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Understanding Cultural Differences Before Expanding Internationally

by Barry Graves

Global commerce is ever-increasing, and as American companies continue to expand internationally, recognizing cultural differences is key. For most Americans, this will require the expertise of ethnography international market research services. Psychologist Geert Hofstede has narrowed down the cultural values to six criteria:

Power Distance — This criterion essentially speaks to how willing a culture is to accept power held over them and how much they are okay with inequity in their society. For example, it could be argued the vast majority of the citizens of North Korea accept the absolute power of their leader and have no expectation or even concept of freedom and equality. In contrast, American citizens fully expect a balance of power in their government, rebuke government overreach, and truly believe in justice, freedom, and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness for all.

Individualism — This criterion works in conjunction with power distance. Americans can wear whatever they want and are free to express their individualism as long as it doesn't break any laws. North Koreans, on the other hand, are not allowed to wear jeans or anything their leader views as "Western." Fashion in North Korea is essentially a uniform of whatever current leader Kim Jong Un dictates. For example, women were forbidden from wearing pants until recently, and even still, they must not be tailored. Dresses and skirts are preferred.

Indulgence — This criterion speaks to their work ethic. Some countries put work above everything else while others have a "play hard and work only as hard as you have to" mentality.

Masculinity — Is this a patriarchal society where men still have the majority of the power, or is it an egalitarian society where men and women are equal, or is it somewhere in-between? For example, Jamaica is almost considered by outsiders to be a misogynistic country as the women tend to work and support the men. Many Latin countries have what modern Western women would consider double standards.

Uncertainty Avoidance — Some cultures are completely at ease not knowing what the future holds. Some cultures want to have everything figured out and every possible contingency planned for. Americans are planners in comparison to the Chinese.

Long-Term Orientation — Does a culture plan for the future or does it go with the flow and "wing it?" The Chinese don't care about uncertainty avoidance as much as Americans do, but as a country, their culture prizes long-term planning. 

It's important to understand these cultural distinctions before attempting to market a product or service. As most Americans have a very limited worldview and struggle with remembering the importance of critical thought when evaluating cultures that are dramatically different than their own, professional ethnography marketing advice is imperative before expanding overseas.

For more information, contact your local ethnography international research services.