- 01 Apr 2011
"Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster."
- Prof. Geert Hofstede, Emeritus Professor, Maastricht University.
As Prof. Geert Hofstede stated, culture is a regular source of conflict. Everyone perceives his own culture as normal and finds it difficult to adapt to other norms and values. In 2007 Princess Maxima started the discussion about our own Dutch identity, claiming that she couldn't find a Dutch identity in her first years in The Netherlands (article
). Now you could discuss whether identity and culture are the same thing, but there are more signals that we do not know how to describe our national culture. We sure have one, because if there is no Dutch identity that would suggest we could adapt to every culture you could think of, but as we all experienced, this is not completely true. In our research we have tried to get a more clear view of our culture. As a result, we are better able to spot possible difficulties when in contact with other cultures.
Drs. David Pinto is head of the Intercultural Institute in Groningen, Amsterdam and Utrecht, The Netherlands. He is also the writer of the book ‘Interculturele Communicatie' (Intercultural Communication). He interprets different definitions of culture into his own, which we think is very clear.
"An evolving system of rules that are passed on from generation to generation, which a group of people that - often subconsciously - feel connected, obeys. Moreover this system is the reference framework for their behavior and states their world view."
( Pinto,D., 1990
In the book International dimensions of organizational behavior
( Adler,N., 1986
), writer N. Adler distinguishes six dimensions on which cultures may differ. They partially overlap with Hofstede's dimensions of national culture, but are also complement to them.
These dimensions are:
| the concept of man
|| good/good and bad/bad
| how to see the natural environment
|| man is dominant over/in harmony with/subject to his natural environment
| personal relationships
|| to do/to control/to be
|| to be orientated on the past/the present/the future
|| private/private and public/public
F- and G-culture
In his book, Pinto talks about two clearly different categories of cultures, modern and traditional, or Western (Anglo-Saxon and Northwest European countries) and non-Western cultures. Pinto calls the Western cultures G-cultures and the non-Western cultures F-cultures.
F-cultures have a very intricate, dense system of values with detailed codes of conduct for every situation. A traditional culture gives structure to almost every situation and states what needs to be said and done and what should be the follow. This offers individuals little room to act differently. There is a clear line between right and wrong.
Modern (G) cultures have much less standard situations and prescribed rules. You find a more coarse system of values than in traditional cultures. It's more accepted or even appreciated to act differently from the group. A higher number of behaviors is seen as right, appropriate or normal. This means that people have to make their own personal choice more often, which could lead to insecurities about their behavior.
According to Pinto the main difference between the two culture categories is whether someone in this culture sees himself primarily as part of a group (F) or as an individual (G).
Hofstede's Five Cultural Dimensions
For comparing cultures, ( Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (2005)
)by Geert Hofstede, is the perfect book.
He rates cultures on the basis of five Cultural Dimensions in a clear and graphical way:
| 1 Power Distance Index
|| About power and inequality
| 2 Individualism
|| About the ties between individuals
| 3 Masculinity
|| About the distribution of roles between the genders
| 4 Uncertainty Avoidance Index
|| About tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity
| 5 Long-Term Orientation
|| About virtue, regardless of truth
Cultures at the TU Delft
As we wanted our research to be useful to other students from the TU, we looked at the composition of the foreign students that come to our university. On the website of the TU, we found a chart
about foreign students. It shows from which countries these students originate and how large the group is. The largest groups are the Belgians and the Chinese, with about 300 students each. Behind these, the figures are halved, ranging from 60 (Turkey) to 150 (Iran). This doesn't mean that there isn't anyone from another culture, as this only represents the top 11 of nationalities.
Below are the largest groups of foreign students at the TU Delft
Then we compared these countries to our own with the help of the five Cultural Dimensions of Hofstede. We could find some specific differences, mainly on the dimensions of Individualism and Masculinity
. On the chart you can see that The Netherlands is positioned on the left corner of the chart, compared to the foreign students, that are positioned in the blue circle. This means that The Netherlands scores high on Individualism and high on Femininity (or low on Masculinity).
Masculinity vs. Femininity
"This dimension focuses on how extent to which a society stress achievement or nurture. Masculinity is seen to be the trait which emphasizes ambition, acquisition of wealth, and differentiated gender roles. Femininity is seen to be the trait which stress caring and nurturing behaviors, sexuality equality, environmental awareness, and more fluid gender roles.
" ( Hofstede, 2005)
| People and warm relationships are important
|| Money and things are important
| Everybody is supposed to be modest
|| Men are supposed to be assertive, ambitious, and tough
| Sympathy for the weak
|| Sympathy for the strong
| Failing is a minor accident
|| Failing is a disaster
| Work to live
|| Live to work
"Individualism on one side versus its opposite, collectivism, that is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. The word 'collectivism' in this sense has no political meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state. Again, the issue addressed by this dimension is an extremely fundamental one, regarding all societies in the world." ( Hofstede, 2005)
| Children learn to think in terms of "we"
|| Children learn to think in terms of "I"
| Harmony should always be maintained and direct confrontations avoided.
|| Speaking one's mind is a characteristic of an honest person.
| On personality tests people score more introvert
|| On personality tests people score more extravert
| Private life is invaded by group(s)
|| Everyone has a right to privacy
| Opinions are predetermined by group membership
|| Everyone is expected to have a private opinion
Now we know that the Dutch culture differs relatively the most from other cultures of foreign students on the beforementioned dimensions. We have pointed out key differences that we thought are useful for design students when working in their project group, but the book of Hofstede contains much more practical key differences. As a Dutch group, we think that these feminine and individualist factors suit our values. Knowing that, especially on the masculinity-scale, we differ very much from the foreign students, should create more awareness
on the way we should treat their deviant behavior in common situations.
Conflicts are dealt with in different ways by the different types of culture. But because it is impossible to predict how every culture deals with conflicts, we show you how the two stereotypes, G-culture (modern) and F-culture (traditional), would work. It is also a matter of interpretation, research and life-experience, to be able tot determine how a person acts within his culture, because we are all individuals and can act differently in every situation. A culture is more a part of your every-day education, to which you mosly unconsciously act in situations in life.
Attitude towards conflicts
When we assume that people from G-cultures see the world relatively more rational & linear and that they can separate people & matter easily, then we can assume that individuals in G-cultures will regard conflicts more instrumentally and rational. Conflicts are treated more objective and purposeful. In F-culture, however, during conflicts people do not differentiate people and matter. So a discussion for one side could become a conflict because the other side doesn't know how to handle the rational and direct way of discussing.
Cause of conflicts
Conflicts arise in all cultures when certain values are exceeded. In G-cultures a conflict will arise more often when it comes to individual values, where in F-cultures the collective values are the most important. So in G-cultures it is more about the game rules between two individuals, where in F-cultures it is more about the rules of the whole group. This means that interaction mishaps resulting in conflicts are much more likely to happen at G-cultures, because there are less general rules to define their behaviour in a specific situation as it comes down to the individually settled values.
Handling of conflict
In G-cultures conflicts are mainly handled with direct confrontation between the conflicting parties to end the conflict situation. This clears out uncertainties by using direct action. In F-cultures on the other hand, the attitude could be described as elusive and non-confrontational. They rather use implicit communication codes, like deliberate vagueness and obliquity when tension rises. The G-culture way might evoke strong emotions, but these are rather not showed in public. In F-cultures the obliquity way is used to prevent high emotions, but when this fails to solve the conflict, emotions and direct action will not be avoided.
Irritations from cultural differences
In their culture people learn to see a quite limited series of behaviors as right and appropriate. Behaviors that differ from this will be seen als less appropriate or sometimes even absolutely wrong. People acting in this other way are often seen as bad mannered.
"The difference in background played a huge role in the conflict. We were used to work in very different ways and to face different problems." - Christoffer Sørensen( IPD student at NTNU Trondheim) about collaboration with a French engineer.
When people from F- and G-cultures meet, there is a chance of tensions and conflicts because the values of both parties differ greatly. It must be said that a stranger from another culture will be noticed much more in an F-culture than a G-culture because communication in F-cultures is so prescribed and structured.
For example, in traditional cultures people often work until they have made enough money to stop working again for a few days or weeks. This behavior has greatly frustrated a lot of western development workers in Africa. Moreover, people in modern cultures assume that problems are to be solved and conquered, where in traditional cultures it is often seen as the power of a higher spirit to solve the problems so it is quite useless to try to overcome the setbacks by working hard yourself. Of course this is an extreme example but it shows the frustration that can occur between a culture that stimulates their members to improve their own situation and a culture that has people believe that their situation depends on a divine will.
My brother was very frustrated by this phenomenon during his deployment as a soldier to Aghanistan. He could not understand people were so unmotivated to work a hard to change their physical environment when he saw in what miserable places they lived.