Culture and working internationally

Parts of culture are measurable: psychologists (mostly Geert Hofstede) have come up with different indices to measure the behavior of peoples. These indices include the “Power Distance Index” (PDI), the “Individualism” index (IDV), the “Masculinity” index (MAS), the “Uncertainty Avoidance Index” (UAI) and the “Long Term Orientation” index (LTO).

I am from The Netherlands, an egalitarian culture in which there is no real superiority of the ruler and the ruled (even though we’ve been a kingdom for quite a while now) nor a real difference between men and women (aside from the obvious differences, of course). The Netherlands are a country that has had women as their sovereign monarch for four generations now – and some of us aren’t too happy that the next in line is a guy. We also value individuality, and have for a few generations now, and, though we are mostly known for our tolerance to other cultures and cultural differences, we are also known for taking mitigated risks. What other country has such large parts under sea-level?

One of the most popular prime ministers of my generation, Wim Kok, famously said that to rule is to look ahead (“Regeren is vooruit zien”), so I would have expected we not score to badly on the LTO index either.

According to one website, The Netherlands scores 38 on PDI (for comparison, the US scored 40 and Australia scored 36; France: 68 – according to another website, Canada scored 39); 80 on IDV (US: 91; Australia: 90; UK: 89; New Zealand: 79); 14 on MAS (Denmark: 16; Norway: 8; US: 62; France: 43; Italy: 70); 53 on UAI (Sierra Leone: 54; Ethiopia: 52; US: 46) and 44 on LTO (Singapore: 48; US: 29).

An emeritus professor at Maastricht University, Geert Hofstede, once said: “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.” (at least according to a website that Geert Hofstede himself has a dispute with). I would tend to disagree on this – but then, even if I am a dutchman, I am married to a French woman and I live and work in Québec, Canada, so I live and work in a mix of cultures, my children are bilingual (or will hopefully be bilingual one day) and I, myself, am trilingual.

Culture, however, can be a serious obstacle in business. For one thing, the low PDI the dutch in general (and I myself as well) score would indicate that we (the dutch) don’t treat people in a position of authority with as much regard as some of them might like. I, for one, refuse to call anyone except God my “superior”: if the person in question is a human being, as I am a human being, we are created equal and he/she shouldn’t delude him/herself into thinking he/she is in any way (except perhaps pay grade) superior to me. Similarly, I do not expect by “subordinates” to behave like subordinates: it is a rare occasion that I will tell anyone what to do, rather than ask or suggest him/her to do something. That doesn’t mean that I can’t get things done by other people – it just means that those people tend to do those things voluntarily, that they tend to take pride in their work and appreciate both the requirements placed on their work (quality as well as efficiency) as important, and the appreciation they get for their work as significant.

I have come to not expect the people I work for to behave in the same manner: even if Canada has mostly the same score as the Netherlands on the PDI, I would suspect Québec has a much higher score – closer to France’s score of 68 – solidly on the other side of the spectrum. I have noticed that most Québec workers in private businesses tend to see the “boss” of the business as a person to not only respect (which is something I would tend to agree with) but also obey (which is something I will only agree with if the person in question is right). They do not need to be convinced of the rightness of the actions that are asked of them, and do not criticize the direction the company is taken in, even if the direction in question is bad for both the company and for themselves. In fact, I have seen Québec workers that were convinced of the opposite: that the direction the company was going in bad for both the business and for themselves, but simply follow orders anyway.

That’s when my history lessons pop to the forefront: as a European born in the late 1970s from parents born in the mid 1940s (neither of which lived a second of WWII, but both of which grew up through the 1950s), the war and the historical lessons of the war has had a significant impact on my upbringing. The excuse of “just following orders” or “wir haben es nicht gewuest” simply doesn’t hold any ground with me and the excuse “he did it first” that I may have tried with my parents when I was little (and that my children try with me now) didn’t hold any ground with my parents (and doesn’t hold any ground with me now).

The low PDI the dutch have in general can be an advantage: when I worked with a businessman from North Carolina, I was struck by his sincere friendliness during the business dealings. Though there was no confusions as to the nature of the relationship – him the paying customer, us the service providers with a stake in getting the contract – there was also no “deference” as you might have had in other cultures. In that sense, the low PDI, similar between The Netherlands, the US and Canada, was an advantage: the closeness of our cultures – at least in that respect – helped us “get along” and won us the contract. It can also be a disadvantage: when some do expect a certain deference, but don’t get it, there may be frustration – even anger. I’ll forgo on anecdotes on this point.

One thing that must really be said, with some emphasis, though, is that there is nothing quite as interesting as living and working in an international environment – and as an immigrant, one automatically lives and works in an “international” environment because of two reasons: firstly, if you’re an immigrant, you bring the international part with you wherever you go – and if you’ve been an immigration long enough, you’ve become an expatriat to the country you’re from and will no longer quite fit in there either. Secondly, immigrants tend to surround themselves with immigrants – but not necessarilly from the same country. That means that the “international” part comes to you as well.

But regardless of being an immigrant, international environments – I find – are simply more stimulating: people express themselves differently depending on the culture they hail from, and use expressions that mean different things to different people, which in turn causes confusion, which causes inquiry, which causes you to learn. You quickly find that sweet spot between comfort and utter confusion that is just uncomfortable enough to keep moving, but just comfortable enough to not flee. That’s when your curiosity is peeked and when you start absorbing new knowledge – and learning the “soft skills” you need to be human, as well as professional.

Ans that’s when the indices and statistics, the IQs and the “hard skills” stop counting.

About rlc

Software Analyst in embedded systems and C++, C and VHDL developer, I specialize in security, communications protocols and time synchronization, and am interested in concurrency, generic meta-programming and functional programming and their practical applications. I take a pragmatic approach to project management, focusing on the management of risk and scope. I have over two decades of experience as a software professional and a background in science.
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