Understanding cultural differences in hospitality

Culture is a complex and dynamic topic that can be difficult for today’s managers, or anyone, to deal with. But, what do we mean by culture?

There is a wide range of definitions, but it can be understood that culture governs our view in life. It comprises of the shared values, understandings, assumptions, and goals we have learnt from earlier generations, and passed onto succeeding generations. Your culture is formed with a wide range of environmental factors, such as climate, legal systems, religion andÊlanguages. This forms general values, norms and beliefs, which again influences attitudes and individual behaviour.

For example, cultures in very cold climates tend to be more egalitarian than hierarchical. It is because in the past if you did not work together, regardless of age, gender or social status, you wouldn’t be able to survive the cold in the winter months.

Therefore, if you don’t fully understand certain attitudes and behaviours of customers or employees from other countries, it may help to conduct some research to improve your knowledge about the history and current affairs of the country. By learning about other cultures, you are more likely to develop cultural sensitivity, or an ability to understand different perspectives and care about another person’s culture.

Know the importance of learning about the other culture.

Understanding cultural differences

Cultural sensitivity is not something you can acquire overnight. It’s about developing a genuine openness and empathy with other cultures. However, gaining some general cultural knowledge may be a good starting point.

One useful framework for understanding how basic values underlie organisational behaviour is Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. Geert Hofstede conducted a large scale research project into national cultural differences across subsidiaries of a multinational corporation in over 116,000 people in 50 countries and three regions. He identified four cultural dimensions, then later studies added two more:

  • Power distance
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Individualism and collectivism
  • Masculinity and femininity
  • Long vs. short-term orientation (added in 1985)
  • Indulgence vs. restraint (added in 2010)

Another useful framework to learn about other cultures but in a business context is Trompenaars and Humpden-Turner’s Seven Dimensions Model. Their research focuses on the cultural dimensions of business executives and is based on surveys of 15,000 managers in 28 countries over a ten-year period, representing 47 national cultures. In this research they identify seven value orientations.

These frameworks, arguably, can be applied to many everyday intercultural encounters and provide fairly simple explanation for people’s values and behaviour. For example, you may have wondered why your Greek staff always want very detailed instruction to perform their duties and keep asking questions, rather than making decisions by themselves. If you look at Hofstede’s dimension scores for Greece, their culture scores intermediate (60/100) in power distance and very high (100/100) in uncertainty avoidance scores.

This explains why they may appear to lack self-confidence Ð it is not that they are incapable of making decisions, but they want to do exactly what their superior asks, in the exact way he or she expects.

How does it affect hospitality businesses?

Gaining knowledge of each culture may help you develop cultural sensitivity, but it takes time. However, it improves your awareness of similarities and differences across cultures. When you are aware of this, you might not feel so frustrated with the example of Greek staff mentioned earlier, or threatened when a guest from another country talks to your receptionist in a seemingly aggressive manner they may be expressing themselves normally within their own culture. This perception may help you remain calm and take more personalised approaches in staff supervision or providing customer service that leads to higher satisfaction for both employee and customer.

Accepting different behaviours can also result in fairness as part of the HR process, helping you to select the best candidates or evaluate each employee’s performance with less biased views. But, how exactly can we achieve it, as well as the benefits discussed in my previous article? In the next article, I will discuss some points to be considered within the HR process.