About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Importance of Culture

One area that has been missing in the discussion of Work Literacy is the ability to adapt to different cultures.

Defining Culture
I feel it is important to begin by defining what I mean by culture. In the US, we tend to use a narrow definition of culture as something that is: a) foreign (different than our own US culture), b) uniform (everyone within a culture thinks the same and a person belongs to "a" culture), and c) identified through rituals and artifacts (rather than differences in values and beliefs, communication styles, or ways of thinking).

I use a much broader definition. I believe: a) a person can belong to and move through multiple cultures depending on the circumstance, b) is defined fundamentally by shared values and beliefs, c) can be manifested in multiple ways within the same culture including different ways of communicating, thinking, dress, behavior, etc..., d) is difficult to identify members for those outside the culture, e) is a complex system difficult to categorize with members not even able to articulate.

Given this definition, an individual might have simultaneous cultural forces affecting him or her in any given situation.

How does this affect work literacy?
We often make assumptions about work, processes, information, other people, based on our cultures. As a result, when working with new people, in a new situation, on new tasks, our preferences and assumptions will affect how we work, what information we feel is relevant, and the way we interact.

I find that I am able to change with the culture in which I am immersed, while still able to maintain my core self. This ability to move in and out of cultures requires me to identify the values of the culture within which I am working (e.g. working within a conservative business culture such as banking and insurance will be different than working in a creative business environment such as marketing or a Non-profit arts organization). I then need to know how to adopt my own values and preferences to the new culture. This does not mean compromising my own values, but rather understanding the values in which I am working (or living) and dealing with them so I don't lose myself or insult those within the new culture. It also requires good observation, negotiation, listening, and questioning/interviewing skills.

I am hoping as I delve deeper into my dissertation, that I will be able to dissect what skills allow some to move in and out of cultures yet paralyze others from working within a different culture.


Christine Martell said...

I do believe many discussions of work literacy omit aspects of culture that are just going to become more and more important.

I am curious about "I then need to know how to adopt my own values and preferences to the new culture."

Are you adapting your values? Or your communication style?

V Yonkers said...

Perhaps it would be better to say that I am able to understand the basis on which people do things and I am able to pick and choose those "values" I am willing to compromise on (perhaps testing them out, etc...) and those I can't compromise on.

For example, in the US I would be uncomfortable hiring someone as a "servant". More likely, I would perceive them as being someone that is doing work for me (an employee) that has equal status as myself. This is definitely an American value. Because of this, it was difficult for me to have a "servant" when I lived in Costa Rica. In fact, this was true with many of our staff that worked on projects in third world countries.

However, "servants" have a different standing than our impression in the US. As an employer, I had a lot more of a responsibility towards those people that cleaned house, or in the case of some of our employees, that were caretakers of the house, gardeners, and cooks. In fact, these professions had much greater status in terms of work and there was more of a "familiar" relationship with these workers than just "employees". We had people tell us on our projects that our staff was expected to have servants or there would be resentment from the locals (as this was one way to spread the wealth). This requires a change in values especially for the context. This does not mean I have the same values in the US, but rather, given the circumstances, I can accept and understand the role of servants within another culture. This goes beyond "communication style".