Cultural Dialogue: Talking Through Gaps


A major player in relationships in much of the world is the particularistic preference – when people place an emphasis on uniqueness and treat each case singularly, without universal rules. This is true as much in the workplace as it is in social and academic settings.

Some pretty major cultural gaps can occur when people from particularistic cultures move to ones that value universalism – those that emphasize the uniform application of rules, standards and processes.

Take this example of how a particularistic-universalistic preference gap turned a standard situation into a problem for those involved.

Salma moved from Columbia to the US with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. Salma signed her daughter up to attend a private pre-school. The school’s head teacher handed Salma a list of supplies and products to send with her daughter to school, including bedding items for naptime. Salma sent her daughter to school with a pillow but no blankets, as her daughter doesn’t like to be covered while she sleeps. She was surprised to receive an email from the head teacher saying the daughter needed to be provided with a sheet and a blanket as well, as all the students are required to have the same bedding. Salma was irritated by this rule and wondered what was going on.

What Salma did not know is that people in the United States often show a universalistic preference, in that rules – whether speed limits or social etiquette – apply to everyone. Salma, meanwhile, is more particularistic and believes she should be able to decide what items her daughter naps with. She was also taken aback by the teacher’s direct tone in her email, which Salma found abrasive.

In response to the email, Salma could choose to acquiesce and send along the bedding, or she could refuse to comply, which would probably lead to a conflict. The best option for this situation, though, is starting a cultural dialogue. Talking about the issue in an open and non-judgmental way could help Salma and the head teacher understand the root of the problem and work out a solution that benefits them both. They would also establish a platform for future issues that could arise from the cultural gap.

In general, foreseeing possible gaps through cultural due diligence, and then style switching around them, allows people who move to different cultures to avoid confusion and upset. However, for those gaps that have already caused a problem, engaging in cultural dialogue can smooth the way for better future interactions and open the parties’ minds to the cultural preferences that influence their behavior and reactions.