2.9 Levels of Culture

One of the basic tenets of culture is that it consists of levels and sublevels. It is useful to think about culture in terms of five basic levels: national, regional, organizational, team, and individual. Within each of these levels are tangible and intangible sublevels of culture.

National Culture

A businesswoman from the United States is in Germany for contract negotiations between her employer and a large German bank. The meeting is scheduled for nine o’clock in the morning. When she arrives to the meeting a few minutes before its start time, she is amazed that all her German counterparts are already seated and ready to begin the meeting. A few days later, upon her arrival back to the United States, she remarks to her American colleagues her experience with German culture. In particular, she notes their level of attentiveness to punctuality and planning and says, “I thought we were punctual here in the U.S.! It’s nothing compared to how Germans view punctuality.”

This example illustrates the national differences between two cultures: American and German. National differences refer to the cultural influences of a nation that result in its national characteristics. Although nation-states have regional and political differences, national cultureThe values, largely unconscious and developed throughout childhood, that are held by a majority of the population within a nation. can be viewed as the values held by a majority of the population within the nation. These values are largely unconscious and developed throughout one’s childhood. The values are pushed to a level of consciousness when in contrast to another nation’s cultural values.

Within national cultures, values are generally seen as stable over time. National values, because they reflect the traditions of the nation-state over time, will change slightly from generation to generation, but the overall values will remain the same. For example, a German who comes from a culture of punctuality and travels for business in Italy will notice a national cultural difference in how Italians view time (more leisurely and relaxed) as compared to their own national culture.

Regional Culture

An interesting thing about living in the United States is the regional differences that make each part of the country unique. When I attended college in Boston, I heard the expression “wicked” used quite often. After asking my New England friends what “wicked” meant, I learned that it was used to emphasize a point. If I attended a concert that I really enjoyed, I would say, “That concert was awesome!” New Englanders would say, “That concert was wicked awesome.” After living in the Boston area for 4 years, the word became a part of my vocabulary. When I used the word in conversations with my friends and family members in Minnesota, they did not understand what I meant.

All national cultures consist of regional subculturesA subgroup of a national culture in which the characteristics of that subgroup are distinguished from those of another subgroup. that influence the characteristics of one group from another in a nation state. The word “pop” refers to a soft drink in the Midwest, but if you go to the East Coast, it is referred to as “soda.” In other regions of the United States, a soft drink is referred to as “Coke.” The following is an example of regional cultural differences and one way the difference is expressed:

Dianne moves from Texas for a job opportunity in Georgia. She lives in Georgia for 25 years and feels that it is her home state. However, her neighbors and co-workers do not think that she is a Georgian. Even though Dianne thinks she is from the south, she is reminded by others that she is “not a southerner.”

Dianne experiences a regional cultural shift that she did not know existed until her move. Although she considers herself a Georgian, she is constantly reminded that she is not a southerner. At a conscious and unconscious level, her regional cultural experiences will dictate her thoughts about herself and others. She may develop the following assumptions and beliefs as a result of the regional cultural influences:

  • I better just tell people that I am from Texas.
  • Georgians think that you have to be from certain states to be considered a “southerner.”
  • If you are from the south, you must have lineage or roots that directly link you to the south. A “transplant” is not considered a true southerner.

What are regional differences and similarities that you have experienced or have been a part of? The following is a chart to help you identify regional similarities and cultures. In the column labeled “Regional Culture Names,” write down two regions of a nation or country, such as West Coast and New England. Then, for each cultural expression listed, write down the regional similarities and differences you notice about each region you have chosen to identify.

Table 2.1 Exercise to Identify Regional Cultural Differences and Similarities

Regional Culture Names Cultural Expression Regional Differences Regional Similarities
Dress code

Organizational Culture

When you walk into a Target Store, what do you see? What does it look like? What kinds of items do they sell? What do you see when you walk into a Wal-Mart? What does it look like? What types of people shop at Wal-Mart? Who works there?

Shoppers have different experiences walking into a Target versus a Wal-Mart store because even though they are both retailers, their buildings are different, the types of products they carry vary from each other, the workers wear different clothes, the layout of a Wal-Mart store is very different from the layout of a Target store, and the behaviors expressed by workers in each organization are unique to each retailer. These elements give the organization its distinct culture that separates it from the other.

Organizational cultureA culture that is specific and unique to an organization, making that organization distinctive from competitors and non-competitors. speaks to the culture that is specific to an organization—the culture that makes it distinctive from competitors and non-competitors. Organizational cultures are often referred to as “corporate cultures” and reflect the beliefs, values, and assumptions of an organization. For example, the culture of one school in a school district can be different than the culture of another school located in the same district simply because of what the people in one school culture adhere and react to.

Team Culture

Lupe oversees a business division that includes sales people, engineers, research, and customer service staff. All teams work in different ways to accomplish their business strategies, but they also have work that is cross functional, relying on each other to get their work completed. At times, Lupe is overwhelmed at the teams’ cultural differences and the impact it has on productivity and sales. She knows that each team has their own working styles, but she didn’t realize how much these styles could interfere in the day to day operations of the division.

The sales department seems more outgoing and energetic than her engineers, who as a whole seem introverted and serious. Her researchers are detailed and scientific in nature, always questioning the tactics of the sales people. Her customer service employees who are by nature people and service friendly and always wanting to make sure everyone gets along. These departments work well, but Lupe knows that silos in the organization can hinder growth and creativity.

The example above illustrates culture at the team levelThe values, beliefs, and norms of culture exhibited on a team level.. The values, beliefs, and norms of culture are present in team environments, dictating the team’s operations and efficiency. Cultural norms in teams guide members in their dress and appearance, their language, how they relate to one another, and how they get along. Some teams are very serious, while others use humor in their work life. Departments, teams, or workgroups can, and will, act very differently from each other even though they are located in the same building and in the same organization. Although you might not think about personality or temperament as cultural elements, they can and do shape a team’s culture.

Individual Culture

Individual cultural differences relate to your preferences for things through your personal experiences that include the influence of your family, your peers, school, media, co-workers, and so on. You may share a national culture, such as being an American, with another person and live in the same regional culture, the Midwest. You may even work with the person in the same organization and department, thus sharing an organizational and team culture, and even though you share similar interests, you will likely have differences in individual cultureIndividual differences that relate to an individual’s preferences for things based on culture and personal experiences, including the influence of family, peers, school, media, coworkers, and geographic region. based on who you are and your social upbringing. The following example illustrates these individual differences:

Bao, 31 years old and Hua, 32 years old, are both Chinese American managers living in San Francisco. They both grew up in the area as third generation Chinese Americans. Both attended universities on the East Coast in the same city and majored in public policy. Bao and Hua work for a national nonprofit that funds grassroots leadership projects in Chinese-American communities in the United States. Both work in the programming department of their organization and have been there four years each.

Bao and Hua, although similar in their cultural backgrounds, have different perspectives based on their individual cultures. Bao’s mother passed away while she was very young and she was raised by her father and aunts. Her father was not around because of long work hours. Bao, with the help of her aunts, raised her younger siblings. Her mother’s death was a significant event in her life as she felt she did not have the mother-daughter relationship that many of her peers did. As a result she is overly protective.

Hua is the youngest child in her family. Both her parents are still alive. Hua was raised around many of her relatives who took care of her while her parents were working. She has always been given what she wanted or needed. Whenever Hua had a problem, her older siblings took care of the situation. As a result, Hua is quite relaxed in her demeanor and approach to life.

When Bao and Hua make programming decisions, Bao approaches her decision-making process from a methodical and careful perspective, always looking out for the program’s and organization’s needs. Hua, on the other side, is more relaxed in her approach, more willing to allow for flexibility and ambiguity.

Bao and Hua’s cultural experiences have shaped them into different individuals and have impacted their managerial and leadership styles. Even though they share many similar cultural experiences, their individual cultural experiences have strong influences on them. Bao’s methodical and careful decision-making processes are a result of her having to be responsible at a very early age. Hua’s relaxed approach comes about because of her experiences as the youngest child and always knowing that she would be taken care of—that everything would be okay in the end.

These five levels of culture are important to think about and recognize, but it should also be understood that each of these cultures can be expressed in subcultures or microcultures. Not everyone acts or behaves the same in a national culture such as the United States. There are regional, county, and city differences within the national culture of being an “American.” There are religious differences as well as gender cultures, ability and disability cultures, cultures revolving around sexual orientation, and even cultures centered around concepts or states of being, for example, the culture of homelessness or the culture of juvenile delinquency.