National Culture - read this first

I now want to talk about the differences between national cultures. I have been accused of casual racism when presenting this material previously, but I want to emphasise most strongly that the material in this section is NOT about race or genetics – cultural differences are learned behaviours, not biologically inherited strengths or weaknesses.

The differences between societies have been extensively studied. The pioneers in this were Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars (interestingly, both Dutch) and they have been followed by a host of academics. This site only scratches the surface of their deep and subtle work, and the References section contains some recommendations for those who want to know more. If you work in a multinational company or you are an expatriate worker, I strongly recommend further study.

Hofstede's and Trompenaars' observations are drawn from very large and rigorous sociological studies. The method used to measure culture has generally been to conduct surveys on the attitude and values of very large groups and then to use statistical analysis to find underlying trends – Hofstede, for example, surveyed 117,000 IBM employees in 66 countries over a six-year period.  

Because the sample sizes are large, these surveys are an accurate predictor of how a group will, on average, behave. This does not mean we can predict how an individual will behave, and nothing here should be taken as an indicator of an individual’s intentions or responses. Personality is at least as important as cultural background, and Hofstede (1994) says his cultural profiles only account for about half of individual behavioural differences. 

Similarly, we should remember that, even within the most insular culture, there is a distribution of values and attitudes, and each member in it fits somewhere on that distribution. If you look at the cultural profiles, you might deduce that the French will see the British as cold, untrustworthy, uncultured workaholics, while the Brits would see the French as arrogant, over-emotional sluggards who happen to be reasonable cooks. The averages hide a distribution of attitudes: at one end of the bell curve there are cold, untrustworthy French just as there are arrogant, over-emotional Brits. This section would be unreadable if I prefaced every sentence with ‘on average’, so kindly take it as written…and I will try to sound a ‘stereotype alert’ if I start to generalise too broadly.  Analysis of cultural memes allows you to talk about the difference between cultures, not the differences between individuals.

Between national culture and individual behaviours sits group or organisational culture, which is the subject of much of the rest of the book.  There are also meme-driven sub-cultures that can sit between national culture and organisational culture.  Accountants, for example, have very similar ways of thinking regardless of the companies they work for, and military men tend to react in the same way, regardless of the cultures they come from.

Let me sound one final note of caution: we should also be very careful when discussing 'national' characteristics: nations are artificial constructs.  The research has tended to focus on cultural groups, and these do not always map onto geographical boundaries, particularly where the nations are formed from two or more cultural groups (e.g. Rwanda, Belgium and Italy). Similarly, societies can transcend boundaries – Swiss Germans are culturally similar to Germans, Swiss French to the French.  And of course, most people who swap nations carry their old set of memes with them: what tends to matter is the nationality of your parents and where you were educated, not where you live now.  

Now read: One Planet, Different Worlds

One Planet, Different Worlds

When first asked to describe what makes a nation, you might talk about its geography, its history or even its language or religion. If you‘ve spent any time there, you might be able to talk about the shared values and the common outlook of the people who live there. And if you really know the place, you will be able to talk of the ‘culture‘ of that nation and the many ways in which ‘they’ differ from ‘us’.

Read more: One Planet, Different Worlds

Self or group?

There is in all of us a conflict between what we want as an individual and the interests of the group(s) we belong to.  Hofstede identified that, as individuals, we reach a ‘balance of selfishness’ that reflects the right mix of loyalty and self-determination.  That balance differs from society to society and is thus learned rather than inbuilt – it is therefore carried by a meme.

Read more: Self or group?

Power or privilege?

Whether you like it or not, in every society some people have power and privilege, and some do not.  Power seeking is common to all humans, to a greater or lesser extent,  and is therefore genetic in origin, probably bred into the genome by the apes who were better at getting food and mates.  However, the extent to which genetically similar societies allow differences in power, and how they handle these, varies considerably, and these factors are purely memetic in origin.

Read more: Power or privilege?

Opportunity or risk?

I’m particularly interested in another of Hofstede’s dimensions – the way societies feel about ambiguity. Do they try to control the future, or just let it happen?  And if rules cannot be kept, should they be changed?  

Read more: Opportunity or risk?