Friday, 20 March 2009

Hofstede & Cultural Differences

Geert Hofstede is a Dutch writer who wanted to measure cultural differences. He came up with five continuums:
Low vs. High Power Distance
Individualism vs. collectivism
Uncertainty avoidance
Masculinity vs. femininity
Long vs. short term orientation
This is interesting for me because, while cultural differences are clear, actually measuring them makes obvious what is normally passed on through personal experience or anecdote.

Below are three graphs showing where familiar countries fall on three of these continuums.

Uncertainty Avoidance measures a culture's acceptance of ambiguous situations where the outcome is unclear. A more structured, rules-based culture has a low rating; many Islamic countries lie at the low end of this scale. Interestingly, the higher the rating, the generally less acceptable it is to express emotion within that culture.

Countries with a high Power Distance set clear hierarchical boundaries between people with high and low status. In low Power Distance countries like Holland, it is not unusual to see the Prime Minister in the next tent over on a camping holiday. This does not happen in China.

The Individualism continuum measures the importance of collective identity vs. individual identity. Countries like Guatemala have very low ratings, indicating identity 'clumps' (family/village) and far less individual ambition.

Many of these characteristics are driven by a shared religious identity. Catholic nations within Europe are more similar to one another than to a closer Protestant neighbour. Common media and ethnic origin is also key. It is clear on these indicies how similar the English-speaking countries are culturally.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about Hofstede's work in his book Outliers, illustrating how power differences led to airplane crashes: a co-pilot from a high Power Distance culture phrased key information meekly to his superior, only to have it ignored, just minutes before disaster.

The remaining two continuums are less interesting from a Western point of view. In terms of 'Masculinity vs. femininity', Japan occupies one end, Sweden the other. For 'Long vs. short term orientation', China are the ants while Pakistan are the grasshoppers.

I was hoping that the data would shed some light on the differences between American and our antipodean culture, but there is, relatively speaking, very little difference. They are slightly more individualistic, we slightly more relaxed.
Where this data really works hard is in seeing broader trends, similarities and differences. South Koreans, for examples, are far less individualistic than Japanese, and much more regimented than China. I can see that now, looking back on my experiences, but I wouldn't have been able to point it out before. This is one of the key benefits of education: getting more resolution from what you see.

No comments: