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Non-linguistic approaches and intercultural training

Psychological and sociological approaches

A focus on cultural differences and a strong focus on misunderstandings in communication are fundamental to the broad approaches to be presented here. This direction in intercultural (business) communication research regards the nation as the locus of cultural difference and counts as its main representative the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede (Hofstede 2001; Hofstede and Hofstede 2005), who famously defined five dimensions of culture: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation vs. pragmatism. These dimensions represent statistically-determined categories that enable national cultures to be compared. Latterly, Hofstede added a sixth category, namely “indulgence”: “Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun” (Hofstede 2011:15). A high degree of indulgence is supposedly typical of South and North America, Western Europe and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, whereas a lower degree of indulgence, or in other words a higher degree of restraint, is apparently characteristic for Eastern Europe, Asia and the Muslim world. Mediterranean Europe occupies a middle position on this dimension.

Another set of cultural dimensions have also found their way into management training practice, the one developed by the Dutch specialist in intercultural management Fons Trompenaars. He and his team have questioned over 30,000 participants in management seminars and built up a corpus of 80,000 cases (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner 2012: 366): Using this, they have compared over 100 nations and countries with one another and identified the following seven dimensions:

  • - Universalism vs. particularism: the relative significance of rules and relationships;
  • - Individualism vs. communitarianism: the significance of group integration and affiliation;
  • - Neutral vs. affective: the extent to which emotions can be displayed publicly or have to be suppressed;
  • - Specific vs. diffuse: the extent to which responsibility is assigned individually or collectively, and to which work and private life are kept separate from each other;
  • - Achievement vs. ascription: the question of whether status is inherent in some way or has to be earned;
  • - Sequential time vs. synchronous time: whether the culture prefers to complete tasks simultaneously or consecutively, according to a strict plan;
  • - Internal vs. external control: the question of whether individuals control their environment (focus on one’s self, the group, the organisation) or are controlled by it and required to adapt to it.

The GLOBE study (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program) is to date the largest research project to compare cultures in the field of intercultural management, focusing mainly on leadership behaviour. It questioned 17,000 managers in 951 organisations and 62 societies worldwide over a period of ten years. The qualitative data was supplemented by interviews, focus groups and print media analyses. As a result, nine cultural attributes and six major global leader behaviours were determined, which, in the form of quantified cultural dimensions, are designed to represent preferred leadership behaviour in the cultures studied. The nine main dimensions are: future orientation, gender egalitarianism, assertiveness, humane orientation, in-group collectivism, institutional collectivism, performance orientation, power concentration vs. decentralisation, and uncertainty avoidance (House 2004: 3).

Also used to educate managers is the cultural-standard approach of intercultural psychologist Alexander Thomas. He describes cultural standards as “all types of perception, thinking, evaluation and action [...], which are seen as normal, self-evident, typical and obligatory by the majority of members of a specific culture for themselves personally and others” (Thomas 1996: 112). In contrast to cultural dimensions, these central features are not invariant categories stretching across all cultures; instead, they are ascertained qualitatively by comparing a maximum of three cultures. They describe culturally specific factors which influence human activity, e.g., in comparing the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany, personal reference / factual reference, structures / love of improvisation, consecutivity / simultaneity, rule orientation / rule relativisation, etc. (cf. Fink, Novy, and Schroll- Machl 2001:146-153).

In those approaches which compare cultures, affiliation to a specific nation is conceived of as a stable attribute of a person. Given the mobility that now characterises the business world in particular, this is problematic and has given rise to criticism (e.g., Sackmann and Phillips 2004: 384; Shi and Wang 2011: 96). Moreover, many studies of cross-cultural management research equate culture boundaries with state borders. This too has its problems because, as already mentioned, no two members of a social group are culturally the same and communication is also dependent on context. Here the cohesion approach of Klaus P. Hansen can be useful. It assumes that cultures exist within human collectives (be they national states, companies, or even clubs) at numerous different levels which may overlap but also be mutually contradictory. Individuals within a group have room to combine elements of different cultural frameworks (Hansen 2011: 153-155). Thus, within national cultures and beyond them, divergent cultural characteristics may be accepted, depending on affiliation to other collectives or groups (geographical, ethical, occupational, age- related, etc.); commonality results from the limits placed on the degree of divergence accepted (cf. Rathje 2006: 15). Consequently, it is crucial to specify the context in which cultures under consideration have been or are being studied. The concept of Third-Culture Kids, for example, acknowledges that seeing cultural affiliation as one-dimensional is problematic. Third-Culture Kids are people who lived in two or more cultures during their childhood and youth, either because they moved away from their parents’ country of origin, or simply because they moved often. The “third culture” results from the merging of all those cultures which influence the persons concerned and define their identity (cf. Pollock and Van Reken 2009). Moreover, the concept of intersectionality, which takes social and other non-cultural factors into account and pushes country specifics into the background, has entered into intercultural management literature aimed at higher management levels (Phoenix and Pattynama 2006). However, this more fluid concept of cultural affiliation (regarding

fuzzy cultures, see Bolten 2013) has not done the popularity of the cultural dimensions any harm; the business world loves figures and tables which clearly depict the evolution of individual parameters in various nations for comparative purposes.

Knowledge of different concepts of time, of different distributions of the roles of men and women in society, of the varying significance of status and hierarchy can definitely be of help and facilitate intercultural (business) communication. Awareness of potential differences in the areas mentioned can also facilitate communication with members of one’s own culture, as here too there can be considerable variation. However, attributing specific behavioural patterns and value orientations to the members of a specific nationality is problematic, at the very least, because it place the focus on differences and reduces the individual communication partner to his or her national and ethnic affiliation.

 
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