It helps – to put your CULTURE in perspective – when trying to understand the Danish one
Coming to Denmark as an expat means having to deal with a culture that is not your own, and that can be a puzzling experience – to say the least.
By Inger Stokkink Pictures: PR
Many Danes and other expats are more than willing to help newcomers adjust, with explanations, how-to’s and personal experiences. But sometimes it helps to take a step back and look at ‘culture’ from a broader perspective.
Geert Hofstede offers such a perspective. He is a Dutch sociologist who has made it his work to explore and compare different cultures. What started as a work satisfaction survey at IBM developed into a huge scientific research project comparing cultures with each other by asking people about their values.
His milestone scientific work, Culture’s Consequences (1980, 2001), also has a little sister aimed at a broader audience: Cultures and Organizations: the Software of the Mind (1991, 2010 – the last edition with his son Gert-Jan and colleague Michael Minkov).
The interesting thing is that now, more than 40 years later, it is still under construction: researchers who want to apply the survey to a country, organisation or group, are invited to do so, and they are invited to share their findings with Hofstede’s organisation, who shares it with the rest of the world.
Understanding cultural differences
In Hofstede’s eyes, culture is the set of values people grow up with and, most importantly, is being taught in schools and organisations. These values determine a person’s way of thinking, feeling and acting – and interacting with other people.
Typically, misunderstandings arise when people with different value backgrounds interact. The first step in clearing up the misunderstanding and finding a solution is to realise that the cause may be cultural differences and finding out more about them.
Since culture is about values, people feel strongly about it. Everybody has an opinion about these topics, is his or her own ‘expert’, so to speak, and has been brought up with what is ‘right’. This is precisely what culture is about in Hofstede’s eyes.
In some countries, for example, it is ‘normal’ that hierarchy defines the way people treat each other. In others, like Denmark, hierarchy is of little significance. Likewise, individualism takes a front seat in Denmark, whereas in other countries collectivism is normal.
An ongoing process
Awareness of cultural differences and awareness of how your own values can bias your view is, in Hofstede’s eyes, the first and most important step. Knowledge about the other culture is next. Finally, skills, such as awareness, knowledge and practice combined, to navigate through it are essential.
All in all, Hofstede’s approach is very much based on human curiosity, the willingness to learn, the willingness to communicate, and the willingness to step back and look at your own values critically. His dimensions are tools in doing so. Most importantly perhaps, it is an ongoing process – both for Hofstede and his scientific work, and for expats right in the middle of cultural differences.
Hofstede discovered that values, the building stones of cultures, can be clustered around five topics: power distance (PDI), individualism (IND), uncertainty avoidance (UAD), masculinity (MAS), and long-term orientation (LTO) – see the dimensions below.
Seeing cultural differences as more or less of ‘the same’, instead of something alien, can be an eye-opener.
PDI – Power distance: high or low
IDV – Individualism versus collectivism
MAS – Masculinity versus femininity