Updated: Jun 28, 2020
(Since I first wrote this post, the killing of George Floyd and all of the complex societal problems it brought forth has come to light. I've resisted making any statements about it in any of my professional capacities. I care very much about the plight of oppressed people, but I don't want to profiteer off of someone else's misery and use it as a promotional tool. Or to use other people and their problems as pawns to make myself seem like a better person. But I felt that this old post continues to be relevant. I think that for people to learn to coexist, to some degree they will have to accept that others won't always think or feel the same things they do. There is a real need for people to try to understand, rather than to condemn. I feel that Hofstede's cultural dimensions can be one way to understand.)
Upon commencing compulsory Intercultural training for the project I would do with Sun Yat Sen University, it became clear to me that it was a vital activity. Even though I had lived my whole life in Australia and interacted frequently with Chinese people, there were many things I didn't understand about either. The way the two cultures differ is so extreme that it is hard for one to understand the other, to the point where some cultural norms of one seem like insanity to the other.
We are currently living in times where the differences between different racial and cultural groups is a hot-button issue. So, I think that understanding is vital in moving forward.
Being aware of concepts like the cultural iceberg and the mis-cycle really helped to comprehend these differences. I was also able to identify the times when I have encountered culture shock. The values people hold can sometimes be so deeply ingrained that they may be incapable of challenging their own assumptions and offense may sometimes come as a direct result. So, it is good to be educated on such differences.
I found that there is a website where Hofstede's cultural dimensions can be viewed and different nations can be compared. Even in day to day life I find there are people who behave in ways that mystify me. Being able to see relative value sets in a chart helped me see why these people did what they did, and why I respond the way I do.
(A chart depicting how collectivist or individualist various nations typically are relative to one another from GeerHofstede.com.)
For example, my perceptions about power difference differed from that of my peers. This explains why they find it easy to make friends with superiors and call them by their first name, while I tend to feel it is right to keep my distance and to call them "Sir" or "Ma'am".
The concept of individualism vs. collectivism must also be considered. I recall encountering girls from Asia who felt that the Little Mermaid (1989) had a protagonist who was exceptionally selfish, running from home and bringing trouble to her family to seek her own desires. In the end, Ariel isn't punished for this. Instead, she gets everything she wanted. Meanwhile, Western women I've met felt Ariel was too repressed; She cooperates, cries and depends on others for help instead of fighting for the things she wants on her own and ultimately ends up in a marriage. It seems that while Asian culture regards marriage as normal, seeking one's own good is not so well thought of. Meanwhile, Western culture is deeply individualist and the pursuit of happiness is normal, with marriage often seen as an obstacle to these goals.
All of this is also excellent fodder for writing. The key to drama is said to be conflict, but it can be hard to envision characters with values vastly different from your own without turning them into straw men. Cultural literacy can lead to deeper, more fleshed out characters for a writer. So I found it all helpful. Though I imagine greater empathy and tolerance is helpful in all fields of work and life.
(Image I took myself, RMIT City campus, 2017.)