I’m going to say something that will surprise you. I would ask if you’re ready for this but I don’t think anybody’s ready. Not really. This is something that you just can’t be prepared for. But here we go anyway.
Different cultures are different.
I know, right? Mind just blown? It’s a common response to such mind-bending and earth-shattering news.
I really hope that the sarcasm in my voice is coming through.
So what? Different cultures are different. Anyone who’s eaten a hot dog or Chinese food or sampled French cuisine could tell you that. We give lip service to the phenomena all the time, saying that we totally understand that people from different cultures are different and that we get it.
Except that we don’t. And, in fact, often we can’t get it. Purely because we ourselves have our own culture (whatever that may be) we can’t grasp how different cultures are different. Because culture isn’t in the food you eat or the clothes you wear, it’s in how you think and how you view the world.
Lots of people who are much smarter than me have spent their lives studying this kind of stuff so I’m going to use the theories of one of those people: Geert Hofstede.
Hofstede had a theory that culture can be broadly divided into five dimensions: Power Distance, Masculinity, Individuality, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long Term Orientation.
But what does that mean? We’ll attack each of these scales individually and then we’ll have a look at a few cultures to work out what that means in a broader sense.
High Power Distance —> Low Power Distance
This is the perceived difference and distance between those with power and those without. For example, this dimension has a great deal of impact in the relationship between a teacher and a student or an employee and their boss. In a culture with high power distance there is a large perceived difference between the two because of respect both for the other’s knowledge and position. In a culture with low power distance there is little perceived difference. Those in higher positions are seen to be little different and the gulf between those with power and those without is seen as insignificant.
Masculinity —> Femininity
A ‘Masculine’ society (I take issue with the terminology here but I’m falling back on the whole ‘people much smarter than me’ thing and also the fact that it was ‘80s, so forgive them) is one which sees winning and being the best as signs of success and recognises ambition as being a desirable trait. By contrast, a ‘Feminine’ society is one that values caring for others and values quality of life above all.
Individualism —> Collectivism
This is the measure of the degree of perceived interdependence a society has. Which sounds complex and jargony but basically means that this is the measure of how much people see themselves as individuals vs part of a community. An individualistic society is where people tend to look after themselves and their family and tend to think in terms of ‘I’ while a collectivistic society thinks of themselves as part of group and thinks in terms of ‘we’. In a collectivist society the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
High Uncertainty Avoidance —> Low Uncertainty Avoidance
This is a measure of a society’s willingness to take risks. In a culture with high uncertainty avoidance people are more likely to hold out for the sure bet and to not try to fix what isn’t broken. In a culture with low uncertainty avoidance, you’re more likely to have risk takers and innovators who don’t mind a bit of uncertainty in their life.
Long-Term Orientation —> Short-Term Orientation
A culture with a long-term orientation tends to think in the long term. They have plans that stretch out 10, 20 and even 50 years into the future and are prepared to sacrifice short-term benefit for long-term gain. A culture with short-term orientation, however, thinks in terms of short-term things, instant gratification with little to no though of the future five years from now.
Okey Dokey, so with boring definitions out of the way are we all on the same page? Are we ready to check out some countries as examples of how this works?
For comparison purposes, we’ll look at two very different countries and cultures: Australia and Japan. For my American peeps out there, Australia and America score very similarly in the study. It’s just that if I’m going to overgeneralise about two cultures I’d prefer that half of it is about a culture I actually understand.
So here we go!
Let’s first have a look at Power Distance (PDI). There’s a marked different between the two countries. Australia has quite low power distance, meaning that we tend to see everyone as being equal no matter how much power they actually hold. Japan, on the other hand, has a moderate score, meaning that while they are very much aware of their place in the hierarchy of society, they also still hold the belief that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough.
Another huge difference between Japan and Australia is in the Individuality score (IDV). Australia scores extremely high meaning that we tend to make decisions without considering our impact on others.
Meanwhile, Japanese people are more likely to consider others when they make decisions.
A high Masculinity score (MAS) means that Japan is more results-oriented than Australia while Australians are more likely to perceive quality of life as being a sign of success (though the moderately high score means we care about winning too).
The Japanese culture isn’t a fan of taking risks (UAI), preferring to research thoroughly and not leave much to chance. Australians, instead, are more likely to take a punt and are pragmatic when it comes to risky behaviour (i.e. if the reward’s worth it, Australians will probably give it a shot).
Finally, there is also a large difference in Long-Term Orientation (LTO). Japan scores high on Long-Term Orientation, meaning that they like to plan well into the future and see themselves as working for the future benefit rather than for the present. Australia, however, scores fairly low on the scale, meaning that they are more likely to go for the short-term benefit than to consider far into the future.
Some limitations of Hofstede
Before we go much further into this, I just want to chat about some of the places where Hofstede’s theories and models don’t quite hold up. For one thing, we all know that culture is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional thing that can’t possibly be simplified down to five points of difference, no matter how broad. Another, more serious, flaw is that it categorises by country, broadly stating that because you are Australian or Japanese or (insert relevant country here) your culture is this. And that’s just not true.
You all know from experience that even people who grew up in the same place as you have different views on the world, you know that if you go over to the next town you’re likely to find a whole different culture that seems bizarre but makes perfect sense to the inhabitants.
Despite these limitations, Hofstede is useful because it provides us with a starting point and a point of comparison for different people from different cultures. So that’s something, right?
And… What does this have to do with writing? You have a theme to live up to, you know
Guess what’s affected by culture? If you guessed people and, by extension, characters, you get a gold star. Culture and understanding culture can give your characters a point of difference and make them more real, giving your story extra depth.
…Which is something I’ll chat about next week because this explainer took way longer than I was expecting it to. I’ll be taking a close look at Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl to help explain things (I know I’ve already reviewed it but I didn’t have time to discuss this aspect of it in the video and I needed to explain the whole culture thing first in order for us to all be on the same page)
You excited? I know I am
To Be Continued
- Hofstede Dimensions of Culture (contemporarymanagement.wordpress.com)
- National culture and personality (bps-occupational-digest.blogspot.com)