This diary consists of six entries which record my thoughts and reactions to six topics introduced in the module Cultural Differences and People Management. The six topics are The meanings of ‘Culture’, Cultural differences and the importance of lived experiences: ‘The tribe’ by Bruce Parry, The process of cultural adjustment, Models of cultures and Vietnamese culture, Communication in Chinese Culture, and Cultural differences in teams. Some of my personal observations and experiences that relate to each topic are also included in each entry. The conclusion contains reflections on my learning experiences on the module.
Entry 1 – The meanings of ‘Culture’
One of the objectives of the first lecture of the module Cultural differences and People management that I attended today is to define ‘Culture’. To my surprise, defining ‘culture’ is no easy task. Hundreds of definitions have been put forward but none has been widely approved by most researchers. Browaeys and Price (2008) cited in French (2009) stated that ‘culture’ is such a complex concept that no definition can adequately cover all of its aspects. Culture is a ‘multifaceted’ concept due to its reciprocal relationships with a number of factors such as values/shared meanings, political/economic system, religion/philosophical beliefs, economic prosperity, language and education system (French, 2009, p19). Existing definitions often emphasize on parts of the concept (ibid). One approach to define the concept is through values, attitudes and behaviors. Under this approach, the definition of Hofstede (2001) has been the most popular among scholars. He defined ‘culture’ as ‘the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another’ (quoted in French, 2009, p.22). According to Mead (2005), there are three implications from Hofstede’s view.
Firstly, culture is unique to one group of people but not others. Therefore, the culture of China is different from that of the USA or Portugal. Secondly, culture is learned through a process in which values are passed down from one generation to the next. They can be learned by individuals from sources such as their family, friends, schools, media and religious organizations. Thirdly, culture consists of a set of values that describe the right way for individuals to behave. For example, Chinese culture values humbleness and face. Thus, when Chinese students obtain achievements, they attribute their success to the instructions of their teachers and helps from their friends. By this, they both express themselves as humble and give faces to their teachers and classmates. French (2009) concluded that the conceptualization of culture is due to the close link of culture with values and attitudes which are first learned and then exhibited by members of a group.
Another approach is to define culture by context and communication. This approach is based on the links between culture and communication. According to French (2009), values are communicated to group members either unconsciously via their gradual acceptance of the culture or consciously from agencies such as the education systems. Moreover, the use of language both reflects cultural values and affects meanings transmitted. Via communication, differences between cultures become explicit. In addition, the existence of a culture depends on the level of communication between its members. Hall (1976) defined the concept as ‘Culture is communication and communication is culture’ (quoted in French, 2009, p.25). I first came across the academic definition of the concept when taking the module International Business last semester. In the textbook, culture is defined as ‘a system of values and norms that are shared among a group of people and that when taken together constitute a design for living’ (Hill, 2009, p.89). Before the lecture, I had thought that it was the only approach – through values and norms to delineate the concept but I have changed my mind now. ‘Culture’ can be defined in different ways. Entry 2 – Cultural differences and the importance of lived experiences: ‘The tribe’ by Bruce Parry In the second lecture, a documentary video about the culture of Penan people in Malaysia was shown.
Bruce Parry (the reporter) spent several months living amongst the Penan. He spoke to them in their language and took part in their daily life activities. In the seminar right after the lecture, the teacher instructed us to discuss questions related to the video. One of the questions asked if we agreed with Bruce Parry’s view that ‘to understand a culture you need to live amongst it – to become, for a while, one of the tribe’. Some of my classmates disagreed with the statement and argued that a culture could be understood by watching videos like the one shown in the lecture or reading books or magazines. Living amongst a culture was not necessary. However, like the rest of the class, I agreed with Bruce Parry. By watching and reading, people can observe the culture and know certain aspects of its. However, by integrating their mind and body into the culture, they not only know it but can recognize and feel the implicit part of the ‘cultural iceberg’, which enables them to have a more comprehensive understanding.
The ‘cultural iceberg model’ has two parts. The explicit part comprises of cultural aspects that can easily be observed such as customs, traditions, ways of life, language, and food. The tacit part consists of aspects that are not easy to recognize such as attitude, values, belief, presumption, and way of thinking. For example, if Bruce had not lived with the Penans, he would not have known that although they raise animals, they never kill their domesticated animals even when they ran out of food. Nor would he have known that the Penans believe that life is transparent so there are no doors or windows in their house. For me, if I had not come to live and study in the UK, I would not realize that British elders do not receive much care and respect from the young. On the tube, the elders may have to stand while the young are sitting.
Once I talked to an old British man I met on my way to the supermarket, he said that when the elders cannot take care of themselves anymore, their children will send them to nursery home and visit them every weekend. This question reminds me that I am now in living in a new culture and I need to integrate myself more in order to understand it. It would be a shame if I come back to Vietnam and understand little about the UK culture after nearly one year. Entry 3 – The process of cultural adjustment
According to Schneider and Barsoux (2003), the cultural adjustment process can be described as a U curve consisting of three phases. The initial stage is the stage of elation and optimism (honeymoon) where people are eager to get to know the new culture. It is soon followed by the stage of frustration and confusion (Morning After) where they recognize the differences of their original culture and the new one. In the last stage, expatriates will gradually adjust themselves to the new culture. Cultural adjustment process is an interesting, useful and practical topic to me. It makes me feel like sitting down and looking back to the date when I first came to the UK about six months ago. I remember before coming to the UK to study, I looked forward to experiencing the life of an international students and studying in the western teaching style. When I got here, I was so excited to practice speaking English and make friends students from different nations on the campus.
I spent time discovering Harrow campus, attending workshops held by the university. I tried to integrate as much as I can. A few weeks later, I found myself confused and frustrated with a lot of things here. In Vietnam, lectures and seminars often last longer than in the UK, 2.5 hours for each lecture and seminar in Vietnam versus 1 hour per lecture and 1.5 hour per seminar. During seminars, tutors in Vietnam always spend most of the time revising and summarizing the reading materials for students before correcting exercises. However, my International business tutor gave me the impression that he just came to listen to presentations which lasted for 15 minutes and then asked if we had any questions. If there were no questions, we were free to go.
This made me feel that I learned nothing from the seminars. Another thing I found quite uncomfortable was the way students here address and speak to lecturers and tutors. In Vietnam, students have to show respect to their teachers so we never address our teachers without titles ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ I felt quite uncomfortable with the way students in the UK speak to the teachers. It took me a month or so to get rid of that feeling and adapt to the new way. When doing group works with students from other countries, at first I felt lost because many times I could not catch their words and understand what they were talking about but now I have been more familiar with different accents. The topic enables me to better understand myself and how I have been through for the past six months better. I think I am now in the middle of phase 2 and phase 3. Entry 4 – Models of cultures and Vietnamese culture
Lecture 3 and 4 introduced some cultural models that help explain differences between cultures. I will describe some examples illustrating how Vietnamese culture is different from other cultures. Then I will show how dimensions in models of Hofstede and Trompenaars elucidate the differences. There is an entertainment show in Vietnam named “Chat with foreigners”, which invites foreign people who are living in my country and able to speak Vietnamese to openly express their ideas about Vietnam on various topics and share how similar or different things are in their countries. Once, the MC asked the guests to talk about the thing they were most impressed with while living and working in Vietnam. A US guest said that he was most impressed with the power of relationships. He told a story happened when he first came to establish the subsidiary in Hanoi.
At that time his company needed to get approval from a government body on one project. The documents were processed so slowly that the progress of the whole project was threatened. A Vietnamese business partner then suggested his company use service of a consultancy firm which had close relationship with the government body. His company got the approval the next morning. He concluded that in Vietnam having the right relationships helps solve almost everything. The guest also said that in the USA no documents could be processed faster or slower than regulated. This difference can be explained by the dimension universalism versus particularism in Trompenaars’ model. Vietnam has a particularist culture in which rules and regulations are applied more flexibly and relationships play an important role while the USA has a universalist culture in which rules and regulations are applied to everyone. Another example is that in Vietnam, children when grown up are expected to live with and take care of their parents as a way to return their parents’ favors of giving birth and raising them. When I knew that elders in the UK live alone or live in nursery homes, I was really shocked.
The dimension individualism/collectivism from Hofstede’s model can be used to explain the dissimilarity. Vietnamese culture is a collectivist culture where people are interdependent on each other. Parents raise children and support them even after they have grown up. Their children later take care of them when they get old. Meanwhile, British culture is an individualist culture where people tend to take care of their self interests. Thus, parents look after themselves when they get old. Their children move out of their house at the age of 18 and start to live independently. For me, the more I am able to explain the differences, the easier I accept them. The models of Hofstede, Trompenaars, Hall and other researchers provide me with a basis to explain and convince myself to acknowledge behaviors, beliefs and values that are different from what I am familiar with. Entry 5 – Communication in Chinese Culture
According to Hall (1976), ‘Culture is communication and communication is culture’ (quoted in French, 2009, p.25). In other words, cultures can be understood by styles of communication within societies and vice versa. In this entry, I will examine how Chinese culture influences the way Chinese people communicate. Hall categorized China in high-status societies, where the information surrounding an event crucially affects the meaning of the event. As a high-context culture, indirect communication styles are associated with communication in Chinese culture. Information is communicated through non-verbal as much as verbal language (French, 2009). Implied meanings can be understood by the silence in the conversation, eye contacts or the tone of the speaker. Recently, while I was studying at the library, a Chinese friend of mine came and asked me if I knew how to scan documents. I said yes and told her how to use the scan machine. After giving my instructions, I asked if she understood but she did not say anything and kept looking at me.
At first, I did not understand why she was looking at me like that but about 5 seconds later, I realized that she was not sure about my instructions. Thus, I offered to do the scanning for her so that she could see the steps and do it herself next time. She replied me with a bright smile. Hall’s cultural model indicates that relationship plays an important role in communication in high-status society. In Chinese culture, the factor is affected by some unique elements of the culture such as guanxi, renqing, and face. Guanxi is referred to as ‘webs of interrelatedness’, in which people are linked through intricate relationships with others (French, 2009, p.149). The linkages are created through the exchange of favours between individuals. French (2009) emphasized the effect of guanxi on restricting communication networks in such a way that network insiders can gain access to communication and obtain information that is only available within the network while outsiders may find the other way.
Therefore, the more relationship one has, the more people he/she can communicate with and obtain information from. Renqing, which is closely related with guanxi, suggests that one has duty to return favours of equal or greater value to other members of the guanxi networks if he/she ever receives favours from them before. This principle helps enhance the relationship, and thus, communication between people. Face is regarded as an important aspect in the culture of China. A person is given face when he/she receives respects from other people. A person loses face when his/her pride is damaged. People are expected to keep/give face to others and avoid making others lose face in order to maintain group cohesion and harmony.
Thus, instead of giving direct critical comments, Chinese people use indirect ways that minimize the chances of hurting pride. Chinese culture significantly influences communication styles of Chinese people. The culture demonstrates features that are not only common to other high-context societies but also unique to its own, which make up the exclusive way of communication of Chinese people. Entry 6: Cultural differences in teams
Under the global expansion trend and competitive pressures from competitors, teams which are believed to bring ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ have been established within corporations and are becoming more and more multicultural. As I intend to work for international finance corporations, it is highly likely that I will work in a team whose members are from different cultural background from mine. As a result, understanding the impacts of cultural differences on teams is useful to me. The model of culture by Hofstede has significant application in explaining the ways differences between cultures influence multicultural teams. The power distance dimension helps explain how people reach decisions differently if they do not come from the same culture.
People from high power distance societies tend to make decisions according to rules and opinions of superiors while decisions are made on the basis of participation of team members in low power distance societies. Individualism/ Collectivism dimension contributes to the explanation of the differences in the ways people solve conflicts. Individualist cultures tend to protect and assert their own ideas because they see negotiation as a ‘zero sum’ game whose result is either lose or win (Schneider and Barsoux, 2003, p.236). Meanwhile, collectivist cultures seek mutual gain, build and maintain relationship so they tend to avoid conflict and compromise if needed. Asian cultures such as China, Japan, and Vietnam are classified as collectivist and high power distance societies. The USA and European societies such as the UK are typical examples of individualist and low power distance cultures. Ever since studying in the UK, I have done group works with students from different cultures.
My first experience of working in a multicultural team was in Business strategy, which was a module I took last semester. In the module, groups of three students were formed to manage a simulated company which manufactured digital cameras and compete with other groups in the industry. I was randomly put in a group with two other UK students. We were required to make decisions on marketing, production and human resources strategy for 7 years. Every week we met and made decisions for each year. Among us, Millicent has an excellent critical thinking and analysis skill, so I soon regarded her as group leader. When I work in groups at my university in Vietnam, the leader’s opinions are often the final decisions. Members rarely argue against them. They believe that those decisions are optimal because they are made by the leader who is often the best student.
At first I expected the same decision making process but I was surprised to find that decisions were only made when everyone expressed our own ideas and agreed on the solution of whoever. Any contrasting opinions are welcomed and openly discussed by all members. In the first meeting I was a bit out of track because I was not familiar with the way the two UK girls worked but things got better gradually later. When conflicts arose, often between the two UK girls when we made decision on pricing and promotions, voting was used as a solution. However, twice the two of them were so aggressively protected their ideas that the atmosphere became so tense. I found it unpleasant and uncomfortable and tried to reduce the tension by offering taking a break. Conclusion
By the end of the module, I realize how I have gradually become more aware of cultures and cultural differences around me. The models of cultures presented and the way theory and practice are integrated in the course enable me to better understand and appreciate my culture as well as other cultures. While writing diary entries, I recognized how theories can be applied to explain real life experiences and found that many experiences and observations I recalled were related to cultural differences.
At first, I found the 3000-word diary quite daunting; however, when started writing entries it seemed that the amount allowed was not adequate for me to write about the reflections and experiences that I have had. I particularly like the lectures in which videos are shown. Watching the videos and listening to interviews of real people engaging in the cultural issues made me feel that the theories become more vivid and closer to reality. I think I can learn better from visual materials.