26.08.2020 – Cultural differences: guidance for people working with people from other cultural backgrounds

Culture is an organiser of our social life of a particular kind, but also some kind of glasses, through which we look at the world. Communities and groups cannot exist without culture. That is why each newly established group develops its own standards of conduct (whether it is a group of friends or a group of employees in a newly established company).

Depending on the type of culture, in which we were brought up, we perceive, interpret and evaluate norms, behaviours, objects and people differently. If we live in a society together with people who were brought up in the same culture as us, then we have a sense of living in a safe and friendly environment. If people who have been brought up in other cultures start to appear among us, we start to feel uncomfortable because we notice their otherness and are unable to predict and understand their behaviour.

Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov (2011) distinguish three sources of differences between countries and groups: identity, values and institutions. All three are rooted in the history of the community they define. Identity is the answer to the question “who am I?” – A Pole, a father, a volleyball fan, a lawyer. Identity is based on a sense of community with a certain group. People believe that they belong to a given group when they have elements in common with it, such as language, religion, customs and heroes inscribed in the history of that group. Values define the goals that the members of the group pursue: for some it will be financial success, for others it will be knowledge. The third element is the institutions: laws and regulations, which define the operation of the institutions, but also organisations operating in a country.

Three sources of differences between countries and groups are: identity, values and institutions. Identity is based on a sense of community with a group. Values determine the goals that the members of a group pursue and institutions are the laws and regulations that determine how institutions operate within a country.

When living in the same environment, we are often unaware of how different cultures differ from one another and how they can affect our daily interactions with foreigners and the interaction of foreigners with us. Researchers of culture have come to the conclusion that societies face similar problems, but solve them in different ways – it is in the ways of solving problems that cultural differences become apparent.

Culture is a complex multidimensional system. Some people compare it to an iceberg, because only part of it is visible in everyday life. Many elements of culture remain invisible and unconscious. This is particularly important when dealing with a foreign culture. When we meet them, we only observe the tip of the iceberg: language, art, literature, religion, music, clothing, ways of playing and spending free time. Much of the cultural guidelines that organize human lives remain invisible and unconscious. The cultural guidelines below the borderline of cultural awareness include: ways of dealing with emotions, ways of bringing up children, decision-making processes, ways of defining health and illness, concepts of time and space.

All these factors influence the way we act and perceive and understand the world. Because some of them are unconscious, we take them for granted and do not realize that in other cultures a given issue can be seen in a completely different way. This is particularly apparent when dealing with representatives of other cultures, which we very often judge through the prism of our own culture.

Some researchers compare culture to an iceberg, of which only a small part – the one above water – is visible.

In 2016, “Forbes” published a list of ten most desirable competences on the labour market, including the ability to work in a multicultural environment. The constant inflow of corporations with foreign capital and the progress of globalisation processes make us increasingly often meet people from other countries and cultural circles in Poland. The need to work in culturally diverse groups requires the ability to adapt quickly to new conditions, openness, tolerance, ability to communicate in an international environment or, if necessary, to resolve conflicts.

Working in culturally diverse groups requires the ability to adapt quickly to new conditions, openness and tolerance.

Although travel has become a part of our daily life and it would seem that we are increasingly aware of cultural differences, there are still many problems in intercultural communication. Communication barriers most often result from stereotypes, ethnocentrism, i.e. the tendency to make negative judgements about a foreign culture by referring to the standards of the culture we come from, or misinterpretation of non-verbal messages or simply language, the knowledge of which does not only consist in knowing words but often also the context of expression.

In order to make it possible to find yourself in a multicultural environment, you have to be aware of certain differences. Learning about the culture of another country often requires many years of work. However, when working with people from abroad, it is worth accepting cultural differences and respecting the differences. It should be remembered that what may not always be standard for us in another country will be considered standard. Therefore, it is worth investing time and broadening knowledge about other cultures.

Below are practical tips for working in a multicultural team. What you need to know, what to talk about and avoid.

As we have written before, cultures can be divided according to various criteria. However, above all, stereotypical thinking should be avoided, which can be a huge barrier to intercultural communication. When building relations with an employee from abroad, one should base on one’s own experience and apply an individual approach to each one.

It is also worth considering how important oral agreements are. In some countries, it is primarily what has been written that is respected (this is also the case in Poland, for example). In others it is quite the opposite – verbal agreements are important (e.g. in France). It is worth finding out to what extent in the country of origin of the person with whom the contract is concluded the law is respected: whether e.g. employees obey regulations or the approach is rather “loose”.

It is also worthwhile to keep up to date with what is happening in the country where our colleague comes from. Talking about current events, following (even superficial) news from his country may become a basis for building trust and establishing good relations. A similar task can be fulfilled by talking about the tradition and culture of the country from which our co-worker comes from. It is worth remembering this especially during the holiday season. It will undoubtedly influence our better integration.

It is also worth considering which country the person comes from in terms of time orientation. There are cultures focused on the future, past and present. These forward-looking cultures (such as Russia, Germany, Japan) talk a lot about plans, projects, development, and strive for a specific goal. In order to win their favour, it is important to stress what this cooperation will bring in the future. Cultures that are focused on the present (such as Indians and Mexicans) do not oppose the schedules, but they also rarely implement them, because they make decisions by giving in to current feelings. Past-oriented cultures (like Venezuela or France) tell a lot about the company’s history, they see themselves through the prism of history and tradition.

In case of an interlocutor rather turned to the past, you should:

  • show respect for tradition,
  • provide examples related to past results,
  • show appreciation for the experience of the interlocutor,
  • learn about the history of the country of an interlocutor.

In case of an interlocutor rather turned to the future, you should:

  • show how actions can influence the vision of the future,
  • focus on the positive aspects of change,
  • seek opportunities for improvement,
  • use new vocabulary and terminology.

It is also worth considering whether a person comes from a collectivist or individualistic culture. Representatives of collectivist culture see themselves through the prism of relations with other people (e.g. “I am a brother”, “I am a mother”), and individualistic culture through the prism of their achievements (e.g. “I am a doctor”, “I am a Harvard graduate”). Members of individualistic culture cope better than members of collective culture with public appearances or differences of opinion.

It is also worth knowing that there are contact cultures in which touch and closeness are natural and distance cultures in which the right distance between people talking to each other must be maintained. The classic distance between the interlocutors is so ” at the distance of an arm”, although there are also differences. A small spatial distance is typical for the Arab world, while a large distance is typical for most Asian countries, northern, central and eastern Europe. Eye contact is also important. Intense – is characteristic for the Arab world, Romanesque European and Mediterranean countries. On the other hand, it is constant – in North European and North American countries, moderate – in African countries, Thailand, South Korea, and indirect – in most Asian countries. For example – a Vietnamese will never look his or her interlocutor straight in the eyes (because it is a manifestation of disrespect), but rather will be stuck at the height of the bridge. They give the Vietnamese a reprimand – they will smile gently. This is his way of easing the situation and dealing with stress.

Erin Meyer, author of “The Culture Map” book, arrived at the conclusion, based on her long experience that cultural differences can be reduced to scales in the following areas:

  1. communication (may be of low and high context)
  2. judging – feedback (there may be direct negative feedback and indirect feedback)
  3. persuasion (at first, the rules or, at first, the application)
  4. leadership (egalitarian or hierarchical)
  5. decision making (on a cooperative or prescriptive basis)
  6. trust (this may be task-based or relationship-based)
  7. confrontation (there may be direct or avoid confrontation)
  8. attitude towards time – planning (structured or flexible


1. Communication

In case of communication, contextuality (low or high) is important. Low contextuality means a more precise message, without ambiguity. People from low-context culture say what they think, they do not reach for suggestions, irony, sarcasm in their everyday communication, they do not wrap up in cotton. Often they repeat one sentence in other words several times. The low-context culture is characterised by very direct and open communication. Little attention is paid to body language. It is also important to have a strong attachment to time and to separate work from interpersonal relationships. Countries communicating directly include the USA, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands or Germany. Also for co-workers of such countries as Belarus, Ukraine or Kazakhstan it is better to use direct communication. Employees from these countries are used to straightforward, natural messages. It is worth communicating freely, because an attempt to “beat about the bush” may be treated as insincerity.

In countries with a high communication context, you needs to build on your intuition and experience to understand the interlocutor’s intentions. This is the case in many Asian countries where many of the same words have different meanings depending on the context. Communication is based on careful selection and weighting of the words, directness and the expression of a different opinion are not welcome. It is more about intuition and trust than facts and statistics. Intermediate messages are therefore better suited to communicate with people from China, Japan or Indonesia.

When communicating with people from other cultures, it is important to think about which messages are better – direct or indirect.

When communicating with a person from a low-context country, you should:

  • pay attention to facts – the interlocutors expect concrete information,
  • openly express objections and criticism,
  • make concrete proposals – allusions and understatements may go unnoticed,
  • leave no room for the interpretation of messages,
  • not to conceal inconvenient facts, because openness is more valued than diplomacy.

When communicating with a person from a high context country, you should:

  • pay attention to the style of requests – directness can be read as roughness and lack of culture,
  • pay attention to body language – many messages are transmitted through gestures,
  • use understatements and allusions,
  • express disapproval in a circular way, rather saying “maybe we’ll come back to it again later” than “I disagree”,
  • not present unfavourable facts openly or to a larger group of people.

The Polish style of communication is more or less in the middle with a turn towards a low context and it is much easier for Poles to understand low context cultures. In the case of high context cultures, one has to be aware that in order to understand our interlocutor we have to think more broadly, taking into account his system of values or traditions.

Countries put in order from low cultural context to high context (at the end, there is the end of the scale):

 The United States, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, UK, Finland, Poland, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Singapore, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Iran, Kenya, China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan.

  1. Judging – feedback

Provision of negative feedbacks can take very different forms – from extremely direct communication, such as in the Netherlands, to avoiding such feedbacks in Asian cultures. The Americans, on the other hand, are a very direct nation, but in the case of negative feedbacks they soften the message very much.

Countries put in order from expressing negative feedback directly to expressing it indirectly (end of scale):

Israel, Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Denmark, France, Spain, Sweden, Australia, Italy (mid-scale), United States, Canada, Argentina, The United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, India, China, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan

There is no problem with expressing negative feedback in Israel, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Denmark or France. There is also no problem with criticising others in the company of a boss, teacher or parent and, what is important, nobody is offended for such criticism – they rather appreciate it.

In the USA, halfway through the scale, direct critical feedback is not welcome. That’s where the rule comes from, that when you have to say something unpleasant to someone, use the “sandwich” method – say two positive sentences, one negative and finally one more positive.

In Asian countries, however, negative feedback cannot be expressed directly. You have to be tactful and spread the information over several different meetings, trying to suggest it slowly at intervals. It is important for the Asian people to come out “face to face” with other people. However, a direct negative feedback leads to a “loss of face”, that is a loss of social respect.


  1. Persuasion

The ways of approaching convincing the other party of their reasons, arguing their position can be divided into those based on deduction (drawing logical conclusions from assumptions considered true) and those based on experience (a theory is created based on practical experience).

Countries put in order from those that put the theory first to those that put use first (the last):

Italy, France, Spain, Russia, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, United States.


  1. Leadership

Leadership may be egalitarian or hierarchical. In countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands it is egalitarian. Bosses strive to “be on first name terms with them” and don’t mind the criticism from employees. Bosses there appreciate sincerity and often even want to be treated as ordinary team members. The structure of the organisations is very flat.

However, a hierarchical management style can be found in Asian countries. Those who are higher in the hierarchy must be respected and must not be criticised.

Countries put in order from the most egalitarian to the most hierarchical approaches:

Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Israel, Australia, Finland, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, France, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Japan, Nigeria, Korea.


This approach is similar to the one indicated by Geert Hofstede in the cultural dimension of power distance.

In contact with a representative of culture with a greater power distance it is necessary, e.g:

  • show respect for people with higher status in the hierarchy,
  • not to try to build close, private relations with the superior, unless at their initiative,

In contact with a person with a lesser power distance it is necessary, e.g:

  • involve team to work together,
  • supervisor should focus on inspiring rather than directly controlling and giving direct orders,
  • as a boss, be available to the team and meet on informal occasions,
  • not always wait for instructions from a superior because they may require initiative,
  • not expect immediate respect and obedience as a superior.


  1. Decision making

Kraje różnicuje sposób podejmowania decyzji – od polegającego na współpracy po nakazowe.

Countriesput in order from the most consensual to the most top-down decision makers (end of scale):

Japan, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, France, Brazil, Italy, Russia, India, China, Nigeria.

The style of decision making is not tantamount to the style of leadership – as can be seen from the example of Japanese culture, where despite a strong hierarchy, decisions are made by mutual agreement of all with everyone.

In countries like Japan and Sweden the decision takes a long time to reach, but it is final for all parties. In the case of the United Kingdom or the United States, the situation is different – decisions are made faster, but it is also considered an advantage to be flexible and it is natural to change your mind. In countries where decisions are made by consensus (left side of the scale), analysis of the problem starts very early.


  1. Trust

The ways of building trust are very different – some cultures base them on the results of the work or the performance of tasks. Other trust is based on relationships and direct contacts. Very often we hear “business is business”, but for many cultures “business is personal”. We won’t gain trust in countries like Japan or China if we don’t spend some time together before.

Countries put in order from those based most on task-based trust to those based most on personal relationships:

The United States, Holland, Denmark, Australia, Germany, Finland, the United Kingdom, Poland, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Russia, Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria.

The group of countries where trust is based on competence includes most European countries and the United States. In countries such as Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, for example, it is different. Relationships are often much more important than competences. When building business relations in these countries, one should not ignore joint lunches or integration trips – it is their success that will allow to achieve the best result.


  1. Confrotnation

For many cultures, arguing, having lively discussions and exchanging opinions is natural. For others, on the contrary. This scale is very similar to the scale of feedback, but has some differences. For example, in Sweden, where negative feedback is very direct, discussions tend to avoid confrontation.

Countries put in order from the most confrontational expression of dissent to those that avoid confrontation in every situation.

Israel, France, Germany, Russia, Holland, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Singapore, Sweden, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, India, Kenya, China, Ghana, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan.


  1. Attitude towards time – planning

In monochronic cultures, where time is perceived linearly, punctuality is the basis, according to the maxim “time is money”. Schedules and terms are taken extremely seriously here. In southern countries (polychronic culture), on the other hand, time is subordinate to relationships, and the terms are defined roughly. Delays are practically on the agenda and this is not a problem for anyone.

Countries put in order from those perceiving time linearly to those expressing time flexibly (end of scale):

Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, the United States, the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Poland, France, Spain, Russia, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, China, India, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria.



 „Cudzoziemcy w Polsce. Podręcznik dla osób pracujących z imigrantami”, red. M. Nowicka, Warszawa, Caritas Polska, Warszawa 2020

Skrypt na szkolenie „Praca z klientem cudzoziemskim”, A. Kosowicz, Caritas Polska, Warszawa 2020




The Culture Map – Erin Meyer