GTSH5/1 Introducing National Culture


Preparing a Baseline

  • Take a Moment: Before we start, and before you read the book, please consider the following (you will need tom refer to your observations later, so please make notes):
    • What is culture and what is a national culture?
    • How would you describe the culture of your home country?
    • How does that culture affect your values, beliefs and attitudes?
    • How does it affect your relationship to others in your society, from other cultures and the people you lead?
    • How does your culture affect how you interpret the Bible?


The Culture of the Kingdom

Based on the foundational work of Hofstede et al, we will are going to consider the nature and impact of national cultures alongside what the Bible has to say. As we do this, please keep in mind that Hofstede’s studies and findings on national culture are really secular observations about a secular, fallen world that does not operate according to God’s principles.

So, we have another factor to consider: What would a Kingdom culture be like?

Define a culture is a difficult thing to do but our initial study – Exploring Leadership in the Kingdom – will have given us some insight into the Kingdom. Beyond this, one other thing we can be sure of is that it is not like the world. In Romans 12:2 Paul urges Christians:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Our embedded “cultural intelligence” – our conformance to cultural norms – is significant in determining what we believe is normal and acceptable and thus how we behave. So Paul is telling us that in order to behave in ways that are acceptable to God, the way we think must not conform to the way this world thinks. The Ladder of Inference gives us insight into how our values, beliefs and assumptions determine what we think and how what we think in turn affects how we behave.

This challenge to be different to the world is true for every Christian. So we are challenged to be transformed so that we are conformed to the Kingdom.

This does not mean we can dismiss national cultures because they are part of the reality of the fallen world in which we live, serve and lead.  Also, the transformation process that Paul encourages is neither instant nor total while we live in this world. Thus we find ourselves to be a work-in-progress leading other Christians who are also on that journey of transformation, each of us in a different place.

As we look at each of the dimensions of national culture we will also consider what insights we can gain concerning it, and its Kingdom counterpart, from the Bible. These considerations are not intended to be complete, comprehensive studies but rather are their goal is to stimulate your own exploration, thought, further study and transformation.

Studying Cultural Differences

Geert Hofstede, from the Netherlands, began studying national culture in the 1980s. He worked for IBM, which at the time, as a multinational corporation had subsidiaries in about 50 countries. This provided a well-defined and well-controlled “laboratory” for gathering data on attitudes of people in these countries. These studies for IBM were the initial work which began Hofstede’s insight into national cultural differences. The IBM data collection has been since superseded by the World Values Study which regularly collects data form over 90 countries and is paralleled by other studies which investigate specific aspects of culture.

Hofstede carried out a statistical examination of the results of the surveys, seeking to identify factors which were statistically related. That is they changed together either in the same way (positive correlation) or in opposite ways (negative correlation). Using this evidenced-based approach Hofstede identified, by observation from the data, a number of factors which described culturally determined attitudes and which were consistent across all the countries in the survey. It’s important to note that they were not devised from some kind of theory for which corroborative data was then sought. So we can be confident that the identified factors do substantially reflect the real world and are thus useful to our consideration of national cultural characteristics. The book explains how the data was obtained and analysed.

Hofstede initially identified four factors that he labelled:

  • Power Distance
  • Individualism
  • Masculinity-
  • Uncertainty Avoidance


Following the work of others he later added:

  • Long-Term Orientation
  • Indulgence


 Software of the Mind

Culture is a collective phenomenon not an individual one. In other words, whilst it cannot predict exactly how any given individual will behave it will predict in general terms how a group will behave.

Culture is learned from our parents, our friends and our general situation. Most of what is described as national culture was established in our minds by the time we were 10 or 12 years old. When we are older we do learn the cultures of the groups and organisations to which we belong, e.g. our church, our employer our sports club etc.

The things we learned about our national cultures tend to be hidden from view. No-one said “Today you will learn about your national culture.” Rather we absorbed it from our parents and families. That means that normally we are. For this reason Geert Hofstede calls it the “software of our minds” because he sees it as analogous to being programmed.

It is different to human nature which we inherit, we are all humans and, allowing for the variance between individuals, at that level we are all the same. From the Biblical perspective this is called the flesh and we inherit it from our forebears all the way back to Adam.

Culture is also different from our personality which is specific to us as an individual and is part inherited and part learned.

Culture is both learned and specific to the group to which we belong. If you recall when we looked at organisational culture in Reflections on Leadership, culture was described as “the way we do things around here”. It’s still the same but “around here” is not limited to the organisation but belongs more broadly to our people group.

The Cultural Onion

For Hofstede the scope of culture is covered by the combination of four concepts: symbols, heroes, rituals and values. These can be envisaged as the layers of an onion with symbols at the outside and values at the heart.

Symbols:

These are images, words, gestures or objects that carry a meaning only recognised by those who share in the culture. For instance particular words in language of a nation or jargon belonging to a particular group. These are easily learned, adapted, changed, exchanged, lost and replaced and so they are the most superficial elements of culture.

Heroes:

These are the people and characters who exemplify the culture, having characteristics that are highly prized. They may be alive, dead or even imaginary. Imaginary heroes for instance include Snoopy in the United States, Winston Churchill in the UK, Nelson Mandela in South Africa and many other places, and so on.

Rituals:

These are collective activities within the culture that are considered socially essential however they are “technically superfluous”. In other words they are not essential to our daily lives, they include greeting styles, social ceremonies and the like.

Values:

These are the core of the culture onion. They are the roots of the attitudes which are important to how the society “thinks and operates”. They define the preferences of the society in question and are deeply embedded, establishing the cultural norms regarding issues such as:

      • Good/Evil
      • Dirty/Clean
      • Dangerous/Safe
      • Forbidden/Permitted
      • Decent/ Indecent
      • Moral/Immoral
      • Ugly/Beautiful
      • Natural/Unnatural
      • Normal/Abnormal
      • Irrational/Rational
      • Paradoxical/Logical

Practices:

Symbols, Heroes and Rituals are designated as practices, all of which can be seen by an outsider but their real cultural significance is hidden to all except the insiders.

We each belong to a culture and have its set of values “programmed” into how we think. This means that when we look at another culture we judge it according to the values of our culture. This can make us sensitive to aspects of that other culture which never even occur to the people who are its members, for instance what is ugly and what is beautiful, and more controversially, what is moral and what is immoral or what is good and what is evil. For instance, some things that are considered to be human rights issues by one culture may simply be seen as the appropriate response to disloyalty to the group in another.

One service that the Bible does for us is to set out God’s absolute standards which are independent of the world, provided that our understanding is not determined by our own cultural programming. We also have the Holy Spirit, who reveals to us God’s perspectives and aligns our thinking with Him. Thus we need to evaluate our cultures and our attitudes in the light of God’s teaching.

However, we must ask ourselves how much of what we think is determined by the cultural values embedded within us as opposed to God’s Kingdom principles? As we consider our walk as Christians, let alone Christian leaders, because we are normally unaware of our cultural attitudes we must be challenged by this question, never mind when we are working cross-culturally.

Cultural Layers

Culture belongs to groups and every group has a culture. As most people belong to several groups at the same time we are inevitably under the influence of several cultures at the same time. This can of course give rise to internal conflicts for the individual and the society.

The most significant layers of culture result from:

  • National influences – there may be more than one when individuals migrate from one country to another.
  • Regional, ethnic, religious and linguistic affiliations.
  • Gender.
  • Generational separation between children, parents and grandparents.
  • Social class and educational level.
  • Organisational culture of one’s employer.

These layers lead to all kinds of cross-cultural issues within a country as well as between people of different countries.

Dimensions of National Cultures

As we have seen, the studies by Geert Hofstede and colleagues have identified six independent dimensions of national culture. It’s worth stressing again that these have emerged from the analysis of data from over 90 countries. The recommended book explains exactly how the data was gathered and the analysis undertaken. It’s worth noting also that it is very readable book that outlines the analytical process rather than getting stuck in the statistical details.

The resulting six dimensions effectively describe the core values of national culture and explain observed behaviours.  They are called dimensions because, as you will see, each one represents a range of strength of cultural characteristic between two extremes. Each country sits somewhere between these extremes for each dimension.

The dimensions are not absolute measures of culture but are relative comparisons. Thus they are useful for positioning countries relative to each other. That is: country A is more like this than Country B. From a statistical perspective the dimensions describe the general behaviour of a nation as whole. However, no specific individual can be expected to behave exactly as described in the dimensions. They will broadly think and behave in line with their culture but they are also individually affected by human nature, personality and upbringing as already discussed.


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