Context and Culture: How context affects the impact of culture, Part 1

This post is the first of a three part series on Context and Culture

When people think of culture and its impact, their minds often turn to national differences and ask questions like “How do I deal with people from X country?” or “Why are people from X country so loud (or so quiet)?”  There are several problems with such questions:

  • They assume that all people from a particular country behave in the same way and can be handled in the same way (an inaccurate overgeneralisation).
  • They assume that cultural differences are mainly associated with countries (an oversimplified assumption).
  • They fail to consider the role of context (a major omission).

In this series of GPC Insight pieces, I’ll be focusing on the third point: the role of the context. First, though, let me explain briefly how at GPC we interpret culture.

What is culture?1

There is no easy definition of culture, but one way of thinking of it is as follows: ‘the way we do things around here and our beliefs about what is good or bad’. Although this is a very simple statement, it draws out four core features of culture:

  • ‘We’ refers to a particular group of people – culture is always associated with social groups of some kind. These groups can be various, including regional, professional, religious, as well as national.
  • ‘The way we do things’ refers to the fact that a particular group of people often develop common patterns of behaviour and tend to expect others to behave in the same ways as they do.
  • When people don’t act in the way others expect, they tend to make evaluative judgements as to what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
  • ‘Around here’ refers to the specific context in which the behaviour occurs.

What is context?2

In this series of GPC Insights, I’ll gradually explain what context covers. In fact, there are multiple levels to context, ranging from the immediate context of the interaction (what we call the interactional context) to the broader situational context such as the organisation, sector, country, and region of the world that the interaction takes place in. In this first in a series of GPC Insights on Context and Culture, I focus on the people involved in the interactional context – the participants.

Part 1: The communication setting – the participants

When we talk with people, the interaction always takes place in a particular communication setting – what is known as the interactional context. There are several key features of this context that affect the unfolding of the interaction. In this GPC Insight, Context and Culture, Part 1, I focus on one of the features: the participants. See Context and Culture Part 2 for an explanation of other features of the interactional context.

The participants as individuals

First of all, it’s important to emphasise the obvious point that participants are individuals. Even when people have been brought up in the same country, or area of a country, they may easily hold different viewpoints and have different preferences for ways of doing things. This can partly be due to their different personalities but can also be due to the influence of more specific socialisation experiences, such as their experiences within their family group and other social groups they are members of.

It’s essential, therefore, not to lump together everyone from a similar social group – national, ethnic, religious, etc. – and assume that they all hold the same views or have shared ways of behaving.

Relationships between the participants

Next, it’s important to consider the nature of the relationship between the participants, because this will affect what people say and do, and how they respond to what others say and do.

Consider the following incident that took place in the UK.

My husband and I went to visit a Chinese family we knew well and who had invited us for lunch. It was an informal occasion and so we were dressed casually. When the wife opened the door, she almost immediately asked: “Helen, why are you wearing those terrible trousers?” I was taken aback, as I personally thought the trousers were fine.

One stereotype of Chinese is that they are very indirect, yet here the wife was extremely direct in her comment to me. Why was that? It was because of our close relationship. Chinese will often be indirect when they don’t know the other person well but can be very direct when they have a close relationship with the other person. In other words, her wording was influenced by our relationship – a key feature of the interactional context.

Of course, the nature of the relationship between people always influences choice of language, yet there is a tendency to ignore that when thinking of the impact of culture. There are two key dimensions to participant relationships: how equal or unequal the individuals are her (e.g. in terms of status or power) and how close or distant they are. Communication is always affected by both these factors, but exactly how it is affected can vary across languages and cultural groups.

Participant roles and responsibilities

A further key feature of the participants is their roles (e.g. manager, customer, teacher, parent), along with the responsibilities that each of the participants associate with those roles. It includes the rights that participants feel they and others are entitled to, and the obligations that they think they and others should fulfil.

Consider the following incident that happened to me in my role as a PhD supervisor at a university in the UK.

My department had accepted a new international PhD student and had allocated her supervision to me. She was coming to the UK with her husband and 5-year-old son. We exchanged a few emails in the months prior to her start date. Then, shortly before she was due to arrive in the UK and travel to the university, she sent me an email giving me the precise details of her travel plans. This included the exact arrival time of the train she had booked on from the airport and the address of the apartment she was going to be living in.

For me this raised a number of questions:

  • Was she expecting me to meet her and her family at the train station and take her to her apartment?
  • Was I expected (or obliged) to do this in my role as her PhD supervisor?
  • How wide or narrow are the role obligations of a supervisor? Are they purely academic or broader than this?
  • What expectations did this PhD student have of me, in my role as her supervisor? Would she be offended if I didn’t collect her and her family on arrival?

In the UK, there would usually be no expectation that a PhD supervisor would provide a ‘meet and greet service’. However, having worked overseas for many years myself, I was very familiar with the different expectations that can occur around the role of a teacher. When I worked in Shanghai, the students were simply wonderful in showing all kinds of care and support which I appreciated tremendously.

So, in this case I was more than happy to meet her and her family at the train station, take them to their apartment, and ensure they had everything they needed for the first day or so in the UK. However, I might have thought differently without any awareness of cultural differences on role responsibilities and might have wondered whether this student was going to be overly demanding. Cultural factors can have a major impact on people’s conceptions as to what people should or should not do in relation to their roles and their expectations as to what others should or should not do.

The next GPC Insight, Context and Culture Part 2, will focus on the second key feature of the Interactional Context. To make sure you don’t miss it, along with other GPC Insights, follow GPC on LinkedIn.

Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey


[1] For further insights into culture, see:

  • Spencer-Oatey, Franklin & Lazidou (2022) Global Fitness for Global People. How to manage and leverage cultural diversity at work. Castledown.
  • Spencer-Oatey & Kádár (2021) Intercultural Politeness. Managing Relations across Cultures. Cambridge University Press. Chapter 3.
  • Spencer-Oatey (2021) What is culture? GPC Core Concept compilation.

[2] For further insights into context, see:

  • Spencer-Oatey & Kádár (2021) Intercultural Politeness. Managing Relations across Cultures. Cambridge University Press. Chapter 5.