Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Department of Marketing
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0443, USA
(213) 740-7127

Consumer Psychologist Facebook Forum


Culture is part of the external influences that impact the consumer. That is, culture represents influences that are imposed on the consumer by other individuals.

The definition of culture offered one text is “That complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man person as a member of society.”  From this definition, we make the following observations:

Culture has several important characteristics:  (1)  Culture is comprehensive.  This means that all parts must fit together in some logical fashion.  For example, bowing and a strong desire to avoid the loss of face are unified in their manifestation of the importance of respect.  (2)  Culture is learned rather than being something we are born with.  We will consider the mechanics of learning later in the course.  (3)  Culture is manifested within boundaries of acceptable behavior.  For example, in American society, one cannot show up to class naked, but wearing anything from a suit and tie to shorts and a T-shirt would usually be acceptable.  Failure to behave within the prescribed norms may lead to sanctions, ranging from being hauled off by the police for indecent exposure to being laughed at by others for wearing a suit at the beach.  (4)  Conscious awareness of cultural standards is limited.  One American spy was intercepted by the Germans during World War II simply because of the way he held his knife and fork while eating.  (5)  Cultures fall somewhere on a continuum between static and dynamic depending on how quickly they accept change.  For example, American culture has changed a great deal since the 1950s, while the culture of Saudi Arabia has changed much less.

Dealing with culture.  Culture is a problematic issue for many marketers since it is inherently nebulous and often difficult to understand.  One may violate the cultural norms of another country without being informed of this, and people from different cultures may feel uncomfortable in each other’s presence without knowing exactly why (for example, two speakers may unconsciously continue to attempt to adjust to reach an incompatible preferred interpersonal distance).

Warning about stereotyping.  When observing a culture, one must be careful not to over-generalize about traits that one sees.  Research in social psychology has suggested a strong tendency for people to perceive an “outgroup” as more homogenous than an “ingroup,” even when they knew what members had been assigned to each group purely by chance.  When there is often a “grain of truth” to some of the perceived differences, the temptation to over-generalize is often strong.  Note that there are often significant individual differences within cultures.

Cultural lessons.  We considered several cultural lessons in class; the important thing here is the big picture.  For example, within the Muslim tradition, the dog is considered a “dirty” animal, so portraying it as “man’s best friend” in an advertisement is counter-productive.  Packaging, seen as a reflection of the quality of the “real” product, is considerably more important in Asia than in the U.S., where there is a tendency to focus on the contents which “really count.”  Many cultures observe significantly greater levels of formality than that typical in the U.S., and Japanese negotiator tend to observe long silent pauses as a speaker’s point is considered.
Cultural characteristics as a continuum.  There is a tendency to stereotype cultures as being one way or another (e.g., individualistic rather than collectivistic).  Note, however, countries fall on a continuum of cultural traits.  Hofstede’s research demonstrates a wide range between the most individualistic and collectivistic countries, for example—some fall in the middle.

Hofstede’s Dimensions.  Gert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher, was able to interview a large number of IBM executives in various countries, and found that cultural differences tended to center around four key dimensions:

Although Hofstede’s original work did not address this, a fifth dimension of long term vs. short term orientation has been proposed.  In the U.S., managers like to see quick results, while Japanese managers are known for take a long term view, often accepting long periods before profitability is obtained.

High vs. low context cultures:  In some cultures, “what you see is what you get”—the speaker is expected to make his or her points clear and limit ambiguity.  This is the case in the U.S.—if you have something on your mind, you are expected to say it directly, subject to some reasonable standards of diplomacy.  In Japan, in contrast, facial expressions and what is not said may be an important clue to understanding a speaker’s meaning.  Thus, it may be very difficult for Japanese speakers to understand another’s written communication.  The nature of languages may exacerbate this phenomenon—while the German language is very precise, Chinese lacks many grammatical features, and the meaning of words may be somewhat less precise.  English ranks somewhere in the middle of this continuum.

Ethnocentrism and the self-reference criterion.  The self-reference criterion refers to the tendency of individuals, often unconsciously, to use the standards of one’s own culture to evaluate others.  For example, Americans may perceive more traditional societies to be “backward” and “unmotivated” because they fail to adopt new technologies or social customs, seeking instead to preserve traditional values.  In the 1960s, a supposedly well read American psychology professor referred to India’s culture of “sick” because, despite severe food shortages, the Hindu religion did not allow the eating of cows.  The psychologist expressed disgust that the cows were allowed to roam free in villages, although it turns out that they provided valuable functions by offering milk and fertilizing fields.  Ethnocentrism is the tendency to view one’s culture to be superior to others.  The important thing here is to consider how these biases may come in the way in dealing with members of other cultures.

It should be noted that there is a tendency of outsiders to a culture to overstate the similarity of members of that culture to each other.  In the United States, we are well aware that there is a great deal of heterogeneity within our culture; however, we often underestimate the diversity within other cultures.  For example, in Latin America, there are great differences between people who live in coastal and mountainous areas; there are also great differences between social classes.

Language issues.  Language is an important element of culture.  It should be realized that regional differences may be subtle.  For example, one word may mean one thing in one Latin American country, but something off-color in another.  It should also be kept in mind that much information is carried in non-verbal communication.  In some cultures, we nod to signify “yes” and shake our heads to signify “no;” in other cultures, the practice is reversed.  Within the context of language:

Writing patterns, or the socially accepted ways of writing, will differs significantly between cultures. 

In English and Northern European languages, there is an emphasis on organization and conciseness.  Here, a point is made by building up to it through background.  An introduction will often foreshadow what is to be said.  In Romance languages such as Spanish, French, and Portuguese, this style is often considered “boring” and “inelegant.”  Detours are expected and are considered a sign of class, not of poor organization.  In Asian languages, there is often a great deal of circularity.  Because of concerns about potential loss of face, opinions may not be expressed directly.  Instead, speakers may hint at ideas or indicate what others have said, waiting for feedback from the other speaker before committing to a point of view.

Because of differences in values, assumptions, and language structure, it is not possible to meaningfully translate “word-for-word” from one language to another.  A translator must keep “unspoken understandings” and assumptions in mind in translating.  The intended meaning of a word may also differ from its literal translation.  For example, the Japanese word hai  is literally translated as “yes.”  To Americans, that would imply “Yes, I agree.”  To the Japanese speaker, however, the word may mean “Yes, I hear what you are saying” (without any agreement expressed) or even “Yes, I hear you are saying something even though I am not sure exactly what you are saying.”

Differences in cultural values result in different preferred methods of speech.  In American English, where the individual is assumed to be more in control of his or her destiny than is the case in many other cultures, there is a preference for the “active” tense (e.g., “I wrote the marketing plan”) as opposed to the passive (e.g., “The marketing plan was written by me.”)

Because of the potential for misunderstandings in translations, it is dangerous to rely on a translation from one language to another made by one person.  In the “decentering” method, multiple translators are used.  The text is first translated by one translator—say, from German to Mandarin Chinese.  A second translator, who does not know what the original German text said, will then translate back to German from Mandarin Chinese translation.  The text is then compared.  If the meaning is not similar, a third translator, keeping in mind this feedback, will then translate from German to Mandarin.  The process is continued until the translated meaning appears to be satisfactory.

Different perspectives exist in different cultures on several issues; e.g.: