How do cultural differences affect meaning and understanding? In today’s business environment, the mechanics of global business seem to be working on a surface level. We can make quick money transactions by phone or by computer. Consumers can purchase products from all different countries in one transaction. Although trade barriers are still a major topic, they are slowly decreasing. As we sick below the surface, we will see that Global business is still in major jeopardy because of a newly emerging challenge: Cultural differences.
Culture is the pattern of beliefs or expectations that inevitably shape the behaviours of individuals and teams within organisations. It is concerned with the basic assumptions, values, attitudes, food and feeding habits, dress and appearance, relationships, a sense of self and space and norms shaped by members of an organisation or country. These elements of culture are usually taken for granted and guide others perceptions, thoughts and actions. For example, the Culture at McDonald’s fast food chain emphasises efficiency, speed and consistency.
It orients employees to company goals and charters and suggests the necessary behaviours for success. Many educated, business people may say “But we are getting closer and closer to each other, we don’t have any cultural problems’. Yes, it is possible to transcend cultural differences; however statements like this can be misleading to many people. (Funakawa, p18) Geert Hofstede, a successful cross-cultural management researcher, observes five different dimensions within a culture: Power/Distancing – This refers to the degree of inequality that exists and is accepted among people with and without power.
High Power distancing cultures conclude that society accepts an unequal distribution of power and people understand “their place” in the system. Low Power Distancing means that power is shared and well dispersed. It also means that society members view themselves as equals. Application: According to Hofstede’s model, in a high Power distancing country like Malaysia, you would probably send reports only to top management and have closed door meetings where only a select few, powerful leaders were in attendance.
Individualism – This refers to the strength of the ties people have to others within the community. A high Individualism society indicates a loose connection with people. In countries with a high Individualism society there is a lack of interpersonal connection and little sharing of responsibility, beyond family and perhaps a few close friends. A society with a low Individualism would have strong group cohesion, and there would be a large amount of loyalty and respect for members of the group. The group itself is also larger and people take more responsibility for each other’s well being.
Masculinity – This refers to how much a society sticks with, and values, traditional male and female roles. High Masculinity societies are found in countries where men are expected to be tough, to be the provider, to be assertive and to be strong. If women work outside the home, they have separate professions from men. Low Masculinity societies do not reverse the gender roles. In a low Masculinity society, the roles are simply blurred. You see women and men working together equally across many professions.
Men are allowed to be sensitive and women can work hard for professional success. Uncertainty/Avoidance Index – This relates to the degree of anxiety society members feel when in uncertain or unknown situations. High Uncertainty societies try to avoid ambiguous situations whenever possible. They are governed by rules and order and they seek a collective “truth”. Low Uncertainty societies indicate the society enjoys novel events and values differences. There are very few rules and people are encouraged to discover their own truth.
Geert also observes that when people write about national cultures in modern society becoming more and more similar, the evidence cited is usually taken from the level of practices; people dress the same, use the same fashionable words in context, buy the same products and brands, they participate in global sports etc. These manifestations of culture are sometimes mistaken for all there is: the deeper, underlying values is often overlooked. (Funakawa p33) The value for cross cultural communication cannot be overemphasised. It is what enables any mission statement, vision or strategy, and affects meaning and understanding on every level.
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