Cultural Differences

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Concept description

Using the Merriam-Webster definition of culture (“the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”) then cultural differences include all the ways in which such groups differ.

Cultural differences in psychology

Arthur Markham (reference below) notes that cultural differences include differences in the way people think. He writes:

“Over the past 20 years, however, there has been growing interest in broad cultural differences in thinking. There are many reasons to think that members of different cultures will think differently. For one, cultures introduce people to different kinds of concepts. People growing up in large cities encounter very little wildlife (beyond squirrels and pigeons), while Native Americans living on a reservation or indigenous people from South America may encounter a variety of species of animals and plants on a daily basis. …

“Language is another influence on thought that differs across cultures. The classic version of the proposal that thought affects language is the “Whorf” hypothesis posited by Benjamin Whorf and his mentor Edward Sapir. This view is sometimes called “Linguistic Relativity.” It argues that aspects of the structure of the language that someone speaks affect the concepts that they can form. For example, some languages (like Spanish and German) have a grammatical gender, so that every noun must be classified as masculine or feminine. Others (like English) do not.  …

“Perhaps the biggest observed cultural differences in thinking come from studies comparing Western (e.g., European or American) and East Asian (e.g., Chinese or Korean) participants. … Two cultural differences between these groups stand out. First, compared to Westerners, East Asians are much more likely to prefer compromise. For example, when given a story about an argument between two people, Westerners tended to agree with one person or the other. East Asians tended to suggest a compromise solution between the two. … Second, East Asians tend to be more sensitive to the context in which an object appears than are Westerners.”

Cultural differences in business

In an increasingly global world, understanding cultural differences is more important than ever. Writing the Harvard Business Review (reference below), Andy Molinsky says:

“As part of doing business globally and operating across cultures, we often want to predict how others are going to behave. Our typical heuristic, understandably, is culture. We read a book, an article, or a blog post about cultural differences. We learn about how Germans or Chinese or Italians are different from us – how they think or act or even express emotions in a different way – and we feel like we’ve done our homework. We feel prepared.

“But we’re often surprised to discover that the person in question acts in a completely different way from how we anticipated. Instead of being reticent, our colleague from Asia is actually quite loud and confrontational. Instead of behaving aggressively, our Israeli supplier is mild-mannered. And as we encounter various other people who confound our expectations about cultural differences, we wonder where we went wrong.

“The problem comes from the questions we ask ourselves. The obvious one is “What culture does this person come from?” This question is not irrelevant. National cultural differences do matter. The way you network in India does tend to be different from how you network in the United States; the way you motivate employees in Japan is quite different from how you do so in Canada.”

A minor industry has developed to advise on cultural differences. For example, a firm called Center of Intercultural Competence lists examples of cultural differences in perception and behaviour at

Cultural differences in community building

Marya Axner (reference below), writing for The Community Tool Box on Building Communities, notes:

“…we can’t pretend that our cultures and differences don’t matter. We can’t gloss over differences and pretend they don’t exist, wishing that we could be alike. And we can’t pretend that discrimination doesn’t exist.”

It includes the following reasons for bringing non-mainstream groups into the centre of civic activity:

  • In order to build communities that are powerful enough to attain significant change, we need large numbers of people working together. If cultural groups join forces, they will be more effective in reaching common goals, than if each group operates in isolation.
  • Each cultural groups has unique strengths and perspectives that the larger community can benefit from. We need a wide range of ideas, customs, and wisdom to solve problems and enrich community life. Bringing non-mainstream groups into the center of civic activity can provide fresh perspectives and shed new light on tough problems.
  • Understanding cultures will help us overcome and prevent racial and ethnic divisions. Racial and ethnic divisions result in misunderstandings, loss of opportunities, and sometimes violence. Racial and ethnic conflicts drain communities of financial and human resources; they distract cultural groups from resolving the key issues they have in common.
  • People from different cultures have to be included in decision-making processes in order for programs or policies to be effective. The people affected by a decision have to be involved in formulating solutions – it’s a basic democratic principle. Without the input and support of all the groups involved, decision-making, implementation, and follow through are much less likely to occur.
  • An appreciation of cultural diversity goes hand-in-hand with a just and equitable society. For example, research has shown that when students’ cultures are understood and appreciated by teachers, the students do better in school. Students feel more accepted, they feel part of the school community, they work harder to achieve, and they are more successful in school.
  • If we do not learn about the influences that cultural groups have had on our mainstream history and culture, we are all missing out on an accurate view of our society and our communities.
Atlas topic, subject, and course

Diversity, Identity, and Rights (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Merriam-Webster, culture, at, accessed 5 February 2017.

Art Markham (2008), Thinking about cultural differences I: An introduction, Psychology Today, at, accessed 5 February 2017.

Andy Molinsky (2016), Cultural Differences Are More Complicated than What Country You’re From, Harvard Business Review, 14 January 2016, at, accessed 5 February 2017.

Marya Axner, Understanding Culture and Diversity in Building Communities, Community Tool Box, at, accessed 5 February 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 5 February 2017.

Image: Psychologist World, Cultural Differences in Psychology, at, accessed 5 February 2017.