Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

cultural research

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 — 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.

Gross National Happiness

We’re happy in Denmark.

What’s with these Danes? On virtually every survey that purports to measure national happiness — or Gross National Happiness — Denmark scores number one. In fact, the Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — typically occupy half of the top ten “happy slots”. I’ve visited all the Nordic countries. They’re really nice but are they the happiest places in the world? Wasn’t Hamlet Danish? He didn’t seem so happy.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been reading the World Happiness Report published through The Earth Institute at Columbia University. (Click here). It’s about 170 pages long and makes for very interesting reading — enough so that I’m going to write about various facets of it from time to time. Here are some of the key questions:

  • Is happiness a topic that we can take seriously? According to the study’s authors, there is enough empirical research coming from many different cultures that we can start to make useful comparisons and judgments. I’ll admit that I’m very curious about how to measure national happiness, so I’ll write about the method as well as the results.
  • What makes people happy? Money helps but not as much as other factors like social cohesion, strong family ties, absence of corruption, and degree of personal freedom. Interestingly, giving money away seems to make people happier than receiving money.
  • As countries get richer, do they get happier? Some do and some don’t. Apparently, the USA is one of those countries that hasn’t gotten happier as we’ve gotten richer. I’d like to dig into that.
  • Is the world getting happier? Apparently we are, especially in areas where extreme poverty is being eliminated.

I’ll write occasionally on happiness studies and delve into what makes people happy and what doesn’t — and how all this affects the way we live. Feel free to send me any of your questions about happiness studies and I’ll try to get them answered.

In the meantime here are two questions for you:

  • Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are? (0 = extremely unhappy; 10 = extremely happy)
  • All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays? (0 = extremely dissatisfied; 10 = extremely satisfied).

In the Nordic countries, the average life satisfaction score is 7.6. If yours is lower than that, maybe it’s time to head to Denmark.


Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

A new CEO sweeps into your company and announces a new strategy. Your company hasn’t been doing too well so you think it just might be time for a new strategy — the old one wasn’t working, maybe a new one will. Unfortunately, the new strategy doesn’t fit well with your existing culture, which focuses on quality. The new CEO wants to focus on speed — “Let’s get to market before our competitors do — the first mover has the advantage”. Yet your fellow employees think, “There’s always a market for quality. Quality wins in the long run.”

When strategy and culture are at odds with each other, which one wins? Culture wins every time. In fact, Peter Drucker said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Changing strategy is fairly easy — it’s just an announcement. But if the new strategy doesn’t fit the culture, it’s simply an announcement of prospective failure. First, you have to change the culture.

Watch the video for more information on culture versus strategy.

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