Cultural differences between the East and the West
Geert Hofstede’s academic exercise which differentiates nations on the basis of cultural variables has met with much criticism* but I find his work fascinating. And so do business schools apparently as his ‘dimensions’ are widely studied and critiqued across the world. I will write from purely a layman’s point of view so I apologise for any lapses.
Hofstede laid out certain ‘dimensions’ of culture which he used to compare different nations. These “dimensions” are not individual traits…but simply “averages” or “tendencies” of whole groups. The Hofstede dimensions are as follows:
- Power Distance (PD) The attitude of people towards differences in power and wealth …countries with a great power distance will have strict hierarchies and this will be accepted by those in the lower levels of the hierarchy.
- Individualism Collectivism (IC) This measures the ability to live in groups or choose ones own path, regardless of what the group/community is thinking or doing. Individual achievement is highly valued.
- Masculinity (MF) This measures a culture’s “masculine” traits like competitiveness, aggression and giving importance to material things and “feminine” traits like sensitiveness, empathy, importance given to quality of life. This masculine/feminine terminology has also been dubbed as Quantity of Life vs. Quality of Life. Interestingly a country which scores high on Masculinity will have a female population which is more aggressive and competitive than that of a country with a lower score. Another thing – in the “masculine” societies, the difference between men and women is greater, the men being much more aggressive and competitive than the women, unlike the more “feminine” societies where the differences between men and women are lesser.
- Uncertainty Avoidance (UA) This dimension (added later by Hofstede) shows how people react to uncertainty in their environment. This dimension also shows the level of tolerance in a society for differences.
So how does India fare as compared to the rest of the world?
1. India has a high POWER DISTANCE (77), much higher than the world average (56.5). In India social hierarchies are very much in place and even at work it is not easy to be friendly with one’s boss in most organisations. Calling one’s boss by his first name is rare in India. In fact abuse by seniors is also common and usually the employee is helpless and his only recourse is to leave. As for Indian politics, one can see the groveling that goes on!
China has a slightly higher PD (80) as compared to India and both India and China are higher than the Far Eastern Asian nations which have an average of 60. Japan is only 50.
Countries In Northern Europe have a lower PD as compared to countries in Southern and Eastern Europe. The United States has less than 40 and the United Kingdom around 30.
2. India is at 61 in LONG TERM ORIENTATION, higher than the world average of 48 but lower than the Asian average of 85. Asian cultures generally have higher scores on long-term thinking…which means that they are more “perseverant and parsimonious.” It’s interesting to note that even when Indians travel abroad they work very hard and sacrifice a lot for long-term benefit, which is the education of their children. Staying put in one job is also an indication of long term orientation and this is used to be very common in India once. It is changing now. Perhaps because staying in one job is not that beneficial in the long run! Leads to stagnation as opportunities to grow become limited.
China is at 95 and Japan at almost 80.
Western nations are on the opposite ends of the scale. The United States and Sweden score below 30. Britain and Canada score even lower, around 20!
3. India’s MASCULINITY score is 56, slightly higher than the world average of 51 and the Asian average of 53. I am not at all surprised that we score high on masculinity as compared to countries like Sweden. But at the same time in India we are not as “masculine” as Japan, but the materialism and aggression in our society seems to be increasing. Our scores are bound to change soon, as India tries hard to reach the ‘developed’ state level. Just one example – at one time in India businessmen were not respected, but today they are revered. A poor teacher would get as much respect as a rich person, but not any more. However India has always been ‘male oriented’ so I am not sure why high “masculinity” scores (materialism and aggression) in a society are associated with male dominance and a greater difference in between the sexes (in terms of these qualities). I am sure that this was always so in our society.
Japan is the most “masculine” culture with scores of above 90. Such cultures are usually “male” oriented and workplaces are often autocratic. China at 50 has average scores.
Sweden is the most “feminine” culture in the sense that the Swedish population has qualities the qualities of sensitiveness and empathy and they give less importance to material things than countries with “masculine” traits. This also means that there is less difference between the sexes with regard to these qualities. Both men and women are like this. Canada is just below 50, United States just below 60 and Britain just above 60.
4. India gets just 40 in the UNCERTAINITY AVOIDANCE (UA) dimension as compared to the world average of 65. A low score is good, as it means that the society that has “fewer rules and does not attempt to control all outcomes and results”. It also means “a greater level of tolerance for a variety of ideas, thoughts, and beliefs” and a “high tolerance for ambiguity.” Well, it is not surprising that we are like this, the multi-cultural cauldron that we are! However we do have rigid rules where religion and dress (for women) are concerned so I am not sure that we deserve such a high score. We are also an extremely prudish society and therefore I wonder how we scored so well on this dimension. Maybe they didn’t ask questions regarding sexuality!
The Asian average is 60, but Japan is almost at 90! This indicates a less tolerant society. China does good at 35.
The US is 46, Canada around 45 and Britain at 30. The European average is 74, and it is the Mediterranean cultures which bring it up. Germany (around 60) and Switzerland (58] don’t do too well but its the Swedes who are the best, at 25.
5. India doesn’t does too badly on the INDIVIDUALISM dimension (45) if one compares it to the Asian average of 24. Well, we Indians are pretty much bound by community ties, but at the same time I see that individuals in that community get a fair amount of leeway to be individualistic. I don’t know whether it is our democratic tradition, or the freedom within the Hindu religion, but overall individuality is not seen as threatening. From what I read religion does influence individualism. Some religions have a greater set of rules that need to be followed.
Japan is also just about average (40), but China ranks poorly here (20). A low score means that the society has committed members as in a collectivist culture. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is considered the most important thing and generally people in this society are bound together strongly.
The higher the Individualism score, the poorer the bonds that people in the society have with each other.
The European average is about 52, but Germany scores 62 and Sweden 68…and Britain 85! Britain is at the same level as the United States (almost 90) and Canada (80). Such high scores indicate a highly individualistic culture with “loose bonds” with others. The populace is self-reliant and independent and guards their privacy zealously.
Note:*The harshest criticism of Hofstede’s study is that it assumes that the population of one country is an homogenous whole, disregarding the fact that most nations are groups of ethnic units. Another criticism is that the time when the study takes place influences results. For example, traits like Masculinity and Uncertainty Avoidance may vary with political circumstances – war or political instability for example. There is also a belief that these four or five dimensions do not give the correct picture of cultural differences. You can read more here.
Related Reading: The difference between the East and the West in pictures