The Meaning of Work – A Cultural Perspective

Reflect for a moment on the meaning of work in different cultures and please join the discussion around the closing questions. Remember that within each culture there are exceptions to the general rule.

Also, if you have a different opinion to the one I expressed I would love to hear your point of view.

 Work in the USA

At your typical social occasion in the USA what is one of the first questions people ask you? Is it not “What do you do?” Have you thought for a moment why that is so? Why is it so important for others to know what job you have?

The answer to this question is at the heart of the culture of work in the United States.

“What do you do?” is really tantamount to asking, “Who are you? What is your identity?” “How important are you?”

In addition, the position one has and the money one earns is a measure of how important one is.

Meaning of Work in the USA: Identity/Importance

 Work in Mexico

In Mexico (where I live right now), work is the means by which a person helps his or her family to get ahead; Mexicans work to advance the education of their children and to advance their collective national aspirations as a developing nation. They also work in order to have more free time with their family and friends.

Work has such family implications to a Mexican that he/she expects the workplace to have a home-like atmosphere.

(Comment: I was informed that this verdict about the place of work in the lives of Mexicans does not apply in all cases like in the industrialized Northern area of the country)

Meaning of Work in Mexico: For the family: With my family

 Work in France

In France work is valued for the pleasure it provides the individual both in and out of the workplace. The French don’t see any point in spending 12 hours/day at the office; they will tell you that after six hours, you become increasingly unproductive. So, from the French point of view, why not focus on being highly productive for six hours and spend the rest of the time doing all the other things you enjoy?

Meaning of Work in France: Facilitate Pleasure

Work in Japan

This posting was written by Roger Hoffmann


In most Western cultures, the maxim “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is understood to mean that one is motivated to act upon one’s individual needs, e.g. if I need to accomplish something I must actively speak up, make my request known and persevere until I obtain the resources I need to be successful, even if that means confronting other colleagues.

In Japan, a common maxim is “the nail that sticks out will be hammered down”.  In Japanese culture and many other Asian cultures, the group is far more important than the individual.  If you stand out in terms of your opinions or desires, you will be ostracised by the group (family, or work colleagues).  Maintaining an atmosphere of harmony and cooperation is more important than any one individual’s success.  Uniformity of appearance and thought for the greater good of the group is far more important than the needs or desires of any one member.

The Japanese term “wa” 和 is often translated as harmony, or peace, with a connotation of a continuous flow, having no disruptions or breaks.  Within the martial arts, wa is evidenced as the requirement of physical harmony of one’s body and posture and with one’s opponent in order to effectively execute a technique.

In business, wa has come to mean the cohesiveness of the team unit.  Decisions to be made are discussed among the team members one on one, ideas are circulated, feedback solicited informally to ensure no feelings will be hurt, no egos offended.  Only once a unanimous and unified front has been established, will a meeting be called to rubber stamp the decision.  All attendees will already know the issue and be in agreement.  A meeting is not a place for disagreement, argument or debate since that would endanger the wa of the group.

As important as it is to obtain consensus and a solution, this must not come at the expense of disturbing the peace.  For impatient Westerners, the process can appear to be a waste of time, however when decisions are made with wa in mind, they tend to stick and all stakeholders become true supporters instead of simply paying lip service to the decision.

Meaning of Work in Japan:  For the group: In harmony.

Roger Hoffmann lived and worked in Osaka, Japan from 1994 to 2000.  Teaching business English at Berlitz provided him with many opportunities to discuss business and culture with Japanese businessmen and women.  He also taught at a public senior high school for 5 years, giving him insight into how the educational system in Japan operates.  Roger is a student of the Japanese martial art of Aikido, currently holding a rank of first degree black belt.  He is also an avid student of the ancient board game of Go, which has many strategic principles that are applicable to business and life in general.  Roger currently resides in the Los Angeles area where he works in the technology industry.

Questions for Discussion 

1.   What is the meaning of work in your culture?

2.   What is the downside (upside) of your culture’s perspective on work?

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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7 Responses to The Meaning of Work – A Cultural Perspective

  1. studiomarie says:

    Definitely can relate to this post. When I stopped practicing law and I became a full time homemaker I was increasingly annoyed by the question what do you do?
    The one instance that stands out in my mind was the time I was wrapping up my cases. I had made a final appearance in the family law courtroom and was ask what are you doing these days? I told her (the other lawyer) that I was a stay at home mom. She said aloud in the open courtroom: ” It must be nice to sit on your ass all day” I was speechless. What a put down. M

    • cedricj says:


      Thanks for your comment that throws so much light on “the downside to work in the USA”. The sad thing here is not only the put-down comment itself but that it was said by a woman.



  2. cedricj says:


    Thanks for your comment that throws so much light on “the downside to work in the USA”. The sad thing here is not only the put-down comment itself but that it was said by a woman. What does it say about the person saying it? She was devaluing one of our highest callings, that of being a parent



  3. studiomarie says:

    I thought the whole point of the Women’s Movement was about having choices or options. But she is not an isolated instance. My girlfriend who is a former architect had her daughter ask if she was a stay at home mom because she was not smart enough to get a job.

    Don’t mean to beat a dead horse but in the United States we seem to be bi-polar on this issue work and identity.

  4. Dan says:

    I am a new subscriber to your blog but I have to say I don’t know that there is much difference in the USA and Mexico. Aside from the “What do you do?” question that I get all the time in social situations I see myself working for my family’s betterment. My wife and I both work. I own my own business and she works for MegaMegaMega Corporation. We are doing what we do for our family, to get ahead, and hopefully to have even more free time to spend with my family when we are done raising and educating them. Sadly, we jokingly refer to one of the jobs as a paycheck and healthcare for our family. So in that way it differs greatly from a Mexican worker. But I wouldn’t say that the happier days are when work feels like a family experience.

    Fifty to 100 years ago in the US there were family businesses where the generations worked together and gave daily life a family feel. That may still exist today but not as often especially in the bigger cities. The evolution of that work environment led to modern businesses with a family atmosphere or culture although outsiders (non family) now worked in the businesses. Today with families so much more spread out across the US there are still family businesses and businesses that project a family atmosphere in the workplace. But not necessarily the way your post seems to imply in Mexico. US workers don’t “expect” the workplace to be a home-like atmosphere because we have so many different workplaces – local/family based on up to multi-national corporate offices. And when there is a family atmosphere there can certainly be a successful business and a happy non-family employees that enjoy making the business a success.

    Of course it is important to put work down at the end of the day and be with your family. For some that is hard to do since we get work email on Blackberrys and we can browse the Internet on our TVs. My wife and I do, maybe not all US workers do, take vacations and provide our children activities and cultural and relaxing experiences that they will remember when they are older. I think it is too much of a generalization to say that all people in the USA see the meaning of their work only as Identity and Importance.

    • cedricj says:


      First of all thanks for subscribing to my blog. It is great to have thoughtful people like yourself interacting with us.

      Of course there are many in our culture like yourselves that work for the betterment (an sadly at times the survival) of their family. The problem with general statements like the ones that I made is that they do not apply to everyone in our culture. However, the point I want to make above all else is that there is great danger in pegging one’s identity to work alone. In my consulting world I see so many executives sacrificing their health, family, and soul for the ’cause’ of their work. It is the reversal of that condition that is the ‘mission’ of my latest blog posting.

  5. Pingback: Top 12 Posts of All Time | Cedricj's Blog

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