Why Culture Matters.Challenges of a Diverse Team through the Lens of Intercultural Theories

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

40 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Critical Incidents
2.1 What are "critical incidents"?
2.2 Critical incident: cultural challenges in a diverse team - international university students working on a group-based project

3. Translating theories into practice
3.1 Making sense of context: Hall's high-context- and low-context-approach
3.2 Hofstede and GLOBE: investigating cultural dimensions
3.2.1 Hofstede's 6-D Model©
3.2.2 GLOBE study
3.3 Between ethnocentrism and -relativism: Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity©

4. Intervention strategies

5. Conclusion


Table of figures


1. Introduction

“Culture” has become so broad a term that it is almost impossible to find the right angle or an all- encompassing example to begin this article with. Although, Hall (1959, 29) stated that “culture is a word that has so many meanings already that one more can do it no harm” it is not the aim of this article to contribute yet another “meaning”. Rather than adding to the vast amount of research on what “culture” is and where it comes from this article aims at making the case for why culture mat­ters and how it can be properly analysed. The view put forth in this vein suggests that the analysis of cultural issues which lies at the heart of intercultural communication is one of the most important scientific endeavours of contemporary times. Prior to elaborating on the details of this endeavour it is necessary to address two crucial facts that emphasize the relevance of the applied approach as well as of intercultural communication in general.

First, as numerous researchers and scholars have repeatedly pointed out the globalisation is expected to continue at even faster rate than before (i.a. Cantle, 2012). As a result of immigration that comes along with the process of globalisation - and that will continue to come along despite current efforts to restrict it - Western societies will undergo severe changes (Putnam, 2007; Cantle, 2012). Evolving concepts such as “super” or “hyper diversity” (Cantle, 2012) acknowledge this development and will contest the way societies and nations are perceived. It is beyond doubt, that a more sophisticated understanding of cultures is essential the more the globalisation shapes every aspect of modern life. If an increasingly diverse world will eventually lead to a “clash of civiliza­tions” (Huntington, 1993) or to their ultimate “fusion” (Mahbubani & Summers, 2016) has to re­main unanswered. What both outlooks have in common, however, is that they rely on intercultural competence in some ways.1 Whether to avoid cultural conflicts or to contribute to a so-called “su- pra-culture” intercultural competence is the key to unlock the potentials of diversity. To sum up, the more the globalisation - and in particular its cultural by-products - impact virtual all levels of socie­ties the more cross-cultural cooperation and therefore intercultural competence is needed. In order to succeed in building up this competence, however, knowledge has to be acquired through the me­ticulous analysis of cultural issues. This article is an attempt to fulfil that ambition.

Second, the interdependence of the human mind and culture has to be taken into considera­tion. Even the most intercultural trained person cannot avoid being determined by his own sociali­zation and therefore by his own culture. What Hall (1966, 1959) calls the “hidden dimensions” and the “silent language” of culture refers to the parts of the human mind that make up a large propor­tion of what culture consists of (e.g. concepts such as time and space) but are mostly beyond human comprehension and control. Or as the well-known sociologist Erich Fromm put it: “The Silent Lan­guage shows how cultural factors influence the individual behind his back, without his knowledge.”2 This indicates that there is a force inside human’s unconsciousness that determines to some extent how other cultures are perceived even if we pretend not to have it.

Nevertheless, it was not until recent years - and propelled by major breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience - that this fact was acknowledged. Since then the relationship between neuro­science and cultural studies was revived3 leading to a new interdisciplinary field called “cultural neuroscience”. The emerging discipline aims at investigating “cultural variation in psychological, neural, and genomic processes” (Chiao & Ambady, 2007, 238) and is especially concerned with providing answers to the following questions: “how do cultural traits (such as values, beliefs, and practices) shape neurobiology [...] and behaviour? And how do neurobiological mechanisms (for example, genetic and neural processes) facilitate the emergences and transmission of cultural traits?” (Chiao & Cheon, 2012, 288). Without even attempting to answer these rather complex ques­tions the previous paragraphs have made it clear that the analysis of cultural issues cannot be sepa­rated from the one who analyses. Hence, intercultural researchers cannot help but examine culturalissues through the lens of their own culture (Hall, 1976).4 A realization that should be kept in mind while reading this article.

After these introductory remarks a brief outline of the upcoming contents concludes the first part of this work. In the following chapter the underlying method of this article (the “critical inci­dent technique”) is presented and a conceptual model of learning is put forward that functions as the overall structure. Afterwards, the actual incident is described in detail by providing an experience report from a person who was involved as well as additional insights that the author obtained through personal communication with that very person. The third main chapter focuses on the dif­ferent perspectives the persons involved could have by applying cultural theories. Finally, there will be a chapter on possible intervention strategies and how their application may have resolved the incident.

2. Critical Incidents

2.1 What are “critical incidents"?

As previously pointed out, a so-called “critical incident” - that will be described in detail in the next chapter - lies at the heart of this article. From a methodological angle it is used both to relate to relevant theories in the realm of intercultural communication and to make them better understanda­ble by applying them to a particular cultural context. However, before cultural theories and their relevance for the incident are discussed, it has to be clarified what a “critical incident” actually is, how the structure of this method looks like and how it is used in this article.

Critical incidents are usually understood as tools or techniques to gather information about a certain social context or situation (Apedaile & Schill, 2008). This is done mainly by acute observa­tion which qualifies the approach as a qualitative method of social research (Serrat, 2017). Flanagan (1954, 327) defines the critical incident technique as “a set of procedures for collecting direct ob­servations of human behaviour in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles”. In order to solve “practical problems” which is a focal point of the technique, problems have to be identified in the first place. That is why critical incidents most of the time present some sort of problem or conflict (Flanagan, 1954) which can be either the result of characteristic traits of the individuals causing the incident or of special circumstances that are determined by contextual factors (for example whether the inci­dent occurs in the public or the private sphere) (Serrat, 2017).

Although, critical incidents are not exclusive to the field of intercultural communication, in fact, are used in a variety of scientific fields (for example in organizational psychology) it might be helpful to apply a more specific definition that also takes cultural aspects into consideration. In this vein, Apedaile and Schill (2008, 7) suggest the following definition: “Critical incidents in intercul- tural communication [..] are brief descriptions of situations in which a misunderstanding, problem, or conflict arises as a result of the cultural differences of the interacting parties [highlighted by author], or a problem of cross-cultural adaptation and communication”. The important part of this definition is that the problem is caused by cultural differences. Because critical incidents provide concrete - and most of the time real - examples that encompasses a variety of these cultural differ­ences, they are a good starting point to look into to related theories.

The overall aim of the analysis of critical incidents in intercultural communication is to gain social insights that lead to a more profound understanding of cultural differences and therefore build up intercultural competence (Frankrijker, 1998). In view of this, the intercultural learnings can also be seen with respect to the future careers one is pursuing. As Apedaile and Schill (2008,7) put it: “They [critical incidents; the author] are intended to engage participants at a meaningful, personal level as they examine attitudes and behaviours that might be critical to their effectiveness in the roles they are already performing or preparing for [...]”.

Critical incidents as well as the whole structure of this article follow the classic model of the “learning cycle” (Figure 1)5 which was - among others - conceptualized by Kolb (1984) and con­tains four crucial stages.6 First, there is a detailed description of the experience itself (“concrete experience”). Important questions to answer here are basic in nature: What happened? Who was involved? How did the overall setting look like? The starting point of this process is exclusively descriptive and sets the stage for the analysis later on. The second stage (“reflective observation”), however, requires the researcher - whether he was personally involved or not - to step back from the actual incident and to reflect the bigger picture. At this point, it can be thought about what led to the incident and what might be reasons that the situation developed as described in the previous stage. Questions could be: What are cultural characteristics of the individuals involved? How were they socialized? What different perspectives could they have on what happened?

Afterwards, the probably most essential stage (“abstract conceptualisation”) starts. The re­searcher now has to transfer the insights he gained from the intensive description and analysis of the incident into the realm of scientific theories and models. Rather than just summarizing current and past intercultural communication research the goal is to apply theories and models that are relevant to the critical incident at hand. Hence, the main question should be: How does the application of a cultural theory to the critical incident contributes to a deeper understanding of why it went down as described? Finally, the last stage (“active experimentation”) asks about how the acquired knowledge could be used in practice. If one really understands what the problem was perhaps there is a chance that similar conflicts could be avoided in the future. The premise, however, is that there were also insights provided on how to resolve the incident. After that the last stage works like a real-time social experiment where the new knowledge is deployed to social interactions in order to put it to test and to see if it actually works. The main question should be: How does the acquired ntercultural knowledge (which, ideally, is the result of the analysis) can help to avoid another inci­dent similar to the previous one?7

2.2 Critical incident: cultural challenges in a diverse team - international univer­sity students working on a group-based project

After the explanation of the method this chapter focuses on the actual incident. The author received this critical incident in the form of a written summary by a personal friend. Although, the written description of the incident was in some cases edited by the author, it is overall an accurate account of what happened. However, sometimes it was necessary to add information that the author received through communication with his friend as these information are crucial to a better understanding of the incident (the additional information are displayed in italics right under the respective para­graphs).

“In July 2017, I [a Japanese woman; the author] took a seminar as part of a module at my university in which all students had to do a group assignment. There were five people in my group (including me): three Asian women (one Japanese, one Thai-Japanese, and one Indonesian), one African wom­an and one African man (a Nigerian). The aim of the group assignment was to work out schedules of distributing a special resource using a complicated calculation software and to describe the ef­fects of it in a closing report.8 Along with this assignment, we also needed to decide on lots of pa­rameters which were supposed to be obtained from a review of current literature in the field.”

Additional information / Authors comment:

- All the students are basically the same age (in their mid-twenties), apart from the Nigerian man and the Indonesian woman who are around 40 years old.
- The Master program the involved students are enrolled in has an international focus. Stu­dents are coming from all continents and therefore from different cultural backgrounds. All the students have been studying this Master program at a German university since end of September 2016.
- However, prior to this group assignment the students involved were just classmates but had hardly, if any, personal contact to each other. The only exceptions are the Japanese and the Thai-Japanese women who were friends before the group work was assigned.
- The assignment was graded which increased the pressure on the group to perform well.

“However, as the two Africans skipped lots of classes, only three of us had to do all the work to­gether. I do not remember how many classes they skipped but I would say they did not show up probably half of the classes. Sometimes the African guy came after class and asked us how the group assignment was going and what he should do, but it was quite hard to explain to him from the very beginning including how to use the software. When we had a group meeting, he was just sit­ting there quietly without taking part in our discussion. No wonder that my Thai-Japanese colleague snapped once. As he seemed to have no idea why she was angry with him, I exchanged messages with him for over one hour trying to explain why she was angry.”9

Additional information / Authors comment:

- Not showing up to classes was considered a problem in this case because during the classes the professor explained how to use the software which was, according to the Japanese woman, hard to operate.

- On one occasion, when the Nigerian man requested explanations regarding the group as­signment, the Thai-Japanese woman refused to give him those. According to the Japanese woman, she was upset because he did not make an effort to participate in the group discus­sion in order to better understand what the group worked on.

“The reason why he could not attend classes was because of another module and work. Although, I told him we would not expect that he would miss that much amount of class and he should have explained his situation, he said there was no responsibility to explain to us because it was none of our business. Also, he said students should help each other if some of them cannot attend a class which I agree in case they skip a few classes. In response to my question whether he remembered how many times he skipped class, he said the number of classes he missed did not matter to our discussion. The most unacceptable comment he made was that he did not need our help at all be­cause he could understand everything by looking through slides from lectures. It seemed that he did not consider “getting all the information on group assignment from us” as “help”. Although I did my best to explain myself, I was not sure if he understood my opinion.”

Additional information / Authors comment:

- The mere fact that the Nigerian man could not attend all the classes due to his job was not the main issue here. In fact, what was problematic instead for the Asian women was that he did not feel the need to tell them why he was absent.

- Moreover, the Nigerian man assumed all the students would help each other. So if one stu­dent cannot attend classes that he would still receive all the information necessary. Gener­ally speaking, the other group members held the same opinion. Nonetheless, they expected him to make an effort to get the information needed. “If he had been absent only a couple of times, it would not have been a problem to give him the information. But as he skipped clas­ses more often, we did not consider it as our duty to explain what he missed” (Japanese woman).

“In the end, we [the three Asian women] assigned writing introduction and conclusion to them for the paper we needed to submit and we made a Word document where we all could see the results of our work so that they both could understand what we were doing. The African guy checked the document and sent us an email which said “I found a mistake but apart from this you guys did a great work. Well done”. Considering he did very little contribution to our group, this email was a bit irritating but at least he wrote introduction by himself. On the contrary, the other African in our group whom we did not even have a chance to talk in person just copied and pasted the description which my Thai-Japanese colleague sent her via email to explain to her what we had done.”

Additional information /Authors comment:

- The comment of the Nigerian man irritated the Asian women the most. According to the Japanese woman, he sounded as if he was “our professor or supervisor The Asian women got the impression that he did not consider himself on the same level as the other students (rather superior). On top of that, it seemed “arrogant” to the Asian women that he evaluat­ed their work while at the same time contributing so little to it.

- The Asian women were also in particular disappointed with the performance of the African woman. According to the Japanese woman she did not do anything: “She did not show up in class, neither to our group meetings, nor did she contribute anything substantial by her­self.”

- In the conversation between the Japanese woman and the Nigerian man (see appendix) the latter complained that the Thai-Japanese woman was looking down on him and could not understand his situation. He further criticized that she judged him without knowing his background.


1 Although, Huntington (1993, 49) demands that the West should develop a "more profound understanding of the basic [...] assumptions underlying other civilizations" it can be argued whether he is really concerned with intercultural competence. On the contrary, it seems that in his outlook cultures will inevitably clash. From a more neutral perspec­tive, however, it could be argued that intercultural competence could prevent cultures from clashing in the first place.

2 On the front cover of Hall's "The Silent Language" (1959).

3 Indeed, "revived" is the right word because anthropology and cognitive sciences share a scientific history as Bender and Beller (2010) point out.

4 Anyhow, since "reality is socially constructed" (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, 13) there is no such thing as "objective truth".

5 All figures are presented at the end of this article ("Table of figures").

6 In the following paragraphs the classic "learning cycle" will be applied to the critical incident technique. Therefore it does not necessarily reflect what the author had originally in mind when he suggested this model. For details about the original model see Kolb (1984) and Serrat (2017).

7 Note that this incident is only disclosed for the purpose of this article and should not be used without permission of the author. Any resemblances to persons in real life are purely coincidental.

8 The remarks about the seminar project are really scarce but the details of it - at least in terms of content - are not important to the matter at hand. On top of that, mentioning too many details could enable third parties to trace the incident back to the institution where it occurred.

9 For reasons of brevity, the extensive version of this conversation appears in the appendix to this article. This chapter just focuses on the most important parts of this conversation. Throughout the article, however, there might be refer­ences to the conversation in the appendix.

Excerpt out of 40 pages


Why Culture Matters.Challenges of a Diverse Team through the Lens of Intercultural Theories
LMU Munich  (Institut für Kommunikationswissenschaft- und Medienforschung (IfKW))
Intercultural Competence
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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1003 KB
Interkulturelle Kommunikation, Diversität, Ethnozentrismus, GLOBE-Studien
Quote paper
Bachelor of Arts Lars Urhahn (Author), 2017, Why Culture Matters.Challenges of a Diverse Team through the Lens of Intercultural Theories, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/418861


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