What is Cultural Distance and How to Measure It?
You just received an excellent job offer abroad, or maybe you decide to open a company abroad and have the full plan read. Either way, you concluded that you checked what to consider when moving away from home. You think that the chosen destination offers a good professional perspective. Now it is time to pack your things and decide the date of the flight, right?
If you are planning to the new place, there are other things to consider. We will call this group the non-professional elements.
In my first book, Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity, I dedicated one entire chapter to exemplify why understanding your own life project is important to succeed as an expatriate. This applies if you are a big-corporation employee, a foreign student, a person moving with your spouse, or an entrepreneur.
How to Measure Cultural Differences
A phenomenon frequently affecting expatriates is what I call environmental dissonance. It happens when your values conflict with the place surrounding you. In my before-mentioned book (Moving Out) I recounted the story of Breno, a colleague I met while living in the Middle East. Even having a good job and working in his field of specialization, he left months after arriving because the environmental dissonance became overwhelming to him.
Just imagine how more complicated is to suffer this dissonance while you hire and motivate a team, establish goals, write a business plan, pitch for seed capital, and so on. For this reason, becomes essential to assert that your target country, if also attractive to your business and career, also matches your life project and goals.
Just be aware that I am at no point advocating you should “follow your heart” or “listen to your feelings”. In fact, to follow your passion is poor advice. What I propose, instead, is to rationalize what your new country offers and how it matches your personal needs. For this, I recommend analyzing the following non-professional elements.
What is Cultural Distance
Cultural distance is a term that originates from Geert Hofstede, probably the greatest modern researcher in comparative cultural aspects. It is a method of measuring the differences in values and behaviors between cultures. Cultural distance metrics have been applied to national cultures, but they can be extended to any group of people in any organization. The cultural distance can be measured on a continuum, ranging from low to high.
Starting in the 80s with his book Culture’s Consequences, Geert Hofstede developed an extensive bibliography in the area, culminating with the institute that carries his name.
Present in 60 countries, the Hosfted Insights institute developed a model breaking down the cultural distance into 6 major areas.
- Power Distance
- Uncertainty Avoidance
- Long Term Orientation
Below, each definition, according to the Hofstede-Insights researchers:
The 6 Components of Cultural Distance
What is power distance
This factor reflects the culture’s attitude regarding disparities among us. The extent to which less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a society expect and tolerate unequal power distribution is measured by power distance.
What is Individualism
This dimension’s fundamental concern is the degree of interdependence that a society maintains among its members. It is whether people’s self-image is expressed in terms of “I” or “We.” Individualist civilizations are characterized by people focusing solely on themselves and their immediate family. People in Collectivist societies belong to ‘in groups’ that look after them in exchange for allegiance.
What is Masculinity
A high score on this dimension (Masculinity) indicates that competition, achievement, and success will drive society, with success defined by the winner / best in the field—a value system that begins in school and continues throughout organizational life. A low score (Femininity) on the dimension indicates that caring for others and quality of life are the prevailing values in society. In a Feminine society, success is measured by the quality of one’s life, and standing out from the herd is not admired. The primary question here is whether people are motivated by a desire to be the best (masculine) or by a desire to enjoy what they do (Feminine).
What is Uncertainty Avoidance
It’s about how a society handles the reality that we can’t predict the future: should we strive to control it or just let it happen? This ambiguity causes anxiety, which many cultures have learned to deal with in their own unique ways. Uncertainty Avoidance is a measure of how threatened individuals of a society are by ambiguous or unclear events, and how they establish institutions to mitigate the danger.
What is Long Term Orientation
This dimension highlights how every culture must keep some ties to its own past while dealing with present and future concerns. These two existential aspirations are prioritized differently by societies. Low-scoring normative societies, for example, prefer to uphold time-honored traditions and norms while viewing societal change with skepticism. Societies that score highly in this category, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they support efforts in contemporary education as a means of preparing for the future.
What is Indulgence
This dimension is defined by Hofstede-Insights as the amount to which people try to control their urges and impulses based on how they were raised. Control that is comparatively weak is referred to as “indulgence,” while control that is relatively firm is referred to as “restraint.” As a result, cultures are classified as either indulgent or restrained.
Cultural Distance Examples
The Hofstede country comparison and my own experience
When I had my first contact with the research of Dr. Hofstede, my immediate action was to check how the countries I lived in before (Brazil, Chile, Qatar, and Poland) scored in each ranking. The comparative results from each one – got from a tool available on his institute website – reflected with Swiss precision the reality I witnessed living in each of them.
For example, according to the results, the Power Distance in Qatar is very high. This matches my observations of a place where the people take as natural the near immutable social differences. Similarly, the higher levels of indulgence and femininity (as per Hofstede’s definition of femininity) in Chile are noticeable in their capital.
The two characteristics mentioned above – frugality and risk-aversion – of the Polish people contrasted with my cultural baggage.
As a Brazilian, I grow up seeing people spend a fair share of their income in branded shoes, new cars (paid in installments distributed across years), and eating out. Even though nowadays Poland has a similar income to my native São Paulo, someone will rarely buy a new car, and a 10-year-old vehicle is still OK. Personal anecdote: my wife considers it absurd that someone would spend over 5 times his salary on a new automobile. In contrast, in Brazil, it is not rare to see people buying cars with the price tag of their annual salary.
Cultural Distance example 2: Latin America vs Europe
This difference, summarized in the Indulgence factor of Dr. Hofstede’s research, probably affects not only me but thousands of other expatriates that move between Latin America and Europe. Sean Lana, an expatriate living in Germany, lists how other factors of Hofstede’s research (Individualism) impact his daily life.
Germany is not a country you want to be if your only major goal in life is to own a Bugatti, Ferrari, Tesla and shows off! Collectivism means the country is trying to redistribute wealth equally, at least in order to mitigate poverty and support low-income earners. Expect high taxes and you will enjoy a high quality of life with infrastructures. So if you are very individualistic, consider the next flight to another country. German organisation system is based on the ideology of Max Weber (bureaucracy), Americans practice Scientific management (Taylorism). If you are not used to obeying rigorous rules, regulations, huge laws, paper works, transparency, slow process, appointments, etc then you shouldn’t stay in Germany.
Cultural distance example 3: cultural differences when moving within a country
It is essential to remind that cultural discrepancies – of the types studied by Dr. Hofstede and perceived in the two examples above – can exist even inside the same country.
Henry Eshleman, a Park Ranger at Fairbanks North Star Borough in Alaska, USA, explained how he felt closer to foreign students than locals while in Indiana, Midwest of the same country.
In Indiana, being from Alaska made me an exotic curiosity. People would ask me questions I never got in Europe, Canada, or Mexico- “What are you doing here?” “Is it cold there?” “What it’s like when it’s light all the time?” And so forth.
My biggest culture shock was essentially domestic in nature, the result of coming from a state which isn’t directly connected to the rest right into the Midwest Heartland.
Even in a country with the size of a single American state, cultural differences are noticeable. In Poland, the northern region of Gdansk has considerable differences from the Subcarpathian cities in the south. Differences were shaped during centuries of partitions between Russia, Austria, and Germany. Nowadays, the differences reflect electoral results, practices, and consumer behaviors.
Besides cultural characteristics, there are other non-business aspects to consider when doing a professional shift:
· Future family prospects: It is easy to make a decision when it concerns only you. The same is not true when it involves wives and kids. Even if you are single, it is important to reflect on what you want for the next years. If you are planning to build a family, consider this beforehand. This was my case when I decided to move out of Qatar (my previous country). My first thought was to move to Panamá with my then-fiancée, but we had plans to marry and maybe have kids in the next few years. For this reason, we live in Poland, closer to her family.
· The Time zone. I already mentioned how different time zones can create business problems. This also applies to your private life. A person in South Africa, even though is distant from his relatives in Europe, is still inside a similar time zone, but not someone living in the Middle East and with a family in South America. This was my case years ago. The 5 to 6 hours’ difference restricted the chances I had to keep in contact. During my mornings, they were sleeping. During their evenings, I was sleeping.
· How friendly the country is to your lifestyle. For example, if you enjoy practicing outdoor sports, places like Dubai or Doha may not be a good idea, since it is excruciatingly hot for more than half of the year.
To go deeper into this subject, my first book, Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity, has plenty of considerations to reflect on the personal side of expatriation. Still, if there is one positive piece of advice in business and personal life, it is to immerse yourself in the local culture from the beginning. Talk to the grocery store cashier is a good start.
Conclusion of what is cultural distance
· Cultural discrepancies: How you will adapt to different degrees of Individualism, Power Distance, risk-version, indulgence, and so on?
· Future personal prospects: Are you planning to marry, build a family, or remain single? What is the local offer of schools, nurseries, etc., fits your plans?
· The time zone difference: Is the time difference considerable? How will that affect your relationships back home?
· How friendly the country is to your lifestyle: Of your routine and favorite activities, what you can keep or adapt to your new destination?
This article on moving away from home while considering the cultural distance is related to the highly recommended book below.
Levi Borba is the CEO of expatriateconsultancy.com and a best-selling author. You can check his books here and his articles here. The inspiration for this article comes from the book Starting Your Own Business Far From Home: What (Not) to Do When Opening a Company in Another State, Country, or Galaxy