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Navigating through culture

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

The fish did not discover the ocean

Someone once said that someone discovered the ocean, but surely it wasn’t the fish. And this is typically a phrase that refers to culture—culture being the collective programming of the mind, as Professor Hofstede once said.

Professor Hofstede carried out the most extensive and groundbreaking research that has ever been done in the field of culture. Ever since university I have been fascinated by his work.

After many years I decided that it was time to go into it in more depth. Although I have had many years of working and living abroad and always in international environments, I am still amazed in hindsight what the research and most importantly its practical application has brought me.

Questions about culture

One of the questions that I asked myself for years was: what if I am not the representation of my own culture? What if I am really different in many aspects from my own so-called overall culture? Where does culture stop and personality start? Or is it just a big blend? I certified myself as a Hofstede Insights partner and started using this for my business.

However, I am also a strong believer in first applying tools on yourself before you start training and advising others. How on earth are you going to build credibility otherwise? This is not only about culture, but every change tool that I use in my company— whether it is NLP or any other model in coaching, consultancy or training that we use. At in2motivation we are big fans of experiential and interactive learning, even after the digitalisation triggered by the corona crisis this year.

Culture Compass

One of the most powerful tools I applied to myself is called the Culture Compass. This is a questionnaire with a detailed report containing infographics, personal feedback and advice. You learn how you relate on certain aspects compared to people from your own culture generally.

But you can also learn how you relate to other cultures personally and from a cultural perspective. And on top of that it provides you with a great insight into where to pay attention in different roles: for example in the role of a negotiator interacting with this specific culture that you chose, but also as a leader or as a tourist.

Going beyond stereotypes

What is nice about this report when I read my own one is that it actually brings personal feedback. And for me the whole model of Hofstede goes far beyond the stereotypes that we usually hang on to.

This superficial way of approaching culture is too biased in my view. It will keep you like a fish being in your own bowl thinking that you are the one that discovered your own bowl.

In our training courses I see this all too often. This can be from someone that is new to cultural aspects but certainly people who have travelled a lot or have been living in many different countries. I cannot always see this openness and objectiveness in how they see other cultures and people. But how could they have this? And how could I? We are all fish in the bowl of the world, thinking that we know it all.

For me at least, the Culture Compass is a first attempt to go for a more objective view. And the real value is always in the application of course. That’s why we use it in training and courses to test it in practical applications. And the feedback from others is key in this as well.

The real training often starts after our formal training. But that is always the case when you learn something new. How else can you go from being subconsciously incompetent, to consciously incompetent, and then from consciously competent to subconsciously competent?

Learning like a spiral

When I was younger I liked fishing for a while. Now I believe it is boring. Maybe when I am older I will long to sit staring at the water, hoping that a fish might bite. Things change over time, just like the seasons. Some things come back. And most things come back in a different way. This is like a spiral, because once you have learnt something you can never go back to the same point.

A fish can come back to the same point. The smaller the bowl, the bigger the chances that it comes back to the same point. I’ve been told that there are fish with a memory of 1 second. Imagine yourself going around in a bowl and being amazed by the same plant every time. It must have an upside as well as thinking that you see something new every time. But from the outside we know that this is not true. We also know that the fish did not discover the bowl. I am wondering whether there are people looking at the Earth as a bowl. For sure that would make us really small if we knew that.

Getting insights is the first thing and if you are curious about the Culture Compass report, or about how you can apply it, please contact us via We will tell you all about it.

However, one warning: you might feel like a fish at first. Maybe a fish in the water even. The insights come when you start to have feedback, confusion or different viewpoints than you expected. Then the learning starts. And then also the awareness starts for getting into new understandings.

The only thing you need to be willing to do is to realise that we are all fish, and to get different perspectives we need to be willing to go out of the fish bowl, out of our own ocean, and maybe become a different animal. Because whoever you think you are, you are always more than that.

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