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Intercultural Interview: Cultural Differences Between Somalia and the United Kingdom (UK)
Yuusuf originated from Mogadishu, Somalia and moved to the UK with his family sixteen years ago, at the age of ten, to escape an ongoing war. Our interview, conducted in Yuusuf’s home, highlights a variety of striking differences between Somali and UK culture, differences that have lacked investigation due to the dangerous location of Somalia. Thus, this interview offered insights into a somewhat unexplored culture with areas of contrasts including power distribution and differences in family relations amongst other noteworthy perceptions.
Yuusuf highlighted that the distribution of power contrasted remarkably between the Somali and English culture through the differences in family life. Within a family “men would always be shown more respect” and seen as “more powerful”. This distinct divide on the basis of gender is accepted and expected by all members of this culture, including the less powerful members, in this case, women. Somalia’s Gender Inequality Index is 0.776, where 1 denotes complete inequality, whereas, the UK’s index is 0.116 (“United Nations Development Programme”, 2012), presenting a striking difference in the value of gender equality and thus, power distribution within a family.
Consequently, Somali culture would be determined as having high power distance, that is, within institutions and organisations power is distributed unequally and this is legitimised through continual practise, Yuusuf deemed this as “tradition” (Hofsted, 2011). This inference is supported by surrounding areas of Ethiopia (64) and Kenya (64) receiving high power distance scores (Hofstede & Bond, 1984). Whereas, the UK scores relatively low on this dimension (35) due to inequality of distributed power not being highly valued, as Yuusuf put it “women are given more choice and freedom of speech” in the UK. Furthermore, gross national product (GNP) has been found to negatively correlate with Hofstede’s power distance index (Hofstede, 1991), this is supported by Somalia’s low GDP per capita of $600 in comparison to the United Kingdom’s $36,600 as of 2012 (“Countries Compared by Economy”, 2013). Yuusuf explained that due to the UK’s wealth it enabled his family to get “help from the council” when looking for housing, something that “wouldn’t happen in Somalia… you’re on your own”.
Moreover, Yuusuf explained that “men were the breadwinners” highlighting how roles are ascribed to maintain productive behaviour within the society, this mainly involved “agricultural work”; agriculture accounts for 75% of Somalia’s GDP (Svirina, O’Farrell & Hirsi, 2019). Thus, Somali culture would be deemed as a ‘hierarchal culture’ which ensures clear social order and distribution of roles to maintain productive behaviour, in this case the men doing the work and women “staying at home” (Schwartz, 2004). Whereas, in the UK, although hierarchy exists in respect to stereotypical roles within the home and unequal distribution of power within institutions, it is not to the same extent. Rather, the emphasis is on ‘mastery’ with the encouragement of self-assertion in order to achieve personal goals (Sagiv & Schwartz, 2007).
However, Yuusuf also detailed that he believed “times are changing and they’ve also adapted”, in reference to women doing more to increase “money for the family”. According to the socialisation hypothesis, socio-economic development of culture does not alter individual’s values rapidly. Rather, as a society becomes wealthier and subsequently more industrialised, values and practises slowly develop over generations from traditional to more ‘rational’ (Inglehart, 2008; 2018). This hypothesis and comments from Yuusuf of “adapt[ing]” are supported by the fact that Somalia’s GDP has been increasing since 1990, reaching its highest value in 2017 of $7.37 billion (“World Development Indicators”, 2019). This may suggest Somali culture is advancing to become more similar to the UK.
Throughout our interview Yuusuf made reference to his family, deeming them an “important part” of his everyday life. Yuusuf advocated how he believed family is not defined in the same way in the UK. He explained how in Somali culture “everyone is classed as family” and that this alliance is continued with other Somalis in the UK, describing this as “a sign of respect”. This portrays Somali culture as collectivist rather than individualist that is expressed in the UK. In collectivist cultures people are born into strong, cohesive in-groups, whereby individuals protect one another with the expectation of reciprocity, the goal being to maintain harmony(Hofstede, 2001; Yamagishi, Jin & Miller, 1998). A consequence of such close relations was reflected in Yuusuf’s clear reluctance to leave Somalia despite the hostile environment, deeming it a “painful experience”. However, he also highlighted the continual support from overseas, he detailed how “whenever there’s been a problem there has been a solution”, he explained that his relations in Somalia have previously “given reassurance over the phone” in attempts to resolve issues his family were experiencing.
Interestingly, when asked how Yuusuf would define himself, he expressed mainly social and collectivists selves, such as “I am a brother” and a “son”, only 20% of his responses were traits such as “intelligent”. Thus suggesting Yuusuf takes into account the wider social context when defining himself, a characteristic of interdependent self-construal and collectivist cultures. An interdependent self-construal denotes seeing oneself as part of a social relationship, being more connected to others than differentiated. In contrast, individuals in individualistic cultures use more physical and behavioural traits than social descriptions, highlighting an independent self-construal, seeing the self as autonomous (Cross, Bacon & Morris, 2000; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Singelis, 1994).
Similarly, Yuusuf consistently used the pronouns “us”, “we” or “our” instead of “I” or “me”, for example, “family is very important to us”, “we believe… our country”. Kashima and Kashima (1998) found a correlation between the use of singular pronouns such as “I” and individualism; moreover, priming an individual with first-person singular pronouns stimulates more individualistic behaviour whereas plural pronouns activtes more collectivist orientations (Na & Choi, 2009). Therefore, this highlights the influence of a collectivist culture on expression of speech and how Yuusuf continues to use these pronouns despite being exposed to an individualistic culture.
Overall, Yuusuf takes the importance of family seriously and continues to depend on them. Differences in the extent to which family is defined distinguishes Somali culture from the UK, this can be explained by the collectivistic nature of Somali culture. Moreover, differences in relationships within a culture can be seen to influence self-description and expression.
Rules, Regulations and Rituals
Yuusuf suggested that “you get more freedom in this country”, and explained how rules, regulations and rituals differ “dramatically”. For instance, as indicated previously, Yuusuf explained how “women especially” are restricted in Somali culture, he detailed a tradition that occurs if “the wife’s husband dies”, the woman “is not allowed to leave the house or put makeup on for 40 days”. One of the many ways in which Somali women are constrained in freedoms, which would be unacceptable in the UK.
In reference to Hofstede’s (2001) uncertainty avoidance, a culture’s tolerance for ambiguity and novel situations, “strict laws” highlight that Somali culture is high in uncertainty avoidance; opposed to the UK’s uncertainty accepting nature, determined by more lenient laws and social norms (Hofstede, 2011). The seriousness of Somali law was expressed by Yuusuf’s use of phrases such as “forbids” and “not allowed” in relation to drinking alcohol and homosexuality. The latter is of significance, this intolerance of homosexuality has been linked to Inglehart’s dimension of ‘self-expression’ (lnglehart & Welzel, 2005). A lack of economic and physical stability results in a culture’s fundamental focus on survival (Inglehart & Baker, 2000). This is supported by the fact that in Somalia, war has gripped the country for many years (“Somalia profile”, 2018). Hence, Yuusuf’s culture confines attention to survival at the expense of self-expression and liberation of things such as homosexuality that is largely accepted in the UK (Adamczyk & Pitt, 2009; Inglehart et al, 2014).
In light of the “strict laws” embedded in Somali culture the theme of restraint appears apparent; individuals in a restricted culture suppress gratification of needs and indulgence, this is regulated by strict social norms (Minkov, 2007; Minkov & Hofstede, 2011). This restriction was further portrayed by Yuusuf as he explained that, “we believe we are on this earth as a test to get into heaven”. Thus, ‘indulgence’ is not part of this life, this is dissimilar to the UK whereby indulgence is considerably higher and it is considered good to be free and impulsive, hence the popular English phrase ‘you only live once’ (Hofstede, 2011; “United Kingdom – Hofstede Insights”, 2019).
Ultimately, Yuusuf was able to offer a novel insight into an unexplored culture. With contrasts in family structure, relationships and restricting rules, he provided an explanation to how groups thrive despite environmental and economic hardship through loyalty and dependence. It is interesting that cultural homogeneity may be occurring due to industrialisation and increased wealth of Somalia. However, it was apparent that even with Yuusuf being exposed to one of the world’s most industrialised and advance countries in the world for over sixteen years, his value of family and some cultural practises still remained an important part of his life in the UK.
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