Understanding Cross-Cultural Differences between Foreign Societies (2/2)

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Business of Translation and Interpreting  »  Business Issues  »  Understanding Cross-Cultural Differences between Foreign Societies (2/2)

Understanding Cross-Cultural Differences between Foreign Societies (2/2)

By Alexa Dubreuil | Published  11/1/2008 | Business Issues | Recommendation:
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Quicklink: http://glg.proz.com/doc/2096
Alexa Dubreuil
United Kingdom
English to French translator
Fíxose membro: Apr 21, 2004.
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Understanding Cross-Cultural Differences between Foreign Societies (2/2)

This article is the second part of my study on cross-cultural differences.

Click here to read PART 1 on how people communicate.

This time I am writing about how to measure cultural differences between societies including how the perception of space and time differ from one country to another. Basically “a few little things” to definitely keep in mind when you are doing business - including selling translation services - with other countries.

PART 2 - How to measure cultural differences between foreign societies?

To measure cultural differences several questions must be considered:

•What is the relationship between a human being and himself, between one individual and the others ?
•What is the relationship between a human being and his/her spatial environment ?
•What is the relationship between a human being and time ?
•How does a human being behave when confronted with action ?

Before going any further we must indicate that Geert HOFSTEDE has played a considerable part in the measurement of cross-cultural differences. Between 1967 and 1973, he carried out an international study (the "Hermès" study) in 72 countries - with the help of IBM - in order to measure cultural differences in business. According to his study, four parameters discussed in the following pages have to be analyzed to measure these differences:

•Hierarchical Distance
•The Control of Uncertainty
•The Masculinity of a Society


1.1. Individualism vs. Collective Spirit

Individualism is a tendency for the members of some cultures to define themselves as individuals: this is the case in Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon countries, Israel, some European countries like France, Italy & Germany, etc...

On the contrary, in countries with a collective spirit, people define themeselves in relation to a group, to the family: this is the case for Asian or African cultures as well as in Spanish & Portuguese speaking countries, the Middle-East, Turkey, Greece, etc... The need for personal achievement is a lot lower in those countries.

Frankness, clearness, personal pride, competition, open conflict, are all positive values among individualistic cultures. These same values are perceived negatively in countries that have a collective spirit; they rather give priority to politeness, harmony, saving one's face, and working in a team.

1.2. Perception towards others

It is based on several factors such as:

* Age and Sex:
They indicate the level of credibility and trust that a culture gives. For instance a young executive who is efficient in his own country (Canada), will not have as much credibility in Japan where responsibilities are given to older people. Similarly businessmen do not have the same perception of women in Scandinavia (where they have an equal status) and in the Middle East.

* The Level of Income:
In New York City for instance people with the same level of income go out or have parties together: the reason is only people with similar financial means can afford similar outings & activities

1.3. Hierarchical Distance

We all have domination instincts but in daily life this instinct is not put into practice the same way in every society or social group (including companies). Indeed some cultures legitimize this phenomenon while others do not accept the inequality created by this domination instinct. This is what Geert HOFSTEDE refers to as "hierarchical distance".

It reflects the acceptance or not of this inequality in the business world: according to the culture, subordinates accept more or less the authority of a chief. Therefore it can be measured according to the perception of a subordinate towards authority.

In countries with a long hierarchical distance:
•Hierarchy is considered as a natural inequality
•The power of the chief is not questioned and he must show his strength
•The boss is hard to reach
•Social mobility is low
•Political power is generally strong if not authoritarian
This is often the case for Latin countries (including France), South America and Africa.

In countries with a short hierarchical distance:
•Hierarchy means inequality: it simply exists for convenience, it is not legitimate
•Those who have the power in a company try to appear less powerful than they are
•The boss can be reached easily
•Social mobility is rather high
•Politically speaking there is more decentralization
This often characterizes North European & Anglo-Saxon countries, Israel and some Caribbean islands.


2.1. Relation Man / Nature

Human beings have always had two ways of behaving towards Nature:

Submission: which shows a great respect towards Nature.
Trying to control Nature: which shows man's assumption of his ability to domesticate and transform it.

The relation between Man and Nature varies according to the culture: this is why ecological movements are not evenly developed in every country (Japan and Northern countries tend to be more environmentally conscious).

2.2. Relation Man / Personal "Territory"

In addition to concretely taming the environment, human beings have also organized the "invisible" space.
We unconsciously divide the space that surrounds us into three zones

* The personal "territory" (located in a 1 meter radius around the person):
There is always a reaction if somebody enters this personal "bubble": it is either positive - when the "intruder" is a close friend of the person or in case of seduction - or negative

* The "Communication Area" (between 1 and 3 meters around the person)
This is the normal distance for two people who are not intimately close to speak to each other.

* The "No-Communication Area" (beyond 3 meters)
People are too far to communicate easily.

The sense of territory being highly conditioned by culture, the size of each of the three zones may vary from one country to another. For instance the Japanese generally keep a greater distance from each other when talking. Although a Westerner might feel uncomfortable and remote, he must not move too close because he might enter the personal "territory" of the Japanese person.

This shows there are two types of cultures:

•"Contact" cultures: where privacy is not a very important value.
•"Individualistic" cultures: where privacy must be respected.

2.3. The sensory Environment

Space is not only perceived in terms of sight but also in terms of sounds, smells, heat, etc. The perception of space as a sensory environment varies from one culture to another.

The Germans for instance have a strong need for closing their auditory environment especially when they have to concentrate; this is one of the reasons why German business people tend to keep doors closed. On the contrary, Mediterranean cultures do not pay as much importance to noise filtering.


Each culture has a "temporal" language that must be learnt along with the verbal language in order to communicate properly. It is all the more important to be aware of this dimension since it is an unconscious component of cultures.

3.1. Perception of Time

The way of perceiving time reflects the value that we give to people or tasks. Therefore the perception of time varies between cultures.

The rhythm of life is also very different from one country to another and even within countries. In some cultures, individuals move very slowly, in other cultures they move very fast. Obviously, when people from cultures with different rhythms meet they are likely to have trouble communicating - they do not synchronize with each other. For instance the Americans often complain about the Germans being slow at making a decision, whereas the latter are unhappy about the Americans trying to rush things. This synchronization is vital to all the activities taking place in groups: working together on the same machine, on the same project, etc.

It is always important to find out whether a country is more turned towards the Past, the Present or the Future.
The daily life of countries like Iran, India, the Middle-East, Japan, Korea and China tend to turn towards the Past and give a lot of importance to tradition. On the contrary, countries like the United States live in the Present and in the immediate Future while South American countries are generally turned towards both the Present and the Past.

3.2. Man and the Necessity of saving Time

In some cultures, time is perceived as a precious resource that must not be wasted - "Time is money", whereas in other cultures it is seen as something that is largely available. For this reason, people will not communicate similarly in every culture: some will get directly to the point while others will take their time and convey messages tacitly. Edward HALL evaluates these two types of communication according to the "reference to the context" - the word "context" refering to everything that surrounds the object of the conversation.

Communication with Low Reference to the Context
Cultures that favor this type of communication convey information directly through explicit messages. A business person coming from such a background will seek logic in the conversation, clearness, precision.
This is generally the case for cultures turned towards individualism, for instance Germany, Switzerland, and Anglo-Saxon countries except Great Britain. France being at a cultural crossroads, its type of communication alternates between high and low reference to the context.

Communication with High Reference to the Context
With this type of communication information is transmitted indirectly, through many unspoken messages.
This is generally the case for cultures with a collective spirit, for example Asia, the Middle-East, plus Latin and insular countries.

3.3. Monochronism vs. Polychronism

According to Edward HALL there are two behaviors as far as time organization: Monochronism and Polychronism.

Monochronic Societies
•In this type of culture time is perceived as a line going from the Past to the Future, which can be cut into numerous segments that correspond to a specific action or project. Therefore only one thing is done at a time.
•People try not to interrupt.
•The agenda is strictly followed.
•Monochronic societies are those which see the need of saving time, therefore being late is looked down upon and punctuality is very important.
•Communicating in a monochronic society generally implies very low reference to the context.
•Carrying out a project has priority over human relations.
•The concept of personal property is generally well-defined, this is why people lend personal items only when they have to.

Germany and the USA are monochronic like most Anglo-Saxon countries, and Northern Europe.

Polychronic Societies
•They are characterized by the diversity & simultaneity of actions: people are tempted to do several things at once.
•Being interrupted happens often.
•Projects and appointments are frequently postponed.
•Punctuality is relative.
•Polychronism tend to give more importance to human relations: in a polychronic country two persons having an interesting conversation will generally prefer continuing it rather than adjourning it, even if they know this might make them late for an appointment.
•Communicating in a polychronic society generally implies high reference to the context.
•Lending or exchanging personal goods are common.

It mainly includes Latin countries - as well as France - Asia and many developing countries.

Business lunches are a good example to show the difference between polychronism and monochronism.

In the first case this lunch can be used to sign a contract (in France this happens "between cheese and dessert") but even if it is the real object of the meeting it is not the only topic discussed: therefore pleasure and work take place at the same time.

In monochronic societies this lunch will generally be arranged after the signature the contract: thus pleasure and work are not mixed.

3.4. Delays and Punctuality

* In some countries punctuality is a major quality: in Switzerland, Germany, in most North-European countries, and in the USA. There, people are expected to be right on time if not early. Therefore being late is perceived differently from one country to another.

In Latin America and in many Mediterranean countries, the notion of punctuality hardly exists or simply does not. In some European countries waiting 30 or 45 minutes is not unusual; in the Middle-East having to wait days or weeks before being able to meet somebody is fairly common too.

All this would be totally unacceptable in Germany or in the USA - it would be considered as a lack of respect or of poor time management.

* The "Lead Time": This American term refers to the span of time between the conception or idea of a project and the beginning of its achievement. It is important to know this concept to improve negotiations and for better organization.

For instance knowing the lead time is important to obtain an appointment and send invitations - when is it too late to do it ? How long in advance should vacation time be arranged ? After someone knows he has to write an important report when does he actually start ?

In some cultures asking for an appointment at the last minute is either a sign of emergency, carelessness or lack of organization, whereas in other cultures this would not present a problem or be looked down upon.


4.1. Pragmatism

People do not behave the same way when they have to do something: they can either act fast and directly, or analyze the situation for a long time before actually acting. This is the difference between people who are pragmatic or not.

Here is the definition of Pragmatism found in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary: "Thinking about or treating things in a practical way". Achieving something through a practical approach implies doing things without wasting time and by reaching one's goal in the most direct way possible.

4.2. The Control of Uncertainty

There are different ways to view the Future: people can either be afraid, or try to dominate it by planning it and managing the Present.

Thanks to his "Hermès" study, HOFSTEDE has clearly shown the importance of a cultural parameter that he called "control of uncertainty". This dimension reveals the ability of a society to manage its future or not. Therefore there are two types of society:

Societies with a High Control of Uncertainty

They seek to avoid risks, and individuals are educated with the necessity to fight the Future even if it is unpredictable. In countries like Germany, France or Japan, the level of stress and anxiety is very high because of such a conception.

To ensure security, three means are available:

•Developing Technology: in order to fight against natural dangers or wars.
•Law & Institutions: in order to limit the unpredictability of human behavior.
•Religion: which helps to accept the uncertainties of life.

In the business world, a high control of uncertainty is characterized by:

•A strong bureaucracy.
•A low social mobility.
•The importance of age: there is less confidence towards the young and responsibilities are generally given to older people. In France the average age of managers is 59-year old.

This type of society includes Latin countries, the Middle-East and Japan.

Societies with a Low Control of Uncertainty

They are not afraid of taking risks, therefore the stress level is lower than in countries that fear the Future.

In the business world, these cultures are characterized by:

•A high social mobility.
•People seek personal achievement, so their goal is to succeed.
•Managers are younger.
•More young people are given responsibilities.

Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries, South-East Asia, India and some African countries have a low control of uncertainty. Greece and Portugal have the highest control of uncertainty whereas Denmark, Jamaica and Singapore have the lowest.

4.3. "Masculine" vs. "Feminine" Societies

The sexual distribution of roles is not the same in every country. In masculine societies roles are clearly broken into women's and men's whereas in feminine societies, roles are interchangeable. For instance, in masculine societies, men have to show their strength and women have to take care of the quality of life (cooking, decoration, etc.), whereas in feminine societies both men and women are in charge of the quality of life.

Thanks to his "Hermès" study, HOFSTEDE has been able to measure this dimension through a questionnaire about the features of the ideal job. The answers he received showed him that the conception of what the ideal job is differs from one country to another, whether it is a feminine or a masculine culture.

Here are the characteristics of this dimension:

In Feminine Societies

•People prefer working in small companies.
•People make a clear distinction between private life and work.
•The quality of life is more important than work (this is why the protection of the environment is a high priority in those societies).
•If they could choose, people would rather work fewer hours for the same salary than as many hours for a higher salary.
•Maintaining good relations with people is important.
•Conflicts should not be formalized but solved through discussions.
•Showing one's emotions is a good way to reduce nervous tension.
•In short, as Molière would say, people "work to live", not the opposite.

It mainly includes Scandinavia & the Netherlands, Africa, some South American countries (Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala), and some Latin European countries (France, Portugal, Spain).

In Masculine Societies

•Personal achievement and being recognized are more important than the quality of life.
•If they could choose, people would rather work the same number of hours for a higher salary than fewer hours for the same salary.
•Being determined and decisive are major values.
•Work can interfere with private life: for instance, meeting influential people after work is a means to improve both personally and professionally.
•Conflicts are open, harsh, and can get violent.
•Emotions must remain hidden, which creates stress.
•In other words, people "live to work".

Japan is the most masculine society. German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) follow as well as Caribbean countries of Latin America (Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico). Italy, Greece and Anglo-Saxon countries are also masculine cultures.


The art of cross-cultural management is to be able to keep a good balance between the respect for the local environment (cultural practices, economy, politics, etc.) and the need to keep some of one's own business practices when negotiating abroad.

Cultural differences do not only happen between two foreign countries but also within one country. Therefore it is not because two persons speak the same language that they have the same cultural references. This is especially true in countries that have a great ethnic diversity.

Moreover one must be careful not to under-estimate cultural differences between foreign countries that have a common language: for instance between North African countries, or between France and Belgium or Canada.

Therefore in order to reduce the feeling of uneasiness, or frustration stemming from cross-cultural differences, a certain number of steps must be taken before and during a rather long stay in a foreign country - whether you are a business person or not:

•Get information about the country you are going to beforehand.

•Learn the language: Being incapable to communicate in the language of the country might be a strong handicap.

•Accept to take part in the activities of the country.

•Be aware of the complexity of any foreign culture.

•Acknowledge the influence of your own culture. Bear in mind that when traveling abroad people carry a part of their culture with them.

•Be patient towards the natives and try to understand them.

•Any experience in a foreign culture is a challenge that must be accepted: be ready to modify your own habits, attitudes, values, personal tastes, etc.

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