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Whose ‘culture' is it anyway?

How have advances in crosscultural training and theory informed our understanding of ‘culture’? Robert Johnson considers the limits of this ‘fuzzy concept’

How do you define culture? What is it for you personally, and how does it affect you in your everyday work? Is it food and festivities, getting out your kimono or Dirndl, waving a flag? Is it the customs and conventions you follow, mostly because that’s what everyone else around you is doing, like queuing at the bus stop or rubbing noses? Or is it something deeper: values, beliefs and worldview, our cognitive DNA? If you are involved in the field of translation and interpretation, you are dealing with ‘culture’ constantly, and also intuitively. It is something we work with as a matter of course.

Culture is a fuzzy concept, but a useful catch-all term for describing everything that we create in our society, including our relationships. As a self-appointed interculturalist, I spend my time at the coalface of culture, designing and delivering training programmes for those involved in relocating to a new culture or working in multicultural teams. My focus in this article is on culture and how our starting point can have a significant impact on where we end up. Do we race to categorise in order to reduce uncertainty? Or do we open ourselves to the plurality of perspectives that emerge from our interactions with others?

Some choose to adopt an exclusive idea of culture, of ‘us versus them’, of loosely concealed colonialist attitudes and ethnocentric, nationalistic, protectionist posturing (how else to explain Donald Trump’s recent description of certain African nations as “shithole countries”). Others mistake international exposure or extensive vacation time in foreign climes (which could even extend to years) for an automatic qualification in intercultural sensitivity. Unfortunately, the greatest barriers to developing genuine intercultural competence are arrogance and complacency: we live in a global village, so everyone does things in the same way (which just happens to be my way), right?

Unfortunately, the tendency to cling to easy generalisations (or stereotypes) is strong: the Germans demand punctuality and require precision; the Chinese are highly sensitive to ‘face’; the British are masters of irony and vagueness. These statements are ostensibly true, but clearly, on a one-to-one basis, they are problematic. Not all German or Chinese people are like that. And the British? Don’t know what you’re talking about, old chap. So where do the stereotypes stop and the fair cultural generalisations begin? 

Over 20 years, our understanding of the concept of culture has evolved. This is not purely an academic debate, but a reflection of creeping globalisation, of the opening up of borders and opportunities. Geert Hofstede coined the term ‘collective programming of the mind’ in the 1980s,1 and many have leapt on his model to engage in categorising other cultures (nation states) as ‘individualistic’ or ‘hierarchical’ or ‘feminine’ in nature. The intercultural training field has used such frameworks extensively, but there is growing dissatisfaction with the paradigm, and a grudging acceptance that overgeneralising and reducing cultures to static values can be divisive and counterproductive.

Fluid, complex and dynamic

There is more interest, these days, in a different kind of ‘programming of the mind’. Advances in neuroscience are beginning to offer useful insights into the functioning of the human brain. The greatest lesson we can take from the political turmoil of the last couple of years is that we are not purely rational beings; we act and react, and judge and even vote based on highly subjective impressions that may change from one moment to the next.

The work of Daniel Kahnemann has highlighted how we have different modes of thinking,2 and many other writers have described the range of unconscious biases that bend and shape our cognition of the world around us. We have a view of ourselves, but this may not be ‘accurate’ in any objective sense. In some ways, we are in denial about our own human fallibility. We overestimate our abilities, our popularity, or just how much other people are aware of us. We underestimate the extent to which we can be gripped by basic emotions, such as ‘fight or flight’, even in innocuous situations like business meetings. And we often assume that values are constant and linear, when in fact they are shifting all the time.

Instead of having fixed ideas about culture, of desperately seeking to satisfy a need for certainty in a volatile world, we need to regard – no, to feel culture as something fluid and dynamic, which emerges from a context and a reason for contact. In place of simplicity, we need to embrace complexity.

New solutions

In the intercultural field, the emphasis has moved from communication to values and back again. We have been dealing with ignorance and close-mindedness sincerely and earnestly, but not effectively, because our solutions have only encouraged people to remain distant from each other.

The author Ben Okri recently wrote, “Of all the qualities, the one I most value in the citizen is not political savvy, or high education, but awareness. Everything else can be bought or smothered or diverted or confused, but awareness asks questions of the world. There are many with excellent education who see the conditions of the world but then rationalise them. Awareness sees them as they are.”3 This is not merely awareness as a tool for gaining advantage over others. As interculturalists, we need to go one step further, encouraging a deeper consciousness of our own identity and how we are part of a living system, whether it be a multicultural city, a community of practice or the entire ecology around us.

Let us call it human conductivity, defined as the degree of openness we can establish and maintain between the people we come into contact with in our daily lives. We need to increase the bandwidth of the communication we have with others: imagine a very narrow connection where one person sends many signals but only a few get through to the other person; now imagine a much wider channel where two-way communication is enabled and we can sense a much deeper connection between two souls. Which would you choose: fibre optics or ‘good old’ copper filament?

In any conflict situation, whether it is an argument with your partner about whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, or a decades-long territorial dispute between two rival nations, we can see that there is a breakdown in communication and an unwillingness to ‘receive’ the true message from the other side.

Even the most cursory glance at the current state of the world – from politics, civil society and business to education, entertainment and the environment – shows us how destructive behaviour can lead to a marked deterioration in our ability to create a fair and equitable society for all members, and how important it is to maintain a constant guard against our worst habits of prejudice and self-interest.

We need to create a safe space, or invite others to facilitate this. Of course, in conflict, this is the problem; getting people to sit together in the same room and look each other in the eye can be a tortuous process. For me, that brings us back to the question of defining culture. It is a mutual statement of what we share at a given moment in time. It is often a matter of priorities, both conscious and unconscious: in this situation, my priority may be different to yours, because of who I am, who you are, what we are doing, how I am feeling, the relationship that exists between us, who else is in the room, and even the time of day or the weather outside.

In conclusion, I would say, if you have an interest in the meaning of culture, the way we interact with others, how we are influenced by our inner predilections and our environment to act in certain ways, then you are an interculturalist. Welcome to the club.

What do you think about these issues? How do you negotiate culture and identity in your work? Robert Johnson will answer readers’ queries about culture and the practical application of intercultural awareness in a subsequent issue of The Linguist; please send your comments to



1 Hofstede, G (2001) Culture’s Consequences. Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations (2nd ed). London: Sage
2 Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books
3 Okri, B (2018) ‘How to Combat the Populism that Gave us Brexit? Active citizenship’. In The Guardian, 30/1/18

Robert Johnson is Senior Lecturer in Intercultural Communication at Regent’s University London. The former President of SIETAR UK (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research), he now works as an intercultural trainer for business.