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Understanding Culture

Culture is defined as a society's shared beliefs and ways of doing things. Your own culture determines how you manage as well as how you view others. You look at others through your own cultural lens. It is important to understand just what that lens is. Before you begin learning about other cultures, you must first understand your own.

Learning about other cultures requires that you be able to overcome ethnocentrism and parochialism. Ethnocentrism is the belief that your culture's ways are the only ways. Parochialism is the belief that your culture's ways are the best ways. You can't be cosmopolitan with either of these beliefs. These are the attitudes that have led to the term "the ugly American" abroad. Even more importantly, these views can cost your company profits.

As technology brings the world closer together, you are forced to deal with cultural differences on a magnified scale. An understanding of cross-cultural differences is critical today.

Just a Minute

The culture in Saudi Arabia tends to value the spoken word. People make their point in conversation very slowly so they can enjoy the spoken word. This is in contrast to American businesspeople who tend to prefer getting to the point quickly.

Hofstede's Dimensions of Culture

Geert Hofstede was a Dutch researcher who created a framework for understanding cultural differences based on his study in 1980 of a multinational corporation that was doing business in 40 different countries. Hofstede's dimensions of culture help you gain insight into the differences among cultures. Based on averages in these cultures, he identified five cultural dimensions:

  • Individualism-collectivism
  • Power distance
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Masculinity-femininity
  • Short- or long-term orientation


Originally, Hofstede proposed individualism-collectivism, power differences, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity-femininity as the four dimensions of culture. Short or long-term orientation was added later as a result of Michael Bond's work on Con-fuscian dynamism. Bond conducted cross-cultural psychology research.

Hofstede's dimensions of culture reflect the basic values of the culture. Knowing where cultures fall on these dimensions can help you gain better insights into the adaptations you must take to be more successful.

Individualism-collectivism refers to a continuum. On one end of the scale is individuaism—where the individual is the focus. Individuals work primarily for their own personal interests. Collectivism is a group effort. The group's interests are considered to be the most important.

The American culture is more individualistic, where people work more for their individual, personal success. The Japanese culture is a good example of collectivism. The collective interest is generally the focus. Collectivism buys almost absolute group loyalty.

There is an old Japanese proverb that suggests that the nail that sticks up will be hammered down. In the Japanese culture, individualism is not valued.

This is a basic issue in the move toward teamwork in the United States—which conflicts with the team approach.


Hofstede recognized America as among the most individualistic of all the cultures he studied.

Power distance reflects the degree to which the people of a culture are comfortable with differences in power or status. That is, people accept uneven power distributions whereby everyone is not on equal footing. A culture is defined as having a high power distance if people accept that there are broad differences in the distribution of power. People in this culture tend to respect authority and status.

For example, workers in Mexico respect one's social status. They don't want to call their manager by a first name. It would be considered uncultured if you told a Mexican subordinate to call you by your first name.

The dimension referred to as uncertainty avoidance reflects the level of comfort with ambiguity. That is, uncertainty avoidance is the comfort level the culture has for risk. A culture that is low in uncertainty avoidance tends to be comfortable dealing with uncertainty and risk.

An employee from a high uncertainty-avoidance culture may not want much movement into other jobs. They are simply not as comfortable with the uncertainty or risk associated with a new position.

Proceed with Caution

Learning about different cultures should not replace learning about individuals within these cultures. Cultural stereotypes can be detrimental. Remember that each individual is unique.

Masculinity-femininity is the fourth dimension Hofstede identified. This dimension's components represent the values traditionally associated with each of the genders. Masculinity reflects more competitive behavior while femininity reflects more of a concern for others. Femininity comprises more of the "softer" issues in management today. The Japanese culture tends toward the high end of masculinity.

The long-term orientation of the final dimension reflects persistence. The short-term orientation focuses more on immediate results. America has been identified as a short-term culture.

Understanding these dimensions of culture may make it easier when implementing management practices across cultures or with a multicultural workforce. You can gain insight into how to better approach people—especially people from different cultures.

Other Cultural Differences

One of the most apparent cultural differences is that of language. You can readily identify language differences between two cultures. While other cultural differences may be less subtle, it is equally critical to understanding these differences.

Space orientation refers to the way cultures use space and the identification of personal space varies. Americans tend to carefully guard their personal space. The area one to three feet surrounding you is your personal space. Others are not supposed to violate that space. Your reaction to those who invade that area is probably to immediately back away. Standing nose to nose is not usually comfortable in the American culture.

Middle Eastern cultures are comfortable with closer distances while some other cultures tend to extend that personal space. When you are talking to someone from another culture, then, it is important to be aware of this space orientation and to adapt to make him or her comfortable.

You can easily offend people if you are unaware of these cultural differences. Middle Eastern cultures may think you too distant if you don't get close enough while cultures may think you rude and obnoxious if you are standing too close.

Time is an interesting dimension of culture. The American culture is extremely time conscious. You probably carefully account for your time, plan it, and recognize it as a precious resource. Even the language you use reflects this value the American culture places on time. In the English language clocks "run." Many other languages are literally translated to say clocks "walk" instead.

Just a Minute

The Japanese routinely entertain business colleagues late into the evening. This is an expected method of doing business.

This time orientation is very evident as meetings are scheduled across cultures or with people attending representing different cultures. Americans schedule an 11 a.m. meeting and expect everyone to arrive a few minutes early and be prepared to start at 11 sharp. Germans likewise value time and abhor tardiness. An 11 a.m. meeting in a South American culture means "around" 11 a.m. This could be 12 p.m. One is not right while the other is wrong. It is simply a difference in the way these cultures view time.

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