Intercultural Competence Training: Values and Beliefs - 4 Dimensions February 03 2015, 0 Comments

by Erich Toll

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Anyone who doubts that intercultural training is an essential part of business and the workplace, need look no further than current articles in mainstream publications, from the Harvard Business Review to Entrepreneur Magazine.

And a key facet of an intercultural competence training program is values and beliefs. As people differ on the outside – from appearances to languages – they also differ within, with diverse beliefs and ways of looking at the world.

Here are 4 essential cultural differences in values and beliefs:

1. Fate: A key difference is the concept of fate. Do we control events or do events control us? Are events a function of internal forces and self-determination or of external factors and luck?

In the West there's a strong belief that individuals control their destinies and influence the course of events. They predict the weather, set goals and plan the future.

But in Latin America and the Middle East, many people believe they have little control over events or circumstances, which has a strong impact on cultural perceptions of time. For example, Arabs can be nonchalant about appointments. If they fail to show up, it simply wasn't meant to be.

2. Environment: Another difference is how a culture views its relationship with the environment. In some societies - in particular the United States - there's a strong belief that people are masters of nature. They take the environment and shape it to meet their needs.

In contrast, many Asian cultures traditionally placed more emphasis on harmony - people sought to exist peacefully with the environment.

3. Rules and Laws: Another key difference is how cultures view rules and laws. In Germanic countries, the United Kingdom and the United States, rules are intended to apply uniformly to all parties in all situations.

But in many cultures, the emphasis is on circumventing laws. Latin Americans often focus on exceptions to the rule. One example is the Brazilian concept of jeitinho, or taking pride in getting around an obstacle.

These differences also are reflected in legal systems. Under western common law, something is usually legal unless prohibited by law. But under Napoleonic code common in Latin states, an act is often illegal unless permitted by law.

4. Cognitive Styles: Another facet of intercultural competence is differing cognitive styles or ways of thinking. In North America and Northern Europe, the emphasis is on inductive thinking: people focus first on facts and specifics, and then use this information to build general conclusions.

In contrast, in Latin cultures the tendency is deductive thought: people start with general principles, and then use these to analyze the details of a specific situation.

This can affect the management of multicultural teams. For example, a German will want to use details to build the framework of the partnership. In contrast, the French counterpart will want to first emphasize the framework, and then move to details.

A related issue is whether people focus on the parts of the whole, or the whole of the parts, the forest or the trees. In the United States, people tend to look at the parts. In contrast, the Japanese are likely to take a holistic view.

Thus in a meeting, Americans will want a point-by-point agenda. The Japanese, in contrast, are likely to prefer simultaneous discussion of all issues.

Conclusion: the world is full of different beliefs and viewpoints. Here are the key points:

  • some people believe they control events, others believe events control them
  • societies differ in their attitude toward rules and laws, some rigid, others flexible
  • there are different cognitive styles, including whether the focus is on the whole or the parts

For more information, view the video Cross Cultural Understanding (part 2, 11:03)

What did I miss? Please leave your comments or additional tips below.