Cultural Dimensions and Continuous Learning

Cultural Dimensions and Continuous Learning

Michael Bond and E TulejaRubbing shoulders with top interculturalists has given me renewed appreciation for and confidence in teaching about cultural dimensions. What are cultural dimensions? Cultural Dimensions theory is a framework that helps us understand the differences and commonalities between cultural groups (most often referred to as countries). Dr. Geert Hofstede a pioneer in this field and is best known for his scientific study on the cultural values of members of societies and how these relate to their behaviors ( for Prof. Hofstede’s personal site and for a related site).

I recently returned from a small yet powerful conference at the Shanghai International Studies University, also known as SISU, where I had been invited to speak alongside some of the most renowned intercultural elites – namely cross-cultural psychologist, Michael Harris Bond; population biologist turned cultural biologist, Gert Jan Hofstede; and Steve Kulich, expert on Chinese language and director/founder of the Intercultural Communication Program at SISU.

What I took away from our two day interaction is how down-to-earth each of these brilliant scholars is – thoughtful, interesting, insightful, and passionate about continuous learning. Whether over breakfast or afternoon coffee breaks, we spent intense moments pondering our own human behavior (based upon discussion of cultural values and dimensions, of course!) as we tried to navigate our way through the daily ambiguity of Chinese culture, deciphering as best we could what various interactions meant as we viewed things from our own cultural lenses. For example, there were many communication glitches – yes, many (!) – evidence of the differing perspectives and expectations of the East and West. Yet the cultural fluency of all of the interculturalists combined didn’t translate into pride, rather humility and curiosity.

For example, Prof. Michael Bond has lived, researched, and taught in Hong Kong for 40 years; Prof. Gert Jan Hofstede is Dutch, a polyglot, a researcher, teacher, and grew up under the influence of  his father’s research; Prof. Steve Kulich has studied and lived in China since college days and rose to prominence as a foreigner who has built this renowned program in Master’s of Intercultural Communication that is one of the only in all of China. All are amazing individuals who – despite their deep knowledge and understanding of the many dimensions of culture – were curious, probing possible hypotheses for why things happened the way they did during our short stay. Prof. Bond summed it up perfectly as we all chatted before departing to our different destinations throughout the world – “I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 40 years and I’m still trying to figure it out.”  Powerful!

I left the brief yet wonderfully personal conference feeling renewed, energized, and confident that what I do in my own research, teaching, consulting is critical to global leadership development.  Those who have taught us such great insights over the years are still learning about cultural competence in a very real, down-to-earth way…one day at a time…one situation at a time…one context at a time.

Those of us who are practicing interculturalists (whether teachers, researchers, consultants, learners) know that we get a lot of pushback regarding whether one can categorize an entire group of people as one thing or another – often people use the terms “labeling” or “overgeneralizing.” For example, people often react with, “How can you say that all of China is collectivistic versus all of the USA is individualistic?” Or that “All of Saudi Arabia has high power distance and all of Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, and Norway) are the opposite?” Well, you can’t say that all are this or that, but you can generalize large groups of people.  Yes, you can!

This is a great question to open the discussion about how Hofstede’s value dimensions show central tendencies of groups of people not individuals. We can learn from comparing groups in terms of both differences but similarities as we seek to identify not just the what but the why of human behavior. And we can be confident with the science behind these theories – all validated with intense factor analysis and other hard-core statistical measures, replicated across different samples, and revalidated over and over again throughout the past five+ decades.  Then, it is up to us to take that knowledge and examine it – through reflection – one individual at a time…within the specific situation…and context.  It’s not about judging – it’s about learning!

Next week I’ll discuss a recent example of power distance in the news and demonstrate how we can examine different cultural practices through accurate and thoughtful comparisons in order to make sense of cultural differences and similarities.

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