When we encounter people from a different culture, we often notice different beliefs, values and
practices. We hear, for example, that in certain cultures, developing a personal relationship before “getting
down to business” may require more time than in the United States, or that in a certain culture, it may be
difficult to say “no” to a certain request or to offer direct criticism of a situation or proposal.
Not just do's and dont's. Specific "do this, don't do this" knowledge can be useful, but the
concept of culture gives you a better grasp of the “why” of these various rules, of the underlying
patterns of social behavior and values you may encounter in any given culture.
Cultural or individual? At the same time, an understanding of culture will allow you to
distinguish between behaviors shaped by culture and those shaped by individual personality. In
any culture we find individual variation, but it's important to remember that even beliefs about
personality (such as who qualifies as “friendly”) or how much “you should do your own thing”
or “express yourself” are the product of a certain cultural belief about the role of the individual in
society. And you will better understand how certain universal behaviors—anger, mourning,
friendship, greeting, eating—are also shaped by culture.
Culture, master concept for better understanding others. In short, a grasp of the concept of
“culture” helps us to make sense of a diverse range of behaviors and beliefs (beyond the simple
insight that “they” do this or think that) that may initially seem strange or arbitrary. If in a certain
culture it is not customary to smile at strangers, we might ask what underlying beliefs about
human nature, sincerity, and relationships underlie that custom (or why in certain cultures such
as the United States such behavior is more customary).
Self awareness: Understanding culture also implies learning more about our own cultural
assumptions and yields insights useful in understanding our behavior and reactions when we are
interacting with somebody from a different culture.
In this module, we also examine how culture shapes people’s views of the world and specifically
how people interpret our messages and behaviors (and how we interpret other people’s messages
and behaviors). This refers not only to obvious cultural differences, such as the different
meanings a “thumbs up” sign can have, but to different assumptions about how the world and
society operate. Because culture shapes how we interpret the world, the potential for
misunderstandings between people from different cultures is always there.
Besides language barriers, even simple gestures or statements may be misunderstood by
someone from a different culture. A thumbs up sign does not mean “good” or “OK” in all
cultures. Greetings, eating customs, dress, schedules, etc. vary by culture. When exposed to
different ways of doing or saying things, people may misinterpret the situation as “inappropriate”