cultural experiences

May 15, 2024 •

7 min reading

Guest experiences: Importance of emotional engagement and culture

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This article explains how positive guest experiences and cultural experiences go hand-in-hand in hospitality.
Having lived and worked all over the world – or pretty much – one of the things I am particularly conscious of is culture. I make a point of reading up on a culture – a country’s history, its people, customs, and religions; not to mention understanding its cuisine and gaining an appreciation of the language. Even if I can’t always speak it, language provides insight into the people and how they communicate.

Take, for example, the characters that make up Chinese-based languages, which carry meaning beyond the literal sense of the word. The “symbol” – its shape and form – describes the word. This is important in a high-context society like China that relies on context to create meaning.

The importance of cultural experiences in hospitality

Culture is particularly important in hospitality where the experience, especially in luxury, is everything. Although there may be practical reasons for staying somewhere, such as for business purposes, “the stay” is the product. It is what you purchase. Unlike going into a store to buy a tangible product – some jewelry or a handbag – guests may stay over an extended period from days to several weeks, particularly if on vacation. They may be traveling alone or with family. For the duration of their stay, this is “their home”. And, the home is where a lot of culture is played out whether it’s about cleanliness and hygiene, eating or drinking, sleeping, and a lot more; as well as how they structure their day and their time.

Guests, as travelers, may enjoy immersing themselves in a new or different culture. For some, it is a reason for travel. It adds value and provides novelty. It is part of the travel experience itself. But travel can also bring a feeling of dépaysement or disorientation particularly when in a country or location that is unfamiliar and/or exposed to a culture very different from one’s own. As employees working in the hospitality industry, recognizing culture and showing respect for a guest’s culture is a way to help overcome feelings of disorientation. It is also a way to personalize and emotionally engage with the guest in ways that will positively influence the overall guest experience. It can help to make the guest feel welcomed and at ease. To make them feel “at home”. Overall, it can help increase satisfaction and build loyalty.

This is not about the brand – the hotel for example – making significant interventions to accommodate the various cultures of their guests. Who you are as a brand – your values and culture – as well as where you are, and your geographical location, are important. They carry cultural meaning and can provide a sense of place. This recognition of culture is more subtle. It influences how you interact with a guest - greet and engage with them before, during and after their stay. It includes little things that show recognition and respect of their culture and may avoid making a cultural faux pas. For example, appreciating how culture affects meaning and emotional responses to sensory stimuli and what is lucky or unlucky in respect to numbers and colors. It is about identifying opportunities to meet specific cultural needs based on their cultural values and norms, simple gestures that show one cares; as well as creating opportunities to surprise – going above and beyond the guest’s expectations.

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The effect of culture on the guest experience

So, what do we mean by culture? In brief, culture is an accumulation of shared meanings within a group that creates a degree of conformity. It plays a role in defining core values, as well as perceptions, habits, and expectations that will affect individual behavior based on cultural norms. Culture provides a context or lens through which we view the world, a different perspective on how we “see” things in life, and what is important based on our cultural upbringing.

Several cultural models and concepts have been developed that provide frameworks for understanding cultures and identifying cultural differences. Many of these will be familiar to business organizations – for example, Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions1 and Trompenaars Seven Dimensions of Culture2 ; but they can also be applied in the context of hospitality and provide insights into managing the guest experience.

For example, using Hofstede’s dimension, how a guest responds to uncertainty depends on the extent of their uncertainty avoidance. This will define their need for systems, process, and order, as well as reassurance; their reliance on tangible evidence versus intangibles; and their concern for health and safety, which includes cleanliness. It will also affect their openness to new products, search for novelty and adventure. A guest’s attitude to service3 may also depend on whether they are from an individualistic or collectivistic society, their tolerance for risk or ambiguity, and their attitude to power distance – their acceptance or not of inequality in society. It also affects complaining behavior. Better understanding a guest based on their cultural values – and their expectations as a result of these values – can help to engage and create a better guest experience.

Furthermore, Hall’s cultural theories and dimensions deal with a culture’s attitude to time4 and the need for personal space5, as well as the extent of context in communication. The latter reflects cultural differences in communication styles6 – direct (low context) versus indirect (high context); and how an individual interprets messages – through words and the literal meaning versus considering the context and what is being implied that goes beyond the information conveyed through words alone. So, whilst speaking the same language can help create emotional engagement, linguistic ability isn’t always enough. Communication competence – being able to interpret not only what is being “said”, but also what is “unsaid”– is also required. This includes understanding the context and the non-verbal communication, such as outward expression of emotions and use of display rules, interpreting facial expressions, gestures and changes in vocalics. But, also having the knowledge and skills to respond in a way that is appropriate and understood. Failure to recognize different communication styles can result in misunderstandings on both sides.

Based on cultural values and norms – the standards of behavior within a society – guests may also have different attitudes toward, or expectations of, hospitality itself. Take, for example, the Japanese, a culture steeped in the philosophy of omotenashi – a holistic approach to hospitality derived from sado, Japan's tea ceremony. Omotenashi is based on caring and anticipating, sincerity and mutual respect. It’s about not expecting anything in return, which includes tipping. This sets standards and expectations for the Japanese when they travel abroad.

It is also important to remember that everyone is different! So, whilst culture may be important in the context of understanding a guest, there are also individual differences to consider based on their personality, background, family environment and upbring, as well as the specific situation or context – who they are traveling with and for what reason etc. So, knowing the individual guest beyond their culture and appreciating specific cultural nuances is also important and this can take time.


Developing cultural intelligence

Gaining knowledge and insights into how to create emotional engagement during inter-cultural encounters and interactions requires developing Cultural Intelligence, also referred to as Cultural Quotient or CQ, which includes cultural empathy. Similar to Emotional Intelligence but in a cultural context, CQ is the ability to understand not only other people’s culture but also one’s own. It encompasses respecting, appreciating and managing the differences in inter-cultural situations. Acquiring this intelligence should be essential to fulfilling the promise, as a host, of “hospitality” to a guest.

CQ can be taught but is also enhanced through experience with intercultural situations and familiarity with a culture. For example, we may “identify” with a specific culture having lived and/or worked in the culture, having a long-term partner and/or have been brought up in a family with a parent of that culture. A propensity for understanding a culture can also arise from cultural proximity where there is a similarity to one’s own culture based on history, ethnicity, religion, language, and/or geography.

Developing CQ can help overcome the assumptions, biases and/or stereotyping – national, cultural and/or ethnic – that can consciously or sub-consciously arise in inter-cultural situations, which can lead to misrepresenting a situation and/or misunderstandings. Appreciating and respecting cultural differences can also help overcome ethnocentrism – cultural or ethnic bias that results from using one's own culture as a frame of reference. This can affect our ability to truly engage with a guest and build a relationship with them. Whilst we have no influence over how guests may respond to employees from other cultures due to their own cultural biases; we can manage our own assumptions and biases – conscious and unconscious – and those of our teams in the respect we show guests from different cultures.


The way forward…

Some guidelines for becoming culturally competent as a basis for creating emotional engagement:

  • Be open-minded – be able to challenge assumptions and avoid quick judgements, stereotyping and being affected by inherent biases.
  • Self-awareness – know your own cultural values, norms and attitudes and your conscious and unconscious feelings towards other specific cultures.
  • Application of cultural dimensions – based on your culture, identify where you are on specific cultural dimensions (for example, Hofstede and Hall’s dimensions) and be able to recognize similarities and differences with cultures different to your own.
  • Conscious and aware of non-verbal communication – be attentive to non-verbal signs, such as changes in posture, gestures, facial expressions and vocalic, as well as spatial rules...and, be aware of your own non-verbals.
  • Interpreting non-verbal communication – think about what is being implied, the cultural meaning of what is being “said”; be cognizant of the individual and the situation or context as a basis for forming an appropriate and informed response.
  • Learn from experience – manage your own verbal and non-verbal communication and behavior in real-time based on the situation or context and by applying cultural understanding and learning from previous experience.

Some ways to develop cultural intelligence within your organization:

  • Identify a culture ambassador responsible for developing cultural awareness and sensitivity within your organization – within your property, but also across properties.
  • Gain cultural insights from the cultural diversity within your teams, but also across properties and those in locations relevant to the culture.
  • Create time for employees to immerse themselves in the culture – national, ethnic and religious – of your key clientele; and provide opportunities to share.
  • Provide training in cultural sensitivity and developing capabilities for cultural intelligence.

[1] Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. 3rd Edition. USA: McGraw-Hill
[3] See: Zhang, P, J.H. Gerdes & F. Meng. (2020). The Impact of National Culture on Hotel Guest Evaluation – A Big Data Approach. International Journal of Tourism Research. 22(5): 582-592
[4] Hall, E.T. (1990). The silent language. Anchor Books.
[5] Hall, E.T. (1990). The hidden dimension. Anchor Books.
[6] Hall, E.T. (1990). The silent language. Anchor Books.

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