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Culture and Tourism:

Building a Successful Framework*

Mark Gordon
Asia Associates Pte Ltd

Joseph Bosco
Department of Anthropology
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Shatin, N.T. Hong Kong

July 1997

We often hear people use the term "culture" today. We hear of cultural differences,
cultural clashes, cultural programs, cross-cultural communication, and cultural
tourism. But culture is usually only vaguely defined. What is culture?

We can define culture as being "a mental map which guides us in our relations to our
surroundings and to other people."[1] This mental map guides the way we make our
houses (do we make them on stilts, or in large towers?). It is the values, attitudes and
beliefs that we hold (for example, do we show special respect to older people, do we
believe in reincarnation?). It is also what guides our behavior, and what allows us to
expect certain behavior of others.

There are several important features of culture. First, it is learned. We are not born
with culture, and it cannot be transmitted through the genes. A two-year old Chinese
child, adopted by an American family and raised in the United States, will still physically
look Chinese a few years later but will be completely American in language, in the way
the child moves and thinks. Culture is often confused with race or nationality, but the
idea of culture focuses precisely on the part of human behavior that is not controlled by

Second, culture is shared, or collective. Culture is a property of a group, not of an

individual. This is why we speak of "Thai culture" or "Chinese culture" and not of an
individual culture like Joe Bosco or Mark Gordon culture. One person cannot by him or
herself change culture; some individuals can innovate, but others must follow for the
culture to change. Now, this does not mean that all members of a culture will behave in
exactly the same way. There are individual variations within any culture, and we should
not expect all members of a culture to behave alike or like robots. Yet, there are
certain patterns in people's values, perceptions, and behavior, that we call culture.

Third, culture is not just the performing arts or what we might call "high culture" like
Mozart's music, Japanese Noh drama, or royal dancing. We all have culture; even the
simplest societies like the !Kung bushmen of southern Africa have a culture. Indeed,
their culture has allowed them to survive in a desert, the Kalahari desert, where any of
us would probably die within a few days because we do not have the cultural knowledge
to find water and food in that arid environment.

Finally, culture often seems so natural that people assume their culture is the only way
or the best way of doing things. But different cultures all think their way of seeing
things is natural and best, but they are neither; they are just different. Our culture is as
natural to us as water is to fish; only when we are out of our water--our culture--do we
begin to see our culture.

* Adapted from a presentation made at the Pacific Asia Travel Association, Asia Business Forum, Malacca,
Malaysia, 07 July 1997.
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 2

We should think of culture as having different layers (Figure 1). Some are more
obvious than others. When a tourist lands in a new city, the first thing she notices is
the clothing, the styles of houses and shrines, the language, and the types of food.
These are the outer layer of culture; they are the explicit and more concrete products
of culture.

A second middle layer of culture is the norms and values. Norms are the ideas we hold,
as members of a culture, of what is right and wrong. Values determine what we think
are good and bad, and determine what our shared ideals are. We are often aware of
these norms and values; we may think that order, democracy, family, or individualism
are important values. We may think that hard work is an important value we have to
instill in our children, or we may think that commercialism and over-valuing money is
bad. We cannot see a culture's norms and values immediately; we need to use a
common language and to spend some time to understand the subtle differences in
norms and values between cultures. But people can talk about their values.

The third and deepest level of culture is a core level of taken-for-granted assumptions
about life and human existence. Some of our cultural viewpoints are so deep inside us
that we do not even recognize them, just as a fish cannot recognize water because it
knows nothing else. Our culture's view of nature, for example, creates in us attitudes
that we are often only dimly aware of. Some peoples want to control nature; they like
human-made environments and air conditioning, and if they take walks in a jungle, they
want wide, paved walks. Other peoples do not want the air conditioning to be too cold,
and like narrow paths of dirt or gravel through the jungle so they can imagine
themselves at one with nature. But these preferences and assumptions about the
world are so deep inside them that they cannot always express them.

Thus, culture is a bit like an iceberg. There is an obvious part sticking out of the water.
There is a less visible part that we can see if we look down in the water (but the water
is cold, so we don't want to look down there too long, just as it is often uncomfortable
and difficult to look into another culture). And deeper yet, there is the vast mass of the
iceberg. We know it is there, but we cannot see it for it is so deep under water.

We are used to thinking of culture as the dancing and the arts, and perhaps we
recognize culture as also being the norms and values. But culture is much more than
that. It affects how we see the world. Many people assume all people are basically the
same, and that culture is just the extra sauce or spice that makes us speak or act a bit
differently. Of course, as biological animals, all humans are indeed basically the same.
But we humans are not really human without culture. There is no such thing as a
human without culture; the few cases of "jungle boys" or feral children who were found
living wild in forests were really just like animals. And as soon as humans have culture,
they see things differently. Let us give you some examples.

Language is one of the more obvious parts of culture. You have probably all known the
difficulty of translating a word or phrase from one language to another. For example,
there are many different words for rice in Chinese: dao is rice with the husk on in; mi is
husked rice; fan is cooked rice. These are thought of as different things in Chinese, but
they are all "rice" in English. The word "beach" in American English suggests a sandy
stretch of land leading up to the water. In some languages, such as Italian, a rocky
beach is still a "beach." An American who imagines a sandy beach and finds it to be
rocky will be sorely disappointed. Indeed, he will feel cheated, misled, and lied to.

What does this mean to you as travel marketers? Most obviously, you have to be
careful in using translations. Most companies already use the system of back-
translating (that is, translating back into the original language) to test a translation's
accuracy. But being aware of culture means more than just being careful in
translating words. Culture includes underlying images and ideas. Even when things
look alike on the surface, their meaning may be very different.
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 3

McDonald's is a global company and seems to be everywhere, and you might think that
eating at McDonald's is the same everywhere. But it is not. Physically, McDonald's
restaurants look much the same, but their meaning is quite different. In the US and
Hong Kong, McDonald's is fast and cheap food. In Moscow and Beijing, however, eating
at McDonald's is a sign of status. It is common in Beijing to see four adults watching a
child eat a hamburger and fries, sometimes even taking pictures to record the special
event. In Hong Kong, McDonald's is not special. It has to have low prices to compete
with fried chicken, pizza, noodle shops and other fast food, but in Beijing, McDonald's is
marketed quite differently, as a luxury item. People eat McDonald's hamburgers to get
closer to a modern cosmopolitan culture, and they take their children to eat it because
they want their kids to learn about this modern future culture.

Tourism marketers must be aware of this. Some cultures have food preferences that
need to be met. This can range from the obvious ones such as halal and vegetarian
diets, to simply providing food for mass market travelers who are not very adventurous
when it comes to new foods. While trying local cuisines may be part of the tourism
experiences for younger Western and Hong Kong Chinese tourists, many mass market
travelers prefer to eat their own culture's food.

If material things like "beach" and McDonald's and food can have different meanings
according to the culture, then more abstract ideas can cause even more cross-cultural
difficulty. In Chinese there did not used to be a term like the English "sorry." This is
why, in Singapore and in Hong Kong, many people use the English word "sorry" even
when they are speaking Chinese. The Mandarin term duibuqi is much stronger, and
would not traditionally have been used in cases such as bumping into strangers. It is
not that the term cannot be translated; since we are all humans, there is a sense in
which anything can be translated, but it may take a lot of words and it will not have
quite the same emotional meaning.

One of us, Bosco, remembers meeting a man about his own age when he was doing
fieldwork in Taiwan. The man told Bosco he was happy to meet him and that they had
yuanfen. The dictionary said this meant "fate" or "the luck by which people are brought
together." Bosco understood this, but did not fully grasp the idea, since in the US he
had never heard such an idea, except perhaps in movies where lovers are supposed to
be destined for each other. How could two men be destined for each other? Even
when his new friend explained the idea to him, it took a long time, and many other
encounters with the concept, before he began to understand how it was used and what
it could mean.

These cultural differences may seem trivial, but they are directly relevant to people
managing hotels, restaurants, and airlines. Tourism is, essentially, the encounter of
strangers. How these encounters are handled will affect the tourist experience. But
we all interpret these encounters through our cultural viewpoints. Service and human
resources are basically cultural.

For example, when an American makes a complaint in a hotel, he or she often only
expects for the staff person to apologize and promise to do something about it. If an
American complains that the service was slow, he or she expects a "Sorry, I'll check to
see what the problem was." They do not expect to get a detailed report; only in serious
situations, or with leaky faucets and dirty rooms, do they expect a quick remedy. But
they do expect their opinion to be valued, and a simple apology--to them--means their
complaint was accepted. Obviously, in other cultures, apologizing is viewed as
demeaning. Sometimes, employees are uncomfortable apologizing in the name of the
organization ("Why should I apologize for something I did not do?").

Japanese tourists, on the other hand, view their stay at a hotel as joining a group,
almost like belonging to a family. They are willing to accept being forced to move to a
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 4

different room, just as family members change rooms when other family members
come back home. Thus, in addition to the professional skills that need to be taught to
employees, the attitudinal skills appropriate to the customer's culture need to be
taught as well. It is not just a problem of translation; the very ideas underlying the
words, the very cultural approach, is quite different.

Employees are sometimes given some training in attitudinal skills, particularly conflict
resolution. If a customer wants something and it is not available, there is a potential
conflict that needs to be defused. Some of the skills necessary are fairly obvious; China
was notorious in the early 1980s for the phrase "meiyou," which means "there are
none," which was a common curt response in hotels, restaurants, and stores.

But even with the best of intentions, misunderstandings across cultures can occur. It
has been found that Hong Kong Chinese have habits of speech which unconsciously
irritate American English speakers. Take the situation in which a fire has broken out in
an office, causing an entire building to be closed off by police.[2]


Policeman: Yes, sir. Can I help you, sir?

Executive: What's the matter? This is my office.
Policeman: Oh, because this on fire and this area is closed.
Executive: But it's my office.
Policeman: Yes.
Executive: What happened? Tell me.
Policeman: There's been fire.
Executive: What did you say?
Policeman: There's been fire . . on this office...
Executive: In my office?
Policeman: No. In this building.
Executive: Oh, but is my office all right?
Policeman: I don't know, but this building is on fire.
Executive: But I must go in and see . . because if . . I've got my papers there and
I've got work to do. You can't keep me out. That's my office.
Policeman: Yes, I see. We are very sorry that . . . Because uh that is very dangerous
Executive: Well, I don't care but I have some papers there that's very important
for me. It's important business. And if I don't get those papers, then
I'm going to lose a lot of money.
Policeman: Yes, I see. Because the building is closed
Executive: You mean . . you mean to say I can't go in?
Policeman: Yes. Nobody allowed to enter the building because the building is
very dangerous.
Executive: Well, can you . . can you call the other officer? you call the other
officer and tell him that I have to get into my office. Can you do that?
Policeman: I'm afraid I can't do it. I'm afraid . . .
From Linda W.L. Young, Crosstalk and culture in Sino-American Communication, 1994.

The businessman is in a hurry to get some documents from his office, both because
they are urgent and because they are valuable. When he tries to enter, the police say:
"Because this [building is] on fire and this area is closed." The police officer is trying to
be polite, but in such a situation, the businessman--as is common--became belligerent
and angry. What has happened is that first, the police have not specifically said "You
cannot enter." They are unnecessarily indirect--for the American--and sound ineffective,
like they are giving an excuse rather than an authoritative statement. They are trying
to influence him with reason, appealing to his self-interest to avoid humiliating him with
a direct command. They present him with the facts--the building is on fire--and expect
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 5

him to come to the logical conclusion that he should not enter. A New York policeman
would be more direct and say: "Hey, sorry, I cannot let you in."

Note also that the word order of the policeman's sentence is the reverse of the usual
English word order. Chinese has a word order "Because X, therefore Y." But in
American and British English, the usual order is "Y because X" as in "You cannot enter
the building because there is a fire." Because of the polite way the policeman stated
the situation, the businessman misinterprets the situation as still being open; perhaps
he can still get in if he insists. In this case, the policeman's attempt to be polite is
misinterpreted as being negotiable, but when the policeman repeats his statement
"There's been a fire," the businessman gets angry and interrupts. So here we have an
illustration of how, despite the proper polite attitude in the police officer, cultural
differences lead to an escalating conflict and bad feelings. Neither person understands
what happened was a cultural misunderstanding.

Non-verbal communication is at least as complicated. It is perhaps even worse

because we often think of hand gestures as universal. But they are not; they are
cultural. How many of you know that making a plus sign with the two index fingers
indicates the number ten? This is what a Chinese peddler did to one of us, Gordon,
once when he asked how much his product cost. Gordon at first thought the merchant
was making a cross to keep him away; in American horror films, the victims use
crosses to keep ghosts and vampires at bay. But then he realized that the merchant
was making the Chinese character "10" with his hands; he wanted ten dollars. This
may seem like a silly example, but think of all the non-verbal signs we make all the time.

Is it proper to smile at strangers? In Moscow, the American style friendliness is

considered to be laughing at the stranger, and may result in a fight. Most Europeans
find American-style friendliness to be odd and intrusive.

An Italian friend of ours, who was traveling in the United States, told us that he was so
surprised when a man said hello to him as they passed on the street that he stopped
walking. The American then also stopped, and the Italian asked the American: "I'm
sorry, have we met before? I don't remember you." The American, who was just
showing ordinary courtesy to strangers according to American cultural rules,
reassured the Italian that they had not met, and they each continued on their own way.

When an employee in a hotel passes a guest in the corridor, should he or she smile,
nod their head, say hello, or all of the above? In some cultures, employees should
remain invisible and should not speak to guests. In other cultures, employees who
ignore guests will be considered rude. There is no solution to this dilemma; we can only
be aware of the fact that our cultural background affects how we view what goes on
around us.

Let us give you one more example of how important non-verbal communication is. In
Hong Kong and China, waiters and waitresses are trained to remove the plates from in
front of guests as soon as the guest finishes eating. Now, first of all this violates the
formal rules of Western European dining, where all plates should be removed at the
same time, and only after the last guest has finished eating that course. But what is
more interesting to me is that waiters in many restaurants have trouble knowing when
the guest is actually finished eating. Western diners have the feeling that as soon as
they put down their fork to rest or to take a drink, waiters try to steal their plate! The
waiters are actually only trying to provide good service, but in their eagerness, they are
actually viewed as being annoying.

The problem is that the waiters, often themselves inexperienced in Western eating
styles and habits, cannot tell the difference between resting and finishing. The signs
are in fact very subtle; the position of the fork and knife, a small shove of the plate, and
sitting back in one's chair, all can mean that the diner has finished that course. The
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 6

waiters know that Westerners can often be quite wasteful and leave a lot of food, so
they know they cannot use finishing the food as a sign of being done. But afraid of
being perceived as not doing their job, they often offer to remove the plate before the
guest is done. The result is a dance between the waiter and the diner, in which the two
are not dancing to the same music. This, as you can see, has a direct application in the
perception of service quality.

We all tend to use our own cultural terms and concepts to describe other cultures.
When we use our own values and standards in seeing other cultures, we call this
ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is natural to all humans, but if we want to succeed in
multicultural situations, we need to transcend it. Tourism in Southeast Asia is certainly
multicultural. We cannot understand tourists and clients if we judge them with our
own cultural standards. Each culture has a different concept of service. Good service
is relative to the person being served. Employees need to be aware of this, have to be
trained to deliver service appropriate to the customer, and to pick up cues from the
customer to know how to respond properly.

Even for sales, the styles of selling (or merchant and business culture) can be an
important factor in whether people buy or do not buy. When the two of us studied
shopping on Orchard Road in Singapore, we found evidence that suggested cultural
perceptions of service may be affecting sales.

When a customer enters into a store or shop, a complex ritual begins between the
shopper (or potential shopper) and the vendor (be it a clerk or owner-merchant). The
vendor estimates the shopper's potential as a buyer and tries to guess his or her
interests. A wealthy-looking buyer may get additional attention or service; special items
may be pointed out. If the vendor makes any mistake (by being too pushy or being too
aloof), a chance for a sale may be lost.

The shopper, too, tries to estimate the quality of merchandise, and evaluates the
vendor and the shop. She does this based on cultural rules she brings with her from
her home culture. Stereotypes and misunderstandings can prevent her from correctly
analyzing the shopping situation. People from some cultures, for example, enjoy
bargaining over the price, while others will shy away from shops that do not have fixed
prices, afraid they will be cheated.

In some famous shopping zones, a merchant culture that does not value service has
developed. Products are expected to sell themselves because of low prices. In Hong
Kong, for example, many shops in areas frequented by tourists cater to buyers who
already know exactly what model camera or walkman they intend to purchase.
Potential buyers who require additional information or advice--service that could in
many cases close the deal--find that vendors are impatient and unwilling to spend the
time. Needless to say, tourists have many complaints about the attitude of such
merchants. Yet such apparently irrational behavior persists because many tourists do
indeed buy exclusively on price, having done their research before going to the territory.
Thus, the microculture of sales clashes with the expectations of shopping service and
the pleasure of tourists. But in the more competitive market of today, such a
merchant culture hurts Hong Kong's image and tourism.

In addition, various forms of sales patter are inappropriate for certain cultures. For
example, tourists from universalistic cultures such as North America are not taken in
by vendor claims of "special price just for you." Indeed, such patter often seems
dishonest to such buyers and leads them to suspect the vendor's honor and reliability
more generally. With other more personalistic tourists, the ability to create a bond
between seller and buyer is important, even if both sides know it is a temporary and
artificial bond. The strategy for sales to such customers would have to be different.
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 7

All humans deal with other people based on cultural preconceptions. These
preconceptions may be that all people are essentially similar (a common North
American preconception), or that other people are fundamentally different from
oneself (a common Japanese and traditional Chinese preconception). Preconceptions
of how others are different may also be either incorrect or may be an obstacle to
closing sales. Preconceptions that, for example, Indians are not big spenders may
simply be the result of imperfect cross-cultural interaction (i.e., the vendor's inability to
encourage the customer to spend), and thus be self-fulfilling. Ironically, in countries
that pride themselves on being multicultural there is a real possibility that the common
business culture of shops which is a mix of various traditions appeals to no shoppers,
and that venders become even less aware of the need to adapt their selling culture to
different tourists.

In the case of Singapore, tourists, especially Japanese and non-Asians, have

contradictory goals. On the one hand, they are seeking the exotic experience of
"ethnic" foods and products. On the other hand, they are visiting a city well-known for
modernity and orderliness. The poor shopping experience that might have been
acceptable as part of the exotic vacation experience is, however, increasingly
unacceptable to tourists who expect modernity and convenience from modern
Singapore, and expect the experience to be at least as pleasant as in their own home

If we can make one generalization about Asian cultures today, it is that Asians have a
greater tendency than Americans--and, we think, French and other West Europeans--to
see their cultures as different from other cultures. Many of the Westerners have had
the experience of having Chinese, for example, complement them on being able to use
chopsticks. This used to strike us as odd, until one of us, Bosco, had brunch with a
Chinese interpreter at the UN in New York. She ordered an omelet, and when it
arrived, she took her fork, skewered it, lifted the whole thing off the dish, and began
biting at the edge. She was eating it just as we all eat pork chops with chopsticks.
Seeing her, made Bosco realize that using a fork and knife is indeed cultural.

Americans and Europeans tend to view using a fork and knife as natural; of course we
knew Chinese ate with chopsticks and not with forks and knives, but we assumed the
fork and knife was simple to use, that anyone could use it almost naturally. It is not that
we did not know fork and knife are cultural objects: we knew the fork was not invented
as an eating utensil until the 17th century during the Renaissance. And we knew there
are cultural differences in fork usage within the "West": Americans are taught to eat
with the fork in the right hand and put their idle left hand under the table; Europeans
wonder what Americans are doing with their hand down there! We were being
ethnocentric by assuming my way of doing things is natural and easily learned; Chinese
on the other hand, are ethnocentric in the opposite way, assuming that their habits are
special to them and difficult for others to learn.

This universalist tendency affects the work of the big multinational consulting firms.
Often, they assume that what works in one country should work elsewhere. They
assume that all tourists are like tourists from their own country. But in Asia, where the
new middle class is now a major and growing proportion of tourists, designing hotels,
restaurants, and advertising for American tourists is not going to work for Taiwanese,
Thai, and Japanese tourists.

Most Americans may be seeking something a bit exotic when they come to Asia, and
will be disappointed when they see everything as modern--if not more modern!--than
back home. On the other hand, all tourists like to find some similarity with their home
customs. They may like the idea of sleeping in a bungalow on the beach, but they may
not be to happy about sleeping in a hammock. Many may even be happy to see a
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 8

There is thus a complex balance between making the tourist destination new, exciting,
and different enough so that the guest is eager to come and encourage others to
come, and making it meet the cultural expectations and assumptions of their home.
This is a cultural balance; the tourist's images of the destination, the home country's
reality, and the tourist's assumptions of how hotels, restaurants, stores, and places of
entertainment should look and operate all need to be balanced. The closer they can be
brought together, the more successful the experience will be for the tourist.

Many of the ways we talk about cultures are based on our own cultural standards. If I
say “Chinese are friendly”, I am basing that judgment on what I expect friendliness to be
like in my culture. Someone from another culture may have a different expectation of
friendliness, and may think the Chinese are not friendly. Both judgments are not wrong,
but only partial, since they are based on different cultures and not on a universal

Anthropologists try to understand a foreign culture in its own terms, and to use
concepts that have cross-cultural validity rather than use the terms and concepts of
their own culture. Most guide and travelers' books, however, address the cultural
differences of cultures such as "the Malays" or "the Chinese" in terms of an Anglo-
American framework that is familiar to the business reader. For example, Michael
Bond's book, Beyond the Chinese Mask, (1991:2-4) (a best-seller by academic
standards) argues that for scientific comparisons of cultures, the cultures need to be
measured by some instrument. He gives the example of the measurement of formality;
each culture's population forms a bell curve along the measurement scale, and the
curves can then be compared to see which cultures emphasize formality more than

This idea is appealing--indeed, intuitive--to the businessperson or traveler. But it is in

fact difficult if not impossible to define formality in any cross-culturally appropriate way.
When is a handshake formal? French primary school children shake hands when they
first meet in the schoolyard in the morning; are they being formal? An American or
Chinese might think so, but the French would not agree. Is the salam Malay handshake
more or less formal than a hard American handshake, or an Indian greeting?
Obviously we cannot rank one as more or less formal; they are simply different acts,
with different though partially overlapping meanings. There is no one point of
reference; formality is culturally relative. A Chinese man walking ahead of his wife and
an American man holding the door for his wife to go first are following traditional
formalities, though their order of walking is the reverse.

In some societies, a ritual like saying "good night" before ending the day is an important
form of politeness and manners, while in others, the ritual is not important, or a
greeting ritual like bowing, shaking hands, or saying "good morning" upon first meeting
in the morning is more important.

When, one of us, Bosco, lived in Taiwan, he found it disconcerting that members of his
host family would seem to sneak off and go to sleep without saying good night. In the
morning, however, a "Good Morning" (gau-cha) was de rigeur. People expecting a
"good night" may find people who do not say "good night" to be informal (if not impolite)
for ignoring such rituals. But Bosco’s Taiwanese hosts, if they noticed that he did not
always immediately say "good morning," may also feel that his culture in turn is an
informal (or impolite) culture. Even if the anthropologist is from a third culture, rating
formality according to the standards of any one culture or some other standard is
always going to be viewed as incorrect and biased. Can we really say we are
measuring "formality"?

When we read statements such as "The Chinese are formal," we should immediately
want to know 1) what is meant by "formal" and 2) "formal" compared to whom. Such
statements are typical of travel guides and handbooks for businesspeople, and people
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 9

often find these books quite useful for dealing with a foreign culture. But they are
written entirely from the native culture's perspective. We must be careful with these
statements; they may or may not be helpful. They are tempting generalizations, but are
not acceptable in multicultural situations, and the people being described will often

Bosco teaches his Chinese University students to experience the difficulty of making
cross-culturally acceptable generalizations by making them read a chapter from good
guidebooks in English about doing business in China. He chooses books that he
considers to be accurate and sensitive. About one third of the students find the
chapter interesting, claiming to be Hong Kong Chinese and therefore to know little
about China. But about two thirds object strenuously to the author's generalizations
that, for example, guests are pressured to drink a lot at Chinese banquets, or that
meals end suddenly without chit chat after the meal. They are offended by discussions
of the exotic things Chinese eat (even though the author specifically advises his readers
not to ask what a dish is because you cannot ask without it sounding like you are
disgusted--"ugh, what is it?"). Americans students reading books written by Chinese
about the United States find the books equally upsetting. We all feel that foreigners do
not properly understand our culture, but we tend to believe we do understand other

An alternative approach to describing cultural differences is to compare cultures along

abstract dimensions. Thus, the Chinese are often said to be more familistic, and
"Westerners" are said to be more universalistic. Chinese are more familistic because
they often live three generations under a roof, because they often run family-owned
businesses, and because they explain their behavior (where they work, what they study,
even who they marry) as being dictated by their family. Westerners are said to be
more universalistic because they follow rules more often rather than making decisions
based on the details of the specific situation. German pedestrians, for example, will
stop at a red light, while many people (including mainland Chinese, Italians, and some
Hong Kong Chinese) will cross the street if there are no cars--or police officers--around.

This approach is often quite useful. We can find that people in different cultures will
tend to respond in different ways to a given situation. For example, Fons Trompenaars
[3] has asked businesspeople of managerial level from many countries a series of
questions, and compared their answers country by country. These questions get at the
underlying dimensions that have long been identified by social scientists, such as
universalism vs. particularism, individualism vs. collectivism, and affective vs. neutral
cultures. One classic example illustrates these deeply embedded dimensions. Though
it is not travel related, and hopefully none of you will face such a situation, it well
illustrates the difference between universalism and particularism.

"You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was
going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed
speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify
under oath that he was only driving 20 miles per hour it may save him from serious

What right has your friend to expect you to protect him?

a) My friend has a definite right as a friend to expect me to testify to the lower

b) He has some right as a friend to expect me to testify to the lower figure.
c) He has no right as a friend to expect me to testify to the lower figure.

What do you think you would do in view of the obligations of a sworn witness and the
obligation to your friend?
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 10

d) Testify that he was going 20 miles an hour.

e) Not testify that he was going 20 miles an hour.

Percentage of respondents opting for a universalist answer rather than the helping
friend (answers c or b+e)

South Korea 26%

Venezuela 34%
Russia 42%
Indonesia 47%
China 48%
Malaysia 55%
Hong Kong 56%
Greece 58%
India 59%
Singapore 67%
Japan 67%
France 68%
Philippines 69%
Austria 80%
UK 90%
USA 95%
(Source: Trompenaars 1993:34-35).

Note that there is a tendency for Northern and Western European countries to be at
the bottom of the list, and for Latin American, East European and Asian countries to be
towards the top, or particularist end, of the list. But there is no clear division between
East and West, and quite a bit of mixing.

People sometimes want to know how serious the accident is. It is interesting, however,
that universalists like Americans are likely to say that it is important not to lie if
someone has been killed, while particularists say that it is precisely when your friend is
in greater danger that he needs your help (Trompenaars 1993:36).

We can all understand the two approaches, even if we differ on how we personally
would answer the question. We expect judges to put some humanity in their
judgments, not to follow the law rigidly, regardless of the circumstances. The question
is how much.

This dimension--universalism vs. particularism--cannot be measured by just one such

scenario, but by adding a number of different scenarios, an image emerges. This
dimension affects a number of areas in business. For example, universalist societies
tend to have short and to-the-point business meetings, and long and detailed contracts;
particularist societies have long meetings allowing both sides to get to know each
other, and are offended by long contracts. To the particularist, a long contract implies

We wish to emphasize that though universalism has often been felt to be more
modern and necessary for business, this is not entirely true. There is a tendency to
assume that efficiency requires firms to resemble those in the United States.
Sociologists in the 1950s argued specifically that universalism (along with individualism
and other supposedly modern values) had to be taught to backwards nations. Because
modern corporations developed first in Western countries, there has been a tendency
especially in the US to assume that American business culture is natural, rational,
logical, the highest evolved form. Historically, modern management developed first in
the US because the great size of the country meant that railroad and telegraph
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 11

companies required new forms of management and administration to operate across

many miles and time zones.

Today, the requirements of hotel chains' reservation systems and airline companies do
require some values like punctuality. But it does not follow that in the economic
environment of today that all American business practices are more advanced. Indeed,
Japan is a good example of the fact that US values are not necessary for modern
business and economic development. Japan and Korea are particularistic,
collectivistic, and have strong elements of ascriptive orientation (as seen in their
promotion based on seniority). There are a number of possible ways of running
effective businesses, not just one best way (Trompenaars 1993).

Though we have emphasized the importance of culture, we do not mean to say that we
must simply accept culture as it is. We find some businesspeople resist the concept of
culture because they fear it is a barrier. They prefer to emphasize the common and
universal aspects of humankind. Culture can often be a barrier, but once we see it we
can overcome it. Culture is constantly changing, and the primary advantage of being
able to recognize culture is the ability to remold it when necessary.

Take punctuality, for example. Many cultures do not value punctuality per se because
they value relations with people more than the arbitrary arrival on time. These people
consider punctuality to be slavishly following the clock. It is not helpful to simply
characterize such employees as unreliable or lazy; these are the judgements of
another culture. It is not necessary, however, to simply accept people being late.
Policies such as supervisors personally meeting workers to make sure they are on
time, creating a group ethos and peer pressure to arrive on time, as well as the usual
on-time bonuses, can lead to a change of culture towards punctuality. Indeed, such
changes of culture have been necessary in every culture when industry developed,
starting with England.

Another interesting feature about culture is that what people say is not necessarily
what they do. Let us give you an example. In a study of seven different cultures,
children were asked what they would do if they were hit by another child. The answers
varied, from Americans who mostly said they would hit the child back, to Chinese who
almost all said they would walk away and not hit the child back. But when the children
were actually observed in a playground, it was found that in all seven cultures, between
31 and 33 percent of children hit a child back when they were hit. Thus, despite wide
differences in cultural values as reported by the children themselves, there was
virtually no difference in the actual behavior. Cultural values, you see, do not translate
directly into behavior.

Let us tie this to tourism. When marketing researchers focus on values, they often ask
the wrong question or miss the main point. Tourist surveys which ask the purpose of
the trip rarely find shopping mentioned, but when asked what they did, tourists list
shopping as one of the most important activities. Research in U.S. "festival market-
places" such as Faneuil Hall in Boston shows that 60 percent of patrons came with no
specific purchase in mind. Surveys often do not capture this more qualitative but
fuzzier quality to tourist behavior.

Thus, if you ask tourists why they have come to Golden Beach, some may say they
came for the beach, some may say they came for the shopping, others may say they
came to learn about the history and architecture of the nearby ruins of ancient
temples. Few are likely to admit they came for prostitution. And more importantly, it
may be that being able to swim, shop, and study were all important. They may combine
the interests of the tourist, making that destination more attractive. Or they may
combine the different reasons for traveling that are important within the family: the
father studies the ruins, the kids want to swim, and the mother enjoys shopping. Thus,
even with a marketing profile, we need to go beyond the superficial numbers to
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 12

understand the motivation of the customer. Doing so will help us understand the way
the customer will respond to new products or situations.

This is especially true in the case of the tourism experience mentioned above. We
need to know how much of a new experience the tourist wants. Some want their own
food, while others may want "local" food but not really local food if it is too different or
too spicy. Here there are subcultural differences between tourists from one country
that allow segmentation of the market.

What does all this mean to businesses trying to market and deliver their products and
services cross-culturally in travel and tourism? We hope we have shown that
understanding the cultural aspects of tourism is a key to success. Seeing the
importance of culture offers two immediate benefits. First, it helps satisfy the
customer better, by better understanding how the tourist is seeing the host destination
and what the customer expects from the tourism experience and presenting the right
product. Marketing will be better because adverting will be more effective and
products will be more appropriately targeted. Second, service delivery can be more
effective. Service is relative to the person, so staff need to be given not only the
professional skills but the attitudinal skills. This includes active listening to seek out
cues from different customers, conflict resolution skills, and the desire to please the
customer. This desire is itself cultural, and cannot be induced w ith salary or bonuses
but needs to be a learned cultural value. With a true cultural understanding of the
market, the market can actually be changed. For example, though it is often said that
Hong Kong tourists buy only on price, this may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. It may be
possible to segment the market, identifying a segment that is willing to pay more for
higher quality or a different type of tourist experience.

This also highlights one of the other advantages of being aware of the cultural aspects.
There are often important differences within nations, such as differences between men
and women, between high, middle, and working classes, or differences between age
groups. We are often lulled into believing that national cultures are the only important
level, or even that a pan-Asian culture is developing. Such a pan-Asian culture may
indeed be developing among rich frequent travelers who speak English well and are
cosmopolitan, but a growth area is the mass tourism of the growing middle classes
that are more locally rooted, less international or westernized. Indeed, though we see a
trend towards globalization in many areas, we can also see a contemporaneous trend
towards localization. This is a contradictory tendency; we see its contradictions in
Europe, for example, where many people in places like Scotland in the UK and the
Basque region in Spain seek autonomy or independence while at the same time Europe
is uniting under a common currency. In the case of tourism, people go far away to
seek out new and different experiences, but at the same time like to stay in global hotel
chains where they know what to expect. Culture, like the market, is a dynamic, ever
changing thing.

Let us give you three simple signs that cultural factors are at work:

First, if you find yourself repeatedly puzzled by peoples' behavior, you probably have a
cultural difference operating.

Second, if you find yourself stereotyping or making generalizations about a culture, you
have a cultural difference. If you re-examine that culture and try to understand the
situation from the other culture's point of view, you may be able to see how to adapt or
change the culture to suit your needs.

Third, if you find yourself getting angry at other cultures, you need to better understand
not only what the others are thinking and doing, but what it is about your culture that
makes you respond in this way. Because culture is relative, we always learn about our
own culture when we examine any other culture.
Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 13

When you face these situations, you can conduct your own anthropological fieldwork.
Ask the natives--be they Americans, Malays, or Japanese--why they do the things that
puzzle you. You need to develop a non-judgmental way of asking and listening, so that
people will talk and explain things at length. Some problems will be too complex and
may require professional interviewers and consultants. There are a number of firms
that provide training programs for staff. We hope we've convinced you of the
importance of cultural factors, given you a framework for thinking about culture, and
inspired you to do your own fieldwork. Being aware of culture is a big advantage, both
in selling tourism products and in packaging an experience to people.

Bosco & Gordon - Cross Cultural Marketing / 14


[1]: James F. Downs, Cultures in Crisis (1971) p. 35, cited in Gary P. Ferraro
The Cultural Dimension of International Business 2nd ed. (1994) p. 17.

[2]: This example is taken from Linda W.L. Young, Crosstalk and Culture in Sino-
American Communication, 1994.

[3]: Fons Trompenaars, Riding the Waves of Culture, 1993.