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“Culture distance” difference is often cited as a reason for misunderstanding or tension in the workplace, where so many people of different backgrounds come together. This often masks other issues, which are not to do with culture at all and more to do with interpersonal differences.

I think it is useful to look at what we mean by culture in different ways. The most common is what can be called Culture with a capital “C”, which relates to where people are from and which is often equated with nationality or a way of life, influenced by tradition, beliefs, customs and language, embodied in institutions of socialisation, such as Education, and expressed through cultural products such as music, literature, cuisine, sport and so on. We must also remember that there are universal features about the way we live as humans in different societies. All human civilisations, for example, have similar approaches to rituals and celebrations, such as birth, marriage, coming of age, food and so on. Differences are only in format, rather than substance. Where we grow up is very much a part of our sense of belonging and can include the big influences on our life, coming from political, economic and social realities. Here it is common for people to focus on essential and irreconcilable differences determined by cultural background, but it is a very superficial way of viewing who we are.

There is also an individual level of cultural identity, influenced by a person’s unique cultural trajectory through life and influenced by their upbringing and experiences. A person’s gender, our age, our interests or preferences and the way we develop as a person are all key aspects of our identity. This is also influenced by the social groups that we belong to – our family, our friends, our peers and so on – all of which gathers to impact on how we present ourselves to others at any point in time. Recognising this is to acknowledge that not everyone is the same, even if they have a shared background.

Culture, though, is also created on an interactive level and can be seen in how we belong to and influence specific groups or organisations through communication, social behaviour and the different roles that we fulfil in society – at work, for example - and how we negotiate through common intercultural processes what is acceptable and how things are done in a given group as social beings. Clearly, in this space there are also constructs of hierarchy and differences of authority and these can have a bearing on the way we behave and interact with others. This is the real cross-cultural arena and when things don’t go well, we often draw on our perceptions or stereotypes of other people’s background and social role or identity to explain and, possibly, judge their behaviour. This “otherisation” can be the precursor to intolerance, racism, sexism or “culturism” and can drive us back into a familiar monocultural or nationalistic mindset that shuns difference and fosters conflict.

I think that we need to accept and celebrate diversity as much as possible, as it can bring creativity and inspiration if handled in a positive and open way. Culture is dynamic, re-created every day. New challenges emerge and societies and individuals evolve through time. We should embrace the complexity of individual difference and everyday situations, rather than simplistically condemning cultural origins as a reason for misunderstanding.

(Dr Frank Fitzpatrick – Internal Academic advisor on the British Council Intercultural Fluency programme)