Cultural Differences?

© 1999 by The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio
Billikopf Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County.

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

Toward the end of my three week trip I was invited by my young Russian
host and friend Dmitri Ivanovich and his lovely wife Yielena out to
dinner. At the end of a wonderful meal Yielena 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 Yielena.

“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 Yielena had pointed
at and peeled it half way and handed it to her. Smiles in Yielena and
Dmitri’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

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

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

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
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
, 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
, 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
, 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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Gregorio Billikopf

Gregorio Billikopf is an emeritus Labor Management Farm Advisor with the University of California and a visiting professor of the Universidad de Chile. His research and teaching efforts have focused on organizational productivity (selection, compensation, performance appraisal, discipline and termination, supervision) and interpersonal relations (interpersonal negotiation, conflict resolution, and mediation).  MORE >

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