As this is the second installment of a three-part blog I suggest reading So You Want To Be An Expat? Here’s What You Need To Know – Part I first if you have not already done so.
Also, this blog initially began as advice to a former American student so I’ve written it for an American audience.
In Part I delved into:
- The three stages of expat life
- The fallacy of comparing cultures
- The great divide in how cultures communicate
- The great divide in the perception of time
In Part II I’ll look at three of the six aspects of life that create culture. Part III will wrap up the other three aspects of life that create culture.
What Makes Cultures Different?
One of the great cultural researchers of our time, Geert Hofstede, identified 6 cultural dimensions every culture possesses. These dimensions create a unique mix that makes each culture unique.
The six dimensions are:
- Power Distance Index (PDI)
- Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS)
- Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Orientation (LTO)
- Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV)
- Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
- Indulgence versus Restraint (IVR)
The Power Distance Index (PDI)
Do you fancy yourself a power-hungry politician ripe for a cushy corrupt position or a political activist working tirelessly to create an equal and balanced utopia? Regardless of where you fit on this spectrum, there’s a culture for you.
The Power Distance Index measures how people feel about power at the societal level. The power people hold over others and the power others wield over them. Or more realistically for the average person, how little power they have over others and their own life.
The Power Index is about the degree to which people accept and expect the distribution of power. How a society handles inequality among people.
In High Power Distance cultures:
- There is a large gap between those who have power and those who don’t
- Those who have power have more of it
- People accept the way things are – everybody has a place and they accept that place
In Low Power Distance cultures:
- The difference in the power people hold is more equal
- Individuals, organizations, and governments have more limits on their power
- People want an equal distribution of power – they demand reasons when there are inequalities of power
In the United States, we often see the Power difference in different workplaces. In low PDI companies, there is not much of a hierarchy. Employees can question the purpose of what they are doing and suggest alternative methods to do it. Employees have wide latitude to decide how the job is accomplished. They have some power.
On the other end of the PDI is the military with a strict well-defined chain of command. The enlisted do as they are told regardless of whether the work makes sense or has value. Questioning orders is not well received. The enlisted have little or no power.
The United States And Thailand
Overall the U.S. is a low PDI country. Americans often call their boss by the first name, complain to companies if the service is poor, question the reasons for work tasks, demand better working conditions, and generally believe they have the right to question the status quo affecting change.
Thailand is a high PDI culture. Thai’s regularly use a variety of titles at work and socially to demonstrate hierarchy. If something does not work well they do not necessarily believe they have the power to complain and bring about change. Thais accept the status quo and leave it at that. There is a lot of conforming and not much questioning.
Life In A High PDI Culture
Moving from a low PDI to a high PDI can be frustrating. Those from low PDI may make professional or social blunders by suggesting alternatives, questioning why they are being asked to do tasks, or complaining if service or a product is not up to standards. If you find yourself in a high PDI culture, just do as you are told, accept things as they are, and you will be fine.
A funny example of this took place at Bangkok University where I taught for 2 years. All employees including professors were required to clock in and out. Everyone had to clock in no later than 8:00 AM and clock out no earlier than 5:00 PM. When my first class met at noon, I had to be on campus at 8:00 AM to clock in then I’d go home and return at noon. On days I taught evening classes I had to clock out at 5:00 PM and then go back to the classroom and finish teaching. This was madness since the timestamps had no bearing when I worked nor was I paid by the hour. Yet this system remained unquestioned.
Masculinity Versus Femininity (MAS)
This cultural dimension is disastrously misnamed. It has nothing to do with men nor with women. If Geert. Hofstede was alive today, I’m certain after reading this blog he would make whatever arrangements were necessary to change the name and dispatch a large sum of money into my account as a thank you for pointing out the mistake.
That begs the question of what does Masculinity Versus Femininity have to do with?
It has to do with success and achievement.
The Masculinity side of this dimension has U.S.A. written all over it. These cultures see success as:
- Material rewards
And how does one achieve all of this? Through competition, of course. Climbing the ladder of success in Masculine societies is all about pulling the feet off the rungs of those above you and stepping on the fingers of those below you.
The Femininity side is just the opposite. Feminine cultures focus on:
- Caring for the weak
- Quality of life
Success in Feminine societies is measured in close family relations, helping friends, enjoying free time. Climbing the ladder of success in Feminine societies involves more reaching down to pull up those who need help.
I imagine Masculine people working extra hours to buy a cool new car. Then working extra hours to keep up with the payments. Then working extra hours to afford insurance and registration. If they find a free half-hour in the month they wash and wax the car. A lot of comments are made about what great cars they have.
In Feminine cultures, I imagine people choosing to work part-time time and spending all that free time at a sidewalk cafe chatting with friends who wander by and there are many because they are also only working part-time. I’m thinking there is a good deal of conversation about existentialism. I think they also have time to help their elderly mother with the grocery shopping.
Long Term Orientation Versus Short Term Orientation (LTO)
This dimension is about how people view the past, cope with life now, and negotiate the future. If this vagary of an explanation does not confuse you, you are a smarter person than I am.
Everyone has a past and plans for the future (although I know plenty of people who do not plan at all for the future). The great divide here is whether a culture is mired in the past or charging into the future.
In Short Term cultures:
- Life is defined by traditions and social norms
- Change is not welcome nor wanted
- All these new-fangled things and ideas are not needed and probably dangerous
Short Term cultures have clear ideas of right and wrong which strictly define how to live, behave, and order one’s life. The social norms are narrow and slow to change. Individuals who stray out of the social norms are reprimanded and can choose to conform, leave, or be ostracised.
Long Term cultures are much more flexible about what is acceptable and what is not. Social norms are broad and can change quickly. Individuals who stray out of the social norms are either ignored, celebrated, or imitated.
In the U.S. this divide is often seen between the generations. Grumpy old men look disapprovingly at girls wearing pants and boys with long hair. One can’t tell the genders apart anymore. What’s happened to society?
Long Term individuals can find Short Term cultures confining and limiting. In Short Term cultures in which I’ve visited and lived my foreign ideas and ways are tolerated but not accepted and often frowned upon. However, many of my Short Term culture students are intrigued by and curious about new ways of thinking and acting. But even they are cautious and feel much of what takes place in the U.S. is too extreme for their likes.
Understanding Other Cultures
Unless you’re immersed for a long period of time in a foreign culture you are never really going to understand that culture. But you can at least understand why the differences exist, and this helps with the transition and helps you to adapt with less frustration.
“You Want To Be An Expat? Here’s What You Need To Know – Part III” will cover Hofstede’s remaining three cultural Dimensions. And if you can digest all three parts of this series you will be well on your way to expat success.