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Generalizing for Good
The way that I act, react, and interact with others is partly a matter of personality and partly a matter of culture. As anyone living and working in a multicultural community can attest, people from certain cultures tend to behave in certain ways. I'm not talking about stereotypes. I'm talking about common behavioral patterns. As a west coast transplant I often joke about my lack of patience by blaming it on my New York upbringing. Based on my experiences on both coasts, I would say that New Yorkers do tend to be more impatient than people from Northern California-although there are certainly those kinder, gentler New Yorkers that might roll their eyes at my generalization. But generalizations like these can actually do us some good.

Recognizing cultural patterns can help us to better understand each other. They can teach us to not take things so personally and to improve our ability to work together. It's a subject with vast impacts for business, political diplomacy, and daily life in our today's more global community. It wasn't until the late 1960s that anyone began to really delve into this field of study to try to identify cultural behavioral patterns and figure out WHY people from different cultures tend to act they way they do.

Now known as the grand-daddy of cross-cultural studies, Dutch industrial psychologist Geert Hofstede opened the door to deeper understanding of our cultural differences. In 1965 IBM hired Hofstede to work in their Human Resources Department. For 6 years he worked with a team of international colleagues to research and assess the attitudes of IBM's workers around the globe, with hope that the results would reveal how to improve company productivity. He and his colleagues conducted "attitude surveys" with employees from 40 different countries, all of whom were asked the same questions. As the results of the surveys began to amass and analysis got underway, Hofstede noticed that attitudes seem to be falling out along cultural lines:

"In six years of working with people and with surveys in different places, I had noticed differences between countries but not completely understood the reason for them. The year 1968 brought its student revolts in several European countries and I noticed differences in the IBM subsidiaries in employees' ways of dealing with power and powerlessness. I wanted to analyse more..." *

Intrigued by his findings, Hofstede left IBM and continued to do research at a Swiss University. In 1980 he published his findings in a book called Culture's Consequences. In a nutshell, Hofstede scientific assessment was that cultures do indeed affect the behavior of people within organizations. He also broke peoples behaviors out into four areas or "dimensions":

- Small vs. large power distance (is there an emphasis on equality or hierarchy?)

- Individualism vs. collectivism (do people tend to be more concerned with themselves or with group harmony?)

- Masculinity vs. femininity (do people value traditional male attributes such as assertiveness and competitiveness or female attributes such as being nurturing and cultivating relationships?).

- Weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance (do people readily embrace the unknown—or does it provoke anxiety?)

In his second publication, Hofstede added another dimension:

- Long vs. short term orientation (do people attach more importance to the past, the present, or the future?)

Within each dimension, people fell out along a spectrum – from those who demonstrated extreme attitudes to those who acted in ways that were more middle of the road. And of course, there were exceptional people who fell outside his grid. Hofstede's theories were first published in an academic book that was too heady for the masses, but in 1991 he came out with a lay version: Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind. It became an international best seller.

Over the years many scholars have adapted, refined, expanded and slanted Hofstede's dimensions to suit the needs of different communities. No version is right or wrong. As people around the world become more interconnected, more questions will arise about how we can improve our interactions with each other. The answers to these questions will lead to increased awareness of our cultural tendencies, and the kind of deeper understanding that we need to succeed in the global community.


* excerpted from SIETAREUROPA - Newsletter - September, 2010

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