Value Systems : Cultural differences

How are we similar and yet different at the same time?  Well, Europe is full of countries whose differences between themselves are sometimes bigger than the “global differences” between the US and Europe.


Let us offer a brief introduction to the ideas of Geert Hofstede. He conducted one of the largest scale cultural studies ever done to this day.  It ran across 66 countries with 117,000 respondents in 1968 and 1970. And it was conducted inside one global corporation [IBM] to provide a standardized organization and work environment – so focusing on deep rooted social differences.  He published follow up study in 1991, and his work led to more recent classifications and theories from people such as Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden Turner.  Yet Hofstede’s original results are still valid and illuminating today.


Hofstede identified four axes of similarity and difference in this study.  As noted, several sub-streams have since been added by others – but Hofstede’s core remains “Masculinity/Femininity”, “Uncertainty Avoidance”, “Individualism /Collectivism”, and “Power distance”.


[The data below is based on “Culture's consequences: International differences in work-related values” Sage Books, 1980. Hofstede also wrote “Cultures & Organizations” in 1991, which elaborates on his earlier work. Any errors in the analysis are mine].


We will just look at the US, the UK, Germany, France and Italy – in many ways the major protagonists in the recent spats over Iraq strategy – and the Netherlands as an example of a “smaller” Country. We are also including Mexico as a critical part of NAFTA. Space pevenst a look at Asian countries, which we will add in future.


1. Masculinity: the dominant values in society are material success [money and things] versus caring for others and the quality of life [Femininity]


High/Masculinity: Stress on equity, competition, and performance - Managers are expected to be decisive and assertive

Low/Femininity: Stress on equality, solidarity, and quality of work life - Managers use intuition and strive for consensus


USA ranked 13 of 39                  – Moderate Masculinity                         

UK ranked 8 out of 39                 – High Masculinity

Germany ranked 9 of 39             – High Masculinity

France ranked 29 of 39               – High Femininity

Italy ranked 4 of 39                     – High Masculinity

Netherlands ranked 37 of 39        – High Femininity

Mexico ranked 6 of 30                – High Masculinity


In line with accepted wisdom, Italy, the UK, Germany and Mexico are more “masculine” than the US. I would hope this suggests that the US is more moderated in its approach to equality and balance. On the other hand France is “feminine”, with Scandinavia and the Netherlands ranking the most feminine [read that “caring and nurturing”] in the world.


2. Uncertainty Avoidance: The extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguous circumstances and have created beliefs and institutions to avoid such conditions.


High Uncertainty Avoidance: Many rules & low tolerance of deviant ideas; resistance to change

Low Uncertainty Avoidance: Few rules & high tolerance of deviant and innovative ideas


USA ranked 31 of 39                  – Low Uncertainty Avoidance                 

UK ranked 34 of 39                    – Low Uncertainty Avoidance

Germany ranked 20 of 39            – Moderate Uncertainty Avoidance

France ranked 6 of 39                 – High Uncertainty Avoidance

Italy ranked 16 of 39                   – Moderate Uncertainty Avoidance

Netherlands ranked 25 of 39        – Moderate Uncertainty Avoidance

Mexico ranked 11 of 39              – Moderate Uncertainty Avoidance          


Here, the famous US/UK “special relationship” comes to the fore – the people of neither Country like rules being applied to them, so it is not surprising they like each other. Yet the French want to really know where things stand, whilst other European countries seem to be in the middle.


3. Individualism applies to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after themselves and their immediate family.

Collectivism applies to societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.


High Individualism: Identity is based on the individual - Task prevails over relationship

High Collectivism: Identity is based on one’s social grouping - Relationships prevail over task


USA ranked 1 of 39                    – High Individualism                                           

UK ranked 3 of 39                      – High Individualism       

France ranked 11 of 39               – High Individualism

Germany ranked 15 of 39            – Moderate Individualism

Italy ranked 7 of 39                     – High Individualism

Netherlands ranked 5 of 39         – High Individualism

Mexico ranked 29 of 39              – Low Individualism


So individualism is one thing the Americans, the Brits, the Dutch, the Italians and the French all share.  No wonder we are all trying to pursue our own agendas.  In fact, most of Europe is moderate or high on this count – it is in Asia and Latin America where things really move towards collectivism.  Europe might have been the birthplace of Socialism – but apparently we all still prefer to be individuals.


We must thus recognize that in talking to Europe one is talking not to one State but a collection of States who all want to be treated as individuals.


By the way, note Mexico’s scores – what does that mean for NAFTA or indeed the Hispanic USA?


4. Power Distance: the extent to which the less powerful expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.


Low Power Distance: Boss should be resourceful democrat - Hierarchy in organizations seen as exploitive

High Power Distance: Boss should be benevolent autocrat - Hierarchy in organizations reflects natural differences


USA ranked 25 of 39                  – Moderate Power Distance

UK ranked 30 of 39                    – Low Power Distance

France ranked 8 of 39                 – High Power Distance

Germany ranked 29 of 39            – Low Power Distance

Italy ranked 22 of 39                   – Moderate Power Distance

Netherlands ranked 27 of 39        – Low Power Distance

Mexico ranked 2 of 39                – High Power Distance


Again, lots of similarity between the US, the UK, the Italians, the Dutch and the Germans – although I find it interesting that UK bosses were expected to be most “democratic”. This is also an area where there is one of the biggest separations with France – as that Country is in the company of most Asians and Latin Americans on this criterion. And consider Mexico’s position once more.


So what do I conclude from Hofstede’s four criteria? 

There are indeed differences between Europe and the USA.  But it seems that there are often more telling differences inside Europe.  France and parts of Southern Europe are indeed measurably different to the North, which is in fact often more in tune with the US.


That said, how should we compare the US and Europe as a whole?


People immigrate to the USA to join the American dream.  They can retain their cultural identities, but within that one dream.  They are subject to essentially one legal and political system – and whilst there are differences between the two coasts, the mid west, and many other parts of the US, there is a certain homogeneity of beliefs and systems across the country – the Starbucks universe, one assumes.  Put another way, the US, too, operates to a set of rules.


By contrast, it is rather remarkable that a Europe full of proud, individualistic States can have done such a good job of joining together inside the EU.  They have a history of war going back centuries.  And, what is wrong with the pursuit of peace?  European countries all zealously guard their own unique identities – even Scotland and England have different legal systems – and the only way to make that all work is with clear rules of engagement.


And, whilst this is not the scope of this article, I find the US – Mexican data of interest for the future of NAFTA, and indeed for the Hispanic US itself.

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