Cultural diversities [sic], isn’t it implicit?

As early as my teenage years, I claimed that every family is a kingdom with its own culture and language.  It only took the annual debates over which grandmother’s stuffing recipe should be used for the Thanksgiving turkey to convince me. For this reason, I’ve always thought that intercultural relationships have one important, yet terribly underestimated, thing going for them. When two people from the “same” culture fall in love, they assume that the other person will understand much of what they say, feel and do. In an intercultural relationship, you tend to work on the opposite assmption and explain things much more explicitly.

But I think what we forget is that there are many cultural faultlines, not just those that correspond to the passport you carry (assuming you have one).  Groups with distinct cultures include countries, regions, ethnic groups, age groups, organizations and even professions/job functions. In this multitude of “tribes” cultures may be a result of “what we do” and “why we do it”, but they may also result from an attempt to proclaim “who we are”.

One of the well-known dimensions of culture is whether it is explicit (what you see is what you get) or implicit (you need to be among the initiated to understand the layers and layers of meaning buried beneath the surface). When culture is used to create an identity, I think it often has implicit tendencies. And those implications are probably not fully appreciated for public relations.

To give a (not-so) clear example (as indeed, that’s rather oxymoronic in an implicit culture): the French culture, in which I have been steeped for nearly a decade is one of the most opaque around, with the education system as a flagrant example.  Rather than just number the years you have to be in school, they break them down into a series of clumps (maternelle, CP1, CP2, CM1, CM2) and then count backwards from 6 to 1 before tacking on terminal and prépa. (I am sure that I have missed some and am not 100% sure about the meaning of CP and CM, because no one ever spells them out, but I think it’s classe petite and classe moyenne.) It only gets more complicated later when you have to keep track of which numbered subset of  université is where and provides classes in what. (If you think all of the Université de Paris is in Paris, think again…). And of course, sometimes you need to know really obscure things, like the fact that the prestigious Polytechnique is simply called X because there are swords crossing on its logo! Of course, there is no guide to the codes because then it would be explicit and even outsiders could understand it.

Try reading a French newspaper and you’ll see the same tendency: acronyms are never explained, because it is expected that any halfway intelligent reader would already know what they are, so you actually have to do research to become an initiated reader. Contrast that with the Anglo-Saxon rule that every acronym should be written in full the first time it is used.

All of this means that communications and PR need to be designed across a matrix of cultural diversities (i.e. different types of culture), taking into account their implicit and explicit natures. I would argue that one role of public relations is to bring each group’s explicit assumptions to the surface in order to foster mutual understanding. But does trying to reach mutual understanding actually modify the culture/identity of at least one of the groups at the table by making it less implicit? Is this like the principle of quantum physics that you cannot observe an event without changing it? And if so, what are the ethical implications? Are we implying that the implicit culture is wrong? Dysfunctional? Outdated?

This may seem like a rhetorical question, but if you consider how we have moved from a knowledge-is-power paradigm to one where being a knowledge relay (a sneezer in Seth Godin’s terms) is power, I think the issue is very real. Whether talking about governments or multinationals, transparency is heralded as “good”. In a flattened organization, people need not only to know what the organizational strategy is, but to understand how to apply it in their corner of the world. And to do that, they need information, knowledge management tools, access to tools previously reserved for specialist colleagues and suppliers, etc.

I have to admit to feeling a bit troubled.  I have always been a proponent of transparency and open communication, but I’ve also felt it is important to respect and work with people’s cultures. As I have written this, I have begun to wonder whether those two things are always compatible.

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13 Replies to “Cultural diversities [sic], isn’t it implicit?

  1. Bill and Toni, personally I don’t like the word “govern” because that implies control to me (government by the people perhaps being an idealistic exception…).

    I agree that you can’t force people to engage with you, but you can foster that engagement and indeed initiate it, if by “initiate” we mean “make an overture”. Engagement is rather like love. You can’t make someone love you, but you can make the first move. And like love, it rarely happens at first sight, but only after a long-slow process of getting to know each other and learning to trust one another.

    Bill, while it may not be new that you can’t control outcomes, it’s amazing how many people still expect the comms/PR people to “make” bad press go away, just to give one example.

    I think the best that we can say is that PR fosters engagement by 1) preparing the organization for it and 2) making an overture towards stakeholders.

  2. Toni,
    Anyone with experience in public involvement programs or even store openings knows that you can’t control outcomes. So that’s nothing new.
    What you say in the penultimate paragraph makes sense enough, but how often does do things work that way? Perhaps informally, and perhaps that’s good enough, but to be a sound practice, it has to be repeatable

  3. dear Bill,

    I think that what Jim means is that as you cannot manage (in the sense of control the outcome)of relationships with publics (I prefer stakeholders).

    I remember that some years he convinced me that you cannot manage reputation either, but that a relationship, because of its direct interactivity, is more manageable than reputation.

    Then what happened is that the term management has come to mean many other things as well, and the term governance has become more used and not only in its sense of the management of management but more participated, more interactive, more quote in the public interest unquote.

    I prefer to use govern also better than engage (which I did in fact use in your quote…) because stakeholder engagement (talk about splitting hairs…)only comes after stakeholder involvement: meaning that you involve all your stakeholders (who decide themselves who they are and are not selected by you, but you decide to engage with the ones you believe are more important (and this is definitely a decision of management).

    Any sense to you? Or is only splitting hairs?
    thank you

  4. Yes, Toni, I did happen to read this post, and came across this statement:

    “The understanding of the cultural system of any territory, along with its legal/institutional, political, economic, active citizenship and media systems is at the very basis of any effective effort to engage publics in effective relationships.”

    And yet, less than a year ago, James Grunig told Markus Pirchner on this site:

    “I believe it is an illusion to believe public relations ever could initiate and manage interactions and relationships with publics.”

    Unless we are splitting hairs here, there is a conceptual difference between these two statements that must be reconciled. Otherwise, the “global” public consists of any group that might get ticked off by your organization or policies and become active.

    And just try explaining to management the difference between “engage” and “initiate and manage,” or why “engage” is measurably better. Because Professor Grunig thinks so? I don’t think so, because what management expects PR people to do is initiate and manage. Subtleties like these just land PR in the same soft patch it has been struggling to get out of for years.

  5. Heather, please bear with me.

    Leaving aside the horrible and revealing language used by cipr’s marcommms group to tout its event, why would it be ethically questionable to integrate awareness and knowledge of neuroscience in performing our activity?

    Very interested to read your thoughts about this.

  6. Toni,

    I’m just about to write a post on Greenbanana about PR and psychology as the CIPR Marcomms Group is running an event: Unlocking the secrets of the brain: the nascent world of neuro PR – claiming “Applied psychology and neuroscience are the new tools available to PR practitioners”.

    As someone with a degree in psychology – and a reader of Jon White etc – PR has long been apparent to me as applied psychology.

    Should we should take the next steps of determining our campaigns on the basis of neuroscience? Would that address the challenge of culture? It sounds ethically questionable to me.

    Kristen – I’ll explain my understatement as a British trait – which could also be taken as irony, or tact. Actually, my mum lives in France, where she is known in her village as the Roast Beef, or to parody the Little Britain comedy show, “The Only Brit in the Village”.

  7. Only to clarify what I intend by cultural system in the context of a territory’s public relations infrastructure.

    There are various scholars of organizational culture who have ‘bridged’ the gap between the ever dripping general concept of culture and the needs of anyone who intends to keep this facto in mind when operating.
    Two important ones are dutch: Ghert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars.
    The first (see is an ex IBMer turned consultant and scholar.
    He developed a widely used process to assist organizations in understanding the influence culture has on both organizations and nations.
    He looks at a number fundamental variables and through an acceptably rigorous methodology allows one to receive intersting operational inputs.
    Similarly, but with a more specific focus on organizational culture, the second, Fons Trompenaars, also scholar and management consultant (disclosure: privileged that he is a good friend and colleague), has not only added a couple of variables, but has also developed a significantly different operational framework in his analysis.(see

    Recently I heard from asian colleagues comments about the eccessive ethnocentricity of both approaches.
    Probably so and useful to keep in mind, but still it seems to me to be, as we say in Italy, meglio che un calcio in bocca (better than a kick in the mouth..).

    So there is some sort of accepted methodology to professionally approach what Heather likens to a russian doll set….
    I have often used it in recent years and it has proven to be highly convincing.
    Yes, certainly we have not found the golden geese, but at least we have operational tools to impede us to go wild chasing the nth definition and, when tired of running, give it up and return to business as usual (which is even worse than the russian doll syndrome).

    Having said this, I do concur with Heather that the degree of social liquidity, the fading presence of anything which looks like what we have learned to call public opinion, the ongoing splintering and composition of publics in lack of authoritative references to refer to etcetera, etcetera….. make it very challenging to answer Heather’s question: quote
    Can PR really hope to accommodate individuality or are we simply looking to segment into homogeneous cultural clumps (stereotypes) and hope they will do?unquote

    A tentative reply could be that this digital and liquid society is helping and pushing public relations professionals to return to their uniqueness: relationships.
    In theory technology today allows what only a few years ago was considered blasphemy, but which is at the very basis of our profession.

    I will not go to the extreme to say that psychology is more important for us than sociology, but I will dare to say that psychology is more important than good writing….

    The reason why I bring up the good writing issue is not only that the anglosaxon (particularly american)pr education model has a paranoia about good writing mostly because it is culturally subservient to journalism much more than to organizational or management thought, but also because such paranoia is historically based on the need by organizations to use printed and widely distributed media in order to reach stakeholder publics which otherwise would not have been reachable and which to the contrary today can be.

  8. This is quite possibly one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever seen: “Traditionally, I suppose the French state has attempted to resist some cultural changes”.

    France has always been predicated on the concept of a centralized, homogenized state. It first tried to wipe out internal diversity (by forbidding the use of Breton and other languages) and then tried to impose a total assimilation model on its immigrants. It is illegal (i.e. unconstitutional) to even collect statistics on people’s ethnic origin because it goes against the principle of everyone being the equal/the same (the terms being used interchangeably, which I don’t agree with) in the eyes of the Republic. The problem is that it is not true on the street: experiments changing names on identical CVs have shown that prejudice is rampant, if insidious. However, without any statistics to even know the size of the problem, it is virtually impossible for the state to address the problem. Just one look at the Assemblée Nationale is enough to convince you that the French institutions do not in anyway reflect the current French population.

    The problem from a communications perspective is that the disconnect between the institutions and the population effective discredits any communication or other campaign on the issue before it even gets started. I have been amazed to see how a cult of Obama exists in my suburb, which has a large working class neighbourhood. I think it is related to the fact that Obama’s election has pushed these groups to compare and contrast and explicitly ask the question: where is our Obama?

    To be honest the French use much more Franglais than the Québecois do (I generally am highly amused by conversations between a French person and a Quebecker because of the subtext around this fact). And it has been years since I have heard of anyone getting a warning letter about using too much English in their international-facing business (although at my former place of employ we received them regularly for a while, even though our mission had nothing to do with interacting with the French public…)

    But we are digressing a bit…I guess the point is that no culture stands still, so defining respect of a culture is rather like pinning gelatin to the wall.

    Sometimes we need to be frank that the culture is a problem. My brother worked for years in a project with the Ministry of Health in Botswana to reduce the transmission of AIDS. After a long period of modest results the ministry and its project partners came to the conclusions that certain cultural practices (what they call “small houses” or having multiple families in the different places that a man migrates among for economic reasons) were a major vector, and they started explicitly trying to modify this cultural behaviour. It was a courageous step, but unavoidable if the scourge of the disease is to be reduced.

  9. Kristen,

    The 2001 census recorded mixed race for the first time showing the UK has the largest mixed race population within the EU. This is the fastest growing demographic group here, with half mixed race Britons aged 18 years of age. According to Wikipedia, by 2020 the mixed race group will be the largest ethnic minority in Britain – increasing by 50% in the next decade.

    In 2005, it is reported that 3.5 percent of all births in Britain were mixed race. As you say, these statistics will have an effect on culture and communications in years to come – but we should note of course, that in the UK at least, assimilation of different communities has occurred over centuries bringing diversity to the UK culture in lots of ways.

    Traditionally, I suppose the French state has attempted to resist some cultural changes – such as Franglais. English has always been more adaptable as a language – witness our bungalows and pyjamas from India as well as lots of French, Italian and German derived words.

    Also, I see news announced today that in the Netherlands, Mohammed is the most popular name in four Dutch cities and it is reported as the 2nd most popular boy’s name in the UK (combining all variants – and accepting that the name is often given, but not the name used).

  10. Toni — Thanks for a lot of useful resources. With regard to your last point, you talk about learning to play with antoher set of cards> I’ve just looked at the GLobal Alliance’s Code of Professional Standards for the Practice of Public Relations, and I note that neither transparency nor respect are listed among the guiding principles. You might argue that Advocacy covers openness, but I am not so sure since it specifies only “providing a voice in the market place of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate. And while the principle of Honesty includes accuracy and truth, it does not include completeness.

    Heather — In addition to your point, there is also the issue of the “third culture”, which I assume is similar to lexis Debeljak’s creolization (although I haven’t yet had a chance to look at the reference, so I might be totally off the mark). More and more children are the product of two national/ethnic cultures. They are growing up in what by many accounts is a totally unique culturall cocktail, yet there are apparently some traits that Third Culture Kids share —

    Not too long ago, I heard the surprising statistic that 20% of couples in France today consist of a French national and a foreigner. That has implications both for the children of those couples and the French culture in a generation’s time. Already, I think we see the beginning of that cultural shift with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy and the varied reactions to him and whether he is “présidentiable”.

  11. An added “problem” today for PR practitioners is that culture is like a set of Russian dolls or maybe Rubic’s cube. Surely people are increasingly multi-faceted in their cultural identifications. On the one hand we have some large (even global) tribes, with a macro-culture, which stereotypes may help us understand. These apply to say bankers in the modern world – aren’t they all greedy ********??!!

    But then we have micro-cultures which may be as Kristen started her post in identifying within family or other niche units.

    Which brings us to mass versus personal communications really. The mass approach really involves grouping culture and understanding more macro-characteristics – but with online and social media, it could be argued we are more individual and our cultures are diverse beyond normal considerations of what diversity means.

    So do you want to consider my culture purely as a white British woman (there’s three variables alone for you) – or define my culture even more minutely to really try to understand what makes me tick?

    Can PR really hope to accommodate individuality or are we simply looking to segment into homogeneous cultural clumps (stereotypes) and hope they will do?

  12. A troubling post, Kristen, for someone who tries to help executive master students rationally cope with global relations and intercultural communication….

    A first consideration (I hope that Bill Huey will read this..) is that the public relations community has developed in recent years a substantial body of knowledge on the issues you raise, much more so than any other profession I can think of (save of course for sociologists and cultural anthropologists).

    Driven by the passion and stamina of Larissa Grunig, cultural diversity and intercultural relationships have been a consistent and familiar topic of study and discussion.

    Not everything is worthy, but a lot my view of course.

    Sriramesh Krishnamurthy is possibly the most innovative and prolific author and his recent second edition of the Global Public Relations Handbook has some really stimulating and decisive thoughts and rationalizations.

    My students also enjoy reading this…%22+&um=1&ie=UTF-8&oi=scholarr
    paper by the young Italian scholar Chiara Valentini, who now teaches in Denmark (nemo propheta in patria…).

    In 2005 the Global Alliance and Ferpi convened some 600 professionals and scholars from 44 countries for two days in Trieste to passionately discuss ‘communicating with diversity, in diversity, for diversity’.
    Many of the perspectives were directly linked to the issue of implicit, explicit cultures and to intercultural relationships.
    The Journal of Communication Management edited a special issue with all the proceedings which is available from the publisher.
    A good summary of the proceedings prepared by another young Italian scholar Silvia can be read here

    Of course the Institute for Public Relations’ committee for research in global public relations has also produced a lot of good work ( .

    Lastly, only a few weeks ago the Bled Symposium in Slovenia was entirely dedicated to the cause-effect-cause interrelationships between culture and public relations and many of the papers dealt with the issues you raise.
    You may peruse them here ( .

    The understanding of the cultural system of any territory, along with its legal/institutional, political, economic, active citizenship and media systems is at the very basis of any effective effort to engage publics in effective relationships.
    This amounts to what I define as the public relations infrastructure of a territory, aka as ‘specific applications’. However time and time again, case and case again, have proven that effective relationships, while tightly bound to that infrastructure, are also embedded in the adoption of generic principles, which allow you to be clear and confident about your own and distinct cultural identity to the point that you are ready to engage in a relationship whose aim is to enrich both.

    An interesting and stimulating post modernist ethnocentric perspective is the one given in Bled by the young Slovenian poet and philosopher Alexis Debeljak who spoke abut the creolization of contemporary society (

    As much as it troubling (and fascinating) from a purely professional point of view there is little doubt that the ‘open communication’ format which you describe is not mainstream in most Asian African, Southern European and Latin American regions, and this is why the day-to-day practice of global public relations implies learning to play with another set of cards.

    Certainly a full awareness of this by the individual professional is the first step to effectiveness.

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