Intercultural communication and the ten cultural clusters

Editor and college lecturer Matthew Bowman drew our attention to the work of David Livermore on intercultural communication, specifically this online course.

Matt was speaking primarily in terms of an application Dr. Livermore surely had not thought of — creating realistic characters in fiction.

Building on earlier work by, e.g., Simcha Ronen and Oded Shenkar, Livermore considers the following ten “cultural value dimensions”:

  1. Identity: Individualist vs. Collectivist
  2. Authority: Low vs. high “power distance”
  3. Risk: Low vs. high “uncertainty avoidance”/risk averseness
  4. Achievement: cooperative vs. competitive
  5. Time orientation: short-term vs. long-term
  6. Communication: direct/explicit vs. indirect/contextual
  7. Lifestyle: being vs. doing
  8. Attitude to rules: universalist vs. particularist
  9. Expressiveness: affective vs. neutral
  10. Social norms: tight vs. loose

 

According to these dimensions, the cultures of the world mostly cluster into the following groups:
  1. Nordic European (Scandinavia)
  2. Anglo (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand,…)
  3. Germanic (including Switzerland, and with the Netherlands as a semi-outlier)
  4. Eastern European & Central Asian
  5. Latin European: not just the “vulgar Latin”-speaking countries, but also Belgium (including its Dutch-speaking northern half, Flanders) and… Israel
  6. Latin American
  7. Confucian Asian (primarily CJK=China-Japan-Korea)
  8. South Asian (Indian subcontinent plus SE Asia)
  9. Sub-Saharan Africa
  10. Arab world

For instance, he describes Germanic culture as follows (in a sample chapter of one of his books):

  • individual goals are important, but not as paramount as in Anglo culture. [There is, however, the inconvenient truth that Germany gave birth to not just one but two forms of totalitarian collectivism.]
  • power distance is small. Even the most powerful officials lead fairly modest personal lives. Consider Angela Merkel — whatever you may think of her politics — and her husband, a chemistry professor who flies budget airlines to join her on vacations.
  • Germanic societies are definitely competitive
  • Punctuality is demanded and respected. Until digital watches came along, these cultures were literally watchmakers to the world.
  • “Ordnung muss sein” (there must be order/rules) is a prevailing norm, though the Netherlands is the more liberal odd duck in the gaggle
  • Directness in communication is valued. Expressions like “To explain something in good German” (auf gutes Deutsch) and “to make something Dutch to somebody” (iemand iets Diets maken) speak for themselves. [“Diets” is an archaic word for the Dutch language, which presently calls itself “Nederlands”.]
  • Getting things done is definitely high on the list of priorities, particularly in Germany and Switzerland.

There is variability within the cluster, of course: Austrians are much less punctual than the Swiss, and the Dutch even more direct than the others.

 

The inclusion of Israel with the Latin-European cluster may seem counterintuitive, but it does ring true to this blogger, who substantially grew up in Europe and presently lives in Israel. Again, there is intra-cluster variability, for example between the notoriously risk-averse Belgians and the Israeli “start-up nation”, or between the “dugri” [blunt, no beating around the bush] ways of Israelis and the more suave ways of some Latin countries — but I know from experience that of all the major immigrant groups to Israel, the French have much less of a culture shock than, say, Americans or Russians.

One must keep the limitations of this model in mind — it is a model, after all, not a theory—but it does offer a useful framework for making head or tail of the different cultures in the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s