What is Culture and Why Does It Matter?What is Culture and Why Does It Matter?

Defining Culture

Culture as an iceberg: The iceberg analogy is commonly used to represent the concept of culture. The iceberg model graphically demonstrates how culture is made up of a visible structure (above the water) and an invisible structure (below the water). Just as the visible part of the iceberg is only a small fraction of what lies beneath the water, so too are the visible cultural characteristics only one part of a much larger whole.

Visible cultural characteristics include behaviours and practices: clothing, dance, language, physical features, food, music, architecture, gestures, greetings, devotional practices and more.Invisible cultural factors include perceptions, attitudes, values and beliefs, worldviews, rules of relationships, approach to the family, motivations, tolerance for change, attitudes to rules, communication styles, modes of thinking, comfort with risk, the difference between public and private, gender differences and more. The visible elements of a culture are driven and shaped by the invisible elements of the culture.

Cultural competence requires you to be consciously aware of the ways in which the invisible cultural elements can influence your relationship with others and the workplace environment. If we want to understand people of other cultures and their behaviours, it is important to understand their values, attitudes, perceptions and beliefs. In order to understand others’ values, it is important to first situate ourselves by identifying our own visible and invisible cultural factors. A first step is to sit down and reflect on these factors; a helpful tool is Uncovering My Culture and My Workplace’s Culture.

 Why Does Culture Matter at Work?

Culture is a powerful influence on an individual’s responses to his or her environment. Culture will directly affect how people approach job seeking, resumés, interviews, conversations with one another, managers and colleagues, mentoring and overall success in the workplace.

Here are some examples of how cultural differences might become noticeable at work:

  • Speaking very close to, or very far from, the listener
  • Preference for communicating by e-mail, phone or in-person meetings
  • Using titles or nicknames
  • Etiquette around hospitality and dining
  • Promptness for meetings
  • Flexibility on deadlines
  • Focus on oral messages
  • Preferring to read manuals rather than have hands-on learning
  • Methods of dealing with conflict
  • Closed-door policy vs. open-door policy
  • Making decisions once consensus is reached
  • Preferring to work alone or to work in a group

This list begins to indicate the importance of culture in the workplace. If we don’t take the time to learn about our own and others’ cultures, we may view any behaviour that is different from our own as negative, unusual or wrong.

Understanding Indigenous Cultures

The most important aspect of understanding Indigenous culture is to know that there is no single Indigenous culture. Three distinct groups are clustered under the term “Indigenous”: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Even within and between these groups there is cultural distinctness and cultural difference.

Remember that each individual within a culture may demonstrate more or less culturally specific behaviours. Develop the habit of having an open dialogue with individuals around any behaviours you see that may appear “strange” to you.

The following point-form summary of major Indigenous cultural behaviours intends to provide readers with a general level of understanding. Keep in mind that each individual has his or her own personality and ways of communicating and behaving.

To add to our list above of how culture may become noticeable in workplace behaviours, here are some Indigenous-specific cultural dimensions:

  • Oral learning styles take precedence over written communication methods.
  • The present tense is used most often.
  • Making jokes or laughing with someone is a sign of acceptance and trust.
  • Great patience is used when working toward goals.
  • Motivation to complete tasks and projects is the need of the team or group.
  • Older people can be designated as having Elder status (respected in the community they come from or the surrounding area).
  • Eye contact is avoided as it is perceived to be over-assertive.
  • Periods of silence are common and acceptable, and/or quiet behaviour.
  • Listening skills are prized.
  • Soft-spoken words carry farthest.
  • Understanding is indicated by nodding.
  • A soft handshake is used, since this is not a traditional way to greet in Indigenous culture.
  • A preference is to make decisions once everyone has been consulted and agrees with the decision.
  • Individuals respond best to praise for the group.

When we begin to explore culture, we find that one of the most common sources of misunderstanding is communication. There are four general areas of challenge that arise when people from Western cultures interact with Indigenous individuals.

1. Making Direct Judgements

  • Giving advice is frowned upon, and points of view and recommendations are rarely offered. This is because of a respect for the process of individual decision making.
  • There is a preference for avoiding embarrassing others. For example, some Indigenous people may not confront somebody directly with their error; instead, they will let them discover the error themselves.
  • Many Indigenous cultures place emphasis on listening as opposed to talking. This appears in a conversation as appreciating silences, and letting people finish talking completely before the next person speaks. Rather than directly questioning, the listener is expected to make any conclusions himself or herself.
  • Stories are used often in most Indigenous cultures in some manner, and are considered very important. Most of the time, stories involve other people, time and places. The storyteller will try to draw attention away from himself or herself to avoid appearing to present superior knowledge.
  • Certain facts are emphasized indirectly through repetition to make a point: circular communication.
  • To demonstrate respect for another person, the Indigenous individuals may not look a person directly in the eyes for a prolonged period, especially Elders and supervisors.

2. Display of Emotions

  • Western thought sees it as a right and a productive exercise to probe, direct and express one’s deepest feelings. This includes encouraging face-to-face meetings and being open and direct about feelings. For Westerners, individuals who refuse to provide an emotional response are often seen as being troubled, unresponsive or uncommunicative. For many Indigenous peoples, speaking about your emotions is seen as burdening the listener, requiring him or her to offer advice or intervene in the situation. This obligation is difficult to respond to due to the preference for non-interference.
  • To demonstrate respect for another person, the Indigenous individual will not probe another person’s emotions, try to elicit an emotional response, or demonstrate an emotional response in a conversation. When a person is ready to talk about his or her feelings, he or she will do so in an appropriate way and seek out the guidance of an Elder or supervisor.

3. Praise and Gratitude

  • Verbal expressions of praise and gratitude are considered embarrassing and impolite by some Indigenous peoples, especially in the presence of others.
  • When working in teams, there is an expectation that all members provide their best efforts and share equally in the results of these efforts.
  • Performance is a cause for praise or gratitude only in exceptional circumstances.
  • In most Indigenous cultures, praise for a job well done is expressed by quietly asking a person to continue making their contributions in a positive manner.

4. Success

  • The idea of individual success is less important. The success of the enterprise/project/group is most important.
  • The emphasis is on thinking things through and acting when all the variables come together to provide the best result.
  • Fear of individual/personal failure is not a factor. Individual importance is deeply connected to the group.
  • Respect for the success of a project, team or development is demonstrated by acknowledging the efforts of the group – not the individual.

For Indigenous individuals who have lived for long periods of time in an urban area, these culturally bound behaviours may be less dominant or apparent. They have likely interacted with people from many other cultures, and have learned to adapt to the dominant expected cultural styles. Don’t immediately make judgments about how a person from an Indigenous culture will behave in the workplace or a conversation. Every person is unique.

Understanding a Canadian Construction Company’s Culture

Just like any individual group from a country or region, workplaces, too, have a culture. Most construction companies in Canada will have some characteristics in common with non-Indigenous culture. It is important to understand what a “typical” workplace culture will be, and what the cultural norms might be of the non-Indigenous employees who work there. The characteristics are presented here in four categories: Values, Business Norms, Communication, and some Do’s and Don’ts.


  • Individualism. In non-Indigenous Canada, ties between people tend to be loose and impermanent. Individuals are supposed to look after and be responsible for themselves and their immediate family, i.e. parents and their children. Employees are expected to work independently, show initiative, make suggestions, express their own opinions and, when the job demands it, disagree with others. People are held personally responsible for their work. Self-interest always comes first.
  • Equality. In non-Indigenous Canada, ties between people tend to be loose and impermanent. Individuals are supposed to look after and be responsible for themselves and their immediate family, i.e. parents and their children. Employees are expected to work independently, show initiative, make suggestions, express their own opinions and, when the job demands it, disagree with others. People are held personally responsible for their work. Self-interest always comes first.
  • Self-determination. Non-Indigenous Canadians have inherited the Western cultural belief that one is responsible for one’s own destiny. To non-Indigenous Canadians, “It’s up to you to take the initiative.” Generally, they believe they can accomplish or change almost anything.

Business Norms

  • Normal introductions are simply to exchange names and shake hands firmly.
  • Non-Indigenous Canadians are generally friendly and easy-going, with casual business manners. They are often very informal in social situations, quickly moving to the use of first names even with people they have just met.
  • Non-Indigenous Canadians usually stand several feet away from a person with whom they are talking.
  • Usually people in non-Indigenous Canada do not express strong emotions in public.
  • It is considered rude to point fingers or stare at other people.
  • Non-Indigenous Canadians place high value on time. They are punctual people and expect other people to be punctual.
  • Non-Indigenous Canadians separate their work and personal lives, and strive to achieve life-work balance.
  • Airing one’s views freely and debating courteously are common at business meetings.
  • Deadlines and efficiency are emphasized more than relationships.


  • Simple and direct communication is the norm. Non-Indigenous Canadians ask direct questions and expect straight answers.
  • Although non-Indigenous Canadians are generally assertive, their assertiveness should not be interpreted as aggression.
  • Non-Indigenous Canadians are polite listeners and rarely interrupt a presentation, but they are ready to question and challenge what you say.
  • Calm, low-key and humorous speakers are always welcomed by a non-Indigenous Canadian audience.

Do’s and Don’ts when Dealing with Non-Indigenous Canadians

  • In case of conflicts with a non-Indigenous Canadian colleague, discuss the matter with the person, even if you fear it may disturb work harmony. If you do not speak up, most Canadians will assume you are in agreement.
  • Offer advice to your boss and colleagues, and do not hesitate to ask questions.
  • Give constructive criticism.
  • Be punctual to appointments and avoid lengthy meetings.
  • Avoid gift-giving in return for a favour.