The fact that hundreds of millions of people are so interconnected with each other through Internet and the Social Networks, have the possibilities to learn any language fast and reach almost any city in the world, all this makes it natural for anyone to ask the following question: Will the Cultures converge sooner or later?
In order to try an answer this question, let’s ask some more questions: If the cultures converge, in which direction will they do this? Will people all over the world choose to live more like some other people, and which model will be the best to follow? If the cultures converge by mixing each other, can it be that in the end we will have a Swedo-Americano-Chineso-Germano-Japaneso-Indiano-etc culture, to say the least? Or most probably not?
Looking at the world the way it is now, especially in the well developed countries, one can easily see how divided people are (inside the same culture): from the Brexit vote and all the way to the presidential elections in the USA, not to mention within the EU, were we are already talking about InterCultural relations. But this is not bad. This is the pure result of people having the possibility to choose freely between offers constructed by other people that have a particular purpose and have the resources to advertise it and promote it. Not all purposes are manipulative, but all purposes are advertised to appeal to some people’s preferences or tendencies (fear included). The countries in which people are more united, or at least are shown as more united, are the ones that are ruled in a more totalitarian way, having fewer options to choose from and less information to create their own opinions and preferences. The variant that the world’s cultures will converge into a totalitarian culture is very doubtful (although lots of people wish for that). But let’s come to that later.
According to Hofstede’s extensive and diligent research started more than 30 years ago, there are six societal dilemmas and most of the people prefer and are educated to support one of the sides. The differences between cultures come exactly from the reason that the institutions in one country are designed to reinforce more one of the sides and hence the majority of the people from that country will both be following and reinforcing these tendencies. We will slightly touch each of the dilemmas and their sides.
There is the hierarchical thinking opposed to the egalitarian one. People thinking hierarchically feel the need to have a “strong leader” that will “put order in the country”, and in some societies will tell people how to live, what to study, what to work and so on. In opposition there is the egalitarian thinking societies in which people want to be in total control of their lives with all the risks involved and want to know that they are able to choose their unique path in life, constantly having granted the freedom to do so. When people from these two sides meet, they will not be able to agree on one common way to organize the world’s society.
The next dilemma is whether the individual should be independent or part of a group that takes care of him in exchange for his loyalty. Having the desire to be part of an in-group is one of the hardest concepts to explain to people from individualistic cultures, because the communication and behaviors transcend the words. The best example is the feeling the foreigners have when visiting or working in Japan or with Japanese people. For the collectivistic people, the individualists feel rude, too blunt and sometimes egoistic.
The third dilemma differentiates between the societies in which people have the tendency to focus their lives on success and achievement and the ones that focus on the quality of life and on harmonious relationships. There are societies in which people take a lot of pride in their careers and in their achievements, while there are societies in which people work just in order to live, and appreciate their family time and their social life. Trying to make the latter people strive for achievement and compete with each other is one of the naïve unsuccessful management practices that is copied and pasted by culturally unaware expats in the cultures in which that is not recommended. In Eastern Europe this misunderstanding is the cause of the huge turnover of people in most of the companies.
The fourth dilemma opposes the people that are comfortably living in ambiguous situations with no need to control the future with the people that want to structure the reality and control the future as much as possible. The ones that want to control the future as much as possible are also the ones that believe and hope that the cultures will converge. This particular dilemma is the cause for which consensus within the EU is so hard to be found, including the pushing out of the UK from EU.
The fifth dilemma opposes societies that are oriented on norms and traditions with societies that are flexible and oriented on the future. This dilemma expresses the main difference between the European -North American cultures and the South-Eastern Asian ones. It is because of this dimension that most of the companies ask for training on Cultural Differences (not that not understanding the other 4 is not causing enough problems). Being able to create business plans that span over 150 years as opposed to plans that cover two quarters is the main difference in thinking between these types of societies.
The sixth dimension explains why some nations, although poor, are “happier” than some very rich nations. Because of this dimension we understand why people from some nations accept that life is hard, while others prefer to enjoy it to the fullest. Agreeing what is allowed and what is sinful all over the world will probably not happen soon, and as we have seen even between European cultures, this acceptance differs a lot.
Capturing in 6 paragraphs the 6 cultural societal dilemmas as researched by Hofstede and his partners and described in several 500 pages books, is far from showing them in their whole complexity for the reader of this article. We will all read them with our own biases, approving our preference and judging and dismissing the opposed ones because what’s not part of our cultural education is “wrong”, “sinful”, “wasteful”, “rude”, or “inconsiderate”.
Before coming back to the initial question, what can we say about the business world and the work culture? Let’s take just the concept of “manager”. “Manager” is an American concept that was exported almost everywhere in the world, but if we take a look only at Japan, Germany and Holland in comparison with USA we will see what different meanings it bears. In USA the manager is the “hero” that gets people motivated to deliver the results in an efficient way. In Germany people don’t need a “Manager” to motivate them, but rather someone to assign them tasks and let them carry these tasks until they get accomplished or stuck because of external reasons. In Japan as well, the American style of “manager” does not exist because the Japanese are constrained mostly by their peers. The Americans tried for decades to find the “secret” of the Japanese management, but there is none; the “secret” lies in the Japanese society. In The Netherlands, the “manager” is not the “hero” as well, but rather the one that maintains and finds consensus between the people. Using the same business language in this part of the world (mostly English) has the obvious advantage, but without understanding the underlying cultural meaning, it brings a huge disadvantage to the professionals that work abroad in unfamiliar cultures.
Going back to the question from the title. If the reader didn’t find the answer yet, let’s ask some more questions: what are the chances that one of these societies will decide that the opposite values are better than the ones that have been educated in people for centuries? What are the chances that the companies all over the world will say: yes, the American concept of “manager” is the right one and it should be applied everywhere, even though it doesn’t bring benefits in some cultures, neither short term, nor long term? What are the chances that the cultures will converge, when nowadays inside the cultures with the most freedom of expression, people are so divided?
The business world is even more pragmatic than the social world and the companies are constantly searching to adapt their practices in order to get the engagement of their people and be more efficient fast, so it is expected that the companies will start using the cultural differences to everyone’s advantage and will only increase the gap between them. It is doubtful that the trend of trying to uniform the working cultures in the subsidiaries of a company all over the world will continue.
It will be in our wisdom and for our competitive advantage to be able to understand the differences between cultures and be able to apply what works best both for our business and for the long term development of peaceful and efficient intercultural relations.
Accredited InterCultural Practitioner
by Itim International – The Hofstede Center