The Worldprism model of cultural differences

Picture two people in a crowd walking along a busy city street. Let’s say they are roughly the same age, and are of the same racial and ethnic group, and are of the same gender. They are both carrying computer bags, are dressed in business casual clothes, and both are catching up with emails and texts on their personal smartphones. Both are on their way to catch a train to work at the same company where they spend some time working on the same team. They were born in the same country, and they both live in the same city, and even enjoy the same music and movies.

Despite the similarities shared by these two people in the crowd, they are as culturally different as they are similar. They have not shared – and never will – the exact same set of life conditions and experiences. Even if they were born in the same family, neither one, unless they are identical twins, is a mirror image of anyone else, although there will be family resemblances. These physical similarities, however, tell us nothing about the differences in their inner lives as their life conditions and experiences diverge.  Small variations create significant differences in perceptions, assumptions, and expectations.

It is important to learn that every person in our imagined crowd – and around the world – is unique from every other person. Most of the time we are not aware of how we are different from others, near and far. We are strangers to ourselves.

How do we begin to understand who we are so that we become more conscious of our differences to others and manage our relationships better? Particularly those among our colleagues at work?

Becoming more conscious of differences requires that first we learn the language of differences. The TMA Worldprism is a tool that provides us with a vocabulary for speaking about cultural differences, and helps us answer difficult of questions like: ‘Who am I, and how does that influence how I see you’? and ‘Who are you, and how does that influence how you see me’?

The Worldprism model for cultural differences

Worldprism model of cultural differences

The TMA Worldprism helps us explore the largely unconscious – taken-for-granted – ways we think about and behave in the world. Specifically, it helps us uncover:

  • Our taken-for-granted expectations about the ‘normal’ way of Relating to others
  • Our taken-for-granted expectations about the ‘normal’ way Regulating – or managing – the world around us, and
  • Our taken for granted expectations about the ‘normal’ way of Reasoning about problems.

The three dimensions of Difference – RelatingRegulating, and Reasoning – are each divided into three types of attitudinal/behavioral tendencies. These tendencies tend to be our default preferences for how we make sense of the world and interact with each other.

TMA Worldprism Language of Difference

Relating Tendencies

  • Task – Relationship: how we interact with others
  • Explicit – Implicit: how we communicate with others
  • Individual – Group: how we identify ourselves in relation to others

Regulating Tendencies

  • Risk-Taking – Risk-Avoiding: how we deal with uncertainty
  • Tight – Loose: how we perceive time
  • Shared – Concentrated: how we distribute power

Reasoning Tendencies

  • Linear – Circular: how we approach problem-solving
  • Facts – Thinking: how we influence others
  • Simple – Complex: how we present our thoughts

Using the TMA Worldprism language of Difference, let’s say you are an Explicitcommunicator. You say things very directly (“This data doesn’t make sense! You absolutely must . . . .”), and a colleague is an Implicit communicator (“Interesting. Can I suggest that you might . . .”). When the two of you talk to each other you can imagine how much room there is for misunderstanding leading to frustration, annoyance, and eventually mistrust. You might think of your implicit colleague as ‘wish-washy’ or timid or someone with a hidden agenda – not someone you would like to see in a leadership position. Your implicit colleague might see you as rude, an impolite bully – someone they wouldn’t want to see in a leadership position. We make these kind of judgments every day, and we act toward each other based on our assumptions of what these differences mean about the person; and as we all know our assumptions are often false.

The Worldprism helps us gain self-awareness, and enables us to communicate better about our differences with others. There is no absolute right or wrong between the Explicit and Implicit communication styles highlighted above; each one has advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation. Communication and openness are the keys to working successfully with differences.

So far we have only talked about differences between individuals, but we do share similarities with others often because of the groups we belong to.

We share some similarities with those who, for example, share similar beliefs, values, assumptions, and behaviors. One such group, for example, is influenced by our work – for example, doctors, lawyers, engineers, marketers, and accountants. Individual members of these groups will be different from one another, but also share some similarities in how they think about and act in the world through their professional eyes. These group similarities we call ‘cultures’.

An example of a large group we each belong to is our national group – American, British, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese. We know that there are very many differences within our national cultures, e.g. regional differences, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation differences, as well as religious and political values differences.  At another level, we also understand that we are ‘American’, ‘British’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’, or ‘Japanese’. Sometimes we don’t appreciate how similar we are to others in our national group until we interact with those from another national group; they often recognize our similarities with one another more than we do. You might not think of yourself as being particularly American or Chinese, but the French, Mexicans, and British will.

Differences are complex, because we are complex. The journey toward living and working effectively with differences, however, is relatively straightforward once you begin to learn a language of Difference.

  • Developing self-awareness
  • Developing a greater awareness of your colleagues
  • Communicating with colleagues using a shared language of differences
  • Making adaptations to one another based on mutual understanding of differences

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *