The importance of awareness of “cultural” differences: the case of my remote control

The other day my remote control completely stopped working, just as I had turned on the television for the news. Very annoying, as I had turned off the sound because I didn’t want to listen to the commercials. So I was trying to lip-read the news while frantically pushing buttons – with no result. In a desperate attempt to catch at least the weather forecast, I quickly changed the batteries – and oh wonder, it worked again! Granted, the remote control had occasionally been flashing two buttons at me for about six months. This only led me to conclude that it must be breaking down, while in fact, the remote control was trying to convey to me that its batteries were running low…

This made me think again about the importance of being aware of cultural differences. As I pointed out in an earlier post, many expats sent to nearby countries assume the culture is more or less the same. They underestimate cultural differences, and this lack of awareness could cause difficulties. This is also called the “psychic distance paradox” (1). If you are not aware that someone is trying to communicate something, you might completely miss the point (as in the case of my remote control).

A case in point is direct and indirect communication styles. For example, the English generally communicate in a more indirect way than the Dutch. Any Englishman is likely to give some indirect cues durinGet around in English - How to be politeg a conversation with a Dutchman. The latter, however, is not so well trained in picking up these clues, which might then completely miss its target. If aware of cultural differences with regard to direct and indirect communication, the Dutchman might pay more attention to possible indirect clues and the Englishman might give more direct clues.

It is important to become aware of the many cultural differences that exist in this world. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we shy away from certain contacts because we have drawn the wrong conclusion, just as I nearly threw away my remote control?

(1) O’Grady, S., & Lane, H. W. (1996). The psychic distance paradox. Journal of International Business Studies, 27(2), 309-333.

About Marian van Bakel

I graduated in International Business Communication at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. After my studies I was a Visiting Study Fellow at University of Oxford where I conducted a research on the adjustment of Dutch diplomats and their partners in London. In February 2012 I successfully defended my PhD thesis ‘In Touch with the Dutch’, in which I put expatriates in touch with a Dutch host to examine the effect of this contact on the success of the international assignment. During my PhD research I also worked as in house communication consultant at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. I am currently a postdoc at the Department of Leadership and Corporate Strategy at the University of Southern Denmark ( Since 2004 I have done extensive voluntary work in the intercultural field for the Young Society of Intercultural Education, Training and Research (Young SIETAR). One of my projects was to co-edit and co-author A Suitcase Full of Discoveries (2008), an intercultural storybook for children.
This entry was posted in Intercultural communication and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The importance of awareness of “cultural” differences: the case of my remote control

  1. Very wise words! 🙂 many more people need to realize this…. Have a great evening, Jenny

  2. Tom says:

    I am a little bit late with my reaction but anyway; Its important what you wrote, what I like to comment is that this awareness of cultural diffirences also exists in a particular land itself. For instance here in the Twente region people (or maybe the whole of Saxon dialect speaking part in the east of the Netherlands) tend to be a more indirect than people for instance in the west of the country. I think its good to know to be aware of this because if you are for instance to direct to a business man from Twente it could have consequences in the way he assesses you. Its just a tip;).

    • Better late than never! Thanks for the addition – it is certainly true that cultural differences can also exist within one national culture. Sometimes people even have more in common with those who live right across the border than with their fellow countrymen living at the other side of the country. You mention the differences between the east and the west of the Netherlands, and you can make a similar case for the south, and probably the north as well. And that’s only within the Netherlands – imagine the possible scope of cultural differences within a much larger country! So we should certainly be aware that there might be cultural differences within a particular country as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s