Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

cultural dimensions

Which Way to the Future? International Branding.

“Time flies like an arrow”, Arthur Eddington.

“Fruit flies like a banana”, Groucho Marx.

If it’s true that time flies like an arrow, which direction is it headed? Well, it depends on your culture. We’re all aware that different cultures have different attitudes toward time. In Sweden, people show up for a 7:00 dinner date at 7:00 precisely. In Mexico, people might show up half an hour to an hour later. You shouldn’t show up “on time” because your host might not be ready and that would be embarrassing.

But which way does time flow? Where, precisely, is the future? Somewhat surprisingly, it depends on how you read. People who read from left to right — as we do in English — see the future as being to the right. Indeed, good marketing charts always show trends up and to the right.  (I think I could make up most marketing charts without knowing the data).

People who read from right to left — think of Arabic and Hebrew – tend to see the future as being to the left. This has important implications for public speaking. I’ve given speeches to Arabic audiences and I’m sure that I pointed to the right as I indicated activities in the future. In other words, my body language conflicted with my verbal language and probably confused the audience.

The same holds true in graphic treatments that are used across cultures. My favorite example is the FedEx logo. (I discovered this in a Scientific American Mind article). Look closely at the English FedEx logo below. In the “negative space” between the E and the X, you’ll see an arrow in white. Which way is it pointed? Well … to the future, of course.

fedex english

Now look at the Arabic FedEx logo. Again, you’ll find an arrow in the negative fedex arabicspace between letters. Which way is it pointed? Well … to the future, of course. It’s a good example of how different cultures see things differently. It’s also a fairly rare example of a corporation showing cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity in its advertising. FedEx should be commended.

(For an example of how the Aymara Indians of Bolivia see the future differently than the rest of us, click here).



Culture – Masculine/Feminine

Gender SymbolsWould you prefer to: 1) work the same number of hours and earn more money, or; 2) work fewer hours and earn the same money? According to Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede this question can help us ascertain whether a culture is “feminine” or “masculine”.

The Hofstedes are academic researchers who study the influence of national cultures on organizational behavior. The Hofstedes write that there are five basic dimensions of culture: 1) power distance — the degree of equality/inequality in a culture; 2) individualist/collectivist continuum; 3) masculine/feminine; 4) Uncertainty avoidance — the degree to which we believe that what’s different is dangerous; 5) short-term/long-term orientation. I’ve written about the first two previously (here and here). Today, let’s talk about masculine/feminine. I’ll cover the other two in the near future.

According to the Hofstedes, the masculine/feminine dimension has mainly to do with the degree of differentiation between gender roles. In “masculine” cultures, “…gender roles are clearly distinct: men are supposed to be assertive, tough, and focused on material success, whereas women are supposed to be modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life.”  In “feminine” cultures, “… gender roles overlap: both men and women are supposed to be modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life.”

As with their other dimensions, the Hofstedes develop a scale (MAS) and rank order 74 countries. The five most “masculine” countries are Slovakia (MAS = 110), Japan (95), Hungary (88), Austria (79), and Venezuela (73). The most “feminine” countries are Sweden (MAS = 5), Norway (8), Netherlands (14), Denmark (16), Slovenia (19). The United States has an MAS score of 62, making it the 19th most “masculine” country on the list.

The masculine/feminine dimension is the only one of the five dimensions that is not correlated to national wealth. In general, wealthier nations tend to have smaller power distance (more egalitarian), lean toward individualism, are more comfortable with uncertainty, and have a long-term orientation. The masculine/feminine dimension, on the other hand, has no relationship to wealth. We see rich and poor masculine cultures and rich and poor feminine cultures in approximately equal proportions.

In very general terms, masculine cultures are about ego, feminine culture are about relationships. In masculine cultures, status purchases (expensive watches, jewelry) are common and people buy more nonfiction books. In feminine cultures, people buy more products for the home, invest more in do-it-yourself projects, and buy more fiction. In masculine societies, failure at school is a catastrophe and may lead to suicide. In feminine societies, school failure is a relatively minor incident. In masculine societies, competitive sports tend to be part of a school’s curriculum; in feminine societies, they are extracurricular.

In the workplace, the masculine/feminine continuum produces important differences in work content and management styles. In masculine cultures, we might hear people say, “I live to work”. In feminine cultures, we’re more likely to hear, “I work to live”. Answering the opening question (above), masculine societies tend to prefer more salary for the same hours; feminine societies prefer the  same salary for fewer hours.

Job enrichment also varies by culture. In masculine societies, enrichment largely means more opportunities for advancement, recognition, and challenge. In feminine societies, enrichment is more about relationship building and mutual support. In feminine cultures, small is beautiful. In masculine cultures, bigger is better. In feminine societies, careers are optional for both genders. In masculine societies, careers are mandatory for men, optional for women.

You can find the Hofstede’s book here.




Culture — I versus We

I'm the center of the universe.

I’m the center of the universe.

What’s more important: you or the group you were born into? According to Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, the answer to that question is a basic dimension of culture and can be measured and compared. (I introduced the Hofstedes’ intercultural research last week, with a discussion of the Power Distance Index).

The Hofstedes refer to this second dimension of culture as the individualist/collectivist continuum. In cultures that lean toward the collectivist end of the spectrum, “… the interest of the group prevails over the interests of the individual.” In individualist cultures, it’s just the opposite: “…ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family.” In collectivist societies, you give your “unquestioning loyalty” to the group in exchange for protection, status, and general welfare. As the Hofstedes point out, a great majority of the world’s population lives in collectivist cultures.

The Hofstedes created an Individualism Index (IDV) and applied it to 74 countries. The most individualistic countries were: United States (IDV = 91), Australia (90), Great Britain (89), and Canada, Hungary, and the Netherlands, tied at 80. The least individualistic countries were: Colombia (13), Venezuela (12), Panama (11), Ecuador (8), and Guatemala (6).

Broadly speaking, the Individualism Index is inversely related to the Power Distance Index. In other words, individualistic countries tend to be relatively egalitarian. Collectivist countries, on the other hand, tend to rely upon powerful individuals, “imbued with strong moral authority”, to lead the group. The leader might be the head of a family, an ethnic group, a religion, or a country.

The difference between individualist and collectivist cultures can be quite subtle. In collectivist societies, a great deal of information is simply “understood” and messages are relatively brief, a phenomenon known as high-context communication. The context of the message is understood; it doesn’t need to be explained. In individualist societies, low-context communication is more typical. Messages need to be explicit, since individuals are loosely joined. The Hofstedes point out that “American (IDV= 91) business contracts are much longer than Japanese (IDV = 46) business contracts.”

In collectivist societies, “harmony should always be maintained”; in individualist societies, “speaking one’s mind” is admired. In collectivist societies, “resources should be shared with relatives”; in individualist societies, individual ownership is the rule, even for children. This dimension even affects walking speed. In individualist societies, people walk faster. In collectivist societies, they walk slower.

In business, the individualist/collectivist continuum can create significant misunderstandings. In individualist societies, “business is done with a company.”  In collectivist cultures, business is done “…with a person whom one has learned to know and trust.” Employee relations are also affected. “Management” means management of individuals in individualist cultures but management of groups in collectivist societies. Occupational mobility is higher in individualistic cultures and companies strive to treat every customer equally. In collectivist societies, in-groups may (should) be given preferential treatment in hiring, promotions, and customer care.

Perhaps as a consequence of all this, per capita GNP tends to be lower in collectivist societies. Individualist cultures tend to be wealthier. Does wealth cause individualism or vice versa? The Hofstedes makes a strong argument that rising wealth leads to individualism rather than the other way round. They conclude that poor countries, “…cannot be expected to become more individualist as long as they remain poor.”

You can learn more in the Hofstedes’ book: Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.


Culture — Would You Laugh At Your Boss?

We must be in a high PDI zone.

We must be in a high PDI zone.

Would you make fun of your boss… to her face?  If you’re from Denmark, you might. If you’re from Slovakia, probably not.

That’s one of the conclusions you might draw from the Power Distance Index (PDI), a measure of one of the “dimensions” of culture. Since the early 20th century, social scientists have worked to classify human cultures and measure how they differ from each other. The dimensions deal with fundamental concepts, like how we conceive of ourselves as individuals, the relationship between the individual and the group, how men and women relate to each other, and how we handle conflict. From these foundations, different observers have developed different numbers of cultural dimensions, ranging from a low of four to a high of nine.

Lately, I’ve been reading the work of Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, a father-son team of cultural researchers from the Netherlands. In their book, Culture and Organization: Software of the Mind, they suggest that there are five cultural dimensions: 1) power distance; 2) individualism versus collectivism; 3) femininity versus masculinity; 4) uncertainty avoidance; 5) long-term versus short-term orientation. I’d like to look at all five of these — and their inter-relationship — over the coming weeks. Today, let’s look at power distance. (By the way, one of the reasons I like the Hofstedes is that they relate their findings to the workplace. The last several chapters of their book offer practical advice on managing in a multicultural world).

The Hofstedes define power distance as “the extent to which the less powerful … [citizens] … of a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” The Hofstedes developed an index to measure power distance within a country and applied it to 74 different countries. The five countries with the highest PDI scores are Malaysia (PDI = 104), Slovakia (104), Guatemala (95), Panama (95), and Philippines (94). The five with lowest scores are German-speaking Switzerland (26), New Zealand (22), Denmark (18), Israel (13), and Austria (11). (The United States has a PDI of 40)

Power distance affects cultures in myriad ways. Countries with low PDIs generally believe that “inequalities among people should be minimized.” On the other hand, those with high PDIs generally believe that “Inequalities among people are expected and desired”. In low PDI countries, “parents treat children as equals”; in high PDI countries, “parents teach children obedience”.

In the workplace, differences between low- and high-PDI countries can be pronounced. In low-PDI countries, the workplace is generally decentralized with few supervisors. The ideal boss is a resourceful democrat and status symbols are generally frowned upon. In high-PDI countries, the situation is essentially reversed: the workplace is centralized with a large number of supervisors. The ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat and status symbols are normal and popular.

Here are two findings that struck me as very odd. In Europe and the Americas, countries with Romance languages had — on average — higher PDI scores than those with Germanic languages. In the popular imagination, Germanic countries are often perceived to be very hierarchical. The Hofstedes’ research suggests that the opposite is true. Austria (PDI= 11) has the lowest PDI of any of the 74 countries. German-speaking Switzerland has a PDI of 26 which compares to 70 for French-speaking Switzerland. Germany itself has a score of 35.

The other oddity is that PDI scores tend to drop the farther north (or the farther south) you move from the equator. Tropical lands tend to have higher power distances than temperate lands. Here are scores for some of the more northern (and southern) countries: Denmark (18), New Zealand (22), Ireland (28), Sweden (31), Norway (31), Finland (33), Australia (36), Canada (39). The Hofstedes suggest some possible reasons for this distribution but their ideas seem a bit too pat to me. While I’m scartching my head as to the cause, it may be that we’re simply measuring language differences again. None of the northern countries I’ve just listed speaks a Romance language.

So, what does it all mean? I’m still working on that. I do find it very interesting that the Nordic countries are clustered at the very low end of the PDI table while they’re at the very high end of the World Happiness Report and the Global Innovation Index. There’s something interesting in the state of Denmark. Think about that for a while. In the meantime, don’t laugh at your boss.

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