Do you understand the different cultures you see at your office?

different cultures your officeStats SA recently released figures for documented immigrants in South Africa in 2015.

A total of 75 076 temporary residency permits were approved, of which 12 354 were work visas. Permanent residency were awarded to 6 397 immigrants of which 4 354 were for immigrants on work permits. This means over two-thirds of the issued permits were acquired using the work category status.

Why is it important that you know this?

From the figures above we can see there are more than 16 000 immigrants working in South Africa. That means more than 16 000 people working in South African companies with cultures different to ours.

Being sensitive to these differences could benefit your business immensely. It could lead to greater teamwork and better productivity.

Keep this in mind too – there are also foreigners working in South African companies on endorsed spousal and life partner visas. This could add another couple of thousand people to the final number.

Let’s look at some general differences to start the conversation…

Differences in communication

People from different parts of the world communicate in their own unique way. Some nations are loud, direct and tend to interrupt others during conversation, while others are soft-spoken, use indirect language and wait patiently for others to finish their sentence.

Don’t just assume the loud person is arrogant and don’t take the quieter person to be a pushover. Work with your employee’s communication style but do address it when the communication style is causing conflict at the office.

Different communication styles might also manifest in how employees speak to superiors. In some cultures first names are fine but in others titles or last names are preferred.

You might also see a difference in when or how people decide to speak up.

For instance, in some cultures people are taught to respect their elders or figures of authority. This means a person from such a culture might not be used to openly challenging a superior or might have difficulty speaking up at the office.

The solution here could be establishing a relationship of trust with the person or signing them up for a course in conflict resolution or communication.

Differences in valuing time

When looking at the concept of time, let’s take Germans and Africans as an example (You’ll soon see why we don’t pick a specific African country):

Germans are known to be punctual and expect everyone else to be too.

On the contrary, there is a perceived cultural tendency of ‘African time’ on our continent which denotes a more relaxed attitude to time. Any employee who subscribes to African time might not think anything of being a minute or two late for a meeting.

Put these two employees together and you can see how frustration might quickly lead to friction.

Here’s another example of how time is valued differently:

In some cultures, it is customary to get down to business during a meeting. Yet other cultures prefer to have a friendly chat to start the meeting. In these cultures it’s customary to first find out how a colleague’s doing or what’s been happening in their life.

Again, frustration and friction could very quickly be the result.

It is of course impossible to accommodate all cultures, but the differences could be navigated by setting up ground rules for internal meetings and briefings. For example, everyone is expected to be on time, but 5 minutes (and only 5 minutes) of chit-chat is allowed.

Differences in culture from around the world

We thought it would be interesting to have a look at specific cultural differences (keep in mind they’re generalisations, you’re likely to find exceptions to the ‘rules’) and picked six of the countries that featured prominently in Stats SA’s publication.

Before we share these with you, we’d like to repeat:

There are a lot of cultural differences in South African companies. Strive to understand the cultures you see in your office, as well as devise workarounds where possible, and your company could see better teamwork and higher productivity levels. What boss wouldn’t want this?

Now, here you go:


Office cultures from around the world









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