Racism or Culture?

Racism or Culture?

Culture, often time the silent killer in international initiatives but many a time misinterpreted for something else.

This blog aims to inform you on what culture is and how culture affects our daily intercultural interactions and how this creates misunderstandings and perceived currents of racism.

Geert Hofstede, one of the most influential thinkers in history defines culture as, ‘The collective programming  of the  mind with which one  group distinguishes itself from another group.

Where as racism is defined as ‘Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.’

The problem with culture is that we believe what is like our own culture is ‘good’ and ‘normal’ behaviour and what is different from our own culture is ‘abnormal’ and ‘bad’.

This naturally happens during our upbringing.

‘When you are a child, you don’t have much variety of experience, you live with your parents and that’s all you know.  You grow up thinking that whatever they do is ‘normal.’’

It becomes a matter of perspective.

This can have unfortunate results for intercultural relationships and businesses since we often misunderstand cultural differences.

When  you  notice  a violation  of  your ‘rules’, you  tend  to  attribute  it  to the  ignorance or disrespect  of  the others. If  such  violations persist,  you  suspect dishonesty and a whole host of negative beliefs.

It is only later that you may entertain the possibility of a different  set  of ‘rules’.

When we experience a culture shock, our limbic brain takes over which responds emotionally with feelings such as anger, betrayal, amusement, frustration etc.  Our reactions to this are that we become more competitive, give up, fight, help or (ab)use power.

Often what we perceive as bad or disrespectful behaviour can potentially be attributed to cultural differences and misunderstanding.

So now that we have an inkling that culture is working its invisible force on our intercultural relationships, let’s take a deeper look on what level this is happening.

This blog will focus on one of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension, of which he has 6 different dimensions used in his framework, and how just this one dimension can wreak havoc.

The cultural dimension that I will explain to you today is ‘Power Distance Index’ (PDI), the relationship to power.

PDI can be defined as: The  extent to which the less powerful members of society accept  that power is distributed unequally.

So how does this affect culture?

Well some countries have a high PDI , let’s take a look at what this means:

High PDI Index

(There is a great distance between subordinates and their superiors)

Hierarchy is expected and thus so is inequality. This is not frowned upon but expected.

Huge respect is denoted to seniors and different treatment for superiors and subordinates is expected.

Status is important since it shows power differences. Status and luxury items are therefore favored.

Superiors are entitled to privileges.

There is greater centralization-which means power and orders are made by the top and handed down to subordinates.

Subordinates are dependent on the authority to make decisions.

Taller organisational pyramids exist

Subordinates from a High PDI Culture expect that their managers or superiors should act like a caring father figure who constantly checks in on their subordinates,  plays a greater supervisory role, comments on their work and asks if they understand.

An example of this is a Danish manager working in an Argentinian company asks his secretary to send a very important and urgent fax to a client (yes, this is during the days of faxes).  He tells her to do this and expects that it has been done. The next day he returns to his secretary and asks her to print out a delivery confirmation since he has not heard back from the client, which is unusual. She responds and says that she did not send it since he had not signed it.

What we see here is a secretary who comes from a high PDI culture and a manager who comes from a low PDI culture.  She was expecting the authority to check in on her work and if she had done the job.  She could not tell him that he had not signed it since that would insinuate that he had not done the job properly which would cause him to lose face and question his position of authority.

Potential beliefs of Secretary

  • The boss doesn’t check up on me therefore he doesn’t care about his work or me
  • Why should I do my job properly if he doesn’t do his?
  • His culture doesn’t believe in respect and care, therefore it is wrong

Potential beliefs of Boss

-This secretary is incompetent and lazy since she should have told me something was wrong at once.

-The secretary’s culture is lazy and they have no drive to take action, their culture is inefficient

This very simple example illustrates the impact of culture on our thinking and misperception of behaviour.

Let’s now take a look at the implications of a low PDI culture on behaviour.
Low PDI Index:

(The distance between subordinates and superiors is very small, if not close to equal)

Inequality in society should be minimised. Equality is the norm.

Hierarchy is only in place for convenience.  For example a ‘boss’ is given a title should the team run into any problems and someone needs to ‘deal’ with it.

Status is unimportant and therefore powerful people should try look less powerful.

Superiors are people like me. Subordinates are people like me.

No inherent respect for authority.

Less centralisation – flatter organisational pyramids.

Smaller proportion of supervisory personnel since people are more independent and can make decisions.

Less pronounced wage differentials.

Business examples of High PDI vs Low PDI.

If you want to do business with a High PDI culture, they will expect that if they are meeting with your company, the rank or position of the person they are meeting with should be equal to their position, they will take it as an insult if you send someone who holds a lower rank or position to themselves. In some such cases they will cancel the meeting or send a subordinate to meet with you.

Potential beliefs of High PDI Client:

  • They insult me
  • They think I am less than them
  • They disrespect me publicly

Potential beliefs of Low PDI Supplier

  • These people are wasting my time and money, I have travelled all the way here and they cancel the meeting. They have no respect for time and money.
  • They think I can’t do my job properly, they insult me.

Example of Organisational Triangles for Low and High PDI.

The implications of this dimension on your interactions can often help you understand confusing situations where things have not worked out according to how you thought they would.  Culture is an extremely powerful and silent meddler in our intercultural interactions.

Often time differences in culture can be interpreted as racism merely because individuals are unaware that such differences inherently exist.

This does not imply that racism does not exist but rather that our quick assumption that something is racist could perhaps be the effect of something else.

Cultural acceptance and understanding comes from this awareness of behaviour and without knowledge of this topic it is easy for us to become lost in negative assumptions.

Our culture makes us believe that our behaviour is the only way to do things, since we are unaware that culture even exists unless we are forced to compare cultures with each other.

So perhaps the key is to educate more people on what culture is and how it affects people’s behaviour and motivation.  Remember that when it comes to cultural observations, there is no ‘right’ culture and ‘wrong’ culture.

It simply is what it is.

Be patient in your judgements, things are often not what they appear to be.  Try and understand someone’s motivation for their behaviour.

Often people are unaware that they are behaving in a way that indicates their culture is better than another’s since they are not even aware of the presence of culture and it’s differences, they just believe their culture is the only way to do things; and the right way.


Remember, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Anais Nin

Finally, be patient with people of different cultures, take time to understand. Many of us jump to negative conclusions about why they are behaving a certain way or treating us in a certain way, when in actual it could be the prying force of culture.

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