Cultural Differences?
Or, are we really that different?

Gregorio Billikopf
University of California

To all who took the proxemics survey (between December 2007 and June 2009) a warm thank you! We are in the process of analyzing the data. Also, the best copy of this paper on cultural differences may be found as a PDF (Appendix I) under my new book, Party-Directed Mediation: Helping Others Resolve Differences, which you may download free here.--Gregorio

In 1993, I had my first opportunity to visit Russia as a representative of the University of California. I was there to provide some technical assistance in the area of agricultural labor management. "Russians are a very polite people," I had been tutored before my arrival. One of my interpreters, once I was there, explained that a gentleman will pour the limonad (type of juice) for the ladies and show other courtesies.

Toward the end of my three week trip I was invited by my young Russian host and friend Nicolai Vasilevich and his lovely wife Yulya out to dinner. At the end of a wonderful meal Yulya asked if I would like a banana. I politely declined and thanked her, and explained I was most satisfied with the meal. But the whole while my mind was racing: "What do I do? Do I offer her a banana even though they are as close to her as they are to me? What is the polite thing to do?"

"Would you like a banana?" I asked Yulya.

"Yes," she smiled, but made no attempt to take any of the three bananas in the fruit basket. "What now?" I thought.

"Which one would you like?" I fumbled.

"That one," she pointed at one of the bananas. So all the while thinking about Russian politeness I picked the banana Yulya had pointed at and peeled it half way and handed it to her. Smiles in Yulya and Nicolai's faces told me I had done the right thing. After this experience I spent much time letting the world know that in Russia, the polite thing is to peel the bananas for the ladies. Sometime during my third trip I was politely disabused of my notion.

"Oh no, Grigorii Davidovich," a Russian graciously corrected me. "In Russia, when a man peels a banana for a lady it means he has a romantic interest in her." How embarrassed I felt. And here I had been proudly telling everyone about this tidbit of cultural understanding.

Certain lessons have to be learned the hard way. Some well meaning articles and presentations on cultural differences have a potential to do more harm than good and may not be as amusing. They present, like my bananas, too many generalizations or quite a distorted view.

Some often-heard generalizations about the Hispanic culture include: Hispanics need less personal space, make less eye contact, touch each other more in normal conversation, and are less likely to participate in a meeting. Generalizations are often dangerous, and especially when accompanied by recommendations such as: move closer when talking to Hispanics, make more physical contact, don't expect participation, and so on.

Here is an attempt to sort out a couple of thoughts on cultural differences. My perspective is that of a foreign born-and-raised Hispanic who has now lived over two decades in the United States and has had much opportunity for international travel and exchange.

Commonality of humankind

Differences between people within any given nation or culture are much greater than differences between groups. Education, social standing, religion, personality, belief structure, past experience, affection shown in the home, and a myriad of other factors will affect human behavior and culture.

Sure there are differences in approach as to what is considered polite and appropriate behavior both on and off the job. In some cultures "yes" means, "I hear you" more than "I agree." Length of pleasantries and greetings before getting down to business; level of tolerance for being around someone speaking a foreign (not-understood) language; politeness measured in terms of gallantry or etiquette (e.g., standing up for a woman who approaches a table, yielding a seat on the bus to an older person, etc.); and manner of expected dress are all examples of possible cultural differences and traditions.

In México it is customary for the arriving person to greet the others. For instance, someone who walks into a group of persons eating would say provecho (enjoy your meal). In Chile, women often greet both other women and men with a kiss on the cheek. In Russia women often walk arm in arm with their female friends. Paying attention to customs and cultural differences can give someone outside that culture a better chance of assimilation or acceptance. Ignoring these can get an unsuspecting person into trouble.

There are cultural and ideological differences and it is good to have an understanding about a culture's customs and ways. Aaron Pun, a Canadian ODCnet correspondent, wrote: "In studying cross cultural differences, we are not looking at individuals but a comparison of one ethnic group against others. Hence, we are comparing two bell curves and generalization cannot be avoided." Another correspondent explained the human need to categorize. True and true, but the danger comes when we act on some of these generalizations, especially when they are based on faulty observation. Acting on generalizations about such matters as eye contact, personal space, touch, and interest in participation can have serious negative consequences.

Cross-cultural and status barriers

Sometimes, observations about cultural differences are based on scientific observation (see, for instance, Argyle, Michael, Bodily Communication, 2nd ed., Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1988). Argyle cites several studies on non-verbal communications and culture (see pp. 57-61). According to the studies cited, Latin Americans make more eye contact, face each other more, and touch more (p. 58) when they speak. Strong eye contact used by Hispanics goes along with my observations. If Hispanics face each other more, it is probably because of the need for eye contact. I do not believe that Hispanics touch more, with the exception of some very specific social contexts, one of them being between dating or married couples. One of the studies cited more contact among Latin American couples (p. 60). Another study showed that Latin Americans stand closer than North Americans (something that goes contrary to my observations) but that there are regional variations among countries (p.60). Argyle asserts that there are few genuine cross-cultural studies in the area of spatial behavior. Interestingly, yet another study (p. 60) showed that "middle-class Americans actually touched quite a lot" and that the USA is more of a contact culture than people think.

Much of the differences in culture have to do with food preparation, music, and what each culture considers politeness. Food preparation, for instance, can be quite different in various cultures. One farmer could not understand why his workers did not attend a specially prepared end-of-season meal. The meal was being prepared by the farm owners. Instead, when the farm operators provide the beef, pork or other meat but delegate the actual preparation to the workers who can spice up their own way, such a celebration meal can be a great success. Similarly, a diary farmer found out that his Mexican employees were not too excited about getting ground beef as a perk. Instead, they would have preferred the cow's head, tongue, brains, as well as other cuts of meat that were not ground up. With world globalization, even tastes in food and music are rapidly changing, however.

When I came to the US, for a long time I was also guilty of broad generalizations about those born in the US. While I have not conquered this disagreeable human inclination, I feel I am beginning to see the way. Often, observations on cultural differences are based on our own weakness and reflect our inability to connect with that culture. As a young man I found myself in an almost entirely Anglo-Saxon community in New Canaan, Connecticut. I remember that on several occasions I felt my personal space was being invaded and wondered how Anglo-Saxon men could stand being so close to each other. After all these years, I still feel uncomfortable sitting as close to other men as often dictated by chair arrangements in the US. I am not the exception that proves the rule. Other foreign-born immigrants from México and Iran have mentioned feeling the same way.

Jill Heiken, an HRnet correspondent, explained her learning process this way: "I've taught ESL to many many different nationalities and lived in rooming situations with people from all nations and lived in Japan and Cambodia... it took me a long time not to generalize and now when I hear others doing so... I know they are just beginning to 'wade in the river,' so to speak, of intercultural relations."

I now live in California and have been married for over 20 years to a Californian (of Northern European descent). It is sort of funny because my wife now realizes that I need to have eye contact while we talk. If she is reading, she has learned that I stop talking if I don't have eye contact with her. I have had several people tell me, when I stop talking because I no longer have eye contact, "Keep talking, I'm listening." My kids still give me a bad time about the year my mother came to visit and we drove to Yosemite National Park. They were all panicked because I kept looking at my mother as I drove. They felt I was not looking at the road enough and thought we would drive off the mountain. I have a very high need for eye contact.

Besides being a native Chilean, I have met, taught, been taught, roomed with, studied with, worked for, worked with, been supervised by, supervised, and been friends with Hispanics from almost every Spanish-speaking country in the world. I have interviewed and done research among hundreds of Hispanic farm workers and have noticed no difficulties with poor eye contact or invasion of personal space. Nor have I ever had difficulties in these areas with people from other nations or cultures.

Strong eye contact is partially a factor of shyness; partly a measure of how safe a person feels around another. If those who have written about poor eye contact on the part of Hispanics would walk down a mostly minority neighborhood at dusk, they may also find themselves looking at the ground and making less eye contact.

Cross-cultural observations can easily be tainted and contaminated by other factors. Perceived status differences can create barriers between cultures and even within organizations.

For instance, farm managers, instructors, and foreign volunteers (through universities, peace corps, farmer-to-farmer programs, etc.) may appear to have a status differential with those farm workers, students, and technical assistance recipients they are working with. A person with this status differential will have to show, by word and action, that she values the potential contributions of those she works with. Until this happens she will only obtain compliance but never commitment.

At times, then, it may appear that some workers or students, especially when there are social or ethnic differences, do not participate as easily. This is not because they do not have ideas to contribute, but rather, because they may need a little convincing that their ideas would be valued. Once this floodgate of ideas is opened, it will be difficult to stop it. In some sub-cultures, once a person has given an opinion, others are unlikely to contradict it. That is why some organizations ask their least senior employees to give an opinion first, as few will want to contradict the more season employees. Setting up the discussion from the beginning as one where one desires to hear all sort of different opinions, can be very fruitful both in the workplace and in the classroom.

Americans have been historically welcome in most of Hispanic America. With a few exceptions they are looked up to, resulting in deferential treatment. This deferential and polite treatment should not be confused for weakness, lack of interest, and the like. Studies conducted some years ago showed African American children preferred White dolls. This has been changing as African Americans are less likely to discount their own contributions (for an excellent discussion on contributions see Roger Brown's Social Psychology: The Second Edition, Free Press, 1986). I believe Hispanics are also valuing their contributions more than in the past, and less subservient behaviors will be observed. Only through equality of respect between races and nations can we reach positive international relations in this global economy (as well as peace at home). Cultural and ethnic stereotypes do little to foster this type of equality.

Breaking through status barriers can take time and effort. The amount of exertion will depend on many factors, including the skill of the manager (teacher, volunteer) on the one hand, and how alienated and disenfranchised from the main stream the person he is trying to reach feels.

For example, in East Africa, a non-Black manager speaks to the Black African accountant and the accountant makes little eye contact and responds with submissive "Yes, Sirs" regardless of what he hears. When the manager exits, this same accountant makes plenty of eye contact and is full of ideas and creativity when dealing with those of his same and different race.

In another example, an adult class of Hispanic farm workers says nothing to their Anglo-Saxon instructor over a three day period--even though they do not understand what is being taught. This same group of farm workers, when given a chance to be active participants in the learning process, become, in the words of a second Anglo-Saxon instructor at the same junior college, "the best class of students I have ever taught."

In yet another case, an Anglo-Saxon adult educator finds that Hispanics are apt to listen politely but not ask questions. He advises others not to expect much participation from Hispanics. A female Hispanic elsewhere wonders if those Hispanic farm workers she teaches don't participate because she is a woman. The first perceives that the lack of participation is somewhat inherent in the Hispanic population; the latter assumes her gender is the cause.

Meanwhile, other Hispanic instructors create so much enthusiasm and active participation from the Hispanic audiences they work with, that those who walk by wonder what is going--and why participants seem to be having so much fun. It is not a cultural difference if someone can totally involve a group into a discussion, within minutes, even when that group has had little experience with a more participatory method in the past.


Stereotyping can have intense negative effects, especially when educators or managers make fewer attempts to involve those of other cultures because they have been taught not to expect participation! Or do not realize there may be something wrong when a student or employee of a different ethnicity makes little eye contact with them. Faye Lee, a concerned Japanese-American wrote: "How anyone can try to make generalizations about an entire continent of people, plus all the Asian Americans and the infinite permutations of people's differing experiences, is beyond me."

As we interact with others of different cultures, there is no good substitute for receptiveness to interpersonal feedback, good observation skills, effective questions, and some horse sense. There is much to be gained by observing how people of the same culture interact with each other. Don't be afraid to ask questions as most people respond very positively to inquiries about their culture. Ask a variety of people so you can get a balanced view.

Making a genuine effort to find the positive historical, literary, and cultural contributions of a society; learning a few polite expressions in another person's language; and showing appreciation for the food and music of another culture can have especially positive effects.

My contention, then, is not that there are no cultural differences. These differences between cultures and peoples are real and can add richness (and humor) to the fabric of life. My assertion is that people everywhere have much in common, such as a need for affiliation and love, participation, and contribution. When the exterior is peeled off, there are not so many differences after all.

© 1999 by The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio Billikopf
Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher and the author. Printing this electronic Web page is permitted for personal, non-commercial use as long as the author and the University of California are credited.

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1 June 2009