What Are Cultural Variables?

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Cultural variables are differences in behavior, outlook and values between people from different societies. Body language, styles of humor and attitudes toward family, authority figures, religion, gender roles and time can all be very different in different cultures. It's always better to avoid making assumptions when you're talking to a person from a different culture.

Value Differences

Different cultures value different things. Most people in the United States think of religion as a personal choice, but a person from a homogeneous culture may assume everyone ought to hold the same beliefs. Americans tend to value being on time for appointments or events much more highly than some other cultures. At an American college or high school, you could get in a lot of trouble for handing in a plagiarized paper, but the concept of intellectual property doesn't hold such importance in some other cultures.

Context Is Everything

Even when cultures share a value in common they may make different assumptions about the meaning and context of that value. For example, according to "Cross-Cultural Management: Text And Cases" by Dipak Kumar Bhattacharyya, a professor of organizational behavior in India, the concept of "obligation" can mean something very different in different societies. To a person from Germany it might imply a duty to follow the rules. To a Chinese person it might imply a duty to put the group ahead of yourself. It is easy to think you share the same values as a person from another culture without realizing that there are actually significant cultural differences in what those values mean.

What's So Funny?

Even when two cultures share a lot in common, differences between the two can make humor a risky business. For instance, it's normal in the United Kingdom for good friends to call each other names and tease each other with an intensity that would be seen as highly offensive by many Americans. In the United States, making fun of yourself and your own bad fortune usually gets a laugh. In China, however, people don't normally make fun of themselves and don't see any humor in doing so.

Subtle Details

Differences in body language and other subtle details of social behavior can cause miscommunications between people from different cultures. For instance, if you speak up often in class you might be seen as assertive in the United States but arrogant in another culture. A student who won't look the teacher in the eyes might be seen as disrespectful in the United States, but respectful in another culture. Behavior that one culture views as challenging or aggressive, such as standing very close to another person while talking, can be seen as polite in another society.