Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools - Culture Matters

Chapter Summaries

What is Culture Matters?

Man walking through bush in Nicaragua.
Culture Matters is a collection of cross-cultural activities for Peace Corps trainees. While it does not contain country specific information, it does treat a wide variety of topics that apply to all cultures and which are part of the daily life of all Peace Corps Volunteers around the world. This book deals especially with crossing cultures, the experience of a person from one culture entering into and becoming part of another. To that end, the exercises help trainees identify key dimensions of culture: such as the concept of the self, the notion of time, styles of communication, attitudes towards risk, age, change and formality, to name only a few, and then asks learners to examine American cultural norms and expectations in these areas and compare them with those of the host country. This comparison and contrast approach is what is meant by cross-cultural training.

An Outline of the Workbook
There are six chapters and four subsections, called Fundamentals of Culture. The chapters are organized in a deliberate sequence, according to the logic presented below. The concepts covered in the subsections seemed too broad and all-inclusive to be contained inside any one chapter and, hence, are presented on their own. The content of each chapter and the reasons why it is important are described in the summaries given below:

Chapter One: Understanding Culture
The workbook begins by laying the foundation for what is to come, examining and talking about culture as a concept before looking at any particular culture. The various exercises define culture, show how people acquire their culture, and show how culture influences behavior and affects most common interactions, both on and off the job. This chapter also distinguishes culture from what is not culture, namely, universal behavior that is common to everyone and personal behavior that is unique to each individual, in order to put culture into the proper context.

Chapter Two: American Culture & American Diversity
Cross-cultural understanding requires knowing one's own culture as the essential starting point. Trainees need to understand their own values and beliefs in order to be able to see how they may differ from those of the local people, for it is precisely these differences that are the source of most cross-cultural problems. In this chapter, trainees will do a number of activities that will help them see their own culture's basic assumptions, values, and beliefs. This chapter also helps trainees explore the ways in which they may personally be different from the typical or generic American described herein.

Chapter Three: Styles of Communication
Virtually any interaction with another person involves some kind of communication. This chapter examines the role culture plays in both verbal and nonverbal communication. By understanding their own communication norms and those of the local culture, trainees will learn how to interpret the things host country nationals (HCNs) say and do more accurately, and also learn how their own actions are interpreted by HCNs.

Photo of woman and small child in Nicaragua.

Chapter Four: Culture In The Workplace
This chapter and the next consider culture in two specific contexts: the workplace and the realm of social interaction. In this chapter, trainees will consider the workplace implications and consequences of the cultural differences they have already studied (in chapters 2 and 3 and in the Fundamentals subsections). In addition, this chapter also describes and examines three new cultural dimensions: the concept of power, of uncertainty, and of status, which have particular relevance to the world of work.

Chapter Five: Social Relationships
This chapter deals with the other realm of Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) life, social interactions. As in the work chapter, this section also asks trainees to bring to bear on this important topic all the things they now know about culture. In particular, these exercises look at three key types of social relationships most PCVs become involved in or otherwise need to know about: relations with host country families, friendships with HCNs, and romantic relationships with HCNs.

Chapter Six: Adjusting To A New Culture
The focus in this chapter shifts from understanding American and the host culture to adjusting to the new country and culture. Understanding, the objective of the rest of this workbook, contributes greatly to adjusting, of course, but adjustment is a process unto itself. This chapter examines the cycle of adjustment, levels of cultural awareness, and the evolution from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism. It also looks at the common adjustment problems of PCVs and at strategies for dealing with them.

The Fundamentals Of Culture
The four dimensions of culture presented in these subsections: the concept of self, personal vs. societal obligations, the concept of time, and the locus of control, underlie and affect a wide range of human interaction. These are, in effect, supercategories under which most of the other aspects of culture presented in the workbook fit as subcategories. As they try to understand why host country people behave the way they do, PCVs will be returning to these dimensions again and again for an explanation. This is why these four topics are treated in more detail than others, for they need to be understood more completely.

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