Language and culture are closely intertwined. There are many definitions about culture, but these are my all-time favourites:
“Culture is the way in which people solve problems”, says intercultural management expert Fons Trompenaars, and he further explains that culture is like gravity: you do not experience it until you jump six feet into the air.
Another scholar in the subject, Geert Hofstede, defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group from another”. Culture is passed from generation to generation and as such, it is changing all the time because each generation adds something of its own before passing it on.
What everybody agrees upon, is that it is usual that one’s culture is taken for granted and assumed to be correct because it is the only one, or at least the first to be learned, and that culture affects everything people do in their society: their ideas, values, attitudes, and expected patterns of behaviour. Culture is not genetically inherited, and cannot exist on its own, but is always shared by members of a society.
Some of the main cultural differences among societies have to do with the concept of time, with how people manage relationships, with hierarchy, status and achievement and with how people relate to nature and whether they can control it or not.
A good example to illustrate the concept of time is the following. When a Dutchman is expected to arrive at 7 and he turns up at 7:05, he says, “sorry I’m late”. When somebody from Latin America has been invited at 7 and he arrives at 7:05 (yes, that can happen!), he says, “sorry I’m so early”.
Another typical example is that Northern Europeans are often surprised no one ever says “no” in Latin America. That is because their “maybe” often means “no”, and “yes” sometimes means “maybe”. Saying “no” is considered impolite in many cultures, where people are afraid of being too blunt or losing face. But labels don’t always fit, and it is fundamentally wrong to associate all Latin Americans with a mañana, mañana culture, so watch out for stereotypes because they can lead to many cultural blunders.
When dealing with other nationalities and languages, it is crucial to be aware of cultural differences. As a result of globalisation, experts even argue these days that cultural intelligence (CQ) might be even more important than language intelligence. Cultural sensitivity has to do with being mindful of other cultures, communication styles, backgrounds, and behaviour. That is precisely why these concepts never work in isolation.