Biggest Culture Gaps Within Not Between Countries: Research


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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:

  1. Individuals vs. groups
  2. Hierarchy and status in organizations
  3. Having as much certainty as possible at work
  4. 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.

7 thoughts on “Biggest Culture Gaps Within Not Between Countries: Research

  1. Hi Dianne, I have now downloaded the article hoping to find something extensive on professional culture. Where can I find such examples of clashes between say accounting and marketing, for example.

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    • Cultural Detective Online has many professional culture clash stories, María. Just log in to your account, and in the search function, choose “search incidents,” and then enter the name of a profession you are interested in. Scroll through the results and choose an incident that will fit your purposes. Hope this helps.

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  2. Hi Dianne,
    Thanks for sharing this!!

    I am also pleased to read this study that supports your arguments as well as mine that the traditional cultural paradigm hinged on nationality used by so many, while interesting, perpetuates sophisticated stereotyping (see Osland and Bird) and stereotype threat (Steele).

    No doubt, it can be used as a great discussion point but certainly requires extension to include other variables.

    Within travel and tourism research also highlights that travellers from different countries commonly reflect ‘tourist culture’, a culture of attitudes and behaviour that is often different to that at home or for that matter nationalty or ethnicity.

    Acknowledging diverse cultural angles that exist and the multiple contributors to individuals’ behaviour and identity is desperately needed in a socio- political climate repleat with cultural anxiety and phobias, including islamophobia.

    Thanks again, Dianne.

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    • Thank you for citing those references by esteemed colleagues, Birgit. Always helpful. And thank you for adding in “tourist culture,” a completely separate animal, and another level of culture that can be layered over nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc. If you’re interested in putting a Lens together, please let us know via private message. This work we are engaged in is all too timely given our worldwide political climate and fall into fascist tendencies. Thank you for the work you do!

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  3. Hi Diane,
    As an intercultural trainer, with regards to your article, I agree completely with the fact that in any but any country, society, region and even city, there are stark differences in perspectives and worldview: uptown versus downtown, townspeople versus city dwellers., etc, etc. there are jokes in all countries about the less ” educated” hillbillies. Just by comparing the mindset and attitude of people in large city versus those who live in towns, we can immediately the different levels of engagement, lifestyle pace, multitasking abilities and so on. Just by traveling to the countryside in most counties of the world you can observe this. Let’s not forget the first culture –or maybe second- was agri-culture when humans began sedentary activities. So even the concept of culture is and must be seen as biased by the observer cultural conceptualization. In some languages and countries culture is seen as academic and art oriented, in some, it is tantamount to civilization e.g, the great cultres of the past. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. I guess almost everybody generalizes and perceives the world from his or her bubble (ethnocentrism with self-absorption). Thanks for the article and the opportunity to contribute to the discussion.
    Pavle

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