Term Paper, 2000, 12 Pages
HIGH/LOW CONTEXT , MONOCHRONIC,/POLYCHRONIC, UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE SEITE 3
The world is getting smaller, faster, big has become beautiful, the terms ‘globalisation’, ’internationalisation’ or ‘going global’ are key words in our days. From my point of view, the most spectacular development is the internet. Now it is possible to send and/or receive documents within a few seconds, to get all information imaginable so that the term ‘information society’ now replaces the former term ‘consume society’. Fact is that the financial, economic, media, research, recovery and educational world experiences a tremendous change nowadays. Just think of digitalisation of texts, pictures or sounds! Think of communication satellites or the spreading of computer science! Mega-mergers and hyper-concentrations determine our present time, multinational or rather global enterprises are the result. Our world order seems to define itself in a new way. Remember the merger of Daimler Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. in November 1998, presented at that time as a merger of equals, it is still producing considerable unhappiness among the Americans and the Germans. The Americans contend privately that the combined company has come to be dominated by the Germans whereas the Germans complain that there is a gap between the American and the German management level. What do we learn from this? It is very often forgotten that there are deeper reaching problems besides determining the legal conditions or the new budget planning, which are based on the different cultures and backgrounds of those people who are supposed to work together. We are going global. Yes, indeed. But does this automatically mean that we do understand each other? Sure, Engl ish as the ‘Number 1’ language is spoken almost everywhere, but does this mean that international relationships work perfectly? Obviously not, otherwise all the mergers would have been a success. Our world is full of confrontations between people since we feel, think and act differently. But at the same time we are exposed to the same problems which demand cooperation if we want to solve them. Nowadays, people begin to understand that there are cultural differences and try to accept them and even profit from them. There has been done a lot of research in this field and today courses like ‘Intercultural Communication’ or ‘Intercultural Studies’ are very popular. Therefore, this paper aims to present Geert Hofstede’s as well as Edward T. Hall’s ideas on cultural problems.
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Geert Hofstede was born on October 2, 1928 in Harlem, in the Netherlands. He received his Ph.D from Groningen University in 1967. He is very well known for his research on the influence of culture on the human being. His most famous accomplishment is the distinction of the four dimensions of cultural variability. 1 He refers to culture as the ‘software of the mind’ 2 and states generally that every person carries within him or herself a pattern of thinking, feeling and potentially acting which were learnt throughout their lifetime. Furthermore, culture is not inherited but learnt as it derives from the social environment and should be distinguished from the personality (⇒ partly inherited and party learned and unique) on the one hand and from the human nature (⇒ inherited and universal) on the other. 3
Hofstede once gave management training at IBM. He noticed that managers of different cultural backgrounds acted differently and found different solutions for problems even thoug h they worked for the same company and were therefore confronted with the same company culture. He then concluded that the different reactions are due to the different cultural origin and developed his four dimensions of values which help him to describe cultures:
Ø Uncertainty Avoidance
Ø Power Distance Ø Individualism vs. Collectivism Ø Masculinity vs. Femininity
Due to the subject of this paper the author will only put emphasis on the dimension ‘Uncertainty Avoidance’ even though the three other dimensions will be explained briefly in order to guarantee completeness.
1 COMPARE: HTTP://WWW2.SOC.HAWAII.EDU/CSS/DEPT/COM/RESOURCES/INTERCULTURAL/HOFSTEDE.HTML
2 HOFSTEDE, 1997, P.4
3 COMPARE: HOFSTEDE, 1997, P.4-7
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This dimension deals with both: with people’s different attitude to time and also with how comfortable people feel towards ambiguity. Generally, we all have to face the fact that we do not know what will happen tomorrow. Therefore, the future will always be uncertain and we will always have to live with this fact. Uncertainty avoidance can be defined as the extend to which the members of a culture feel threatened by
uncertain or unknown situations. 4
But according to Hofstede, there are societies with a low uncertainty avoidance which are characterised by tolerance and moderation. Uncertainty is known and accepted in their daily life and people belonging to such a society deal with unknown risks relatively easy. It is said that such cultures put strong emphasis on Human Rights. It is believed that nobody is allowed to be prosecuted because of his/her conviction.
On the other side, Hofstede talks about societies with high uncertainty avoidance. These cultures can be characterised as quite conservative, fundamentalist and intolerant towards unfamiliar religions and ideologies. Detailed rules and laws are to protect them from the unexpected and uncertainty which is part of our every day life, is perceived as a permanent threat that has to be opposed. ‘What is different, is dangerous’ is one of the key terms to describe societies with a high uncertainty avoidance.
Taking everything into account we can come to the conclusion that the extensive
German assurance system is part of high uncertainty. 5
4 HOFSTEDE, 1997, P.113
5 COMPARE: HOFSTEDE, 1993, P.19-20
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Ø Power Distance
This aspect focuses on the degree of equality or inequality between people in the society of a country. Societies with a high power distance perceive inequality as acceptable. Mighty and/or wealthy people have many privileges and the use of status symbols is common. These cultures are more likely to follow a caste system that does hardly allow upward mobility in the hierarchical society structure. Cultures with a low power distance always try to stress equality and opportunity for everyone. Members of such cultures don’t show off power and everybody is considered to be equal. Hofstede characterises e.g. Brazil and Mexico as nations with a high power distance whereas Germany and Switzerland are examples for nations with a low
power distance. 6
Ø Individualism vs. Collectivism
This culture dimension refers to the question of the intensity of interpersonal relationships. According to Hofstede one can distinguish individualistic societies (like the USA) where everybody is responsible for him/herself from the collectivist one (like Sweden) where every individual is protected by the group. 7
Ø Masculinity vs. Femininity
This aspect focuses on the degree, to which the traditional masculine role model is reinforced in the society. A high masculine ranking indicates a high degree of gender differentiation. Masculine societies tend to cherish achievements that are considered to be typical masculine such as material success or professional development. Masculine societies e.g. solve conflicts by holding them whereas in feminine societies the conflict parties try to find a compromise by discussing the topic. Germany is considered to be quite masculine whereas the Netherlands are considered to be more feminine according to Hofstede. 8
6 COMPARE: HTTP://WWW.CYBORLINK.COM/BESITE/HOFSTEDE.HTM
8 COMPARE: HOFSTEDE, 1997, P.79-81
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Edward T. Hall was born on May 16, 1914 in Webster Groves, MO. After receiving his Ph.D. at the Columbia University he spent several years in the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in Europe. After returning to the USA he married and did research together with his wife Mildred on the influence of culture on the human behavior. 9
Hall refers to culture as the ‘man’s medium’ and according to his idea there is no t one single aspect of the human life that is not altered or at least touched by culture. Consequently, “this means personality, how people express themselves (including shows of emotion), the way they think, how they move, how problems are solved [...]. It is the least studied aspect of culture that influences behavior in the deepest and most subtle ways.” 10
Basically, Hall describes three important aspects of cultural differences which include the time, context and space dimension. Since the space dimension is not subject of this paper the author confines herself to mention it.
This item concentrates on the “amount of information a person can comfortably manage” 11 In high context cultures information is more likely transmitted in nonverbal and indirect ways. Gestures are very important as means of expressing ones opinion. Therefore, listeners have to carefully pay attention since important facts have to be read ‘in between the lines’. Information passes spontaneously and in wide networks. Therefore, the information flow works fast and people tend to be informed on many subjects. According to Hall, the Arab countries as well as France count to such high context cultures. On the other hand, he describes the USA, the UK and Germany as low context cultures. In these societies information is communicated in a very direct way. Verbalised statements that follow a given plan
9 COMPARE: HTTP://WWW2.SOC.HAWAII.EDU.CSS/COM/RESOURCES/INTERCULTURAL/HALL.HTML
10 HALL, 1977, P.14
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are usual. This is why the information flow tends to be very slow. Moreover, people tend not to be informed on subjects outside of their own interests. 12
This dimension shows that different cultures have different perceptions of time. According to Hall, “time is one of the fundamental bases on which all cultures rest and around which a ll activities revolve. Understanding the difference between
monochronic time and polychronic time is essential for success [...]” 13
Members belonging to monochronic societies are more likely to have a linear time perception. They are used to doing one item at a time and take time commitments (such as deadlines or schedules) seriously. In respect to their working world they take their duties seriously and tend to be very concentrated. Often, interpersonal relationships suffer under this job commitment. Monochronic people are concerned about not disturbing others and it comes to irritations when they are disturbed. Just think of all the closed office doors in Germany which is a typical example for a monochronic culture. Germans are also said to follow the rules of privacy and to show great respect for private property so that they do not like to borrow and lend things.
On the contrary polychronic societies do not have a linear but rather a cyclic time perception. They do not mind doing several things simultaneously and consider time frames as useful but it does not come to irritations of they cannot achieve them They can be characterised by. a great involvement with people and human relationships. And since they are more concerned with those who are closely rel ated such as family and friends, they do not put as much emphasis on privacy and the worry to disturb others as monochronic people do.
12 COMPARE: HALL, 1990, P.6-9
13 HALL, 1990, P.179
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All in all one can say that monochronism and low-context are linked as well as
polychronism and high-context. 14
After taking a closer look at the ideas of Hofstede and Hall it is easier to understand why problems occur as soon as people from different cultural backgrounds come together. This especially helps in the business world as international cooperations and mergers and therefore working with different people is part of our lives. Now it is possible to trace back cultural differences and to understand that there are different ways of doing things. The ideas of Hofstede and Hall therefore help us to structure our pattern of thinking as well as to gain a new a perspective.
However, we have to keep in mind that these ideas do not claim absoluteness. We cannot stand firmly behind them or think that they are unalterably. Concerning Hofstede and Hall we should take into consideration that their structuring of countries refers to statistical frequencies. This means that even though we Germans are considered to be monochronical and by high uncertainty avoidance and as low context culture there are probably many Germans who absolutely do not fit in this scheme.
The best advice would therefore be not to take Hofstede’s and Hall’s concepts as absolute facts but as tendencies.
14 COMPARE: HTTP://WWW2.SOC.HAWAII.EDU/CSS/COM/RESOURCES/INTERCULTURAL/HALL.HTML
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1. Key differences between weak and strong uncertainty avoidance societies 15
Uncertainty is a normal feature of life and The uncertainty inherent in life is felt as a each day is accepted as it comes continuous threat which must be fought Low stress, subjective feeling of well-High stress, subjective feeling of anxiety being
Aggression and emotions should not be Aggression and emotions may at proper shown times and places be ventilated
Lenient rules for children on what is dirty Tight rules for children on what is dirty and taboo and taboo What is different, is curious What is different, is dangerous
good discussions the right answers Teachers may say ‘I don’t know’ Teachers supposed to have all the answers
There should not be more rules than is Emotional need for rules, even if these strictly necessary will never work Time is a framework for orientation Time is money Comfortable feeling when lazy; hard Emotional need to be busy; inner urge to working only when needed work hard
Precision and punctuality have to be Precision and punctuality come naturally learnt
Tolerance of deviant and innovative ideas Suppression of deviant ideas and and behavior behavior; resistance to innovation Motivation by achievement and esteem or Motivation by security and esteem or belongingness belongingness
15 HOFSTEDE, 1997, P.125
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Hall, Edward T. / Reed Hall, Mildred (1990): Understanding cultural differencs, Yarmouth: Intercultural Press
Hall, Edward T. (1977): Beyond culture, Garden City: Ancho Press/Doubleday
Hofstede, Geert (1997): Cultures and Organizations, Maastricht: McGraw-Hill
Hofstede, Geert (1993): Interkulturelle Zusammenarbeit: Kulturen - Organisationen -Management, Wiesbaden: Dr. Gabler Verlag
http://www2.soc.hawaii.edu/css/com/resources/intercultural/Hofstede.html http://www.cyborlink.com/besite/hofstede.htm http://www2.soc.ha waii.edu/css/com/resources/intercultural/Hall.html http://hackvan.com/pub/stig/etext/monochronic-vs -polychronic-time.txt http://www.siu.edu/~ekachai/dimensions.html
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