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Saskia Maarse | August 9, 2021


What is culture?

In today’s world we are able to connect with people from all over the world. We can visit each other, we can call, we can meet online etc. There are many possibilities to easily work together with other cultures. The question is: why do some intercultural collaborations still lead to confusion, misunderstanding and even conflicts?

Therefore, we first need to know how culture works for us.

Culture is about perception. We see what we have learned to see, but don’t always see what others see. As a consequence, we misunderstand words, symbols, and behaviour of people from other cultures. On top of that, we constantly have to find out how to navigate through different communication styles, different leadership styles, different ways of building trust and relationships. How can we deal with all these differences?

Therefore, we first need to know what culture is.

Many books have been written about culture, but in this blog I will give you a brief description of what culture is: Culture is a collection of meanings that we – as a group – give to objects, situations and behaviour. A group can be a country, a company, or a club, a student club for example.

Culture is like an onion. It has several layers:

The outside layer
The first layer consists of visible objects. These are the things we see, smell and hear when we visit a country for the first time. For example, when people visit The Netherlands for the first time, they will notice the cycling paths, the houses with large windows and open curtains, a cheese sandwich for lunch, the language, fashion, etc. But they don’t know the meaning yet of all these outside expressions. Only the members of the group understand the cultural meaning of objects, words and gestures. Prejudices are usually formed based on observable symbols.

The middle layer
The second layer consists of cultural norms and values. Values are things we consider as important as a group. Values can be things like loyalty, independency or taking care of your family.  Norms are things we think we should do as a group, for example: How do we deal with time? Am I always expected to be on time? Another norm is: How do we greet each other? Do we give a hug or a handshake? And when we give someone a handshake, should that be a strong or a weak shake? For example: In the Netherlands a strong handshake is a sign of strength, while a weak handshake shows weakness.

The inside layer
The third layer consists of basic values, the so-called assumptions. These values are more abstract and less visible, which makes them harder for outsiders to recognize. We learn our basic values from a very young age on. We learn when to show our emotions and when we are allowed to talk, fight, cry or lie. We also learn when we find something dirty or clean when it comes to food, spitting, sniffing and burping; when to be proud or when to be ashamed.

Culture is taught

Culture is taught. From the age of 7 we perceive our cultural values as natural and part of our personality. Our own culture feels safe and familiar. It is something we hold on to. It is our source of reference. And when an outsider asks us why we behave that way, we usually respond by saying: “That’s how we have always done it”, while we actually mean: “That’s what we have been taught”.

Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.

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