Understanding the individual level of culture.

Many think of culture as a singular phenomenon that varies only across geographical barriers. However, we at TMC acknowledge that culture exists on six distinct levels, and that taking these levels into account can help individuals adjust to different cultural surroundings as they encounter them at work, at home and abroad. The six levels of culture are: national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and individual. Here we will be discussing the individual level of culture.

Understanding and addressing the phenomenon of culture at the individual level provides perhaps the most fruitful, yet contradictory, perspective. After all, culture is a social phenomenon and requires group interactions for its expression. Once people form groups – whether at home, socially or at work – they begin creating their own group culture based on the behaviors they expect, reinforce and reward.

Yet the most basic unit in the expression of cultural norms is the individual. A single person mirrors the behavior of those around them, thus adapting to, and strengthening, the culture they find themselves in. Therefore, if groups are the nexus, then individuals are the vectors of culture. The individual either replicates and reinforces cultural norms, or alters and modifies them.

A person’s individual culture is the result of numerous aspects of their life: their upbringing, where they grew up, their religious background, their personal genetics, etc. And while a nation’s culture reflects what is expected, reinforced or rewarded by most people in that country – for example, valuing independence, human rights and personal freedom – a person’s individual culture reflects their own personal values, how they prefer to act, and how they like to treat others and be treated. And just as a nation’s culture can change over time – history and socio-economic changes favor certain behaviors and ideals over others – a person’s individual culture is fluid, too. For instance, a person who prefers indirect and formal communication could move to another country in which people communicate in a more direct and informal way. Over time, this person could see the value in this way of speaking and adopt it as a personal preference. Conversely, a person could feel pressured to change a personal cultural preference because those around them – their compatriots, family members or teammates at work – have a different preference. For example, a person who has a very strong fluid time preference could experience the irritation of their friends, family and colleagues, who expect them show up on time when instead they are always late. This person needs to adapt their individual behavior to suit the general orientations of those around them.

Individuals can gain awareness of their cultural orientations by taking their Cultural Orientations Indicator (COI), an assessment that measures their personal cultural preferences and degree of strength.

Whether a person is able to adapt their individual cultural preferences depends on whether or not those preferences are core or negotiable. Core cultural preferences – that is, those that are marked very strong on their COI – are those that a person holds very dear, whether for an ideological reason (such as being equality oriented rather than hierarchy) or because they believe in its importance in their life or society (such as being future instead of past oriented). When a person experiences a cultural gap with another person or group around a core cultural preference, it is normally too difficult for them to adapt or style switch to match the preferences of those around them. In this case, engaging in a cultural dialogue in order to find a mutually beneficial solution to the gap is advisable.

On the other hand, when a person experiences a gap around a negotiable cultural preference – that is, the preferences that are marked mild or strong on their COI – they may find it easier to style switch and adopt the behaviors of those around them in order to bridge the gap.

In the complex multicultural contexts in which we increasingly find ourselves, we are faced with important choices about our way of doing things and of looking at others. As a result, we are required to become increasingly conscious of our individual cultural norms and our role in perpetuating them, as well as of our capacity to change them.

When we are able to do the above, we are equipped to optimize our own effectiveness and gain the ability to work with people who have different cultural orientations – on any level of culture.

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