Culture Does Not Exist

Geert Hofstede is Professor Emeritus of Organizational Anthropology and International Management at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Since his retirement in 1993, he has held visiting professorships in Hong Kong, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand. He still serves as an extramural fellow of the Center for Economic Research at the University of Tilburg.

What early influences in your life led you to be so curious about culture?

It's a combination of things, including the time in which it all happened. We are all more products of our environments than we realize. We think we have thought of something ourselves and then we discover that lots of people who were in the same situation had the same experience. I was born in 1928 so when WWII ended, I was seventeen years old. We had been locked up in Holland in rather difficult circumstances and then suddenly I could go out and see the world. One of the things I did was work as a ship's engineer, and I made a trip to Indonesia in 1947. I was still a student and it was a way of seeing part of the world. It was my first time out of Holland and I found myself in this foreign country and culture. Also influential at that time, but perhaps less exotic, I met an English girl and went to visit her in England. Suddenly, I discovered that lots of things were different between England and Holland, which I hadn't realized. There is quite a difference between British and Dutch culture, and that was probably more of a culture shock for me than visiting Indonesia.

So how did these early experiences translate into an interest, a passion and ultimately, a career?

Largely because of serendipity; one could even say just following the tip of my nose. Also, a number of blessings in disguise, I must say; a number of jobs I would have liked to have gotten that I didn't get and then I had to do something else. Then, with a little hindsight, I would say, "Thank God I didn't get that job!"

I had my engineering training and worked in industry for about 10 years as an engineer. For a period of time, I actually worked as a worker, which was very important to me. I wanted to experience management and not practise it to see what it means to people, so I worked as a mechanic for a little while. I wanted to see the organization from the bottom up, and I still have a strong tendency, I think, to look at organizations from the bottom up.

Do you think your early training and background as an engineer have influenced the work that you've done or the way in which you approached it?

I think that the reason why the way I describe social situations seems to appeal to a number people is that I still have the mind of an engineer to the extent that I try to be specific; I try to be clear about what I am saying. For example, the idea of quantifying cultures to some social scientists is horrible. I don't mean that cultures can really be quantified in numbers, but if I dare to say that Culture "A" has more of something than Culture "B," I must also dare to give the number and say, for example, if I call one number "1," I will call the other number "2." That's what I do. I'm going to be unambiguous about the things that I say. You have to realize that this doesn't tell everything there is to tell about culture, but it is a way of indicating that there is a difference and the difference is in this particular direction.

Tell us a bit about your time with IBM.

When I worked for IBM, I had gone from engineering to psychology and was working as a psychologist for IBM International. It was a fantastic time — I travelled all over Europe and the Middle East, interviewing people and doing all these surveys. I learned a lot and I was noticing things. I noticed how people behaved. I also noticed how people within this one very large organization behaved in very, very different ways and had different ways of thinking, yet collaborated within the same organization. That was very interesting, but when I was with IBM, I did not have time to go into this very deeply. I was always under the pressure of the daily job.

When I got a sabbatical from IBM, I had time to look into the data and to discover that I could get similar results — differences between cultures in other organizations. Asking the same questions in a completely different public, but an international public, I discovered that I got the same ranking of answers by country. So then I came back to IBM and told them that they had this enormous database, nobody has ever looked at it in this way, could we do this? Could we set up a research project? Then IBM said no, this is too academic, give it to a university. I said ok, but give me to a university as well. So I left the company and found myself two part-time jobs, one of which was at the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Brussels. Before I knew it, I had spent six years working on the data, looking at the data and following what it led to. This was around 1973 and by the time I finished the book, I was 51 years old and unemployed with four children just about ready to enter university.

When you were doing this analysis of the IBM data, did you recognize the importance of what you were discovering at that point?

No, of course not. I always believed in what I was doing, but I had no idea how many people would be interested. When I first started working on this, people would ask me what I was doing and I would tell them and they would say, "Well, that's interesting." It took about eight years after I wrote the book for citations to begin appearing. What I did, and hadn't realized it at the time, was I had introduced a new paradigm. The paradigm is more important that the theory. Whether the scores are exactly right, or whether everything that is in the book is absolutely true or has remained true is not as important as this is a way of looking at differences. Many people have done it since, and many people have criticized me, but they have followed the same paradigm. The paradigm has become dominant, I would say, in the field of culture study.

Between the time that you were first analyzing this data and now, has your definition of culture changed at all?

No, not really. Of course, you have to realize that culture is a construct. When I have intelligent students in my class, I tell them, "One thing we have to agree on: culture does not exist." Culture is a concept that we made up which helps us understand a complex world, but it is not something tangible like a table or a human being. What it is depends on the way in which we define it. So let's not squabble with each other because we define culture slightly differently; that's fine.

Do you think that there are universal cultural characteristics?

Undoubtedly, but what I have done is compared one group to another, so if there is anything universal, you don't notice it. You can only really find out about cultures by comparing them to other cultures.

In doing so, are there not certain fundamental truths about people, regardless of culture, that one could point to and say, "That is human nature" ?

That is probably the case, but I am the last professor to be able to explain that because I have been looking at differences. There are certain processes which are common but fewer than most people think. The name of the game at present is to explain to people that it "Ain't necessarily so." I think that this is a common mistake; assuming that everybody will be like us.

Are there any risks in ascribing certain behaviours to large groups of people?

It is difficult to explain to people that I am talking about societies and not individuals. I run into this problem a lot in North America, if I might say so, which tends to be very individualistic. Society is to an individual like a forest is to a tree and you cannot describe a forest as just a bunch of trees. The mistake was made by Margaret Mead. She talked about culture as personality writ large. It is not so. It is a society with all kinds of personalities interacting. It is true that personality tests partly reflect the culture of origin. The formative time is actually before puberty, and the environment you grow up in influences certain aspects of your personality. Only part of it, but if you have enough people who have grown up in that same environment, then their personalities will have common elements. Lots of people ask me, particularly Americans, if they can have culture tests for their students so they can see their culture. This is absolute nonsense because a student can only describe his or her personality. If you want to talk about culture, you should take a group of people and see what they have in common. This is difficult to explain in an individualist culture.

Do you think that globalization, and all the enabling technology behind it, has minimized the importance or impact of cultural differences?

I make a point in my books and research to differentiate between practices and values. What I think globalization has harmonized are practices. Practices are what we do and the more superficial things. The symbols we recognize and the rituals we engage in. But the deeper meanings, the values, have been implanted in us before puberty and they can still be fundamentally different. And the way we educate our children is based on our values. Also, sometimes technology reinforces the differences because people are blind to technology in different ways. There are striking data which demonstrate the different ways in which people use the Internet or e-mail, for example. They do reflect national cultures. For example, Uncertainty Avoidance cultures rely less on e-mail for important business transactions. They still think you need a signature and so on. If you have a Power Distance culture, they are more reluctant to share information, or they would limit access. You'll find this in China. They try to control who has access to what, particularly on the Internet.

You are quoted as saying, "Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster." How do you see individuals and organizations going from the disaster scenario to achieving synergy and success?

I think it was Jean Paul Sartre who once said, "The trouble with playing soccer is the presence of the other party." This is the same with culture, but if you master that, you become a champion. Of course it is much easier to be in a business environment where everyone thinks the same. I think a lot of the competition is in the area of mastering cultural differences and some organizations are better at it than others. The champions are those who can master it.

How big of a challenge is it for an organization, and the people who make up the organization, to become more interculturally effective?

There is obviously a built-in dilemma there because organizations prefer their employees to be similar. If you are dealing with a foreign culture, maybe things will have to be done differently. A lot of top managers don't like to be told that things will have to be done differently. It means that you break away from your common practices. It's precisely the things that you have been good at that maybe you have to change now. It requires a wider view and a different way of thinking and the qualities that make an individual successful in business might make them less likely to succeed in an intercultural relationship.

Are there some skills that are more important to develop for organizations or individuals to be more successful internationally?

Mastering another language allows you to transfer to another mindset. Language is never only about words, it's about transferring feelings and accepting a different context. I would think that nearly all successful interculturalists are multilingual. It's also known that if you have two languages, you pick up other languages more easily. Having the language also allows you to participate in a culture rather than being a passive observer.

I would also say that it's important to have broad interests or be interested in all sorts of things. You have to be able to spread your interests to other areas. It is really the openness to new experiences which is a form of intelligence.

Living and working in the Netherlands, I'm wondering what kind of challenges you have observed with the forming and growth of the European Union?

I just gave a talk a few weeks ago to the Council of Europe, which is a wider group of 45 countries. The biggest challenge I see for the EU is the level of Uncertainty Avoidance, which is intolerance, in the countries of former Eastern Europe. They rank universally quite high on the Uncertainty Avoidance rank and are not at all accustomed to tolerating people who are different. That tends to fade away with an increase in national income. Strong Uncertainty Avoidance is especially harmful if combined with collectivism — collectivism that comes out of poverty. If a society becomes more prosperous, it also becomes less collectivist and people's priorities shift. So the big challenge is to promote economic development in those countries so that it won't pay anymore to fight your neighbour. That has worked very well in the new member states so far. It has worked in places like Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Greece.

In the area of research in this field, is there any work being done now that you find exciting?

There is an area that is interesting which is marketing, and specifically consumer behaviour. By looking at how consumers spend their money, assuming that there is not such dire poverty that they don't have any money to spend, tells you much about that culture. It's a very non-obtrusive way of finding out about a culture.

There is interesting research looking at the structure of languages. The way people express themselves reflects their culture. For example, the frequency of using the word "I" is correlated with individualism. The most individualist countries speak English, and that is the only language where "I" is written with a capital letter. There are cultures where it is almost taboo to use the word "I."

I know you have grandchildren and that you are very close to them. I assume that you want to impart to them their grandfather's curiosity for the cultures of the world.

That has worked in the case of our children, and I think that is transferable to their children. I also see it in the students of today. There is a lot of interest in seeing the other parts of the world and I don't think that the older generation realizes fully what kind of changes are taking place in the minds of the younger generations in this respect.

Thank you, Professor Hofstede.

You're very welcome.