Culture is a favorite topic with everyone, but few make a living on it.
Geert Hofstede, professor of psychology, is one of those few, and one of the even fewer famous for it. In 1980, he created a classification system for measuring and comparing cultures based on six characteristics.
If you visit his website, you will find several interesting things to play with even if you’re not a nerd. I do, however, have nerdish tendencies, so naturally I spent an hour or two fiddling with the “country comparison” tool (I’m a journalist; I get paid to do these things, and then to share them with you fine folks).
Here are the numbers on the United States and how we stack up against the United Kingdom and China.
This classification is concerned with how a culture feels about inequality, whether it feels negative, positive, or neutral about it.
Not surprisingly, at a low score of 40, we Americans are not okay with inequality. We feel that those at the top are no better than those at the bottom, everyone should be treated the same, and everyone should have an opportunity to rise. We value those who treat the CEO and the janitor with the same respect because we believe the janitor could someday be the CEO.
Our friends across the pond feel much the same, but they have an even lower score at 35.
But in China, with a high score of 80, people accept great power distances with complacency, even expectation.
“The subordinate-superior relationship tends to be polarized and there is no defense against power abuse by superiors,” the site reads. “Individuals are influenced by formal authority and sanctions and are in general optimistic about people’s capacity for leadership and initiative.”
That last sentence was interesting, as most Americans are in general pessimistic about people’s capacity for leadership and initiative, preferring instead to rely on themselves and those close to them.
An individualist nation is one that puts more stock in the individual than it does the group. Rather than banding together, it’s an every-man-for-himself mentality.
At 91, we are one of the highest scoring nations on individualism, which explains in part our low score with power distance. We have chains of command and hierarchies, but those are mostly for convenience. Interaction between superiors and subordinates is casual and direct. We don’t rely on authority. If you ask an American who comes first, they will choose to honor and care for self and family before government.
“There is also a high degree of geographical mobility in the United States,” the site reads. “Americans are the best joiners in the world; however it is often difficult, especially among men, to develop deep friendships.”
People in the United Kingdom are also strongly individualist (score 89).
“Children are taught from an early age to think for themselves and to find out what their unique purpose in life is and how they uniquely can contribute to society,” the site reads. “As the affluence of Britain has increased throughout the last decade, with wealth also ‘spreading North’, a much discussed phenomenon is the rise of what has been seen as rampant consumerism and a strengthening of the ‘ME’ culture,” which is a familiar problem in the U.S.
China is quite the opposite at a score of 20. People in China prefer a one-for-all or collectivist culture, where the interests of the group come first. For this reason, strong personal relationships are extremely important to build and maintain at all costs.
This measurement tells whether a country runs more on competition (masculine) or caring (feminine).
The U.S. is masculine at a score of 62. We expect each individual to prove their worth, and we don’t mind if there’s a fight to get there. We figure what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The British have a higher score in this area at 66. We both like to win, but people in the UK won’t come right out and tell you they won like Americans will.
“A key point of confusion for the foreigner lies in the apparent contradiction between the British culture of modesty and understatement which is at odds with the underlying success driven value system in the culture,” the site reads.
Here China deviates from what we would have expected as a collectivist culture that values personal relationships, with a masculine score of 66. They are slightly more competitive than we are, often putting work before family and leisure.
Like it says, this characteristic will tell you how comfortable a culture is with being uncertain.
With a score of 46, it’s all good over here in the U.S. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re okay with that. We’ll roll with the punches. We like new ideas and we don’t like rules.
The Brits are even worse, with a score of 35. Free and easy down the road they go, or, as they would call it, “mudding through.” The target is immovable, but how they get to it doesn’t matter to them.
And let’s not get started on China, with an even lower score of 30. It’s all up in the air for them, and they like it so much their language is chock-full of uncertainty that the rest of us find frustrating and they find delightful. At the same time, they follow their rules to a T.
This blog is already odiously long, so if you want to know the other two you’ll just have to visit the website yourself.
While you’re at it, take a look at how the U.S. compares with other Western nations like Sweden (crazy low masculinity score). The differences in culture are stark, and yet there are some surprising similarities even with nations we struggle with (like Saudi Arabia, which is less traditional even than we are).
You can also take a self-assessment that will show how you personally stack up against other nations.