How Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.

Values: What Are They & How Do They Shape Culture?

You often hear various groups and cultures talk about their “values.”

But what are values, really?

Are they only ideals? How are they put into practice?

Values are practiced ideals; they’re principles or standards to live by. In a culture, they distinguish between what is important or unimportant. What is worth fighting for and what is not. What is good and what is evil and, correspondingly, who is good and who is evil.

Values are a culture’s unwritten rule of law. In fact, sometimes, a culture’s values influence the nation’s written laws.

Swiss Values

Let’s take a look at Swiss values, for example.

According to ediplomat, “The Swiss value cleanliness, honesty, (and) hard work…They value sobriety, thrift, tolerance, punctuality and a sense of responsibility.”

Swiss values also include environmentalism, freedom, orderliness, neutrality, and world peace. We’re also savers and are proud of the material wealth that accompanies economic responsibility.

You can see these values come to life in our culture. In the way we dress, the way we behave, the way we live.

Walk down any street in Geneva, and you’ll notice several things: gorgeous greenery, an absence of litter, Swiss people dressed clean and neat and, yes, plenty of wealth.

You can also see these values in our policies and politics.

The Swiss unadjusted unemployment rate rarely exceeds 4% and dropped to 3% in June of 2017, which is less than the average 4-12% unemployment in other developed countries. This may be partially attributed to our values of hard work and our sense of responsibility.

Being a neutral nation, we’re also not a member state of NATO. We are, however, members of the Partnership for Peace, which cooperates with NATO on crisis-management training and operations, as well as humanitarian missions.

This is how cultural values are made manifest: putting into practice the ideals that are most important to you and your broader culture.

Swiss Values-turned-Laws

You can see Swiss values represented in written law, as well.

Take jaywalking, for example.

In many countries around the world, a slap on the wrist is the most you’ll get for jaywalking. In fact, in most places, you won’t even get that – it’s acceptable to cross the street wherever and whenever you choose.

But, in Switzerland, our values of orderliness, sobriety and our sense of responsibility come into play yet again. Jaywalkers are disturbing the order of things and aren’t taking the risk of potential pedestrian fatality seriously. Therefore, jaywalkers are fined on the spot by police if caught in the act.

This is just one of many written laws and unwritten norms that exemplify our values in Switzerland. Next week, we’ll talk about the difference between individualist and collectivist cultures and where their values diverge.

The Cult of Company Culture

Last week, we talked about how national cultures can be divided into regional cultures and subcultures. This goes a step further.

Companies have their own culture, as well.

That’s because whenever people are grouped together, they build a culture. And the way that companies build is often with this cultish veneration of shared ideals – ideals they wish each and every one of their employees to hold true.

Company culture has become a selling point for employment. When Starbucks or Tesla is hoping to hire the best, they must promise a thriving ecosystem to work within…an ecosystem with plenty of incentives and inclusivity.

Here’s a look at how some companies got it right, and where others have got it wrong.

Popular Company Cultures

Google famously treats its employees to an “adult playground,” with perks like gyms, swimming pools, video games, nap pods, free haircuts, on-site physicians. You name it.

This has driven Google’s success, encouraging employees to be more creative, productive and to think outside the box.

Netflix, as well, have become renowned for their company culture manifesto. They strive for inclusivity and are averse to the so-called “brilliant jerk” that you might identify with Silicon Valley.

In fact, they only retain those who pass a “keeper test” – that is, managers choose whether or not they’d fight to keep their respective employees, and if they wouldn’t, they’re let go. This way, their culture is cultivating only the best of the best.

Netflix’s primary aim is to motivate its workers, as is shown in its most recent culture doc, which closes with this stanza by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship,

don’t drum up the people

to gather wood, divide the

work, and give orders.

 

Instead, teach them to yearn

for the vast and endless sea.

Pretty inspiring stuff, right?

Unpopular Company Cultures

Like Google or Netflix, you can build up your employees through incentives, inspiration, and inclusivity…or, like Uber, you can build a toxic company culture through ineffective human resources, vague company values, and company crisis after company crisis.

Uber’s company culture has been described as “aggressive” and “unrestrained.” In this past year, sexual discrimination and harassment led to an internal crisis that has played out in the media.

However, with new leadership on board, the company’s values are changing, as is Uber’s ability to surface problems more quickly. The company can still evolve its culture, turn it around, and build something that its employees are proud to build with them.

Company Culture -> National Culture

As with company cultures, values can either be promoted or condemned by national culture. Management is the driving force in actively shaping their company culture’s values, and a nation’s leaders – politicians, scientists, writers, artists, actors, business leaders, or other influential peoples – shape ours.

Next week, we’ll talk about these values, how they are formed, and what they mean to you.