Communication Currents

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Exploring How Globalization Affects Cultural Perceptions of Privacy

December 1, 2016
Intercultural Communication, Organizational Communication

Globalization challenges our cultural understandings, leading to the need to reconceptualize the concept of culture and reconsider modern-day influences on cultural norms. In a recent study, Nathaniel Simmons of Western Governors University in Columbus, Ohio, examines the cultural premises that influence intercultural privacy management when two cultures have different ideas about how to manage their private information.

Using the framework of Communication Privacy Management (CPM) theory, Simmons examined how culture affects privacy negotiation processes. The first CPM supposition is that people believe private information belongs to them. The second describes a boundary metaphor to illustrate distinctions between private information and public relationships. People make these boundaries less permeable to protect their private information. The third supposition states that people believe private information is owned or co-owned with others, which leads to a desire for boundary control as individuals reveal and conceal information. The fourth is that people manage private information using a rule-based management system in boundary negotiation. Finally, CPM treats private information and disclosure as dialectic in nature—people construct rules based on their gender, motivation, perceived risks and benefits, context, and culture. Specifically, Simmons studied the privacy boundary management among English-language teachers (ELTs) and their Japanese coworkers (JCWs).

The study

Simmons conducted in-depth interviews with 39 ELTs working in Japan and 38 of their JCWs. The interviews were conducted in person, through Skype, and as a last resort via email. He found participants using a snowball technique that included recruiting people via an English-teaching conference, Facebook groups, and cold calls to schools and ELT-recruiting organizations. The researcher himself was an ELT at a junior high school, which provided a strong network to recruit participants. As part of a larger project on intercultural relationships between ELTs and JCWs, he advertised the study as one that sought to learn more about communication between ELTs and JCWs in the Japanese workplace.

Using cultural discourse analysis, Simmons uncovered perspectives about privacy from both the ELTs and the JCWs. “As I spoke with ELTs and JCWs alike, I genuinely understood and felt their workplace frustrations, joys, and challenges,” he writes. “I have been there, I was there. Reflecting upon these encounters, I realized that this study is not just their story. It is my story. It is our story.”


ELT Perspectives

Through his research, Simmons found that ELTs in Japan believe that a “free space” for privacy inquisition by coworkers violates their sense of entitlement to control and own their private information. One participant, Ren, defined privacy as boundaries and said, “Even if you delineate these [privacy] boundaries, they are not going to be taken seriously.” In other words, explains Simmons, Ren perceived that her Japanese colleagues disregarded her privacy boundaries.

Another participant, Richard, commented:

I think because of the cultural divide, a lot of the times when the ELT comes, they are exotic, just by virtue of being foreign, and usually not Japanese by race. They tend to get bombarded with a lot of questions up front whereas other [Japanese] teachers have the opportunity to do this over months, if not years; but the ELT must do it all in a week.

Participant Edward said he believed that JCWs view ELTs as a “cultural other” who can be asked any question due to perceived freedom from cultural boundaries. This conflicts with the ELTs’ cultural premises on how to relate to co-workers, premises that are shared by Edward and others. Another participant, Daniel, commented on the cultural “free space” JCWs exhibited in their interactions, noting that their “anything is okay to ask” attitude was surprising. He explained that no topic was so shocking that it prevented the Japanese coworkers from wanting to discuss it. Daniel felt that the JCWs violated his expectations of how coworkers should behave.

Simmons uncovered that ELTs expect reciprocity in egalitarian workplace relationships. In other words, if the JCWs are going to ask personal questions about the ELTs’ lives, the JCWs need to voluntarily share personal information in return.

JCW Perspectives

“All JCWs who participated in this study demonstrated a concern for ELTs’ well-being; this reflected the importance of kindness/caring in Japanese culture and a desire to please the other in interactions,” writes Simmons.

He notes that within Japanese workplaces, supervisors and team-teachers are placed in caretaking positions to oversee well-being for ELTs. The JCWs expressed in their interviews that these helping behaviors are part of an anticipated cultural practice.

On one occasion, an ELT shared a private health matter with a JCW. Participant Kimura, a team-teacher, said it is better if coworkers are aware of others’ health status.

In the Japanese workplace it’s better… other coworkers know your health situation I think. If you are late for school, the ELT yesterday [at her workplace] he had a, a cough, and he was coughing often, so maybe he had a sore throat or has a cold. So, he was late. Is he okay? But, it’s like my current ELT, he don’t [sic] say anything, so I cannot imagine his bad situation.

Simmons explains that by not disclosing their health status, ELTs render JCWs unable to imagine their potentially bad situations, and thus unable to sympathize or help. At the same time, this takes away the JCWs’ opportunity to fulfill their cultural expectation of how they should treat the foreign workers.


Culture informs many aspects of people’s lives, even what they consider to be private. When interacting with people of different cultures, advises Simmons, it’s best to avoid taking for granted what is “appropriate” to discuss in the workplace. Instead, he recommends that people try to understand cultural premises for privacy boundaries and talk with others about the level of privacy they expect when they share information about their lives.

On a broader level, Simmons argues that people don’t yet have a clear understanding of intercultural privacy management due to the lack of research where both participants in a conversation participate within the same study. He explains that this particular study, highlights the need for intercultural training due to the impact of globalization. 

About the author (s)

Nathaniel Simmons

Western Governors University

Communication Faculty

Nathaniel Simmons