Some recent reading (James Hunt & Joseph Weintraub's The Coaching Manager and Terry Bacon & Karen Spear's Adaptive Coaching) led to further thinking about the dimensions of cultural difference: What are the ways in which cultures differ? How do we measure these differences? And how do these differences affect our interpersonal relationships?
Hunt and Weintraub referenced a paper by Geert Hofstede on "Cultural Constraints in Management Theories," first published in 1993 in the Academy of Management's journal Executive (now known as Perspectives), and cursory research suggests that Hofstede has been the leading thinker on this subject since the 1970s. (A full copy of Hofstede's paper is available online.)
Hofstede joined IBM in 1965 as a trainer in the international Executive Development Department, and his work over the next 15 years formed the basis for his 1980 book Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (republished most recently in 2003 as Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations across Nations.)
Hofstede initially identified four primary dimensions of cultural difference and subsequently added a fifth on the basis of further research conducted by Michael Bond. Here's a quick overview of these dimensions of difference (definitions excerpted from Geert-Hofstede.com and from Hofstede's 1993 "Cultural Constraints..." paper):
- Power Distance
The degree of inequality among people which the population of a country considers as normal: from relatively equal (that is, small power distance) to extremely unequal (large power distance). The extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society's level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.
The degree to which people in a country prefer to act as individuals rather than as members of groups. On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. The word 'collectivism' in this sense has no political meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state.
The degree to which tough values like assertiveness, performance, success and competition, which in nearly all societies are associated with the role of men, prevail over tender values like the quality of life, maintaining warm personal relationships, service, care for the weak, and solidarity, which in nearly all societies are more associated with women's roles. Women's roles differ from men's roles in all countries; but in tough societies, the differences are larger than in tender ones.
- Uncertainty Avoidance
The degree to which people in a country prefer structured over unstructured situations. Structured situations are those in which there are clear rules as to how one should behave. These rules can be written down, but they can also be unwritten and imposed by tradition. In countries that score high on uncertainty avoidance, people tend to show more nervous energy, while in countries that score low, people are more easy-going. A (national) society with strong uncertainty avoidance can be called rigid; one with weak uncertainty avoidance, flexible. In countries where uncertainty avoidance is strong a feeling prevails of "what is different, is dangerous." In weak uncertainty avoidance societies, the feeling would rather be "what is different, is curious."
- Long-Term Orientation
Values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one's 'face'. Both the positively and the negatively rated values of this dimension are found in the teachings of Confucius, the most influential Chinese philosopher who lived around 500 B.C.; however, the dimension also applies to countries without a Confucian heritage.
Both Hunt & Weintraub and Bacon & Spear discuss a related dimension which appears to be rooted in Hofstede's work:
- High vs. Low Context
(Hunt & Weintraub) The influence of context involves the degree to which protocol and tradition dictate how communication should proceed. In high-context cultures, greater emphasis is placed on protocol, and communication tends to move from the general to the specific. In low-context cultures, communication tends to be more to the point, an approach that can come across to individuals from high-context cultures as rude.
(Bacon & Spear) Some cultures, mostly Western, are low-context cultures that practice explicitness and directness in their communication style. They depend on the people in the immediate communication situation to convey meaning and create a unique context. The purpose and outcome of the communication--the transaction--take precedence over the interpersonal relationships involved... High-context cultures, on the other hand, prize subtlety and indirectness... They depend on a shared cultural context to carry meaning. Instead of getting down to business, high-context cultures tend to rely first on existing relationships outside the business arena so that shared understandings make explicitness unnecessary. Or they take time to build relationships of the participants are strangers--often maddening amounts of time to a transactionally minded, low-context person. To a low-context culture, this style of communication can look undisciplined, evasive, untrustworthy, uninformed (dare we say "stupid"?), or just plain lazy and a waste of precious time. To a high-context culture, the explicitness of low-context communication can look boorish, pushy, patronizing, indelicate, distrustful, unnecessarily detailed ("stupid"?), and insensitive.
In addition, Bacon & Spear discuss two other dimensions of difference:
- Achievement vs. Ascription
In ascription-oriented societies, factors such as age, gender, social connections and social class, family background, and religious or spiritual position define status... These societies define status based on who the person is. On the other hand, achievement-oriented societies tend to define status based on what the person has achieved: educational credentials, both in terms of degrees earned and where they came from; stature in the business hierarchy; amount of experience. In actuality, these two distinctions can be tightly intertwined... Some "ascriptions" are harder to cross than others... Likewise, even the most achievement-oriented culture still looks for certain markers of ascription: the right references, the right schools, the right dress, even the right physique. There is a tendency to think of ascription-oriented cultures as traditional and achievement-oriented cultures as more modern and progressive, but it is more useful to see how sources of ascribed value change and continue to influence all societies.
- Objective vs. Subjective
Western culture conceives of itself as having a rational, empirical, objective relationship with the world... For someone bound up in objectivist ways of knowing and interacting, emotions simply cloud the issue and waste time... For a person for whom a subjective emotional response is a gauge of something worth attending to, something worth putting your heart in, detached objectivity signals disengagement or unimportance, coldness, and distance.
I found it helpful to have these definitions clearly articulated; they give me a useful frame of reference when considering the ways in which cultural differences could be at work in a given interaction. But what really brought these concepts to life for me was Hofstede's research on the United States--again, quotes are from Geert-Hofstede.com:
There are only seven (7) countries in the Geert Hofstede research that have Individualism (IDV) as their highest Dimension: USA (91), Australia (90), United Kingdom (89), Netherlands and Canada (80), and Italy (76). [Note: The world average is 43.]
The high Individualism (IDV) ranking for the United States indicates a society with a more individualistic attitude and relatively loose bonds with others. The populace is more self-reliant and looks out for themselves and their close family members.
I've always held individual autonomy and freedom of choice to be among the most important values; in fact, much of my work revolves around helping others be more fulfilled and effective by realizing their individual identities more fully. And while I've certainly been aware that these beliefs are culturally conditioned, it's striking to realize that I live in the most individualistic society on the planet. This knowledge doesn't necessarily alter my values, but it puts them in a useful context.
The next highest Hofstede Dimension is Masculinity (MAS) with a ranking of 62, compared with a world average of 50. This indicates the country experiences a higher degree of gender differentiation of roles. The male dominates a significant portion of the society and power structure. This situation generates a female population that becomes more assertive and competitive, with women shifting toward the male role model and away from their female role.
Again, although I'm well-aware that my attitudes about gender roles are culturally conditioned, it's interesting and useful to know that U.S. society is substantially more male-dominated than the rest of the world.
The United States was included in the group of countries that had the Long Term Orientation (LTO) Dimension added. The LTO is the lowest Dimension for the US at 29, compared to the world average of 45. This low LTO ranking is indicative of the societies' belief in meeting its obligations and tends to reflect an appreciation for cultural traditions.
I actually find this piece of data confusing. It's hard to believe that the U.S. is much more appreciative of cultural traditions than the rest of the world, particularly when our Uncertainty Avoidance ranking--see below--is so low, suggesting a high level of comfort with change and ambiguity. (Perhaps I'm simply misunderstanding the concept of Long-Term Orientation and its implications for tradition.)
The next lowest ranking Dimension for the United States is Power Distance (PDI) at 40, compared to the world average of 55. This is indicative of a greater equality between societal levels, including government, organizations, and even within families. This orientation reinforces a cooperative interaction across power levels and creates a more stable cultural environment.
The last Geert Hofstede Dimension for the US is Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI), with a ranking of 46, compared to the world average of 64. A low ranking in the Uncertainty Avoidance Dimension is indicative of a society that has fewer rules and does not attempt to control all outcomes and results. It also has a greater level of tolerance for a variety of ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.
As with Individuality, Hofstede's research on these final two dimensions resonate deeply with me. I feel that I share my culture's low Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance and as a result have a clearer understanding of just why I feel at home in the United States. At the same time, having this objective view of my culture allows me to see it from a new perspective--it's suddenly visible to me in a way that it wasn't before, and I have a better understanding of myself as a product of my culture.
This brief exploration of the dimensions of cultural difference doesn't address the third (and possibly most important) question I raised above: How do these differences affect our interpersonal relationships? But any answer to that question has to start with a better understanding of our own culture and the ways in which it has shaped us as individuals, and by knowing more about U.S. culture and its impact on me, I feel much better prepared to engage in a discussion with someone from another culture about our mutual differences and their collective impact on our ability to understand each other and work together.
UPDATE: Stephanie West Allen cites Hofstede in a post on cultural differences and neuroscience:
Neurocience research is showing us that the brains of people in different cultures are not the same. Because brains differ from culture to culture, so will resistance to change. Also varying will be how conflict is viewed—and resolved. Here are just a couple of examples of the research on brains and culture.
Recently scientists in Singapore and Illinois compared how the brains of East Asians and of Westerners reacted to visual stimuli. They found that the older East Asian's brains responded differently from the brains of the older Westerners. In an article "Culture sculpts neural response to visual stimuli, new research indicates" principal investigator Dr. Denise Park is quoted as saying:
These are the first studies to show that culture is sculpting the brain.
In another study, researchers looked at how native English speakers and native Chinese speakers did arithmetic. From an Associated Press article about the research:
Simple arithmetic was easily done by both groups, but they used different parts of the brain...
I've expressed some concerns about how neuroscientific findings are applied--I think there's a powerful contemporary desire to reduce the brain to quasi-mechanical terms, and as a result we tend to privilege neuroscience and dismiss the "outdated" humanism of thinkers like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow from the 1950s and 60s. But that said, it's clear that anyone with an interest in understanding human behavior must integrate neuroscience into their perspective and view it as a complementary discipline (which seems to be West Allen's approach.) Thanks, Stephanie.