In the preceding article, we covered the six dimensions of culture according to Geert Hofstede, and explored the consequences that these dimensions may have on people’s cultural attitudes. In this article, we explore some more practical ways to uncover cultural assumptions through good communication.
Sociology theory is all well and good, but how can we apply this to interactions in our communities? Is it possible to apply Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory to real-life interactions in community projects?
Behavioral psychologists have described a cognitive bias called actor/observer asymmetry. Put simply, when we are talking to other people, we assume that they have all of the information that we have, and also assume that they know all of the things that we do not know. This can lead to situations where two people are getting angry with each other, because the positions they hold do not make sense, given the information that the other person has, but has not shared. If you’re lucky, these conversations end up with "why didn’t you say so?"
To improve community relations across cultural boundaries, the first step is to check your own assumptions at the door. All too frequently, we assume that other people see the world in the same way that we do. But as we have seen, people’s motivations, priorities, and fundamental values change from one place to another. It is important to understand when you are, for example, from a culture that is suspicious of excessive regulation, with liberal social norms, a strong sense of personal responsibility, and where ideas are adopted in a confrontational environment, others may not share some of those values, and may, in fact, take offense if you apply your value system to interactions with them.
The second step is to improve the way you communicate with other people in the community, and approach interactions as an opportunity to understand what makes other people tick. The Harvard Negotiation Project, founded in the 1970s by a collection of people from different disciplines including business, politics, psychology, and sociology, gives a lot of good advice and tools for these kinds of interpersonal communications. The best known book from the project, "Getting to Yes," describes how to negotiate win-win agreements without giving in. A key component of these negotiations is improving communication between parties.
The book describes how there are four types of interpersonal communication: inquiry (asking questions to discover new information), paraphrasal (repeating information in your own words to ensure you understood correctly), acknowledgement (letting the other person know that you understand how they feel, and why they are holding their position), and affirmation (stating your own position on a topic).
In most conversations, there is a disproportionate amount of affirmation, with people holding incompatible positions, and arguing over them until one person gives in. When you improve your communication style, it is possible to understand the frame of reference of the other person, and understand why they hold the position they do. Once you understand the fundamental interests at play, it is possible to find other options that satisfy everyone’s constraints, resulting in a better solution where everybody wins.
Fundamental to all of this is empathic listening or active listening—when you ask a question, you take the time not just to hear the words of the answer, but to understand whether there are other layers underneath that need to be peeled back. You are looking for understanding, not victory.
Active listening means paying attention during conversations. All too often, we are looking for an opportunity to state our opinion, rather than listening to what the person we are talking to is saying. By doing so, we miss opportunities to learn about the feelings and motivations of the person we are speaking to. An active listener is looking for opportunities to learn more about the person they are speaking to.
Applying this to community interactions, this allows you to understand fundamental values and interests, and how they may be at odds with the cultural norms of your project. Conversely, as a new participant, asking better questions can allow you to understand the cultural values of the community better, and give you an opportunity to propose changes from the frame of reference of the maintainers of the project.
This is not an easy change—it is not a switch that you can flip for an entire project, it is a set of skills that individuals in your community can improve over time. But there are a few practical things that you can put in place, which are easy to implement, and which will get you on the path to greater cultural awareness.
In the next article, we get even more practical, and talk about some things that you can put in place in communities to build bridges between cultures in your community.