• Dr. Garfield Harvey

Living with Culture

Updated: Mar 29



Cultures do not communicate the same way, whether speaking or listening. In Geert Hofstede’s book Software of the Mind, he argues that “every person carries within him – or herself patterns of thinking, feeling, and potential acting that were learned throughout the person’s lifetime.”[1] In my recent visit to Cape Town, South Africa with Portland Seminary, when you could drive ten minutes from any starting point and find someone speaking a different dialect.

Culture is no longer stable. According to Hofstede, culture is a social game with unwritten rules that we try to learn. There is a television show called NCIS that masters the unwritten rules. In this show, Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs is the supervisor of his field agents, and at any given moment he would just refer to an unwritten rule. Those who work with him know and respect these unwritten rules. The reason his team stays compliant is that they learned his culture through the development of their employment relationship. Those outside the team often asked how they knew the rules if they are unwritten. The team would always give the same answer, “you just know.” Culture “is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.”[2] In this definition, “the ‘mind’ stands for the head, heart, and hands – that is, for thinking, feeling, and acting, with consequences for beliefs, attitudes, and skills.”[3] This definition is meaningless unless we submit ourselves to it.

Everyone living in his or her culture considers themselves normal, perhaps to suggest that everyone else is abnormal. Nevertheless, culture has nothing to do with genetics and is separate from human nature. “Culture should be distinguished from human nature on one side and from an individual’s personality on the other, although exactly where the borders lie between nature and culture, and between culture and personality, is a matter of discussion among social scientists.”[4] As human beings, we all have human nature in common as a representation of “one’s mental software.”[5]


Traditionally, a person’s cultural identity was suggested to be something stable and coherent, which meant that behaviors and thought patterns were similar. If we view culture from a traditional view, it will make us all abnormal. “You must connect with people from other cultures to understand them. To understand people who are different from us, we must engage in meaningful communication.”[6] Intercultural leaders develop an understanding of how communications work, which includes the communication styles of other cultures.

We cannot understand the concept of culture without its characteristics. Culture is an organized system that connects pieces and makes them function as one. “All communication is cultural. People communicate by drawing on learned patterns, rules, and norms.”[7] Regardless of culture or language around the world, everyone wants to be understood. Having an understanding does not guarantee acceptance, but it is a great starting point.

Culture is not biologically inherited, so we cannot say we have cultural instincts. The behaviors we learn socially connect to culture. History suggests that women are more domesticated than men, not because they are weak; rather our cultural acceptance. Even when an individual is born into a musical family, they choose to learn how to play an instrument before being regarded as a musician. They also receive monetary compensation to be considered as a professional musician. The learned behavior is cultural, but closing our eyes to sleep is purely physiological.

Robert Lewis implied that “we fail to learn the lessons of history – and indeed we have seen mistakes repeated over hundreds of years by successive generations. But, in the very long run (and we may be talking in millennia) people will adhere collectively to the set of norms, reactions, and activities which their experience and development have shown to be the most beneficial for them.”[8] There are many social factors within our cultural sphere. “We live in new worlds of social and cultural organization.”[9] Sadly, we often believe that if we embrace countries, then by default we would have embraced cultures. The only problem is that while cultures may involve countries, it may simply be a group of individuals. Embracing countries or cultures does not mean we have accepted it. Acceptance is sincere when there is no feeling of compromise in the moments of cultural exchange.

[1] Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, 297.

[2] Ibid., 323.

[3] Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences, 10.

[4] Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, 325.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Eileen Wibbeke, Global Business Leadership (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2009), 2529, Kindle.

[7] Ibid., 2196.

[8] Lewis, When Cultures Collide, 1911.[9] Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 571.

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© 2018 - 2020 by Garfield Harvey.

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