"This will be difficult!"

In some cultures like the US, this can mean "Yes, we can do that!"

In others, like Japan, this can mean, "No, it's not possible."

These are examples of cultural assumptions that often creep into our daily lives.

Person jumping a cliff

Learning how to identify and address cultural assumptions will help prevent you from jumping to conclusions about the way other people act.

Identifying Cultural Assumptions

Cultural assumptions define what's normal or acceptable in every social situation.

To identify cultural assumptions, ask yourself:

  • Why do I think this?

Flaticon Icon Cultural assumptions are often passed from generation to generation, so you probably won't have a clear answer as to why you think this way.

  • Do other people think the same?

    Flaticon Icon Other people, especially in multicultural societies, might not think the same or make the same assumption as you do.

Consider This...

A little girl watches her mother prepare a fish for dinner.

Flaticon Icon Her mother cuts the head and tail off the fish and then places it into a baking pan. The girl thinks it's strange so she asks her mother why she does it.

Her mother thinks for a while and says, "I’ve always done it that way — that’s how your grandma did it."

Flaticon Icon The little girl visits her grandma to ask her. Grandma replies, ‘"I don’t know. My mother always did it that way."

Flaticon Icon So the little girl visits her great grandma. She says, "Because my baking pan was too small to fit in the whole fish."

A women holding a huge piece of fish


What does this story tell us about cultural assumptions?

Be Aware Of Your Own Culture

Mr. Burns sitting in a chair

Culture is an idea you might not be aware of until you’re confronted with people who have different cultural values and ways of doing things.

Because culture is drilled into all of us from earliest childhood, we don’t even think about it. It’s just the way things get done.

And since we don’t even think about our own culture, how can we be aware that other cultures can be so different?

Use The Culture Iceberg Theory

Culture is similar to an iceberg where 10% is visible but 90% is hidden.



  • Flaticon Icon Explicitly learned

  • Conscious

  • Easily changeable

  • Objective knowledge


  • Flaticon Icon Implicitly learned

  • Unconscious

  • Difficult to change

  • Subjective knowledge

Cultural assumptions usually fall under the internal/deep section.

This is why it's usually difficult to even be aware that we have them. Using this theory will help you better pinpoint where cultural assumptions come from.

Add Cultural Competence In The Mix

The thing about culture is that it’s learnable. What’s more, you don’t need a handbook that details every culture. You simply need to learn what cultural behavior clues to look for.

Batman thinking

There are 6 different cultural dimensions .

Ask yourself, which one is closer to your beliefs?

  • POWER DISTANCE: Should society be egalitarian, or is hierarchy needed?

  • COLLECTIVISM VS. INDIVIDUALISM: What's more important, individual goals or group goals?

  • UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE: Do you plan ahead of time, or go with the flow?

  • NURTURE VS. POWER: Is it more important to be the best at what you do, or be liked by others?

  • LONG TERM ORIENTATION: Should you make plans based on short-term, or long-term goals?

  • RESTRAINT VS. INDULGENCE: Do you have to work hard to deserve a vacation?

These questions might look like a personality test, but if we look deeper these beliefs or choices often come from our own culture.

Man touching his watch


Juan and David decided to have coffee at 5 pm. Usually David arrives on time, whereas Juan usually arrives later. What dimension of cultural behaviour clues would this be?

Challenge Assumptions

  • Assume that differences exist and look for them.

  • Be aware of your own culture and how it affects your communication style, orientation toward time, work ethic, and general worldview.

  • Accept ambiguity and allow yourself to learn from the different cultural values of your colleagues.

  • Understand that people can adapt their cultural competence.

Take Action

A girl shouting action


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