The fuzzy line between cultural orientations at the workplace

The fuzzy line between cultural orientations at the workplace

Culture matters to the extent that individuals in different cultures are likely to have differing experiences and values. In fact, Herodotus, some 2.500 years ago, already cast a sharp ethnographic eye on customs and how common it is for people to possess contrasting ideals. He observed that one culture's death rites are disgraceful or even disgusting to others.

Geert Hofstede’s pioneering multinational study (1967-1973) among 117.000 IBM employees in 50 countries used five cultural dimensions to capture such values and motives at the workplace. The most prominent dimension, extensively applied in the following decades, was the spectrum of individualism - collectivism.

Hofstede assessed individualism by contrasting the extent employees value freedom in approach or a sense of personal achievement from doing challenging work, with the extent they value job security or hierarchy. Where the former values are stronger, the higher the individualism index. Frontrunner cultures with the individualism index are the so-called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich & Democratic) societies.

Organisations run on individualistic ideals. How then, can collectivistically-inspired expats meet their behavioural norms? This can be challenging, as the incompatibilities that arise between individualism and collectivism are often very subtle.

Valuing opposing attitudes

A Dutch staff member at the University of Amsterdam hosted a dinner to celebrate an important promotion. In a pleasant restaurant with an idyllic view, about a hundred guests of various cultural backgrounds were seated at four long tables.

A colleague handed a note to every other guest with a letter-number combination, and the guests were told to keep it. They would hear why later on!

The first courses and drinks arrived and a delightful atmosphere developed among a party of two Dutch, an Italian, a Greek, a Japanese, an Indonesian and a German when an announcement was made: "Those holding notes are called on to change seats by moving to another (specified) table."

Both the Italian and the Greek responded:
- Oh, no!
- Don’t do that to me.
- Not that stuff again!!

They didn’t bother moving and their comments suggest a deliberate choice. Neither did the Asians. The German had to leave the party anyway, and the Dutch... just moved. Their empty seats were filled by Dutch and English replacements.

Obviously, some people preferred to build on the familiarity that had already developed at their tables, while others enjoyed initiating new contacts, maybe even praising the organisers for facilitating it.

This difference in behaviour may seem subtle, but it is well-established in cross-cultural psychology studies. For example, researchers (Noesjirwan, 1977) compared the attitude of patients in a doctor’s waiting room in Jakarta (Indonesia) and Sydney (Australia), by asking them: "Would you initiate a conversation with a stranger in the waiting room?" Of the Indonesians 62 per cent said "No", compared to only 43 per cent of the Australians.

Independence versus respect?

WEIRD cultures encourage individuals to become independent from others, take initiative and speak their minds. Parents and teachers freely praise such behaviour with the typical: "I am so proud of you!"

By contrast, modesty and respect for parents or teachers is encouraged in less WEIRD societies. Research showed that, whereas, seven-year-old Spanish children did not understand the word "pride", in the Netherlands, their counterparts reported experiencing pride as much as adults did (Rodriguez Mosquera et al., 2000).

An Eastern European music teacher relates with humor the reactions he typically received when correcting students across Europe:
- "Yes, teacher" (Russia, Poland)
- "No, I don’t agree with you" (the Netherlands)

Although both individualist and collectivist forms of encouragement can motivate high performance - Asians score the highest world-wide - it is apparent that WEIRD cultures encourage more individualistic forms of behaviour, such as taking the initiative, in organisational settings.

Does hierarchy hamper initiative?

Consider the following behaviour witnessed at a national conference in Southern Europe: a participant posed a question to a PhD candidate speaker who seemed uncertain of the right answer.

The candidate's supervisor instantly interfered, announcing his professorial status, explaining paternalistically that "she is just a PhD student" and gave the answer himself.

Afterwards, in the break, the student kept a discrete distance while the professors continued the discussion.

In a comparable situation, for example in the Netherlands, such an intervention is highly unlikely. Students are expected to display independent and critical thinking and be able to pose questions that will advance their field.

Feeling personal accomplishment from doing challenging work is thus a feeling that is experienced in WEIRD societies, as Hofstede originally demonstrated.

Individualistic ideals

Hofstede specifically proposed the individualism-collectivism dimension as bipolar because,

"... institutions that are individualistically inspired exclude those that are collectively-minded."

This statement perfectly fits the following characteristic example: on the principles of initiative and self-responsibility a manager says: "I don’t need someone who comes to me for approval, but someone who will tell me what he/she will be doing."

The following example from an article in Het Parool, entitled "Dutch Soberness in the Italian Internet World", concerns attitudes towards time management: a Dutchman had already been the director of a big company in Sardinia for six months when he revealed his strategy to make his employees more punctual.

"Twice I've run a meeting all by myself. The first employee appeared 20 minutes late" so I said "I am already at item five on the agenda, and these are the decisions I made. And I do not turn back... They have to be on time!"

Becoming bi(multi)cultural

Readjusting your behaviour to fit the standards of modern organisations may be difficult but not impossible.

The more conflicting the cultural orientations that apply (e.g. respect-minded versus speaking your mind), the harder the negotiations inside you.

Yet, behavioural patterns can evolve unconsciously. To a great extent they depend on one’s personality: the more open you are to new behaviour, under the influence of actively living in Netherlands, the more effortlessly you become bi(multi)cultural and capable of producing context-appropriate responses.

Have you experienced situations in which people behaved in ways conflicting your "usual" cultural expectations? Please feel free to contribute to this discussion.

Katerina Pouliasi


Katerina Pouliasi

My first "collisions' with Dutch culture, transformed into a strong curiosity about the nature of cultural differences, have led me to in depth research on "Culture, Self-understanding and the Bicultural...

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