Rachel Roberts (Standard British accent):
One of the most influential thinkers on the subject of cultural differences is Gerard Hendrik Hofstede. He defines culture in two ways: “culture one” is what we in the west usually mean by “civilisation” or “refinement of the mind”. It also refers to the results of this refinement, like education, art and literature.
“Culture two,” on the other hand, corresponds to the way we are programmed to think, feel and act – a kind of “mental software.” We demonstrate culture two in everyday things, such as greeting, eating, showing or not showing feelings and keeping a certain physical distance from other people. It’s not genetic. It’s a set of values that we learn together with the other people who live in our social environment.
Interestingly, values are among the first things children learn. In fact development psychologists believe that most children have established their basic value system by the age of 10. After that it can be quite difficult to change and, as we acquire these values so early in life, we are rarely aware of them.
In his studies Hofstede focused on four main areas: power distance, collectivism versus individualism, femininity versus masculinity and uncertainty avoidance. Let’s take a closer look at the first of these.
Hofstede defines power distance as: “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” In other words, people in countries with a high power distance – like Malaysia, the Philippines or Mexico – expect and even desire inequalities. This doesn’t mean that Malaysian workers enjoy being worse off than their managers. It’s more a question of respect. For example, in the family parents are more authoritarian and teach their children obedience. If your Mexican or Romanian girlfriend says her parents expect her home by 10pm, you should take that seriously, if you don’t want to cause her problems!
In schools, teachers are seen as wise gurus who decide what is best for pupils to learn. Teachers in Italian schools may have noticed that students of Filipino or Sri Lankan origin are often more attentive and respectful than their native classmates. Similarly at work, subordinates like to be told what to do. The ideal boss is seen as a good father, who “deserves” privileges, status symbols and a much higher salary.
In politics wealth, power, and status go together. Politicians often gain power through charisma and family connections, and always do their best to look impressive. A large house, a chauffeur-driven car and even a playboy lifestyle can be important symbols of this power.
In countries with a low power distance, such as the UK, New Zealand and Austria, hierarchy is not appreciated and inequalities are kept to a minimum, or at least out of sight. Parents often treat their children as equals, and teachers are not so much all-knowing sages, as experts who transfer or channel impersonal truths.
There is a smaller difference in salary between management and subordinates in the same company, and privileges and status symbols for the boss are usually considered inappropriate. Subordinates usually call their boss by his or her first name and expect to be consulted on important matters. People in positions of power will usually try to play their status down, emphasising that they are just like anybody else. Perhaps this explains why the British public was so shocked by the expenses scandal amongst their politicians. Brits don’t expect politicians to have special perks or a particularly extravagant lifestyle!
Multinational companies would do well to bear power distance in mind. For example a management technique like “Management by Objectives” is very popular in the United States, but can be inappropriate in countries such as Malaysia or Mexico. In these countries managers would find it hard to delegate important tasks to their subordinates, and subordinates would feel uncomfortable participating in important decisions.
Amongst European countries, France has one of the highest levels of power distance, so remember to be very formal and deferential when dealing with French management. On the other hand, don’t be surprised if a Danish or Irish colleague remains unimpressed by your titles. He or she will probably expect to use your first name, even if they are at a lower level professionally. And if you go to work for a British company, be prepared to show some initiative! As always, flexibility and acceptance are the key to good relations.
Next month we’ll take a look at the differences between collectivist and individualist societies. In the meantime I’ll leave you to ponder over where your country stands in the power distance scale.
Gerard Henrik Hofstede
Gerard Hendrik Hofstede was born in Haarlem, the Netherlands in 1928. Between 1965-71 he founded and managed the Personnel Research Department of IBM Europe. He conducted a survey about the values of people working in local IBM subsidiaries in over 50 countries around the world.