Cultural Characteristics As A Continuum Cultural Studies Essay

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There is a tendency to stereotype cultures as being one way or another (e.g., individualistic rather than collectivistic).  Note, however, countries fall on a continuum of cultural traits.  Hofstede's research demonstrates a wide range between the most individualistic and collectivistic countries, for example-some fall in the middle.

Hofstede's Dimensions.  Gert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher, was able to interview a large number of IBM executives in various countries, and found that cultural differences tended to center around four key dimensions:

Individualism vs. collectivism:  To what extent do people believe in individual responsibility and reward rather than having these measures aimed at the larger group?  Contrary to the stereotype, Japan actually ranks in the middle of this dimension, while Indonesia and West Africa rank toward the collectivistic side.  The U.S., Britain, and the Netherlands rate toward individualism.

Power distance:  To what extent is there a strong separation of individuals based on rank?  Power distance tends to be particularly high in Arab countries and some Latin American ones, while it is more modest in Northern Europe and the U.S.

Masculinity vs. femininity involves a somewhat more nebulous concept.   "Masculine"  values involve competition and "conquering" nature by means such as large construction projects, while "feminine" values involve harmony and environmental protection.   Japan is one of the more masculine countries, while the Netherlands rank relatively low.  The U.S. is close to the middle, slightly toward the masculine side. ( The fact that these values are thought of as "masculine" or "feminine" does not mean that they are consistently held by members of each respective gender-there are very large "within-group" differences.  There is, however, often a large correlation of these cultural values with the status of women.)

Uncertainty avoidance involves the extent to which a "structured" situation with clear rules is preferred to a more ambiguous one; in general, countries with lower uncertainty avoidance tend to be more tolerant of risk.  Japan ranks very high.  Few countries are very low in any absolute sense, but relatively speaking, Britain and Hong Kong are lower, and the U.S. is in the lower range of the distribution.

Although Hofstede's original work did not address this, a fifth dimension of long term vs. short term orientation has been proposed.  In the U.S., managers like to see quick results, while Japanese managers are known for take a long term view, often accepting long periods before profitability is obtained.

High vs. low context cultures:  In some cultures, "what you see is what you get"-the speaker is expected to make his or her points clear and limit ambiguity.  This is the case in the U.S.-if you have something on your mind, you are expected to say it directly, subject to some reasonable standards of diplomacy.  In Japan, in contrast, facial expressions and what is not said may be an important clue to understanding a speaker's meaning.  Thus, it may be very difficult for Japanese speakers to understand another's written communication.  The nature of languages may exacerbate this phenomenon-while the German language is very precise, Chinese lacks many grammatical features, and the meaning of words may be somewhat less precise.  English ranks somewhere in the middle of this continuum.

Ethnocentrism and the self-reference criterion.  The self-reference criterion refers to the tendency of individuals, often unconsciously, to use the standards of one's own culture to evaluate others.  For example, Americans may perceive more traditional societies to be "backward" and "unmotivated" because they fail to adopt new technologies or social customs, seeking instead to preserve traditional values.  In the 1960s, a supposedly well read American psychology professor referred to India's culture of "sick" because, despite severe food shortages, the Hindu religion did not allow the eating of cows.  The psychologist expressed disgust that the cows were allowed to roam free in villages, although it turns out that they provided valuable functions by offering milk and fertilizing fields.  Ethnocentrism is the tendency to view one's culture to be superior to others.  The important thing here is to consider how these biases may come in the way in dealing with members of other cultures.

It should be noted that there is a tendency of outsiders to a culture to overstate the similarity of members of that culture to each other.  In the United States, we are well aware that there is a great deal of heterogeneity within our culture; however, we often underestimate the diversity within other cultures.  For example, in Latin America, there are great differences between people who live in coastal and mountainous areas; there are also great differences between social classes.

Language issues.  Language is an important element of culture.  It should be realized that regional differences may be subtle.  For example, one word may mean one thing in one Latin American country, but something off-color in another.  It should also be kept in mind that much information is carried in non-verbal communication.  In some cultures, we nod to signify "yes" and shake our heads to signify "no;" in other cultures, the practice is reversed.  Within the context of language:

There are often large variations in regional dialects of a given language.  The differences between U.S., Australian, and British English are actually modest compared to differences between dialects of Spanish and German.

Idioms involve "figures of speech" that may not be used, literally translated, in other languages.  For example, baseball is a predominantly North and South American sport, so the notion of "in the ball park" makes sense here, but the term does not carry the same meaning in cultures where the sport is less popular.

Neologisms involve terms that have come into language relatively recently as technology or society involved.  With the proliferation of computer technology, for example, the idea of an "add-on" became widely known.  It may take longer for such terms to "diffuse" into other regions of the world.  In parts of the World where English is heavily studied in schools, the emphasis is often on grammar and traditional language rather than on current terminology, so neologisms have a wide potential not to be understood.

Slang exists within most languages.  Again, regional variations are common and not all people in a region where slang is used will necessarily understand this.  There are often significant generation gaps in the use of slang.

Writing patterns, or the socially accepted ways of writing, will differs significantly between cultures. 


In English and Northern European languages, there is an emphasis on organization and conciseness.  Here, a point is made by building up to it through background.  An introduction will often foreshadow what is to be said.  In Romance languages such as Spanish, French, and Portuguese, this style is often considered "boring" and "inelegant."  Detours are expected and are considered a sign of class, not of poor organization.  In Asian languages, there is often a great deal of circularity.  Because of concerns about potential loss of face, opinions may not be expressed directly.  Instead, speakers may hint at ideas or indicate what others have said, waiting for feedback from the other speaker before committing to a point of view.

Because of differences in values, assumptions, and language structure, it is not possible to meaningfully translate "word-for-word" from one language to another.  A translator must keep "unspoken understandings" and assumptions in mind in translating.  The intended meaning of a word may also differ from its literal translation.  For example, the Japanese word hai  is literally translated as "yes."  To Americans, that would imply "Yes, I agree."  To the Japanese speaker, however, the word may mean "Yes, I hear what you are saying" (without any agreement expressed) or even "Yes, I hear you are saying something even though I am not sure exactly what you are saying."

Differences in cultural values result in different preferred methods of speech.  In American English, where the individual is assumed to be more in control of his or her destiny than is the case in many other cultures, there is a preference for the "active" tense (e.g., "I wrote the marketing plan") as opposed to the passive (e.g., "The marketing plan was written by me.")

Because of the potential for misunderstandings in translations, it is dangerous to rely on a translation from one language to another made by one person.  In the "decentering" method, multiple translators are used.  The text is first translated by one translator-say, from German to Mandarin Chinese.  A second translator, who does not know what the original German text said, will then translate back to German from Mandarin Chinese translation.  The text is then compared.  If the meaning is not similar, a third translator, keeping in mind this feedback, will then translate from German to Mandarin.  The process is continued until the translated meaning appears to be satisfactory.

Different perspectives exist in different cultures on several issues; e.g.:

Monochronic cultures tend to value precise scheduling and doing one thing at a time; in polychronic cultures, in contrast, promptness is valued less, and multiple tasks may be performed simultaneously.  (See text for more detail).

Space is perceived differently.  Americans will feel crowded where people from more densely populated countries will be comfortable.

Symbols differ in meaning.  For example, while white symbols purity in the U.S., it is a symbol of death in China.  Colors that are considered masculine and feminine also differ by culture.

Americans have a lot of quite shallow friends toward whom little obligation is felt; people in European and some Asian cultures have fewer, but more significant friends.  For example, one Ph.D. student from India, with limited income, felt obligated to try buy an airline ticket for a friend to go back to India when a relative had died.

In the U.S. and much of Europe, agreements are typically rather precise and contractual in nature; in Asia, there is a greater tendency to settle issues as they come up.  As a result, building a relationship of trust is more important in Asia, since you must be able to count on your partner being reasonable.

In terms of etiquette, some cultures have more rigid procedures than others.  In some countries, for example, there are explicit standards as to how a gift should be presented.  In some cultures, gifts should be presented in private to avoid embarrassing the recipient; in others, the gift should be made publicly to ensure that no perception of secret bribery could be made.

Subtle cultural differences may make an ad that tested well in one country unsuitable in another-e.g., an ad that featured a man walking in to join his wife in the bathroom was considered an inappropriate invasion in Japan.  Symbolism often differs between cultures, and humor, which is based on the contrast to people's experiences, tends not to travel well.  Values also tend to differ between cultures-in the U.S. and Australia, excelling above the group is often desirable, while in Japan, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down."  In the U.S., "The early bird gets the worm" while in China "The first bird in the flock gets shot down."

Constraints on Global Communications Strategies.  Although firms that seek standardized positions may seek globally unified campaigns, there are several constraints:

Language barriers:  The advertising will have to be translated, not just into the generic language category (e.g., Portuguese) but also into the specific version spoken in the region (e.g., Brazilian Portuguese).  (Occasionally, foreign language ads are deliberately run to add mystique to a product, but this is the exception rather than the rule).

Cultural barriers.  Subtle cultural differences may make an ad that tested well in one country unsuitable in another-e.g., an ad that featured a man walking in to join his wife in the bathroom was considered an inappropriate invasion in Japan.  Symbolism often differs between cultures, and humor, which is based on the contrast to people's experiences, tends not to travel well.  Values also tend to differ between cultures-in the U.S. and Australia, excelling above the group is often desirable, while in Japan, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down."  In the U.S., "The early bird gets the worm" while in China "The first bird in the flock gets shot down."

Local attitudes toward advertising.  People in some countries are more receptive to advertising than others.  While advertising is accepted as a fact of life in the U.S., some Europeans find it too crass and commercial.

Media infrastructure.  Cable TV is not well developed in some countries and regions, and not all media in all countries accept advertising.  Consumer media habits also differ dramatically; newspapers appear to have a higher reach than television and radio in parts of Latin America.

Advertising regulations.  Countries often have arbitrary rules on what can be advertised and what can be claimed.  Comparative advertising is banned almost everywhere outside the U.S.  Holland requires that a toothbrush be displayed in advertisements for sweets, and some countries require that advertising to be shown there be produced in the country.

Advertising Planning 

Some cultural dimensions:

Directness vs. indirectness:  U.S. advertising tends to emphasize directly why someone would benefit from buying the product.   This, however,  is considered too pushy for Japanese consumers, where it is felt to be arrogant of the seller to presume to know what the consumer would like.

Comparison:  Comparative advertising is banned in most countries and would probably be very counterproductive, as an insulting instance of confrontation and bragging, in Asia even if it were allowed.  In the U.S., comparison advertising has proven somewhat effective (although its implementation is tricky) as a way to persuade consumers what to buy.

Humor.  Although humor is a relatively universal phenomenon, what is considered funny between countries differs greatly, so pre-testing is essential.

Gender roles.  A study found that women in U.S. advertising tended to be shown in more traditional roles in the U.S. than in Europe or Australia.  On the other hand, some countries are even more traditional-e.g., a Japanese ad that claimed a camera to be "so simple that even a woman can use it" was not found to be unusually insulting.

Explicitness.  Europeans tend to allow for considerably more explicit advertisements, often with sexual overtones, than Americans.

Sophistication.  Europeans, particularly the French, demand considerably more sophistication than Americans who may react more favorably to emotional appeals-e.g., an ad showing a mentally retarded young man succeeding in a job at McDonald's was very favorably received in the U.S. but was booed at the Cannes film festival in France.

Popular vs. traditional culture.  U.S. ads tend to employ contemporary, popular culture, often including current music while those in more traditional cultures tend to refer more to classical culture.

Information content vs. fluff.  American ads contain a great deal of "puffery," which was found to be very ineffective in Eastern European countries because it resembled communist propaganda too much.  The Eastern European consumers instead wanted hard, cold facts.

Advertising standardization.  Issues surrounding advertising standardization tend to parallel issues surrounding product and positioning standardization.  On the plus side, economies of scale are achieved, a consistent image can be established across markets, creative talent can be utilized across markets, and good ideas can be transplanted from one market to others.  On the down side, cultural differences, peculiar country regulations, and differences in product life cycle stages make this approach difficult.  Further, local advertising professionals may resist campaigns imposed from the outside-sometimes with good reasons and sometimes merely to preserve their own creative autonomy.

Country Priority

Legal issues.  Countries differ in their regulations of advertising, and some products are banned from advertising on certain media (large supermarket chains are not allowed to advertise on TV in France, for example).  Other forms of promotion may also be banned or regulated.  In some European countries, for example, it is illegal to price discriminate between consumers, and thus coupons are banned and in some, it is illegal to offer products on sale outside a very narrow seasonal and percentage range.

Cateora and Ghauri(2006) state that 'for the inexperienced marketer, the 'similar but different ' aspect of culture creates an illusion of similarity that usually does not exist' what do they mean by this statement? Explain and give specific examples to illustrate the point made.

For the inexperienced marketer, the similar but different aspect of culture creates illusions of similarity that usually do not exist. Several nationalities can speak the same language or have similar race and heritage, but it does not follow that similarities exist in other respects - that a product acceptable to one culture will be readily acceptable to the other, or that a promotional message that succeeds in one country will succeed in the other. Even though people start with a common idea or approach, as is the case among English speaking Americans and the British, cultural borrowing and assimilation to meet individual needs translate over time into quite distinct cultures. A common language does not guarantee similar interpretation of words or phrases. Both British and Americans speak English, but their cultures are sufficiently different so that a single phrase has different meanings to each and can even be completely misunderstood. In England, one asks for a lift instead of an elevator and an American, when speaking of a bathroom, generally refers to a toilet, whereas in England a bathroom is a place to take a tub bath. Also, the English "Hoover" a carpet whereas Americans vacuum. The movie title The Spy Who Shagged Me means nothing to most Americans but much to British consumers. Indeed, anthropologist Edward Hall warns that Americans and British have a harder time understanding each other because of apparent and assumed cultural similarities.

The growing economic unification of Europe has fostered a tendency to speak of the "European consumer." Many of the obstacles to doing business in Europe have been or will be eliminated as the European Union takes shape, but marketers, eager to enter the market, must not jump to the conclusion that an economically unified Europe means a common set of consumer wants and needs. Cultural differences among the members of the European Union are the product of centuries of history that will take centuries to erase. The United States itself has many subcultures that even today, with mass communication and rapid travel, defy complete homogenization. To suggest that the South is in all respects culturally the same as the north eastern or mid western parts of the United States would be folly, just as it would be folly to assume that the unification of Germany has erased cultural differences that arose from over 40 years of political and social separation.

Marketers must assess each country thoroughly in terms of the proposed products or services n never rely on an often used axiom that if it sells in one country, it will surely sell in another. As worldwide mass communications and increased economic and social interdependence of countries grow, similarities among countries will increase and common market behaviours, wants, and needs will continue to develop. As this process occurs, the tendency will be rely more on apparent similarities when they may not exist. A marketer is wise to remember that a culture borrows and then adapts and customizes to its own needs an idiosyncrasies thus what may appear to be the same on the surface may be different in its cultural meaning.

The scope of culture is broad. It covers every aspect of behaviour within a society. The task of foreign marketers is to adjust marketing strategies and plans to the needs of the culture in which they plan to operate. Whether innovations develop internally through invention, experimentation or by accident, or are introduced from outside through a process of borrowing or immigration cultural dynamics always seem to take on both positive and negative aspects.