I’d like to introduce you to a good friend of mine. An individual who has been an important influence in both my professional and personal life, absolutely indispensable in my teaching career and traveling adventures.
I’ve never met him and he has no idea that I exist but his research has made my life more enjoyable, easier, and supremely more insightful. Sadly he passed away this year.
Greet Geert Hofstede
His name is Geert Hofstede, he’s from the Netherlands. Think of him as the Einstein of cultural research. In a nutshell, he identified many of the broad cultural differences that separate the world’s people. His research has stood the test of time (conducted in the 1980s), scrutiny of other researchers, and real-world experience.
The Great American Divide
Having lived in America, lived out of America, and once again living in America, (I’ve repeated this many times), the Great American Cultural Divide is clearly visible. This divide precipitated the Civil War in the 1860s, the Counter Culture of the 1960s, and our current battles in the 2000s.
This Great Divide is driven by a difference in culture in the U.S. My expert analysis (MBA International Business, Lecturer in Business and Economics in U.S., China, and Thailand, living in 5 countries, and world traveler) is that the primary driver of the Great Divide is what Geert Hofstede identified as Uncertainty Avoidance. This is not the only difference but it is the primary difference.
Some Truths About Culture
The reason so many misunderstandings and hostilities occur between cultures is because different cultures:
- Seldom are fully understood
- Rarely are fully accepted
- Always result in a divide
The divide can be reduced but never eliminated.
You must also realize that:
- Different cultures are not good or bad. They are different.
- Different cultures are not better or worse. They are different.
- Different cultures are not right or wrong. They are different.
Do not judge different cultures (in this instance other Americans) rather accept that they are different.
Simply put, Uncertainty Avoidance is about how comfortable or uncomfortable people are about uncertainty and ambiguity.
In other words, do you like or hate stepping out of your comfort zone?
Of course, it’s not absolute. You may be comfortable in one situation but not another. Most likely, you are generally somewhere in the middle of liking and hating stepping out of your comfort zone.
Different: Interesting Or Dangerous?
There is a difference between people who have High Uncertainty Avoidance (dislike things that are different), we will call them Traditionalists, and those who have Low Uncertainty Avoidance (like things that are different), we will call them Modernists. Polarization results when these two groups are forced to live together but don’t understand the differences.
- Have rigid codes of belief and behavior
- Are not tolerant of different behavior and ideas
- Believe principles are more important than outcomes
- Have more relaxed attitudes
- Are open to new ideas
- Believe outcomes are more important than principles
The difference has often been described as
“Different is Interesting” vs. “Different is Dangerous.”
Modernists, “Different is Interesting”, view different behavior and ideas as interesting. They are curious to know more.
Traditionalists, “Different is Dangerous”, view different behavior and ideas as suspicious or threatening. They want nothing to do with them.
How Modernists And Traditionalists React Differently
When Kim and I moved to Bangkok our Traditionalist friends and family were genuinely concerned. Their responses stretched from thinking we running from the law, in a desperate situation, or just making a bad decision. For this group, something must be terribly wrong for us to do something so different.
Our Modernist friends and family were genuinely excited for us. They helped us get ready to move, gave us information about Thailand, and made plans to visit us. For this group, we were heroes for doing something so different, a living example of what they might someday do.
The reality is we moved because the Great Recession decimated our business and I was offered a two-year contract to lecture at Bangkok University.
America and Uncertainty Avoidance
In the U.S. the Uncertainty Avoidance divide can be seen in ‘hot button’ issues, issues as important as LBGTQ+ rights and as ridiculous as to how to wish someone happy holidays.
I’m not going to go into something as monumental as human rights but I will use Christmas as an example.
The “War On Christmas”
Traditionally people in America say “Merry Christmas” to each other starting around mid-December. This is a tradition, ‘what Americans do’ and the way ‘it’s always been done’. It is part of American culture.
This is mostly true. However, 21st Century America is vastly different than 18th, 19th, and most of 20th Century America when the tradition was established and enshrined.
Twenty-First Century America has a higher percentage of people with different beliefs than in previous centuries. This change has resulted in a new December greeting, “Happy Holidays.”
Modernists get that the new term, Happy Holidays, covers all the holidays that occur around December and January. Regardless of belief, it’s a nice way to be nice to everyone. This group says “Happy Holidays”.
Traditionalists get that the new term, Happy Holidays, is not what you use in America and it takes away from American cultural values. This group says “Merry Christmas”.
Which group is correct? Both are!
The problem occurs when one group insists the other group should conform to their way. The Happy Holiday Modernists claim that saying Merry Christmas ignores and insults the 40% of non-Christians in the U.S. The Merry Christmas Traditionalists claim that saying Happy Holidays is taking away from American cultural values.
You can only imagine (and have probably experienced) how this explodes exponentially when truly important changes take place.
How Can We Get Along And Save The U.S.A?
We’ve all heard the cliché, “The only constant in life is change.” But change is difficult for Traditionalists, they fear it and they fight it. For example, they claim there is a “war on Christmas” and the Modernists are ‘destroying’ America, our children, our way of life, our freedom, our culture, etc.
Change is easy for the Modernists, they embrace it. They claim there is intolerance, bigotry, and lack of awareness on the part of Traditionalists.
There is a way out of this but it’s difficult. It’s difficult because everyone needs to see the other person’s point of view, realizing no one is attacking the other person.
- Modernists must realize how difficult, threatening, and dangerous change is to Traditionalists.
- Traditionalists must realize that change is how life naturally progresses and that Modernists are not attacking them and their beliefs.
- Traditionalists need to realize that different is not wrong, it’s different.
- Modernists need to realize that tradition is not silly, it’s tradition.
To continue with our Christmas example, if passing someone on the street and they say “Merry Christmas”, don’t be offended if you don’t celebrate Christmas. Instead, be polite and say “Merry Christmas”.
If passing someone on the street and they say “Happy Holidays”, don’t be offended if you celebrate Christmas. Do be polite and say “Happy Holidays”.
Saying “Happy Holidays” is not a ‘war on Christmas’, but it is a change.
Saying, “Merry Christmas” is not a war on other beliefs, but it is traditional.
Modernists and Traditionalists are not at war. But they can make it a war.
Comparing Traditionalists And Modernists
Traditionalists -High Uncertainty Avoidance
|Modernists – Low Uncertainty Avoidance|