Hello from the other side: Partnering with other cultures !


Since childhood, the concept of a rough draft and a fair draft has been ingrained into our DNA. Some schools even made it mandatory to create a rough draft, to begin with. Thus began the era of carefully measuring words before revealing them to an audience. Somewhere deep down, the intent was to make sure students learn to carefully think through their words before speaking them out.

However, the base of communication rests on language. One can see that everywhere. In a metropolitan city, people gravitate towards those speaking the same language. It’s easy to connect with people who speak the same language because there is a common thread and a matched wavelength to some extent. When it comes to connecting people from different backgrounds, it comes down to how we say what we say. Knowledge, understanding and a sense of respect for the difference in background shapes communication.

The words ‘global village’ would probably be more than familiar at this point in time. It’s amazing to think of geography as simply a means for ease in political administration and not an obstacle. This also means exposure and opportunities to work with different cultures. This comes back to knowing not only the currency, bits and pieces of the language but to knowing how people think. It means to immerse oneself in a foreign (in the true sense) way of being and doing things.

In a broad categorical sense, culture is divided into individualistic and collectivistic cultures. The west is associated with the former and eastern countries are associated with the latter. And true to their names, individualism has the focus as the individual and his or her voice whereas collectivism looks at groups and their voices.

Geert Hofstede in the 1970s conducted an extensive study with IBM employees and proposed four dimensions along with which these two forms of cultures differ – power distance index, individualism, masculinity and uncertainty avoidance. Two other dimensions were added – long-term orientation and indulgence – after further research with Michael Harris Bond and Michael Minkov –

  • Power distance index – the extent to which power is distributed equally or unequally. A country scoring high in this would have a very centralised power structure.
  • Individualism – the extent of interpersonal interaction with others in the society. A low score on this would mean countries where companies would encourage more group work.
  • Masculinity – this dimension measures how much the society caters to stereotypical male and female roles. A low score on this would involve countries where companies encourage all genders to work in their organisation.
  • Uncertainty avoidance – the level of comfort employees have with working with uncertainty. Countries encouraging startups would probably have a low score on this dimension.
  • Long-term orientation – the extent to which people have to cater to traditional values and norms. A country with a low score would consider ideas that are out of the box and different.
  • Indulgence – the extent to which a society encourages indulging in enjoying and fulfilling desires. Countries with a high score on indulgence trust in taking control of their own emotions.

This is of course, his theory in a nutshell. Hofstede had conducted his research on 40 large countries initially and then expanded it after. The knowledge of these dimensions can help tailor communication based on the background of the individual or the company. This knowledge would also help in recruitment, networking, training and the various other aspects of startups. Wursten, Lanzer and Fadrhonc talk about a manager who was successful in turning over manufacturing plants in Eastern Europe and in Mexico (two different cultures) using Hofstede’s theory. According to the article, the managers before him didn’t lack the ability; they just lacked the knowledge of the different context they were to operate in.

In the end, it does boil down to speaking another person’s wavelength to enhance communication. And fortunately or unfortunately, language is layered with experiences and other complexities that go beyond semantics. Again, fortunately or unfortunately, this concept of global village is not only facilitating the necessity to speak in more than one tongue, but is also merging cultures to ease the process.


Author: Deepika Mahesh is pursuing her MA in Applied Psychology at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She loves writing and is a poet at heart.

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