Are Cultural Differences in Europe on the Decline? A Study of Business School Students, Using a Sampling Methodology Akin to That of Geert Hofstede's Seminal Research, Has Found New Evidence of Convergence. the Implications for Pan-European Management Systems May Be Considerable

By Gooderham, Paul; Nordhaug, Odd | European Business Forum, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Are Cultural Differences in Europe on the Decline? A Study of Business School Students, Using a Sampling Methodology Akin to That of Geert Hofstede's Seminal Research, Has Found New Evidence of Convergence. the Implications for Pan-European Management Systems May Be Considerable


Gooderham, Paul, Nordhaug, Odd, European Business Forum


Purely in terms of Europe, Hofstede's findings indicated marked differences between its component countries. In this article we ask whether these findings for Europe retain their validity, or whether with increased political unification and exposure to global commercial forces substantial convergence has taken place since Hofstede collected his data. Not only do we ask whether national culture retains its potency in today's Europe, but we also ask whether it is a more potent factor than gender. If that were not the case it would not only have important implications for pan-European firms, but also for our understanding of contemporary Europe.

The concept of culture

Culture refers to the systems of meaning--values, beliefs, expectations and goals--shared by members of a particular group of people and that distinguish them from members of other groups. It is a product of "the collective programming of the mind" (Hofstede, 1991), that is, it is acquired through regular interaction with other members of the group. Cultural differences can be found at many different levels, professional, class and regional, but it is particularly potent at the national level because of generations of socialisation into the national community. As individuals we generally only become aware of our own culture when confronted with another.

However, what we usually observe are the artefacts of cultural dissimilarity--the numerous and often pronounced differences in greeting rituals, dress codes, forms of address and taste. The underlying system of values is though neither readily observable nor readily comprehensible. The core differences in values between cultures go back to questions of what works for ensuring survival in relation to the natural environment. The Dutch cope with flooding, the Swiss with avalanches, the Russians and the Finns with long, cold winters.

Classifying national cultures

Dissecting and explaining any foreign culture is potentially a never-ending exercise. As an alternative to in-depth single-country studies scholars have attempted to classify cultures in relation to one another by using a few, relatively broad fundamental dimensions that are particularly relevant to management practice. This method means that cultures can be clustered, thereby pinpointing which cultures are close enough to make similar and maybe even standardised management approaches viable. We start our discussion with a presentation of Geert Hofstede's influential, but thirty year-old findings, before presenting our results.

Hofstede's four basic dimensions

In his survey of IBM employees, Hofstede used a questionnaire containing about 150 questions of which 20 were used to create four value dimensions along which he compared the national cultures in his sample. The four dimensions are Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism-Collectivism, and Masculinity-Femininity. These are not intended to describe individuals but are descriptions of national norms or values. Let us take a closer look at each of them.

Power Distance

This dimension indicates the extent to which a society expects and accepts a high degree of inequality in institutions and organisations. In a country with a large Power Distance, organisations are characterised by formal hierarchies and by subordinates who are reluctant to challenge their superiors. The boss is very much the boss. In a country with a small Power Distance, subordinates expect to be consulted and the ideal boss is a resourceful democrat rather than a benevolent autocrat.

Examples of work-related cultural elements:

Large Power Distance

Those in power should try and look as powerful as possible.

Other people are a potential threat to one's power and can rarely be trusted.

Small Power Distance

Those in power should try and look less powerful than they are.

People at various power levels feel less threatened and more prepared to trust people. …

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