May 05, 2023 •

7 min reading

Valuing cultural differences: Why it matters and how to do it right

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When in Rome, do as the Romans – easier said than done! Embracing cultural diversity is the cornerstone of civilized behavior, but do we really know how to to do it? Are we ready to welcome international guests and accommodate them in a culturally intelligent manner at hotels and major international events? Managing cultural differences might be more of a learned art than we realize.

Certainly, Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan in the 4th Century AD, was already wise concerning intercultural encounters by saying “Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi”, meaning ‘If you find yourself in Rome, live according to the Roman custom; if you find yourself elsewhere, live as they do there’.

Despite this timeless statement, intercultural encounters are not always managed optimally by either hosts or guests. This short article seeks to provide, on one hand, limited tips how to become culturally more intelligent in hospitality settings, and on the other, some ideas for further reflections beyond the limited scope of this text.


The standardization of hospitality services

Since the beginning of mass tourism with 25 million international tourists in 1950, tourism has never stopped growing (except the ‘COVID years’). In 2019, the world already welcomed 1.4 Billion international tourists and the forecast for the upcoming decades is an exponential growth.

Consequently, a significantly sensitive question surfaces today: the cultural diversity of current and future guests. Shall we pay attention to cultural differences in hospitality, or rather following the business-as-usual approach that has already resulted in some kind of standardization meaning efficiency, control, predictability and calculability, as Ritzer’s theory of the McDonaldization of the society suggests?

Ritzer’s concept makes society, including hospitality, rational by often denying basic human factors, such as cultural diversity. While the hospitality sector has been developing exponentially in the last few decades, this has also resulted in the sector following international rules and norms leading to a rather standardized service ‘design’ all around the world. Standard operating procedure (SOP) such as checking-in at reception, housekeeping, F&B, operations, la lingua franca (English) as the international language…etc. are alike worldwide, despite some minor and local fine tuning.

Standard services have been also boosted by guests’ universal expectations because until the late 20th Century, international tourism was ‘dominated’ by some economically developed countries, and logically by their cultural specificities. Today, as the tourism diaspora becomes progressively diverse, it is probable that previously standardized hospitality practices may become culturally less ‘suitable’ for all.

Examples such as buffet-style restauration where vegetarians or vegans by choice or religion may feel uncomfortable with ham and eggs next to tofu. Similarly, the question of gender egalitarianism can be challenging if hosts and guests do not find a common ground concerning its palpable and subtle application in hospitality settings.

Consequently, in our still extremely diverse cultural human atlas, the following questions may be pertinent on behalf of both hospitality professionals and guests:

  • Do hotel and event organizers pay attention to guests culturally different backgrounds, their values, norms and their culturally diverse expectations?
  • Do hotel employees have a solid awareness of their guests’ often hidden cultural traits?
  • Do hotel and event organizers train local personnel in the field of cultural intelligence that enhances staff engagement and improved quality of intercultural encounters?
  • Do we, as a guests/visitors, gain knowledge of local culture prior to our voyage, so we can accept differences, and why not, adapt to some of them?

Whether culture is already globalized is an ongoing debate, but the author of this article believes that cultural diversity makes our world unique. Furthermore, as it is in nature’s DNA, diversity means continued existence in the face of monoculture that leads us to destruction.

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The complexity of culture

Welcoming foreign guests in a culturally intelligent manner is challenging because beyond tangible differences such as outfit, salutations and eating habits, among others, underlying cultural differences need to be learnt if hospitality wishes to follow its future endeavour, which is personalizing guests’ hospitality experiences. In memory of the recently passed Swiss-born American Edgar Schein, his classical example of a cultural iceberg clearly illustrates the complexity of a culture, hence, why hosts and guests often fail to understand each other.

Most of us have already experienced what standardized behaviour effectively means in a hotel or at a mega-event, i.e., when we are ‘welcomed’ and ‘treated’ like anyone else. The problem is that ‘anyone else’ does not always feel comfortable with the culturally uniform treatment, either. Crowdedness/closeness make us feel often uncomfortable and disrespected, which is often justified as efficiency and control by the hosts.

Mason Cooley’s quote seems extremely appropriate to describe hotels’ SOPs and its juxtaposition with actuality: “The routines of tourism are even more monotonous than those of daily life.” So, let us move on and learn, train and develop strategies to become better hosts and guests, while meeting the ‘Others’ in an intercultural context.


How to develop cultural intelligence

One meaningful strategy to welcome and meet the ‘Others’ is to increase our cultural intelligence. Systematically learning about the ‘Others’ is an endless learning process that goes beyond historical stereotypes and prejudices that can jeopardize intercultural encounters.

High context vs. low context culture

We often cope with the challenge of understanding our own actions, hence managing cultural diversity seems even trickier. Luckily, there are various academic theories that could help us to become a culturally more intelligent human being and a hospitality professional. Besides the universally well-known Geertz Hofstede’s theory, other studies and projects can also guide us to become more ready for such intercultural encounters. For instance, do you know that the Japanese are extremely high context people, meaning that, in general, they will not criticize openly what may be culturally improper for them?

Personal space

Thinking of the World Expo in Osaka, Japan in 2025, organizers will have to pay attention, besides differences in communicational styles such as high or low context, to proxemics<, meaning how humans use space and how much individuals feel comfortable with closeness to others. Since this is based on the idea that individual territoriality is culturally biased, standardized hospitality in the 21st Century may fall short at an international megaevent.

Monochronic vs. polychronic

Another cultural dimension that organizers could pay attention to is the mono/polychronic behaviour, which means whether individuals focus on one or various tasks at the same time and how much people respect time and punctuality. We all know that certain cultures are extremely punctual, nevertheless extreme monochronic traits can be surprisingly disrespectful to people who consider time-keeping less rigidly. Polychronic cultures may have difficulties to adapt to extreme punctuality. Consequently, at big events such as the FIFA Women's World Cup organized in Switzerland in 2023, staff and volunteers should be aware of the differences to avoid frustration with guests, such as respecting check out or meeting deadlines.

Neutral vs. emotional

In 2024, France will organize the 2024 Olympic Games, which is another megaevent to plan carefully. Worth considering are elements taken from the The Seven Dimensions of Culture such as Trompenaars’neutral or affective dimension, when people may feel ‘lost in translation’, as Bill Murray in Japan, because they do not know each other’s underlying cultural norms and values. For instance, too many facial expressions, strong and direct adjectives or questions that may be considered intimate at first meetings can be inappropriately processed and can engender negative feelings.

Another interesting aspect is the respect of status during intercultural encounters. Excessive informal expressions in the ‘lingua franca’ maybe inappropriate for cultures where status and hierarchy are valued. An example could be ‘tu’ in Spanish or ‘Usted’ in Latin America.

Publicly expressed emotions are against go against cultural norms in some Asian societies. The well-known ‘mianzi’ concept can be translated as ‘face’, but it plays an influential part of most public interactions in China. The concept is in fact much more complex than one may imagine at the first glance. There are numerous intangible traits in Chinese culture, for example, the highly codified seating arrangements during a banquet which requires a developed cultural intelligence on the host’s side. Consequently, hosts welcoming Chinese guests should learn and train personnel in these significative cultural characteristics if they seek the guests’ happiness.

The perception of success

The aspect of individual or collective actions, goals, achievements is another angle for developing an increased cultural intelligence. The upcoming 2023 Olympic E-sport Week in Singapore will welcome multiple countries, and understanding what drives success could be an interesting concept to analyse for hosts. Singaporean culture is much more oriented towards group success, while for instance the Americans, Russians, Swiss and British tend to favour individually achieved results. Merging this with guests’ accepted levels of following rules and taking risks with ease, uncertainty avoidance, could be another aspect of study for event organizers.


Building a culturally intelligent society is a priority

To sum up, whenever intercultural encounters occur in a professional setting, both hosts and guests should be encouraged to improve their knowledge of the ‘Other’. This way, encounters will be not only more pleasant and culturally rewarding, but hosts and guests can also limit cultural clashes in unexpected situations where improvisation and intuition may not be the best problem-solving resources. Thus, hospitality should get more familiar with the concept of ‘cultural intelligence’ and step up its awareness and development of this subtle know-how in our increasingly multicultural world.

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Written by

Assistant professor at EHL Hospitality Business School