapting means to adjust your behavior in order to fit into a foreign society. It means following cultural norms, if only for the time you’ll be living and working in a culture, to demonstrate your respect and dedication to cultural understanding and sensitivity.

But adopting takes integration a step further. Adopting means to actively accept a certain behavior, norm or value as your own.

To put it another way, when you adapt, you’re a monkey swinging from the branches and limbs of the cultural baobab – picking monkey fruit from the norms, the visible part of culture.

When you adopt, you dig down into the roots of the baobab – the values, the invisible part.

Truly adopting another culture’s values means you are taking them into yourself. They are rooting within you and becoming part of you.

This may mean you’ve shed some of the cultural values that were taught to you from birth. This may be a conscious choice, and it may change the very core of who you are.

When it does, you’ve entered the final stage of cultural integration.

Adopting Another Culture

When you become part of this new culture, the culture becomes part of you.

But this isn’t likely to happen in the blink of an eye. Like an actual adoption, the process takes time. And as I mentioned, it is a choice to adopt; you can’t be forced to do so. Nor is adoption necessary to be successful in a foreign culture.

But it does make things easier. Once you adopt, you’ll no longer feel culture shock, because two cultures’ values and norms will no longer be conflicting within you.

Reaching this stage makes you global citizen. You’ll feel a deep connection to this new culture into which you’ve integrated, and you’ll also obtain freedom from and valuable insight into your own culture.

Cultural Must-Adapts: When Is It Mandatory to Adapt to Cultural Norms?

Do you remember our four groupings of social norms – folkways, mores, taboos, and laws?

If not, then here’s our handy chart to recall how each of these norms applies to culture:

norms

As you can imagine, failing to queue up in Britain would not be looked upon as severely as, say, going topless at a beach in America. And this is due to the severity of the norm groupings to which each of these actions belong.

Folkways<Mores<Taboos<Laws

How strict is each cultural norm group?

Folkways are the softest social norms. While you have a choice whether or not to adapt to folkways, failing to adapt won’t lead to ostracism; it will simply lead some in your new cultural environment to consider you a bit rude.

One example: wearing formal attire in a business environment is a European folkway. A suit and tie in Europe is the uniform of choice for men.

So, when an American male manager walks into a business meeting with his European counterparts wearing a casual polo shirt and wrinkled slacks, while this casual attire is, of course, not forbidden, it may result in a negative perception of said businessman as a cross-cultural business leader.

This is one example of a folkway that you can choose to adapt or not, but in making that choice, consider how it’s perceived.

Mores define right versus wrong within a culture, so there is more pressure to adapt to this type of social norm.

For instance, if a female manager travels to a conservative country, and she comes from one where feminine business attire is much more liberal, she may feel pressured – or even be asked – to alter her attire, as it may be considered inappropriate or revealing, based on the culture’s mores.

This is the difference between “right vs rude” and “right vs wrong”. Again, you can choose to adapt or not, but in the process, you may be considered “rude” or “wrong” by the cultural standards of your new colleagues.

Mandatory Adaptions

When it comes to the last two social norm groups – taboos and laws -, you must adapt.

Remember, taboos define what’s forbidden, while laws define what’s illegal. If these norms don’t align with your own, and you believe there’ll be some “wiggle-room”, simply because you’re a foreigner, then you’re very much mistaken.

“Sorry, I didn’t know; I’m foreign,” might work when breaking a queue, but it certainly won’t work when breaking a law.

You must accept that other cultures have values that you must observe if you choose to live there. And if you can’t accept these deeply entrenched values and norms, then stand by your principles and don’t move there.

Because one thing is certain in building cross-cultural relationships: you should not expect an entire culture to bend to your will.

When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.

Respect Culture: How to Respond to Norms that Make You Uncomfortable

What does respect mean to you?

In the face of disagreement, in the face of, perhaps, discomfort or even anger, what does it mean to respect someone with whom you do not share values or norms?

An example:

You’re Japanese, and you’ve moved to Spain. The Spanish are a warm, open and friendly culture. A kiss on both cheeks is a common greeting, whether you’re a friend or a stranger being met for the first time.

This social norm is not only one you’re not used to; it’s one that makes you incredibly uncomfortable.

What do you do?

Discomfort

I actually know a Japanese woman who struggled with this exact scenario.

She was the wife of a diplomat who had recently transferred to Spain. I met her at a language school.

Not only did she grow up in a culture that is as far removed from Spain as it possibly can be, she was also born to an aristocratic family, so her upbringing was even more disciplined than most. From childhood, she had been taught that public spaces and situations were not the place for physical human contact.

Remember: the Japanese greeting is a bow. A handshake is even too intimate. So, imagine then transitioning into a country in which men and women engage in this public display of affectionate greeting.

A kiss on both cheeks seemed too much for her to bear.

Tolerate, Comply and/or Explain

According to LQ Williams of Owlcation:

“Tolerance is the recognition of the universal human rights and freedoms of others… and the recognition of the value of differences without judgement.”

Tolerance, in essence, is respecting diversity, the world over. Despite feeling uncomfortable with certain cultural norms, you can still demonstrate your tolerance and respect for the culture by complying with other cultural behaviors.

In my Japanese friend’s case, she was taking this step: she was actively trying to learn the language.

Lastly, if you find yourself between a rock and a hard place – that is, between an attempt to integrate into the culture and your discomfort with some of this culture’s social norms and values – then explaining yourself goes a long way.

As Core Languages notes: “Often, just trying to be culturally sensitive is appreciated. Even if you don’t execute well, you’ve taken the time to learn about another and invested in a relationship.”

Who knows – maybe somewhere down the road, you’ll become comfortable with those norms that were initially a roadblock for you, just like my Japanese friend did.

Instead of only accepting the norm, she chose to overcome her deep level of physical discomfort and adapt.

These are some of the battles you may face when living and working in a foreign country. It’s up to you where you draw the line.

But know that in some cases, if you draw the line too close to your own cultural comfort, you may be impeding yourself from successful cross cultural integration.

Monkey Moments: What Should You Do When Culturally Adapting is Impossible?

What beverage do you order with lunch?

In the US, you might have a Coke.

In Germany, you’d probably order a beer.

And in France, perhaps a glass of wine.

For those moving to one of these countries, this is a simple enough behavior to adapt to.

But what happens when the behavior is not that simple? What happens when becoming “one of the locals” is impossible?

One of the Locals

Speaking a foreign language. Learning a special set of skills. Drinking unfiltered water.

Due to their complexity or the body’s own limitations, these are the types of behaviors where adaptation may be more difficult.

Learning a language requires patience, dedication, and time. Not everyone who is living abroad has all of these in abundance, especially if living in the foreign country for only a short period.

In regions of Africa, the handshake requires a special set of skills, because it’s rather elaborate. Without practice, the finger-snapping greetings are difficult to master.

And, in certain cases – like drinking unfiltered water in Africa, for instance – your body may simply not allow you to adapt. Although it’s the tradition in a number of ethnic communities in Africa to offer visitors water to drink, sometimes your health must take precedence over local custom.

And refusing to speak, greet, or drink may provoke monkey moments.

Monkey Moments

Although your inability to adapt may not be by choice, but rather by time, skill, health, or any other restrictive factor, this inability may still provoke monkey moments.

(Remember: a monkey moment is when your foreign nature is revealed to everyone through your actions…or, in some cases, your inactions).

How do you overcome these monkey moments?

If the short duration of your stay doesn’t allow you enough time to learn an entire language, learn the local greetings and short phrases. Doing so will show the locals that you are making an effort to communicate.

Don’t have the skills to master the complex local handshake?

Give it your best shot, and the locals will surely acknowledge you’re trying.

Can’t stomach the water?

Declining the customary drink may cause a monkey moment, but you must make clear that your health is the reason that you decline. Any other reason would likely be considered rude or disrespectful.

So, my advice is three-fold: make an effort, explain yourself when you physically cannot adapt, and respect the local culture.

This is ultimately what a successful cross-cultural relationship comes down to. We’ll talk more about respect next week.

Apples & Oranges: Understanding Adverse Reactions to Culture

Last week, we talked about how important it is to successful cross cultural management to accept the culture into which you are integrating.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you’ll dislike or disagree with certain aspects of the culture. But disagreement doesn’t have to mean disdain.

You can disagree and still respect that this society might see or do things differently than you. And that’s okay.

Why Do We React Adversely?

Any initial adverse reactions to a foreign culture can probably be credited to discomfort.

This new world into which you are entering isn’t familiar and may not offer all the amenities of home (and if they do, they’re likely not packaged the same, so may be hard to find).

Home is easy. It’s familiar. It’s unsurprising.

You might start feeling nostalgic for home, which is part of the natural stages of culture shock.

It’s understandable. You likely know no one in this new world. All your friends are back home. It’s disconcerting to transition into a completely different life without anyone to lean on. Especially when that life and the culture’s norms and values are so different than your own.

When moving to Spain, a Japanese person might dislike the loud restaurants and the encroachment on their personal space when greeting, and in Japan, a Spanish person might dislike the culture’s formal behavior and traditions.

But to move forward and conquer that initial adverse reaction, the foreigner must understand that just because something is different than what he or she knows does not mean it’s bad.

Apples & Oranges

I grew up in Africa. My dad worked there. As a child, the thing I missed most from back home in Switzerland was apples. The fruit on hand was monkey-bread from the baobab.

blog24-3

Despite missing apples, monkey-bread was still appetizing.

My point is that accepting another culture as it is does not mean you must disavow the things you like back home. But it does mean you shouldn’t categorize things in your host culture as “good” or “bad”; you should make an effort not to compare it with what you know.

Accepting means to refrain from judging the differences and look at them with a clear and open mind. They may be unfamiliar and strange to you, but the sun sets beautifully over the African savannah, just as it does back home.

Adapting

Accepting encompasses all aspects of a foreign culture. But accepting is just the first step of cross cultural integration.

As a manager in a foreign culture, you must also adapt to some of the culture’s behaviors and social norms if you want to integrate successfully. Adapting is specific to the visible parts of culture, the behavioral aspects.

I’m talking the dress code, the way the culture greets each other, what and when they eat. These are just a few examples of how you must adapt, which we’ll talk more about next week.

Open Hearts, Open Minds: How Much Should a Foreign Manager Expect to Accept & Adapt to the Culture?

Say, you’re a store manager at a retail company, and you’ve been sent abroad to work out the kinks at your sister store in Tokyo. You’re a fish out of water, a monkey out of his home tree, and your managerial style isn’t gelling too well with that of Japanese culture.

The big question: Do you expect your employees to adapt to you and your culture? Or do you expect to adapt to them?

The Cultural Baobab

If you work at an international company, the company culture is usually fairly uniform the world over…but not entirely.

When you’re sent to manage abroad, you’re still working and living in a foreign culture. Just because these employees work for your company doesn’t mean they’ve fully accepted, adapted, and adopted your culture’s practices or behaviors.

We’ve talked a lot about the cultural baobab and how, by identifying and understand its roots (values) and limbs (social norms), you’ll better understand the culture, as a whole.

The point is that living and working successfully in a foreign culture always starts with one thing:

Accept

Accept your host culture as it is.

Don’t fight it.

Don’t condemn it.

Don’t judge it.

This will make managing in the culture a whole lot easier.

Think about it: as the monkey in their baobab, instead of complaining about the branches as you swing from limb to limb, instead of criticizing the roots that grew this tree and spitting out the seeds from its fruits, you should be curious about it, you should admire it, and you should find a home in it.

Accept that your culture’s tree isn’t the only tree in the world. It’s not the superior baobab. It’s not the center of the universe. Accept that there is more than one type of beauty.

There’s a myriad of ways to live life, to organize a society, and to run a business.

Once you recognize this, you’ll see the beauty in this foreign baobab, from the roots to the canopy.

Integrate

In order to successfully manage in a foreign culture, you must integrate into that culture. If you don’t appreciate the beauty of your host nation’s baobab, your employees and colleagues will know it and integration will be null and void.

Accepting doesn’t mean you have to adapt or adopt everything in your host culture, nor must you idolize it.

Accepting does mean that you must make an effort to seek the good in everything with which you are unfamiliar, instead of immediately condemning it as “bad,” because it is foreign to your own values and way of life.

Now, that’s not to say everything about a foreign culture is easy to accept. We’ll talk about how to deal with adverse reactions to your host culture next week.

A Conflict of Conscience: Acting Rationally Within Another’s Cultural Baobab

Most people act rationally within their cultural baobab. But it’s much harder to do so when you’re the monkey in another’s tree.

What do I mean by this?

Last week, we discussed Canadian social norms and how they reflect the nation’s cultural values. Politeness is one of these norms. It’s tied to the values of courtesy and non-confrontation, possibly imparted by the British Tories who settled there.

So what if a dude from a not-so-vocally-polite culture immigrated to Canada and was brazenly “impolite” by Canadian standards?

He would be acting rationally within his own cultural baobab, but not within theirs.

This type of social norm is easy enough to correct: if you want to adapt and integrate into Canadian culture, just throw in a few “please and thank you”s and try to be more courteous to people.

But what if a foreign culture’s values touch a nerve in your own and lead to a conflict of conscience?

Revisiting Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann

Do you remember our friends Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann?

When Ahmed helped Khalid cheat on an exam, Ann was upset, as this didn’t fit into the rationale of her culture.

But it did fit into the rationale of Ahmed and Khalid’s culture.

Absent of strong familial support, individual members might not cope on their own in a third world country. So, Ahmed was only helping his cousin succeed, which is harmonious with the roots and branches of his cultural baobab.

Ann, as well, was acting rationally according to her own baobab. Her culture teaches that an individual should succeed of his own volition; cheating isn’t tolerated and reflects poorly on the individual. Not only that, but the results don’t accurately reflect his abilities.

One problem, however: she didn’t consider that she was viewing the incident from her tree’s perspective, rather than that of the culture she was integrating into.

In pushing Ahmed (and Ahmed’s parents) to conform to her own cultural baobab, she was attempting to make them grow a new branch in a day.

Impossible. And probably unnecessary.

In the end, cheating wouldn’t help Khalid succeed in an individualist society…but he was living in a collectivist one, where knowledge is shared, not exclusive to those smart enough to obtain it.

Do Values Ever Change?

Values are deeply rooted. They’re very difficult to pull up and regrow in any cultural baobab.

Cultures only change through introducing and cultivating values below the surface that eventually sprout new branches and new leaves – the social norms that are watered by society.

In the end, Ann hurt both Ahmed and Khalid. In accusing them of cheating, she publicly stated that Khalid was not smart enough or capable of succeeding, while also accusing Ahmed of being dishonest.

Ahmed felt the sting of losing face, so much so, that he asked to be transferred to a different school near his grandparents’, where no one would look at him negatively.

He lost out on a strong education at a better school, while Ann lost the trust and respect of the parents. No one in this conflict of conscience was better off. And neither the individual’s values, nor the culture’s changed because of it.

How Do Canadian Social Norms Reflect Their Cultural Values?

Say, you and your friend, Canadian Jim, go for a coffee.

You arrive at the Tim Horton’s door at the same time.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, as he jumps ahead to open the door for you.

“Sorry?” you think. “What is he apologizing for?”

Canadians are known to be polite and to apologize for the slightest infringement. This is their social norm.

In fact, a McCaster University geo-linguistic study regarding the differences between American and Canadian language on social media found that Canadians are much more upbeat and polite in their language even online.

For nine months in 2015, PhD Candidates Daniel Schmidtke and Bryor Snefjella compiled upwards of three million tweets. Aside from “hockey and “eh”, “disproportionately ‘Canadian words’ included ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘favourite’,” while most of the American favorites were unprintable and/or negative, like “‘hate’, ‘hell’, ‘tired’, ‘hurt’ and ‘annoying’.”

This begs the question…

Why Are Canadians Polite?

What is at the root of their behavior?

The values of kindness and courtesy are.

The director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto, Nelson Wiseman, theorized why these values are so embedded in Canadian culture:

“John A. Macdonald called Canadians a subordinate people. That’s in part because we’ve had a strong tradition of centralized regimes, with the French, and then as a British nation.”

European settlers, particularly the conservative British Tories, imparted these values unto their ancestors.

“Although Canada is no longer a British nation,” Wiseman said, “these tendencies replicate and perpetuate themselves like a gene.”

The non-confrontational tradition carries on. Apologizing before things get out of hand – even for nothing approaching insulting, like failing to open the door for someone – is the visible part of their culture (a baobab branch), while common courtesy and conservatism are the invisible parts (the roots of the baobab).

The fact that Canada doesn’t have the same imperial history as America may also factor into why Canadians are considered friendlier when compared to those south of the border.

Understanding the Cultural Baobab

When you enter into a culture that is not your own, familiarizing yourself with their cultural baobab will always help you come to terms with differences. The norms that you see are often deeply rooted in values that lie below the surface.

And it’s only when you examine the components of this tree of life that you start to understand the rationale of a culture.

You may not agree with it.

You may not like it.

But in understanding it, you may accept the culture’s values as they are.