If Geert Hofstede’s name is familiar to you, it might be from pop-science articles explaining a spate of Korean airliner crashes in the 1990s. A widely held theory placed some of the blame on the hierarchical nature of Korean culture; this made the junior pilot reluctant to mention any mistakes made by his superior. If he noticed the captain heading for a hillside, he might summon up the courage to mutter, ‘Perhaps, honoured sir, you might like to pay particular attention to the interesting terrain.’ This contrasts with low ‘power distance’ cultures: New Zealand, say, or Ireland. On Aer Lingus, a stewardess could jab the pilot in the ribs and say, ‘Watch you don’t fecking crash, you gobshite!’
Hofstede originally scored different cultures on four different dimensions. These were later expanded to six: Power distance, as mentioned above, was one. The others were individualism (versus collectivism), masculinity (not quite what it sounds), uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation and indulgence (again not quite what it sounds). You have to be wary of overinterpreting these things. Such findings can be confounded by linguistic differences and, as Hofstede himself points out, there are substantial individual differences within each country.
Nevertheless my faith in Hofstede grew when he solved a puzzle which had baffled me: why the Germans and Austrians, whom I would assume to be the most sensible drivers in the world, are such impatient tailgaters. This style of driving, it seems, correlates with those countries’ higher level of uncertainty avoidance. Countries low on that scale — in Europe that means the Brits, the Irish and the Scandies — have a driving style more ambiguously accommodating of other drivers, a pattern reflected in their very low accident statistics. Countries with lower uncertainty avoidance are also inclined to have more easygoing police and a low level of bureaucratic rigidity, which is why we’d rather be arrested in Copenhagen or Dublin than in Vienna. (Come to think of it, if the Danish police are ever a bit low on funds, they could create a new form of tourism where policewomen in Faroese sweaters detain British men at passport control. We’d pay.)
Like all worthwhile research, Hofstede’s work both confounds and confirms stereotypes. One surprise was that, contrary to the outsider’s idea of British culture as deferential and class-bound, Brits are not all that hierarch-ical or respectful of authority; less so than Americans. I think this is probably true. There is something peculiarly levelling about British cynicism, which takes the view that, deep down, absolutely everyone is a bit of a twat.
I’d like to see what this research reveals about British regional divisions: I haven’t found separate data for Scotland or Wales, but would not be surprised to see that, like the Irish, the Celtic fringe is markedly less individualistic than our occupying Saxon hordes. But for Brexiteers looking for ammunition, or for deranged optimists who wish to heal the EU, this approach does reveal what an extraordinary cultural hodgepodge the continent of Europe encompasses. There are quite high similarities between Latin American countries (with a few outliers), and South-east Asia is reasonably homogeneous, while the UK, Australia and New Zealand are almost indistinguishable from each other. Yet Europe is a patchwork. The Brits and the Scandies are similar in our tolerance of uncertainty, but they are much less individualistic and competitive than we are. The Germans are very different from the Dutch, let alone southern Europeans. Frankly, if I were trying to create a superstate, I’d start somewhere else. You can draw your own conclusions by exploring national comparisons at geert-hofstede.com/countries.html.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.
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