Building a Framework for Understanding Cultural Differences

by Caryn E. Lindsay

With a diverse background of experiences from around the world, Caryn has been Director of International Programs since 2005. She has worked internationally for the U.S. Information Agency and for the State Department in Washington, D.C. and New York City. One of her most valued experiences was volunteering for a year with a women’s center in Prishtina, Kosovo. Caryn has lived in Germany, Chile, and Italy and has been fortunate to visit Australia, China, Ghana, Scotland, New Zealand and many European countries. She speaks German, Spanish and Albanian and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota.

Caryn Lindsay

In the Honors Seminar “Becoming Global Citizens,” I attempt to share with students the things I wish I had known before studying and working abroad. It would have saved me some significant stress. Like the students, I love learning from people around the world, but enthusiasm is not enough. If we engage deeply with people with backgrounds different from our own, it can often lead to miscommunication and frustration. Why are “they” always late for appointments? Why do “they” talk so loudly — are they angry? Why won’t people offer me a ride home when they know I don’t have a car?  In short, why are “they” not acting as I expect?

Using Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, we are building a framework for understanding why behaviors differ and how we might step back, take a breath, and analyze the cultural differences at play in many of our interactions. I hope that the students will find the framework to be a valuable tool as they grow and develop in their academic and professional careers.

Having formed a common basis for understanding during our first few sessions, cross-cultural groups of three students are now beginning to work on a presentation. Each group has selected one of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) study’s regional clusters. They will be responsible for creatively conveying the cultural characteristics of their cluster to their fellow students and applying the knowledge gained in the first sessions. The final project will then be to reflect upon the challenges and successes they had working toward a common goal in cross-cultural teams. I have designed this activity to replicate the teamwork within a multicultural environment that students can expect to encounter in graduate school and in their professions. Students will have an opportunity to practice working across cultures and then reflect upon the challenges this can bring. I hope that the students will develop the habit of reflecting on their interactions as they continue to improve their cultural competence. The students are engaging and interesting. I can only hope they are half as impressed with me as I am with them!

References 

Hofstede, G.H. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work – Related Values.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1980 (revised and expanded in 2001).

House R.J. et al.(eds.), Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.

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