For nearly two decades we here at Cultural Detective have gone out of our way to teach people that culture is NOT limited to nationality, despite the fact that so many use the two words interchangeably. National boundaries are frequently rather arbitrary or externally imposed, and they can also change over time. Northern Italians are so different from southern Italians, and living in Mexico I can’t begin to tell you about the huge regional differences within this nation. Culture can be a valuable guide, but it can be sliced a slew of different ways. There is a huge bias, however, even in the intercultural field, to looking almost exclusively at national differences.
Two of the graphics we use to illustrate the multi-dimensionality of various cultural influences upon most of us are above. I even wrote a blog post in June 2014 entitled, We Are Not (Just) Our Nationality(ies).
A few months ago three researchers—Bradley Kirkman, Vas Taras, and Piers Steel—conducted a meta-analysis of 558 studies conducted over the last 35 years on work-related values. Their analysis included 32 countries across four fairly standard cultural dimensions:
- Individuals vs. groups
- Hierarchy and status in organizations
- Having as much certainty as possible at work
- Material wealth, assertiveness, and competition vs. societal welfare and harmony in relationships
The results were published in the Management International Review and, for those who don’t have a subscription, a summary is also available on the Harvard Business Review site. What were their results?
Over 80% of values differences occur within countries, and only 20% between countries! Thank you for helping us out, gentlemen! We MUST look at people as unique individuals with multiple cultural influences, not as stereotypical “Chinese” or “Americans.” That approach hollows us out and strips us of our richness—especially in today’s world, where so many of us are Blended Culture beings—multi-racial, global nomad, TCK/third-culture kids, etc. Cultural Detective helps us to look at ourselves and others in context and in our wholeness; it is the only intercultural development tool on the market today that does.
For those who do business globally, the most important takeaway is never to assume that people from a particular country embody the values typically associated with that country. Cultural stereotyping by country will likely lead to a whole host of mistakes when trying to lead and motivate a culturally diverse workforce.
The research team then went on to say, hey, if nationality isn’t a great indicator of culture, what is?
I have long said that, in my experience, occupational culture (e.g., research vs. marketing vs. finance; higher education vs. business vs. healthcare) is one of the best indicators of similarity internationally, along with organizational culture and urban/rural demographics. But hey, predictions aren’t my forte; 30 years ago I said sushi would never take off in the west, but robata-yaki (grilled skewered meat and veg) would. Oops.
Kirkman, Taras, and Steel looked at 17 possible cultural containers, to see how they rank in terms of pull: gender, age, generation, number of years of education, occupation, socio-economic status, and environmental characteristics such as civil and political freedom, economic freedom, GDP/capita, Human Development Index, Globalization Index, long-term unemployment, urbanization, income inequality (using the GINI coefficient), level of corruption, crime rate, and employment in agriculture. Interesting mix of containers, for sure.
Findings in their study showed that demographic groupings such as occupation and socio-economic status are high indicators of cultural similarity. People with similar socio-economic conditions and levels of education had more shared values than did those within nations. Quoting them, “Our data show that it makes much more sense to talk about cultures of professions, rich versus poor, free versus oppressed, than about cultures of countries.”
Obviously their work was limited to four work-related values, and didn’t include more general societal values such as equality or freedom. As the researchers concluded:
“For those who do business globally, the most important takeaway is never to assume that people from a particular country embody the values typically associated with that country. Cultural stereotyping by country will likely lead to a whole host of mistakes when trying lead and motivate a culturally diverse workforce.”
Log into your subscription to Cultural Detective Online now, and take the time to analyze an interaction from just a couple of these “containers” of culture. You’ll realize just how rich the system is, and why using it regularly can improve your intercultural competence.