When it comes to communicating between different cultures, there are many things that can go wrong. For thousands of years, people have struggled for dominance. During the middle ages, the Spanish Inquisition sought to eradicate the Moors and any other people who dared question the Catholic faith. But it hasn’t always been about religion – people have fought throughout the ages about geographical borders, politics and the colour the skin.
These days, all these things continue to play a part, however, we have learnt to be more tolerant of things that are different to what we’re used to, and instead of, say burning someone at the stake, we respect each others’ differences.
Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.
– Prof. Geert Hofstede, Emeritus Professor, Maastricht University
But what about those little things in life that make you think someone is being disrespectful, abrupt and maybe just plain odd? When I first moved to Australia, I dreaded having to answer the “How are you?” question I was greeted with everywhere I went. The thought of having to speak more than two words of English terrified me. That is, until I realised that the custom answer for this question is simply “good”. Had someone asked me this question in Sweden, I would have been expected to give a full account how I was feeling. Needless to say, you won’t be greeted by a “how are you” at the supermarkets in Sweden, when a simple “hello” will do the job (because checkout chicks don’t actually care how you are anyway!).
Once I started bringing friends home after school, I couldn’t work why my friends seemed terrified to speak to my mother – sure she had a bit of an accent and her English was perhaps not the best to start with, but she was never mean or told my friends off. It took me a few years to realise that it was the way she said things that was scary (usually abrupt or straight to the point). These are just a couple of examples from my own experiences moving from Sweden to Australia – one that you would think not to be too much different from other Western cultures. But fact is, in every ‘similar’ culture, there are some very significant differences.
One person that has explored this in detail is Geert Hofestede. A Dutch psychologist and anthropologist, Hofestede is most known for his work on the different cultural dimensions in intercultural communications, which looks at:
- Power Distance (PDI)
- Individualism (IDV)
- Masculinity (MAS)
- Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)
- Long-term orientation (LTO)
The five dimensions operate under the theory that each culture employs these to a different degree, causing different cultures that have different ways of solving problems, speaking, view risk and plan.
Power distance refers to the “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.”
Looking at my own example of Sweden versus Australia, the graph shows that Australia has a much higher power distance index than Sweden.
This means that the unequal distribution of power in Australia is accepted, whereas the Sweden (which was socialist for a number of years), has a more equal distribution of power.
Individualism refers to the degree to which “individuals are integrated into groups”. On the individualist side, societies in which the ties between individuals are loose, everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collective side, people are integrated into strong, cohesive groups – often extended families which continue protecting each other in return for unquestionable loyalty.
The graph shows that Australia is a very much individualist nation, whereas Sweden is more about looking out for the extended family. Again, this could have something to do with Sweden’s socialist background. It is important to note that while Sweden’s individualist index is lower than Australia’s it’s still a lot higher than China.
Masculinity versus femininity cultures refers to the distribution of roles between the genders. Hofestede’s research revealed that women’s values differ less among societies than men’s values. Men’s values from one country to another contain a dimension from very assertive and competitive to modest and caring on the other side.
The assertive pole has been called ‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole ‘feminine’. The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men, while in the masculine countries, they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as men.
Perhaps the most notable difference between Australia and Sweden is the masculinity index.
Australia, compared to Sweden, is a very masculine country, whereas Sweden is very feminine. This might explain Sweden’s early adoption of paid maternal and paternity leave.
The Uncertainty avoidance index “deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity”. It indicates to what extent members feel uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations (e.g. unknown or surprising situations).
Cultures that avoid uncertainty try to minimise the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on a philosophical and religious level, by a belief in absolute truth.
These cultures are also more emotional. Uncertainty accepting cultures, on the other hand, are more tolerant of different opinions and try to have as few rules as possible. They are also not expected to express emotions.
Again, there’s a fairly significant difference between Australia and Sweden. As the graph shows, Australia tries to avoid uncertainty whereas Sweden is more open to unstructured situations.
With the word ‘nanny state’ becoming more and more common in Australia, I think it’s safe to say that this holds true to some degree.
Long-Term Orientation versus short-term orientation is the fifth dimension. A study among students in 23 countries around the world revealed values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance while values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one’s ‘face’.
In terms of long-term orientation, Sweden values long-term orientation and tradition much more than Australia which has a relatively low long-term orientation index. Perhaps this is because Sweden’s history and traditions go back much further than Australia’s.
So what does this all mean when it comes to communication? It means that when targeting products or services to a specific geographical area, it’s important to look at which cultures are present. Realising the values held by different cultures means you can tailor your messages to ensure your target audience responds to those messages to ensure a desired outcome.