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Cultural Background: Ignore at Your Peril


There’s lots of reasons why you should worry about cultural background – a few examples:

To avoid offending people without realizing it – You may inadvertently be doing a taboo act. For instance in parts of Asia it is taboo to point at someone with your finger, or to pat a child on the head.

To be able to prevent, manage and resolve conflict more effectively – many workplace conflicts can stem from simple cultural misunderstandings.

To become an effective communicator – if you can factor in the cultural context, you can understand where the other person is coming from a lot better.


It is very broad – the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group. It could even be nationality, ethnic background, and/or age group.


1. Watch Out For Body Language

I learned how important it was to consider body language in cultural context the hard way, when I was in South America. I was running a community development program in a small town in Guyana, and our team of volunteers was going to be doing a program in the town in a few weeks. Thus our meeting with the town leader was critical as we needed his support for the success of the program.At the start of our meeting, I explained to him that I was hearing impaired, and that I needed him to look at me so that I could read his lips. He starts talking to me while looking down and barely moving his lips. Oh great! I crouch down so I can take a better look at his lips. This makes matters worse, as he bends down even more. I bend down even more…he moves away from me, and I follow him frantically trying to figure out what he’s saying. What ensues is a painfully awkward dance around the room, with both of us getting more and more frustrated.My co-leader who had up to that time – quietly been sitting next to me, whispered to me that in Guyana, especially in rural communities, it is a sign of great respect if someone does not look at the person when he/she speaks to that person, and it is rude to look at the person when you talk. Thus, he was being respectful to me. Oops. Luckily, we were able to move past this, and did I ever learn a lesson that I will treasure to this day.As an aside, this is quite common in parts of Mexico, Latin America, and the Philippines – that it is culturally disrespectful to look at someone with authority in the eyes. In other parts of the world, the concept of personal space is a little different. For instance, Brazilians stand much closer to each other than westerners and make more eye contact.

2. Consider How it Impacts Emotional Issues

Cultural context also comes into play with emotional issues. Some cultures consider “saving face” as of utmost importance compared to others and showing a lot of emotion exhibits a lack of self control, whereas in other cultures it is normal to show a lot of emotion.At one of my businesses, one of our bakers was a former soldier in the Vietnamese military. He barked orders at our Filipino employees and was extremely blunt towards them, although they were reserved and cared about saving face. Later, several of them came up to me to complain. They felt that the baker was attacking them personally. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. Even after numerous conversations with him about toning down his act and speaking less harshly to our Filipino employees, the atmosphere was poisoned and he had to go.Now I am much more sensitive to emotional considerations in cultural context, and I consider this whenever there are conflict issues.

3. What the Heck am I talking About? Considering Frame of Reference

Another issue in cultural communication can simply be that the background or frame of reference is totally alien and your message is not heard even within the same nationality but with different age groups and socio-economic backgrounds. This constantly happens to me, and I need to be sensitive to this. I experienced this first hand with a presentation to a group of nine year olds.

I do public speaking and stand up comedy from time to time. Due to my speech impairment, I need to address it in the beginning to set the audience at ease. I have a popular Arnold Schwarzenegger joke I usually use in the beginning that is bullet proof, as follows: “I have a hearing impairment and thought I’d let you know in case you think I’m trying to do the world’s worst Arnold Schwarzenegger impression ever.”

I tried this at a class of 9 year olds, and got no response. Several little hands shot up, and the students asked “who is Arnold Schwarzenegger?” The teacher responded that he was a “very old man” who was in politics.

In addition to being heart broken hearing the Terminator being referred to this way, I really had my eyes opened as to considering my audience’s frame of reference.



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