Differences in Cultures

Increasingly, managers must deal with multiple ethnic groups with very different cultures. Thanks to globalization, you are likely to work with Japanese, French, Chinese, German and all sorts of other nationalities. It is important to recognize that people from different cultures have are different in a variety of ways, including

In an ideal world ...
  • the policemen would be English
  • the car mechanics would be German
  • the cooks would be French
  • the innkeepers would be Swiss,
  • and the lovers would be Italian
In a living hell ...
  • the policemen would be German
  • the car mechanics would be French
  • the cooks would be English
  • the innkeepers would be Italian
  • and the lovers would be Swiss

These differences can cause problems interpreting what the other person is doing. Some simple examples:


Some dimensions along which cultures vary:

High Context vs Low Context

A low context culture is one in which things are fully (though concisely) spelled out. Things are made explicit, and there is considerable dependence on what is actually said or written. A high context culture is one in which the communicators assume a great deal of commonality of knowledge and views, so that less is spelled out explicitly and much more is implicit or communicated in indirect ways. In a low context culture, more responsibility is placed on the listener to keep up their knowledge base and remain plugged into informal networks.

Low context cultures include Anglos, Germanics and Scandinavians. High context cultures include Japanese, Arabs and French.


Monochronic vs Polychronic

Monochronic cultures like to do just one thing at a time. They value a certain orderliness and sense of there being an appropriate time and place for everything. They do not value interruptions. Polychronic cultures like to do multiple things at the same time. A manager's office in a polychronic culture typically has an open door, a ringing phone and a meeting all going on at the same time.

Polychronic cultures include the French and the Americans. The Germans tend to be monochronic.


Future vs Present vs Past Orientation

Past-oriented societies are concerned with traditional values and ways of doing things. They tend to be conservative in management and slow to change those things that are tied to the past. Past-oriented societies include China, Britain, Japan and most spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

Present-oriented societies include the rest of the spanish-speaking Latin American countries. They see the past as passed and the future as uncertain. They prefer short-term benefits.

Future-oriented societies have a great deal of optimism about the future. They think they understand it and can shape it through their actions. They view management as a matter of planning, doing and controlling (as opposed to going with the flow, letting things happen). The United States and, increasingly, Brazil, are examples of future-oriented societies.

Quantity of Time

In some cultures, time is seen as being a limited resource which is constantly being used up. It's like having a bathtub full of water which can never be replaced, and which is running down the drain. You have to use it as it runs down the drain or it's wasted. In other cultures, time is more plentiful, if not infinite. In old agricultural societies, time was often seen as circular, renewing itself each year.


Power Distance

The extent to which people accept differences in power and allow this to shape many aspects of life. Is the boss always right because he is the boss, or only when he gets it right?


Individualism vs Collectivism

In individualist cultures, individual uniqueness, self-determination is valued. A person is all the more admirable if they are a "self-made man" or "makes up their own mind" or show initiative or work well independently. Collectivist cultures expect people to identify with and work well in groups which protect them in exchange for loyalty and compliance.

Paradoxically, individualist cultures tend to believe that there are universal values that should be shared by all, while collectivist cultures tend to accept that different groups have different values.

Many of the asian cultures are collectivist, while anglo cultures tend to be individualist.



Problems Caused by Cultural Differences


Three basic kinds of problems: interpreting others comments and actions, predicting behavior, and conflicting behavior.


Some Perceptions of Americans

Europe & especially England. "Americans are stupid and unsubtle. And they are fat and bad dressers."

Finland. "Americans always want to say your name: 'That's a nice tie, Mikko. Hi Mikko, how are you Mikko'

Indian. "Americans are always in a hurry. Just watch the way they walk down the street."

Kenyan. "Americans are distant. They are not really close to other people -- even other Americans."

Turkey. "Once we were out in a rural area in the middle of nowhere and saw an American come to a stop sign. Though he could see in both directions for miles, and there was no traffic, he still stopped!"

Colombia. "In the United States, they think that life is only work."

Indonesia. "In the United States everything has to be talked about and analyzed. Even the littlest thing has to be 'Why, why why?'."

Ethiopia. "The American is very explicit. He wants a 'yes' or 'no'. If someone tries to speak figuratively, the American is confused."

 Iran. "The first time my American professor told me 'I don't know, I will have to look it up', I was shocked. I asked myself 'Why is he teaching me?'"


Try this experiment: 

 Start by reading this:



Now, quickly count the number of "F"s in that sentence. On average, anglos find fewer F's than do others. Why?