Crossing the Deep Cultural Divide

[ 0 ] 13/09/2022 |

Chapter 13. Crossing the Deep Cultural Divide by Tamara Yousry

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“…whereas most Americans are repulsed by an Indonesian who blows his nose onto the street, the Indonesian is repulsed by the American who blows his nose in a handkerchief and then carries it around for the rest of the day in his pocket,” (Ferraro, 2002). 

Cliché as it sounds, the world is getting smaller. Whereas sixty years ago, flying to foreign lands was an activity reserved for the wealthy, educated and elite, today airports are full of sojourners from all walks of life making their way from one country to another to work, live and settle. Arabs are in Australia, the English are in Spain, Americans in Egypt, Mexicans in America and the Chinese in England. The list goes on and monocultural groups and teams are becoming a thing of the past. 

In today’s contemporary, globalised world, multicultural groups are the norm, people are global-trotting like there is no tomorrow, cultures are inter-marrying at staggering rates, even bringing to light the concept of “inter-faith” within these contexts, causing the world to appear smaller, as it becomes a melting pot of mix-matched folk. Yet, with all of these crossovers, misunderstandings are bountiful and breakdowns in communication inevitable, leading to bad feeling, confusion, collisions and frustration. Why is this so? And how can it be curbed?

What many sojourners who set forth on a new adventure to foreign lands fail to realise is that there are dozens upon dozens of cultural factors, most of them hidden, which, unless pointed out, inevitably become the fuel to set off potential fires of conflict and miscommunication. Not only are there obvious differences such as language barriers, dress styles or taste in food, but other small, less obvious factors, such as perceptions of authority and non-verbal communication, can also act as barriers, which can have many effects ranging from the prevention of successful integration into a new culture or the signing of a business deal. 

One of the most helpful contributions to understanding why intercultural breakdowns occur is the “Iceberg metaphor”. It is not certain who initially came up with it, however it is widely used today in intercultural contexts and classrooms to help explain the cultural intricacies behind our behavior. Most people have no idea that there is much, much more to an iceberg than meets the eye. In fact, when one looks at an iceberg, the part that is visible accounts for approximately ten percent of the entire creation. The other ninety percent is beneath the surface of the water, but, at best, we never think about this. At worst, we don’t even know it.

The surface parts account for the things we are taught and are consciously aware of. For example: how to prepare food, folkloric traditions, literature, history, language, manners, customs and how people dress. In stark contrast are the cultural aspects we are less aware of, which we were not directly taught, but which, astoundingly, make up the majority of the equation. Some examples are: communication styles, role expectations, non-verbal communication, our patterns of interpersonal relationships, work and learning styles, what motivates us, our attitudes towards commitments and authority, negotiation styles and how we perceive professionalism. These “cultural makeup” aspects lie beneath the surface in the depths of our unconscious and are underpinned by our judgments, habits, attitudes, assumptions, understandings, values and perceptions. These factors are far more complicated to understand and analyse, as most of us do not know how, when and why they were formed. 

Two other important components that aid in intercultural miscommunication are ethno-centricism and stereotyping. The former is the view that “my way is the right way” and the “exaggerated tendency to think the characteristics of one’s own culture are central and superior to all other cultures, (Alan Cornes, 2004). The latter (stereotyping) is the process of categorising people, groups and cultures into tiny boxes and compartments in order to make sense of the world. For example, when someone meets a person from Country X, they immediately use the attributes they know about this culture and automatically stick this person in that specific category. Both of these concepts are detrimental in a cross-cultural environment.

It is interesting to look at several cultural dimensions that exist today, as they help to explain the different values different people inhibit. After all, the very fact that values are ranked and prioritised differently is the exact reason behind the profound contrast in behavior exhibited by people from different cultures. 

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

“When somebody says privacy, I think of loneliness.” – (Ethiopian student), Storti, 1999.

Individualism vs Collectivism: 

Individualist cultures, such as the UK and USA, prioritise the self, or “I”, while Collectivist cultures, such as Egypt, Spain and Brazil, prioritise “we”, and have the interest of the whole group at heart. Individualist cultures tend to be more task-oriented, preferring to ‘get the job done’ as quickly as possible. Privacy is also highly valued. In organisations, employees are joined by a contract and their involvement is more contractual than moral. 

In collectivist cultures, on the other hand, people tend to identify more with the group they are part of and people belong to extended families and clans who are there to offer protection and support in return for loyalty. The line between business and pleasure is more blurred and much time and energy is spent in investing in relationships with others. Harmony and cohesiveness is important and often takes precedence over individual opinions and concerns. 

Low Power Distance Vs High Power Distance: 

“The hierarchical nature of Indian society demands that there is a boss and that the boss should be seen to be the boss. Everyone else just does as they are told, and even if they know the boss is 100% wrong, no one will argue.” – Gitanjali Kolanad, Culture Shock: India, (Storti, 1999).

Where the power lies, whether in the workplace, in the home, or in the classroom, varies from culture to culture and can overall resemble a small-scale political system. In egalitarian cultures, ones with ‘small power distance’ such as Sweden, the UK and USA, the workplace slightly resembles a democracy whereby power is decentralised and diffused to many people, social relations are informal, the salary range between the top and bottom of the organisation is narrow, manual work is no different in status than office work, subordinates expect to be (and are often) consulted and “the ideal boss is a resourceful democrat,” (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005). In short, if drawn, this pyramid is a low, flat one in which little distance between levels can be marked. 

In hierarchical societies (who tend to be collectivist) such as Malaysia, Japan, China and Egypt, organisations reflect ‘existential inequality’ between people of different levels and positions. Power is centralised to only a few, superiors are not to be questioned, subordinates expect to be told what to do, the salary range between people of high low positions is wide and “the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat or ‘good father,’” (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005). This pyramid tends to be much taller and narrower. 

Masculine (Tough) Vs Feminine (Tender):

“Maintaining a peaceful, comfortable atmosphere is more important (to Koreans) than attaining immediate goals or telling the absolute truth.” – Sonja Vegdahl Hur & Ben Seunghwa Hur, Culture Shock: Korea, (Storti, 1999).

This dimension has to do with how a culture defines success. A masculine culture defines success according to masculine traits such as achievement, assertiveness, power, competition and material accumulation. A feminine culture defines success based on its nurturing, social relationships, cooperation and opportunities for spiritual growth, (Ferraro, 2002). To elaborate, masculine cultures are more likely to restrict certain roles to certain genders, whereas in feminine cultures, such as Scandinavian ones, this would not be the case. 

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner’s Cultural Dimensions

Neutral Vs Emotional:

“Egyptians will put their pride before their interest. If they feel insulted or patronised, they would rather take their business elsewhere.” – Jailan Zayan, Egyptian writer.

Similar to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, this particular cultural framework is of Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. In a nutshell, some people make decisions based on how they feel. Others use logic and reason. Some cultures do not reveal what they are thinking or feeling, display rather cool and self-possessed behavior, which is admired, and consider strong facial expressions or gestures as uncivilised and taboo. People with this description often come from ‘neutral’ cultures, such as England’s. 

In contrast, there are people who are fierier in nature, who display strong, expressive emotions, who reveal their thoughts and feelings and are rather transparent and who are less inhibited and more dramatic. People who fit this description are usually from ‘emotional’ cultures, such as Italy’s or Egypt’s. 

Putting Things Into Perspective

So how does this translate into real life intercultural misunderstandings?

When my English mother moved to the Middle East to live with my Egyptian father, there were many things she had to learn. One summer, when my Egyptian cousins and siblings and I were all hanging out, my dear mother approached us to ask if we wanted to have burgers for dinner. “Yes!” we all chimed. My mum went around the group and took note of how many everybody wanted. When she came to my cousin, Hatem, he said: “None, thank you.” My mother went away, made the specified number of burgers and returned with one or two for each person. Hatem, as ordered, got none.

A few evenings later, we were all playing at my grandmother’s house and my mother approached us to see if we wanted burgers – again. The exact same thing happened. When she asked Hatem, he replied, “None, thank you.” 

A few days later, my father got a call from Hatem’s mum. “It seems,” she said on the phone to my father, “that Hatem thinks aunt Helen doesn’t like him. Everytime she asks if people want burgers, they all get burgers and Hatem gets none.”

My father paused.

“Did Hatem ask for any?” my father asked.

“No,” came the reply. “He said he didn’t want any.”

My father cracked a smile and said: “Nadia, Helen is English. If Hatem says he doesn’t want any, she won’t make him any. What she says is what she means. Next time, tell Hatem to say ‘yes!’

Needless to say, the next time my mum asked everyone if they wanted burgers, Hatem replied, “Yes! Three please!” 

In the Egyptian culture, there is a lot of reading between the lines that occurs and if you are new to the game, you will not know this. My mother comes from England, where people are direct in their approaches and truth is highly valued. In Egypt, people will often decline an invitation for a drink or snack to show they are being polite so as not to put the host/hostess out. But the game in Egypt is as follows: you decline a few times, the host insists and even if you keep declining, they bring you a beverage anyway. Coming from her more direct culture, where directness is respected and seen as a sign of honesty and openness, my mother didn’t know this and took what Hatem said at face value. 

As mentioned, I grew up in a household where my parents were from polar-opposite cultures and there were many times I felt both conflicted and intrigued by this. For example, my father would always make sure I was home a certain time of night and that somebody respectable would drop me off because otherwise, “what would the security downstairs (at the bottom of our building) say?” Egyptians are very proud people and one’s reputation is important. As a father of a house, you want to make sure your daughters carry a clean slate and have respectable names. This has a lot to do with saving face and being looked highly upon. As a child growing up, all I could think about was: Who cares what security think? We don’t even know them! 

Egyptians are very warm and hospitable people and, like the Greeks and Italians, they are happy to provide food for everyone and invite last minute guests to stay and eat. I always remember sitting at my grandmother’s table with a ton of food in the middle and lots of people around it. In contrast, in England, I recall being at a friend’s house when “tea-time” struck and I was told I had to go home. I was a little taken aback with this and talked to my mother who explained that in England this was the way things were. People cooked just enough to feed their families and no more. In Egypt, people cooked to feed the masses, and if there were leftovers, which there usually was, they would go to the helpers, drivers, cleaners. Food was never thrown away. This illustrates the stark contrast of an individualistic versus collective society where in one instance, the nucleus is valued and in the other, the group is prioritised. 

I grew up in Kuwait but every summer my family and I would travel to both England and Egypt to visit with family. I was always amazed to see how differently our extended family greeted us. In Egypt, the family would practically suffocate us with hugs and kisses, demonstrating the warmth, affection and closeness in proximity Egyptians have. Family, both nucleus and extended, is the most important social network there is. My English family, on the other hand, would politely say hello, either wave or a brief kiss on the cheek and it felt as though we had just seen them yesterday. The English value personal space and usually maintain at least an arm’s length in order to feel comfortable. 

The English also greatly value personal privacy and will go to great lengths to protect it; whereas Egyptians feel it is important to share information amongst one another, whether it be in the family or at work. After all, according to Egyptians, how can decisions be made if not everyone knows what is going on? 

It is examples like the ones above that got me interested in the intercultural topic and which lead me to study it further as a Masters of Arts in the UK. It was truly my life story and I wanted to investigate further. Why did one culture say ‘black’ and another say ‘white’? Why did one culture say ‘wrong’, while the other called that very same thing ‘right’? It didn’t make sense to me, but I learnt very early on that there was no one ‘right’ way. There were many, many different ways. I am still shocked when I travel to places where people don’t understand this, but I have been blessed to come from an intercultural background and have travelled and lived in over seven different countries on four continents. 

Becoming Aware

“So what are you, then?” asked the student, exasperated.
        “I am awake,” the Buddha replied. – Buddhist teaching

The solution to curbing intercultural misunderstandings starts with awareness. Simply being aware that other people do things differently and being open to that, is a mighty good start. People don’t often intentionally want to be rude, but they do operate in the way they know how, which may be a different way to the way you operate. Instead of automatically reacting, take a step back and consider that there may be a difference in values in play. What one culture considers rude, another considers polite. What one culture considers beneficial, another deems futile. What one culture sees as annoying, another considers important. 

If you’re moving to new pastures, attending intercultural training workshops or events may be a great idea for you and your family to begin an effective integration process. Children can also benefit from this type of education and awareness as they will be going to schools and mixing with many peers who have alternative backgrounds. 

The intercultural organisation known as SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research) is a great place to start looking if you want to find intercultural workshops and events near you that you’d like to attend. It exists globally:,,,,,

If you are curious to read about my story further, my thesis Countering Culture Shock: An Intercultural Training Programme Tailored For Egyptian Sojourners in England is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


  • Cornes, A. (2004) Culture From the Inside Out. Boston: Intercultural Press.
  • Ferraro, G.P. (2002) The Cultural Dimension of International Business. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 
  • Hofstede, G. & Hofstede, G.J. (2005) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (2nd Edition). New York: McGraw Hill. 
  • Storti, C. (1999) Figuring Foreigners Out. Maine: Intercultural Press.
  • Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner (1997) Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business (2nd Edition). London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.  
  • Zayan, Jailan. (2007) Egypt: The culture smart guide to customs and etiquette. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

NEXT CHAPTER: The stories you should tell your multicultural kid every day

Click here for the index and access all the chapters.

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