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The Nature of Cultural Difference

“Poverty is everyone's problem. It cuts across any line you can name: age, race, social, geographic or religious. Whether you are black or white; rich, middle-class or poor, we are ALL touched by poverty.”

Kathleen Blanco

People from different cultures do not think, behave and react to events in the same way: there are clear historical and geographical reasons for this. They are explored in a fascinating book ‘Organisations & Culture’ by Dutch management consultant Geert Hofstede (Harper Collins Business, 1991).

Hofstede’s analysis is compelling: it helps us understand such issues as stereotyping, ethnocentrism and culture shock, and differences in the use of language and humour. We have found it helpful in explaining some of the things that have happened to us over the years.

Hofstede original observations were based on a major study of national cultural differences in subsidiaries of computer giant IBM, carried out in the 1980s, but his analysis has been refined since and informed by a host of later studies.

Hofstede identifies five independent dimensions of national culture which he refers to as:

  • power distance -- the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations (places where people work) and institutions (like the family, school or community) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally (all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others);
  • individualism versus collectivism -- the degree to which individuals are ‘free agents’ or are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups. (Individualist societies like the US not only practice individualism but also consider it superior to other forms of mental software. Collectivist societies, for example, Japanese society, see things differently!)
  • masculinity versus femininity -- this refers to the distribution of roles between the genders. Masculine culture countries (like the UK) strive for a performance society; feminine countries (like Sweden) for a welfare society. The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are more assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a bigger gap between men's and women's values.
  • uncertainty avoidance deals with a society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty accepting cultures are more tolerant of opinions different from those they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible; people are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and not expected to openly express emotions. The more anxious cultures tend to be the more expressive cultures; they are the places where people talk with their hands, where it is socially acceptable to raise one’s voice or show one’s emotions.
  • long-term versus short-term orientation: this fifth dimension was found in a study which used a questionnaire designed by Chinese scholars. The values associated with short term orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one's 'face'.

 

It is worth noting here how Hofstede defines culture. In most Western languages ‘culture’ is commonly taken to mean ‘civilization’ or ‘refinement of the mind’. Hofstede sees this as culture in its narrowest sense and calls it ‘culture one’. But culture is also about more fundamental human process, the ordinary and menial things in life -- how we greet others, how we eat or show or conceal our feelings, how we keep a certain physical distance from others, how we make love, or maintain bodily hygiene. This Hofstede calls ‘culture two’ -- culture two deals with the “things that hurt”.

In October 2002 Powerful Information ran a Vision & Values Workshop, held in the City Discovery Centre in Milton Keynes. Some of the delegates are seen here discussing their views on one of the propositions we put to them. The countries represented at the workshop included Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Sierra Leone, Sweden and the UK.