What makes “the East” different from “the West” and how? Is there a way to measure cultural differences and investigate how cultures “behave” and interact?
Inter-cultural research has been on the academic agenda for centuries, mostly focused around one main theory proposed by a European called Hofstede who explored values in national cultures through an international study conducted in a multi-national company (IBM). Prof. Greet Hofstede is an intriguing person with a very direct and precise view on the world :
"Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster."
His theory is quite easy to understand and offers a comprehensive view of cultures around the world and allows a comparison on 5 badly named scales (quoted from the theory’s website):
Power Distance Index (PDI) that is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
Individualism (IDV) on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism, that is the degree to which individuals are inte-grated into groups.
Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity, refers to the distribution of roles between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society to which a range of solutions are found. The assertive pole has been called ‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole ‘feminine’.
Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it ultimately refers to man’s search for Truth. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.
Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation: Values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one’s ‘face’.
What does Hofstede have to say about cultural differences between, let’s say, China, Taiwan and Israel? We can contrast that with a comparison to Japan and the US. Let’s take a look at his charts –
It’s interesting to see just how close Taiwan and China are to each other, culturally. The main differences between the two countries are that Taiwan is a little lower of Power-Distance (hierarchy) and higher on Uncertainty Avoidance (tolerance towards ambiguity). It would come as no big surprise that Individuality is very low and Long-term Orientation is very high in both countries, and I believe this could be easily attributed to the Confucian tradition.
As it’s been suggested in this blog, in Israel – where everybody speaks their opinion and has to be the big boss – there’s little to no Power-distance (hierarchy), even in places like the army. Individuality is higher than in China and Taiwan, but still similar to the world average and most other western countries. Masculinity (assertiveness and no distribution of roles) and Uncertainty Avoidance (tolerance towards ambiguity) are quite close to China/Taiwan.
Japan has a very unique culture in comparison to the other Asian countries, ranking high in almost all scales. Individuality is high in comparison as well as Uncertainty Avoidance (tolerance towards ambiguity), but the most striking thing is the extremely high level of Masculinity (assertiveness and no distribution of roles), maybe the highest in the world.
The United States has its focus on Individuality and Masculinity (assertiveness and no distribution of roles) with very low levels of Long-term Orientation.
(To see other interesting contrasting cultures, take a look at the Sweden with very low Masculinity and the Arab world with very high Power-distance.)