Cultural values: the blandest-sounding key to learning how other countries work

downloadSo I’ve harped on the virtues of the book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind before. Using international survey data, it seeks to lay out six dimensions that can be used to measure and compare the cultures of different countries.

What I love most about this book is its commitment to values: it assumes all behavior makes sense within a cultural context, and then it seeks to identify what about that culture encourages that behavior. I think this is a great, great orientation to have toward the world—to assume that people are acting for good reason, and challenging oneself to understand it.

Anyway, I was so enamored with this book that I used it as a base for a discussion at English & Chill, our weekly conversation club. Over the course of the hour, I presented the six cultural dimensions Hofstede outlined, and then I asked our participants to talk about where they think the US and Brazil rank. I later repeated the presentation with an intermediate business English class at an UCS campus outside the city, and I was impressed—Brazilians tended to predict fairly accurately where on these dimensions Brazil would fall.

Cultural values (5)

This graph is taken from Hofstede’s website, which my co-ETA Barbara tipped me off to. You can compare the results of up to four countries at a time, and then read a brief summary explaining how the countries differ across the various dimensions. If you have a few spare moments, I highly recommend reading it.

So, because this framework has been so illuminating for me, I wanted to share it here. I’ve included the six explanation slides from my presentation, which try to boil down/share the most interesting parts of each of the dimensions. I prefaced them with a warning: cultures are never constant nor homogenous, and they don’t account for an individual’s preferences and disposition. But it is possible to draw some broad generalizations about a country’s culture, and as Hofstede argues, those generalizations can be measured along six dimensions:

Cultural values

Cultural values (1)Cultural values (2)Cultural values (3)Cultural values (4)Cultural values (6)

I know that reading this book early during my stay here helped me put language around some of the cultural differences I was experiencing, which then helped me more productively react to them.

During my presentations, I usually bring up individualism as an example—Hofstede’s research ranks the US as the most individualistic country in the world, whereas Brazil falls somewhere closer to the middle. And this is a difference I see every day. There’s less of a sense of personal space, for example—normal greetings include cheek-kisses and hugs and back-claps, even with people you’re meeting for the first time. And it’s not unusual to share drinks (sometimes by pouring a regular-sized bottle into little plastic cups), like chimarrão. Plus, inviting other people along to (or just plain showing up announced at) other people’s houses seems fairly common.

Another challenge to adapt to was Brazil’s relative femininity, or its preference to be oriented around relationships rather than tasks. I feel like I need to go through much more small talk than would otherwise be necessary in the US, and I get the impression that being direct can be seen as rude. I’ve had to learn that “what do you think?” is sometimes used not so much to solicit advice as it is to soften a request, and “could be” usually means (depending on context) either “yes” or “no.” Also, I’ve realized this importance placed on relationships contributes to everyone’s habitual lateness—you don’t want to be rude to the person in front of you by leaving, so you sit and chat longer than you maybe otherwise should.

So of course, over the past seven months here, I’ve learned to identify these patterns as normal. But thanks to Cultures and Organizations, however, I was able to recognize and adapt to them much more quickly.

If you’re interested in how other cultures work, or even learning more about your own, I strongly encourage you to give Cultures and Organizations a shot.

One thought on “Cultural values: the blandest-sounding key to learning how other countries work

  1. Pingback: Cultural programming in comic books: practicing Portuguese with ‘Turma da Mônica’ | In the city of gaúchos

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