understanding cultural differences
Culture – It’s simply defined, but incredibly complex to explain and understand.
Cultural differences can be marked by objects as uncomplicated as hairstyle variations or as straightforward as countries in different hemispheres.
Without understanding the former, we’ll never connect with the latter. In a global marketplace understanding your neighbor – whether they are physically close or separated by an ocean – and what their culture stands for, believes in, and is comfortable with can make a world of difference, literally. Cultures are defined by their spirit, their passion, and most importantly, their differences. Recognizing the tiniest of subtleties can separate one person, or business, from the next. A business needs to understand the audience receiving its message – verbal, written, or otherwise – before letting that message go and subsequently being received indifferently. Or worse, that message being received indignantly.
This is the problem many companies have with their translation service. At CQ fluency, we understand cultural difference, and it is what ensures our clients receive the right translation every time.
what is a cultural difference?
That’s not an easy question to answer. It may as well be, “how many stars are in the sky?” Cultural differences, as mentioned above, range from the unnoticeable to the inescapable.
Take for example the culture in Venezuela. The South American, Spanish-speaking country may be part of a continent of similar residents culturally, but its homeland stands out from the rest, not just to its neighbors, but to those around the world.
The Venezuelan culture believes in order, tradition, and certain values that may be different to those in, say, the United States. For instance, Venezuelans subscribe to a handful of various cultural key factors, including high-power distance, high collectivism, and high masculinity. Of course, without context, this means nothing, so let’s dive deeper.
environment vs. biology
The Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede describes culture based on human character from one’s environment, not from one’s biological makeup. The terms used here describing Venezuela were derived by Hofstede, and here’s what he means:
In a high-power distance culture (versus a low power distance culture), Venezuelans will always defer to a higher-level person, generally accepting that as the natural order. In the same way, the person positioned as the higher-level power will expect it as well. Conversely, in a lower-power culture, everyone expects equal status regardless of rank or background, and will go as far as rejecting anyone trying to become top dog.
In the world of medicine, for example, a Venezuelan patient is more likely to not question a doctor’s orders, or seek more opinions, out of respect for the physician’s time, title, and status in the field. In the United States that may be vastly different, where both doctors and patients seek an equal relationship to quickly accomplish a desired outcome.
Other countries that find themselves adhering to the high-power distance culture include China, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Can a medical professional in the United States know his patient is wary, even anxious, about asking questions or requesting more opinions? Does he know his patient’s culture enough to keep her interests – and health – a top priority? The differences are slight, but the consequences can be vast.
how cultural differences play out
Let’s stay in the doctor’s office for the next example, and continue on with the Venezuelan culture. Hypothetically speaking, we’re in a pediatrician’s office in the United States with four or five other patients waiting. Most of them are there for routine well visits, or checkups. Unfortunately, the Venezuelan family’s youngest child has spiked a fever and is looking for an emergency visit.
A stark contrast between cultures is likely unfolding: Venezuelans tend to express a culture of high collectivism: what can the group do as a whole for the betterment of one? The Venezuelan child, under that philosophy, would be brought back to see the doctor immediately for his own sake and that of the remaining patients.
But in the United States, where the culture mainly focuses on high individualism according to Hofstede, an appointment is just that, and whether the patient is sick, healthy, or somewhere in between, the doctor will see him or her when the sign-in sheet says so.
Other cultures similar in this sense to Venezuela include Brazil, Indonesia, Peru, South Korea, and Taiwan. Cultures that may be more like the United States include Australia, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Here is another example to drive the point home about why understanding cultural differences can be a matter of business success or failure. We’re still in the pediatrician’s office with the Venezuelan child who spiked a fever. The child is with daddy. No big deal, right? Maybe not. Societies are often broken down into masculine versus feminine. Some cultures are male dominated, with gender-defined roles. More feminine cultures may have blended roles, where both the male and female have interchangeable responsibilities.
Venezuelan culture leans masculine.
So now we’re in the pediatrician’s office and the sick child is diagnosed harshly. Dad’s there, but because of his cultural background, he’s not used to the compassionate, sympathetic aspect of coping with bad news. That normally falls on the female family members in the Venezuelan culture, making for a disconnect between pediatrician, father, and sick child.
Other highly masculine cultures include:
Highly feminine cultures include:
- El Salvador
why culture is so important in understanding written language
Now let’s take all of the examples we just went through, and put that into written language. Boy, that’s going to be tough. Expressing those emotions, conveying those feelings and information without losing the sense of culture while still delivering the message fluidly is no easy order.
To culturally adapt translated content, there must be an understanding of how culture can affect context. That’s the way CQ fluency, a leader in the world of written translation, views the importance of recognizing each and every cultural difference your audience has to offer. There has to be an adaptation of culture, blending both meaning and feeling. And with a global customer base, there will always be a need for those changes.
Quite simply, if your audience does not identify with your message, the entire point of the communication is lost.