Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cultural Awareness

Today my "project work" class was actually a seminar on cultural awareness. We broke into groups based on our country. I was the lone ranger, championing the stars and stripes for you all against large groups of Frenchman and Pollacks and other Europeans. We went over "Hofstede" dimensions which are apparently a way of viewing certain cultural traits on a spectrum. The first of which is the Power Distance. I have learned that America is a "High Power Distance" culture, and so is our education. Denmark is a "Low Power Distance" culture. As such, those with "less power" are closer to their "superiors". That means that in school students are EXPECTED to question their teachers and to disagree with them, communication/discussion/speaking up is a staple in a Danish class room, and outside of class teachers are just another equal person. Even if particular teachers or classes operate similar to that in America, the general culture is quite different. For each dimension we discussed what might happen in a certain situation. For this dimension we talked about a factory employee questioning his boss and what would happen. I guessed that in a factory it would be expected to listen to your boss and not question them. I know other jobs have a lower power distance, but I imagine personal efficacy and responsibility is also a factor as well. Many employees feel less responsible for the outcome of their work and more for just doing what their boss tells them. Other countries were similar, but Denmark it is expected that if you knew your boss was wrong you would question them.

The second dimension is Individualism vs. Collectivism. But some of this was confusing..."collectivist: diploma certificates are important and displayed on wall". That is very true in America, but we are at the top of the Individualism scale. O well, I ignored this one. The case we talked about was how a marketing team in a company would use it's winnings. Would it use it all on itself for a bigger party, or invite all of their contributors to a more modest party. I said that in general the winning team would probably feel entitled to all of it, even if there were significant contributors, and would do the bigger party. But this was VERY hard to answer (as most other countries agreed) and it really does depend on the situation.

Femininity vs. Masculinity is the third dimension and is defined as quality of life and caring for others vs. success and achievement. The case we examined was a group was participating in a competition but one of them gets hurt at the beginning. If he continues, the group must help and they can't win. If they leave him there is a chance they could win. What would they do and why? Some countries like France and Turkey think they would bring him along and help, some others think they would leave the person out of concern for his injury and not wanting to make it worse, while others still want to leave the injured person to win. That's how I feel America would be, if they entered the competition they clearly wanted to win, so it would be expected for the members to continue on and try to win, leaving the other behind. (Note: the other person is in no danger by being left behind, there is staff to help them)

In education: A feminine teacher avoids openly praising students and at the same time a failure is a relatively minor accident. Students also practice mutual solidarity and behave modestly as well as choosing to study subjects that are intrinsically interesting to them. Masculine teachers praise their students, but failing is a more major thing. Students are actively competing and not as modest and choose subjects based on career opportunities. Denmark is a VERY feminine culture, at least in regards to education, whereas America is a very masculine one. Personally, I see benefits to both.

Uncertainty Avoidance: the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and how far they will go to avoid it. This is the last dimension we explored. The case we discussed was about a group of students with an opportunity to tour companies in a country with a very difficult language. This difficulty made it impossible to make all of their transportation/accommodation arrangements ahead of time (they would have to figure it out when they got there) causing some students to be skeptical and consider not going. What would happen and would they still have the trip? The Danes said that no, they usually pick the safe choice when it comes to big things like that. The French and Pollacks felt more adventurous and said that most would probably do it anyway, it is more about the life experience than the plan. I said that on an individual level we are more open to uncertainty and would be more likely to want to make the trip, but on an institutional level we are not. The school would not be willing to tolerate the liability associated with the uncertainty and the risks involved and we wouldn't allow it.

On the educational level, weak uncertainty avoidance means "students feel comfortable in unstructured learning situations: vague objectives, broad assignments, no timetables. Teachers are allowed to say 'I don't know'. Students are rewarded for innovative approaches and teachers interpret intellectual disagreement as a stimulating exercise", but Strong uncertainty avoidance: "Students feel comfortable in structured learning situations: precise objectives, strict timetables with teachers who have all the answers. Students are rewarded for accuracy and teachers interpret intellectual disagreement as personal disloyalty". I, personally, have STRONG uncertainty avoidance. I can handle uncertainty when I need to, but I really prefer to avoid it. And I feel that culturally america lines up with stronger Uncertainty Avoidance principles in education at least. Denmark and Singapore is actually very low on the scale, so while in the case we discussed the Danes went with the safer choice, in many other areas of culture they are the opposite.

You can actually get more information about this and compare countries at this link: http://geert-hofstede.com/united-states.html

I know this might have been a bit of a dryer read than usual, but I thought I might take this opportunity to educate you all a bit. Hopefully I didn't misrepresent our country too much, or at least not any more than the other countries misrepresented themselves ;-)

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