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Cultural differences between the East and the West

April 23, 2008

Geert HofstedeGeert 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?

Hofstede India

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!
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

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2008 11:00 am

    Nita, I am a little confused about the Masculinity factor. Basically about the following point :
    -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.

    I am not quite sure that the Indian female population is aggressive and competitive. Its a different story in cities but if we go deeper into the real(rural) India, the picture is not very encouraging. Women are still an opressed gender. That is when I feel that this factor is too “Urban” and does not depict the real picture, specially in the case of India. What say?

    And thanks for such an enlightening post. It was a great read. 🙂

  2. April 23, 2008 11:57 am

    Amit, thanks.
    About your query, I think (perhaps) it is because we compare Indian women to Indian men. Women are oppressed, particularly in rural areas. The power equation is totally unbalanced and women are meek in front of men. Obey them etc. But if you take women amongst other women its a different story. Actually I have seen high levels of aggression in Indian women even on this blog! 🙂
    That is what it means. If you compare a woman in rural India, where she has to fight to simply survive, her levels of aggression will be high if one compares her to sisters say in Sweden. Women here are constantly being challenged and they have to a little aggressive to survive in the world of dominating aggressive men. If you notice women in the slums are extremely aggressive and have you ever sat in the womens compartment of a mumbai local? you can get chewed!
    If a woman is meek in India, she gets squashed. So she learns to push in a subtle manner (if against men) and not so subtle with other women.

  3. April 23, 2008 1:17 pm

    Hi Nita! Great post and great topic!

    While I think the criticisms of Hofstede’s model are probably legitimate, those criticisms don’t seem fatal to me.

    Any model — his or anyone else’s — is going to over simplify things. But his model seems to encourage someone to get off to a good start when thinking on a general level about various societies. Not all models get you off to such a good start. Some are dead ends.

    Another thing I like about his model is that the general traits are measured comparatively. To say that women in country X are aggressive would incur all sorts of practical and theoretical problems. But to say that women in country X are more aggressive than women in country Y is something that at least in theory can be quantified and measured.

    That brings me to my final point. The US scores very high on individualism (no surprises there!), but that doesn’t mean we’re absolute individualists here. Just that we’re remarkably more individualistic when compared to most other countries. For instance: Some of my fellow Americans consider me individualistic even by their own American standards — and yet I can testify that my friends, family, and community mean a great deal to me. Humans are, after all, social animals, and we very seldom, if ever, are anything near to being absolutely individualistic.

    Thanks for a fascinating post!

  4. April 23, 2008 2:53 pm

    Fab post, Nita. I can so use this information to explain female foeticide too!!

    1. hierarchy …. (maintenance of male power)

    2. long term planning (fear of having to pay dowry one day … kill ’em kill ’em girls)

    3. masculinity (more masculine, more aggressive women … who wants aggressive women, kill ’em)

    4. low levels of tolerance … (what? no dowry? mother, bring me some kerosene and a matchbox)

    5. what’s individuality? what would ramu’s aunty’s dog’s friend’s owner think of us if we harped on our individuality and let our daughter marry out of caste!!?! kill ‘er instead and we’ll be revered!

  5. Joss permalink
    April 23, 2008 3:40 pm

    I’ve just followed the link to the post you did on differences between east and west in pictures. Very interesting, and shows at a glance much of what the research above also discovered. Less scientific but pretty accurate all the same!

  6. April 23, 2008 3:55 pm


    Geert seems to have done a decent job as he has tried to quantify something that cannot be quantified.

    I agree that there is no such thing as “complete” feminity and there CERTAINLY can be no such thing as “complete” masculinity 😉 🙂

    The behaviour of every individual and every country varies depending on external (and internal) factors and cannot be predicted.

  7. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 23, 2008 6:37 pm

    Roop Rai:

    //4. low levels of tolerance … (what? no dowry? mother, bring me some kerosene and a matchbox)//

    That bit in brackets should be amended as follows:

    “What? Two whole years since the wedding and no dowry yet? Beta, here’s a can of kerosene and a matchbox. If you have any respect for me, your mother, you will know what you must do!”

  8. axinia permalink
    April 23, 2008 7:38 pm

    Nita, no wonder you came to that topic, thanks for posting it!

    This theory is still one of the most popular and solid in that relative young since of Intercultural Communication. Many criticise it as well. I was lucky enough to experience Greet Hodstede in a lecture and it is really impressive!

    As you may know, I was personally many years very much involved in this fiel, studiying and training on cultural differences.
    One thing is really that it helps a lot to understand why people of a certan culture behave this way. I believe EVERYONE should get the basic education in intrecultural communication in order to understand the others better.

    HOWEVER the same knowledge leads strongly to stereotyping and judgement. Apart from that some things one simply can not analyse /explain 🙂

    Another good source, well establishes in the field:

  9. April 23, 2008 8:16 pm

    Nice to know about this. 🙂

  10. April 23, 2008 8:50 pm

    all of you will forgive me for not answering your comments today, well I hope! Because I am in Goa!! 🙂

  11. April 23, 2008 11:02 pm

    Cummon Nita!!!!! This shows how weird we all are. We can’t let go of our blogs even when we are holidaying. Its so addictive. 😆 Enjoy your holiday. 🙂

  12. lallopallo permalink
    April 25, 2008 2:36 am

    My favorite topic indeed. Last year, after my MBA, I worked on a project where I developed a course for organizations in North America who are either working or intend to work with Indian companies/Indians. I specifically highlighted in my presentation that India should not be treated as a homogeneous society because, I argued, India is a world in itself.
    I have extensively studied Hofstede’s theory and similar theories over the last 3 years.
    One biggest criticism of Hofstede’s model is that survey was done only among managers working in one single company (IBM) across different countries.
    Also, with increasing westernization , especially in China, India and Brazil, the scores need to be adjusted now since the study was done in early 80’s.
    Nevertheless, I agree with you that Hofstede’s model is very fascinating and the best overall model we have so far.

    As far as I know Hofstede’s model has been updated. thats what what I read. The study later included non IBM people and the latest studies are not that old. Also the parameter of Long term orientation has been added as an indicator of culture after taking into account eastern culture. not that these things are enough. And ofcourse you are right, the criticism of homogenity still holds…a lot more needs to be done. – Nita

  13. lallopallo permalink
    April 28, 2008 11:04 am

    I know it’s been updated , but to a minor extent I guess.Also, when they included non-IBM people, the sample size was tiny compared to THE original sample size with IBM people in early eighties.
    I am bit out of touch with latest happenings in CCM since last 4-5 months, so I may be missing something.

  14. May 1, 2008 9:12 pm

    😉 Vivek!!!


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