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Cultural Differences from West to East and Why They Matter in Business

[fa icon="calendar"] 05-Dec-2017 10:00:00 / by Iliyana Stareva

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I'm fascinated by culture. 

As someone who's lived in four countries over the last eight years, works in a global company, and collaborates with people from dozens of cultures on a daily basis, cultural differences are very much top of mind for me.  

It all started at university in a module on Intercultural Relations where I was introduced to the cultural dimensions study of Geert Hofstede, however, I do believe that cultural differences are heavily underestimated in the business world. 

They are not top of mind for when decisions are being made, emails are sent, meetings are run or changes are implemented. Essentially, cultural differences impact all of our communication

Cultural awareness is not something you are born with, it's something you develop.

To develop it, you have to study it, you have to experience it in work regularly and you have to reflect on it during and after certain situations so that you continuously grow your cultural awareness and next time you are faced with a similar situation, you'll know how to act better by adapting to the cultural setting and requirements.

Today, I'd like to help you develop that cultural awareness.  

The first thing I did when I stepped into my role as Global Partner Program Manager at HubSpot was to get to know my stakeholders from all of our international offices. 

One of my key learnings was that we don't proactively think about why and how our colleagues from each of our global offices act and communicate differently and what type of impact that has on decision-making, project management, initiative development and change management.

So I decided to create more awareness around cultural differences and to do so, I went back to my uni resources on my modules of International Business Communication and Intercultural Relationships (I have an external hard drive that still stores everything from my studies from back then) as I thought it would be helpful to refresh my knowledge a bit. 

With some research, I created an easy visualisation of the cultural differences from West to East - from NAM, to EMEA and to APAC (North America; Europe, the Middle East and Africa; Asia Pacific). Further in the post, you can find more on cultural differences for specific countries. 

Cultural Differences in Perceptions and Acting: NAM, EMEA, APAC

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To summarise the above, here are some of the major differences in how people prefer to act when it comes to working and thinking from what I've learned in my experience.

Typical Work Styles in Different Regions

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Disclaimer: These are generalisations. People have different individualities. This may not reflect everyone but is more of a nuance that we should be aware of when interacting with global counterparts. 

Cultural Dimensions Deep Dive 

Inevitably when you research culture, you will come across Geert Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory. 

Hofstede is a renowned social psychologist and global pioneer of cross-cultural differences. He did an extensive research at IBM a few decades ago and introduced a framework for cross-cultural communication that describes the effects of a society's culture on the values of its members and how these values relate to behaviour. His findings are widely used across the world to this day. 

The Six Cultural Dimensions

Hofstede describes national cultures along six dimensions:

  1. Power Distance Index (PDI): the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. In this dimension, inequality and power are perceived by the followers, or the lower level. A higher degree of the index indicates that hierarchy is clearly established and executed in society, without doubt or reason. A lower degree of the index signifies that people question authority and attempt to distribute power.
    • Latin and Asian countries, African areas and the Arab world have high PDI scores. Anglo and Germanic countries have a lower power distance. In Europe, power distance tends to be lower in Northern countries and higher in Southern and Eastern parts.
  2. Individualism vs. Collectivism (IDV): the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. Individualistic societies have loose ties that often only relate an individual to his/her immediate family. They emphasise the “I” versus the “we.” Its counterpart, collectivism, describes a society in which tightly-integrated relationships tie extended families and others into in-groups. These in-groups are laced with undoubted loyalty and support each other when a conflict arises with another in-group.
    • North America and Europe can be considered as individualistic with relatively high scores. In contrast, Asia, Africa and Latin America have strongly collectivist values.
  3. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI): the degree of society's tolerance for ambiguity in which people embrace or avert an event of something unexpected, unknown or away from the status quo. Societies that score a high degree in this index opt for stiff codes of behaviour, guidelines, laws and generally rely on absolute Truth or the belief that one lone Truth dictates everything and people know what it is. A lower degree in this index shows more acceptance of differing thoughts/ideas. Society tends to impose fewer regulations, ambiguity is more accustomed to and the environment is more free-flowing.
    • Latin American countries, Southern and Eastern Europe countries including German-speaking countries as well as Japan have high UAI scores. Anglo, Nordic, and Chinese culture countries have lower UAI. 
  4. Masculinity vs Femininity (MAS): masculinity is defined as a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Its counterpart femininity represents a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Women in the respective societies tend to display different values. In feminine societies, they share modest and caring views equally with men. In more masculine societies, women are more emphatic and competitive, but notably less emphatic than the men. In other words, they still recognise a gap between male and female values. This dimension is frequently viewed as taboo in highly masculine societies.
    • Masculinity is extremely low in Nordic countries. Japan, European countries like Hungary, Austria and Switzerland influenced by German culture and Anglo countries have high scores of Masculinity. Latin countries have contrasting scores. 
  5. Long-Term Orientation vs. Short-Term Orientation (LTO): this dimension associates the connection of the past with the current and future actions/challenges. A lower degree of this index (short-term) indicates that traditions are honoured and kept, while steadfastness is valued. Societies with a high degree in this index (long-term) views adaptation and circumstantial, pragmatic problem-solving as a necessity. A poor country that is short-term oriented usually has little to no economic development, while long-term oriented countries continue to develop to a point.
    • High long-term orientation scores are typically found in East Asia, especially China, Hong Kong and Japan. They are moderate in Eastern and Western Europe and low in the Anglo countries, the Muslim world, Africa and in Latin America.
  6. Indulgence vs. Restraint (IND): this dimension is essentially a measure of happiness; whether or not simple joys are fulfilled. Indulgence is defined as a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun. Its counterpart restraint is defined as a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms. Indulgent societies believe themselves to be in control of their own life and emotions; restrained societies believe other factors dictate their life and emotions.
    • Indulgence scores are highest in Latin America, parts of Africa, the Anglo world and Nordic Europe; restraint is mostly found in East Asia, Eastern Europe and the Muslim world.

If you are interested in finding out more, I recommend digging into this website.

Comparing Cultural Dimensions

Theory is great but I thought it would be helpful to see the differences in more detail for HubSpot's offices around the world so I compiled the scores from the Hofstede's study for each country where we have an office in this visual (something that you can very easily do for your organisation too): 

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A few key points to make here when you look at the graph: 

  • Australia and the United States are very individualistic societies. 
  • Hierarchy and power distance is very important in Singapore. 
  • Japan is an extremely masculine country where achievement is valued but also very risk-averse with low uncertainty avoidance scores.
  • Germany, Japan and Singapore have very high long-term orientation cultures and think extensively about the future.  

The key learning here is that when you're making decisions or working on projects that have a global perspective or simply collaborating with people from other offices, you should be bearing these differences in mind because they'll help you find the most appropriate solution or approach for each region as well allow you to adapt your communication style to successfully make change happen.

Becoming more culture-sensitive in global organisations is key to better and more effective collaboration. Most importantly, it allows you to systematically avoid misunderstandings that may happen purely because of cultural differences in the way people make decisions, communicate in another language, write emails or implement their work. 


How do you approach cultural differences in business? 


Topics: Brands and Business, Program Management, Cultural Differences in Business

Iliyana Stareva

Written by Iliyana Stareva

Iliyana Stareva is the author of Inbound PR - the book that is transforming the PR industry. She's also a keynote speaker and a consultant in inbound and digital for fast-growing companies and agencies. Currently, Iliyana is Chief of Staff to the EMEA President at ServiceNow. Before that, she held global and EMEA-wide positions at Cisco and HubSpot. She is also certified by the PMI as a Project Management Professional (PMP)®. In her free time, you can find Iliyana writing for her blog, dancing salsa or travelling the world.

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