StoFigu 08-06-83  

Figuring Foreigners Out

A Practical Guide


Craig Storti

InterCultural Press, 1999, 167 pp., ISBN  1-877864-70-6



Craig Storti, Peace Corps veteran and trainer, directs Craig Storti and Associates, a cross-cultural training firm.  This is an introductory practical workbook for understanding and relating to people of different cultures.  The exercises include attempting to understand sets of statements, dialogues, and scenarios that represent cultural differences.  What you learn from this workbook will be determined in large measure by what you already know. (161)


This book deals with the ways in which a person from one culture thinks and behaves differently from a person from another culture.  (5) 


"Culture is the shared assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people which result in characteristic behaviors." (5)


"When the people attaching meaning to a behavior are from the same culture, they are likely to attach the same meaning, resulting in successful communication."  "Different people assigning different meanings to the same behavior, is at the heart of most cross-cultural misunderstanding." (10)


"The wiser course in any cross-cultural situation is to suspend interpretation or judgment, suspend the assigning of meaning until you can find out what any given behavior might signify in the other person's culture." (14)


"Each of us is like everybody else in some ways (universal behaviors), like the people in our culture in some other ways (cultural behaviors), and like no one else at all in still other ways (personal behaviors)." (16)


The four building blocks of culture are

·        Concept of self--individualist and collectivist

·        Personal versus societal responsibility--universalist and particularist

·        Concept of time--monochronic and polychronic

·        Locus of control--internal and external.  (19)


In this workbook a "dialogue" is a short conversation between speakers from two different cultures which illustrates a particular cultural difference.  (20)


"Individualist: The smallest unit of survival is the individual.  People identify primarily with self, and the needs of the individual are satisfied before those of the group."


"Collectivist: The primary group, usually the immediate family, is the smallest unit of survival.  One's identity is in large part a function of one's membership and role in the group (e.g., the family, the work team)."  "Harmony and the interdependence of group members are stressed and valued."  (25-6)


"Universalists tend to feel that right is right, regardless of circumstances, while particularists tend to feel that circumstances (the person in trouble here is a friend) must be taken into account." (37)


"Universalism: There are certain absolutes that apply across the board, regardless of circumstances or the particular situation."  (38)


"Particularism: How you behave in a given situation depends on the circumstances.  What is right in one situation may not be right in another.  You treat family, friends, and your ingroups the best you can, and you let the rest of the world take care of itself."  "There will always be exceptions made for certain people. (38)


"Monochronic: Time is a commodity; it is quantifiable and there is a limited amount of it.  Therefore, it is necessary to use time wisely and not waste it."  "Interruptions are a nuisance."


"Polychronic: Time is limitless and not quantifiable.  There is always more time, and people are never too busy."  "Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as an interruption." (55)


"Danish punctuality would result in hypertension in Greece." (55, quoting Max Messmer in Staffing Europe)


"Internal: The locus of control is largely internal, within the individual.  There are very few givens in life, few things or circumstances which have to be accepted as they are and cannot be changed."  Life is what you do: hence, these represent more activist cultures."


"External: The locus of control is largely external to the individual.  Some things in life are predetermined, built into the nature of things.  There are limits beyond which one cannot go and certain givens that cannot be changed and must be accepted." (68) 


"In the end, whether the message you send is the one that gets received and whether the message you receive is the one that was sent are no longer foregone conclusions." (87)


"The dimension of communication on which cultures differ the most and the one affecting more aspects of the communication dynamic is the matter of directness.  The differences between the two poles of this dimension, directness and indirectness, probably account for more cross-cultural misunderstanding than any other singe factor."  (91) 


"Indirect/High Context: People in these cultures tend to infer, suggest, and imply rather than say things directly."  "Members have an intuitive understanding of each other, in part because of shared experiences.  This means that as a rule people don't need to spell things out or say very much to get their message across.  …nonverbal communication may be enough, or the message may be expressed in terms of what is not said or done.  The goal of most communication exchanges is preserving and strengthening the relationship with the other person."  (91)


"Direct/Low Context:  People lead more independent lives and have fewer shared experiences; hence, there is less instinctive understanding of others.  People need to spell things out and be more explicit, to say exactly what they mean rather than merely suggest or imply.  The spoken word carries most of the meaning…." (92)   


"People in all cultures, whether high- or low-context, rely heavily on various nonverbal behaviors to send messages….  The problem in cross-cultural circumstances is that people from different cultures sometimes assign different meanings to the same behavior." (116)


Some behaviors have the same meaning in both cultures.  Some have different meanings.  And some have a meaning in one culture and no meaning at all in the other.  The sender may communicate a message without meaning to and without realizing it! (117)


"Whenever you find a yes/no question tossed back at you, there's a good chance…that the other person doesn't want to answer the question.  And when someone is afraid of answering a question, it's usually because he or she wants to avoid saying no and disappointing you."  (126)


Power distance is how cultures deal with distinctions between people in their access to power and their level of status.  "In its most conspicuous manifestation, it determines the proper role of managers and subordinates and the nature of their interactions."  (130)


"High Power Distance: These cultures accept that inequalities in power and status are natural or existential.  People accept that some among them will have more power and influence than others in the same way they accept that some people are taller than others.  Those with power tend to emphasize it, to hold it close and not delegate or share it, and to distinguish themselves as much as possible from those who do not have power.  They are, however, expected to accept the responsibilities that go with power, especially that of looking after those beneath them.  Subordinates are not expected to take initiative and are closely supervised." 


"Low Power Distance: People in these cultures see inequalities in power and status as man-made and largely artificial….  Subordinates are rewarded for taking initiative and do not like close supervision." (131)


"Attitude toward uncertainty refers to how a culture feels about change and tradition and about what is new and different.  It also examines cultural attitudes toward taking risks and failing." (135)


The cross-cultural perspective "is the ability to interpret the behaviors of other people not from your own point of view, but from theirs." (153)


"It's always safer in any kind of cross-cultural situation to describe behavior than to interpret it, at least initially.  Interpreting behavior, after all, involves assigning meaning, and the meaning you assign to a behavior is bound to be one taken from your own culture--which won't necessarily help you very much if the person exhibiting the behavior comes from a different culture."  (154)


Cultural awareness comes in four stages:

1.      Unconscious Incompetence (blissful ignorance)

2.      Conscious Incompetence (troubling ignorance)

3.      Conscious Competence (deliberate sensitivity

4.      Unconscious Competence (spontaneous sensitivity)



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