A model explaining European cultural differences

Posted on 06. June 2013

by Noora Löfström

Noora Lovstrom NEWWhen speaking with a class of 15 year olds about Europe; about possibilities, history, culture and the institutions, explaining decision making in the EU wasn’t the easiest – and I don’t blame them, it’s not crystal.

“Codecision” or more fancily “ordinary legislative procedure” being the standard procedure of decision-making in the European Union, where the European Parliament approves EU legislation together with the Council, i.e. governments of the 27, soon 28 EU countries and the Commission on the other hand drafts and implements EU legislation. This sounds complicated enough, even without adding the structures of the institutions, the diverging interests of member states and cultural differences. How there is ever consensus in negotiations of the multiannual financial framework, bail outs and whatnot seems incredible.

The 27 governments of member states all have different opinions, interests and starting points. Not to forget a different culture and economic performance. Being from Europe does not really unite, as Europe is the world’s most complex region and “European citizenship” is yet to evolve. I learned a while ago that five out of the six cultural “clusters” analyzed in the world can be found on our continent with 300 million people. Therefore, ”united in diversity” is a very appropriate motto.

Now to the cultural dimensions theory, the Hofstede’s model: I had the chance to participate in a case study on the Hofstede’s model at Harwood Levitt Consultants (where I did a one day job-shadowing in connection with the Future Lab annual forum last September). As I found these cultural clusters interesting and accurate I will share the findings with the readers of this blog.

Let me start by explaining the model briefly – the regions of the world can be categorized in six clusters, depending on how the national culture is in relation to 1) change and uncertainty 2) power distance and hierarchic structures 3) individuality 4) long term pragmatism and 5) masculinity – femininity (task orientation versus person-orientation).

The only one of the five clusters that is not present in Europe is the one called “family” where the society is organized top down and all that counts is having an acceptable leader. Europe as a whole is considered to be very individualistic, as opposed to family oriented as the culture in many Asian countries.

Over to the five clusters that then indeed are present in Europe – they’re called “network”, “contest”, “machine”, “pyramid” and “solar system” . In these clusters the five dimensions of difference are similar and understanding them can shed some light on the difficulties in negotiations and decision making. This also explains partly the polarization of the continent in north – south – east – west axes in some questions.

Starting from the north, the Nordic and Baltic countries as well as the Netherlands can be characterized as “network” countries, where consensus decision-making is the rule. At the same time as the countries are able to take hard decisions, they care for others. A prime example of this is Sweden, where the stereotype is that groups take a “fika” (coffee break) every now and again and go through the feelings and opinions of each and every person. Femininity or person-orientation is high in Nordic countries and power distance tends to be lower. Power distance is greater in southern and eastern parts of Europe, with Poland and Spain scoring higher on the scale than Sweden and the UK.

The “contest” group is similar to the “network” cluster but more masculine, emphasizing quantity of life over quality. Great Britain and Ireland are counted into the contest group as there is an air of continuous competition with few rules, however fair play is expected. These countries are quick to accept change and are somewhat uncomfortable and restless if the pace is too slow. A common trait in Anglophone countries is decisive management after thorough discussions. Masculinity is relatively high and long term orientation low.

Then we come to the “machine” – the cluster you can guess exemplifies Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary where there are lots of rules and the trust lies in “experts”. Masculinity is very high in these countries which are all influenced by German culture. The countries can be characterized as ordered, structured and inflexible, where planning and procedures are key – “Ordnung muss sein”.

The “pyramid” culture explains a hierarchical, top down society with rules and structures. Cultures with these characteristics can be found in southern Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania and the Balkans. Similar to these countries is the cluster called the “solar system” – consisting of Northern Italy, Spain, France and Poland. Nevertheless the latter are more individualistic with less emphasis on the family. The tensions occurring between hierarchy and individualism are resolved by a legalistic approach. Corruption is occurring and inspection is needed to make sure all parts are fulfilling their duties.

Keeping all these different elements in mind, it is obvious that intercultural communication and decision making procedures are tough. The European Union member states come from five different clusters and they all have cultural differences which can be seen as the main obstacle in if wanting to create a homogenous European society. Even if the Hofstede’s model can seem as stereotyping cultures, understanding the main differences between nations help in negotiations, drawing agreements and communication in general.

Dear readers who made it all the way to the end, please share if you’ve researched on the model and about your thoughts if the definitions are accurate regarding the cultures of the countries you are acquainted to!