The Importance of Understading Cultural Differences

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The foundation of cultural awareness and intelligence is understanding the definition of culture and how it influences the mind and body. The definition of culture is broad as culture contains many subjective and objective elements. Culture includes language, knowledge, beliefs, art, music, morals, law, customs and other capabilities or habits belonging to a group of people. It is the programming of the mind which enables one to skilfully navigate communication with others from the same cultural group. Culture can be manifested at three different layers of depth. Observable artefacts one notices can be the dress code, emotional intensity and manner of behaviour. The values which guide an individual’s behaviour and influence observable artefacts presented. Basic underlying assumptions are subconscious values that affect how an individual perceives, thinks and feels. Many people are unaware of the underlying assumptions that they have. Underlying assumptions affect how we think and behave therefore influencing our interpretation of other people’s behaviour. Hofstede described culture as being one of three levels of human uniqueness in mental programming. It is distinct from the universal human nature that is found within all people. While also being distinguishable from an individual’s personality. Becoming culturally aware implies an understanding of how cultural diversity affects both individuals and society.

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The awareness that culture differs amongst people and that culture influences our own and other individuals’ perception of reality is cultural awareness. There are different stages of cultural awareness. Firstly, the Parochial stage is ignorance of understanding towards other cultures outside of your own. The Ethnocentric stage includes the awareness of other cultures and the bias toward an individual’s own culture, often attributing cultural differences as problems. I travelled to Japan again with somebody that had little knowledge of Japanese culture or cultural awareness. She refused to try many traditional foods simply because she had not tried them before and showed her disgust towards the cosy size of many restaurants and bars. She is multi-cultural herself being an Indigenous Australian, so she understood her own culture although lacked awareness and respect for other cultures. From those behaviours, it appeared she was at the stage ethnocentric stage of cultural awareness. The Synergistic stage involves an understanding of an individual's own and other cultures. The knowledge that cultural differences can be beneficial. When I travelled to Japan I studied some elements of Japanese culture, such as language, history, music, media, traditions, law, customs and food. While I was there I was respectful of cultural differences. My cultural awareness allowed me to enjoy and experience many of the things I had studied. I lived with a Japanese family, attended a traditional Geisha tea ceremony and visited ancient temples. I was in the Synergistic stage as I did not fully understand the differences in our culture, but I had cultural awareness and respect. The experience allowed me to build cultural intelligence. The fourth and final stage is the Participatory Third culture stage. This stage brings together individuals from different cultures and the diversity of knowledge creates new skills and ideas.

Cultural intelligence can be defined as recognising behaviours that are influenced by culture and using this knowledge to adapt when interacting with others. Cultural intelligence includes applying cultural awareness when adjusting to foreign situations or outside of one’s comfort zone. An example of cultural intelligence I experienced involved how people act differently in groups according to their culture. My mother is part Indigenous and when we have Indigenous relatives visiting I can see my family adapts to communication in Indigenous culture. The language used is slang and the tone is different. Body language changes with facial, hand and body expressions being more exaggerated when talking and listening.

The awareness that culture affects an individual's perception of reality and the behaviour of others can be used to build cultural intelligence. When cultural awareness is applied to foreign social situations an individual’s personal judgements are suspended. They get to understand why people are doing something without bias. If an individual does not have cultural awareness they are ignorant of the impact of cultural differences. This can be problematic when the individual is placed out of their social or cultural comfort zone often resulting in conflict, reinforcing discrimination and stereotypes. When I worked at McDonald's there was a strong Filipino culture present a majority of the kitchen and managers were Filipino. At the time I was 18 and I became promoted to the duty manager. I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to develop my leadership and organisational skills. When I stepped into the role I encountered some conflict that I can see now is linked to a lack of cultural awareness. Many of the Filipinos working with me was old enough to be my parents and were in roles underneath me. The regional manager would often visit and encourage me to be confident in instructing my co-workers. However, when I had to assign the older Filipinos tasks I was treated with disrespect. At the time I did not care to understand what reason they had behind disrespecting my instructions. I thought I was doing my job. Growing up influenced by authoritarian schooling I felt like it was a part of my role as a manager to ensure my team carried out my instructions and this resistance made me uncomfortable. It was culturally inappropriate for someone so young to be instructing the older people and for this they resented me. If I had better cultural awareness I would have found these interactions less intimidating and personal.


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