Why you shouldn’t identify your colleagues with their home country

With apologies to vexillologists everywhere.
With apologies to vexillologists everywhere.
Image: Madeleine Deaton / Creative Commons
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Look at the people around you. Some are passive, others more aggressive. Some work best alone, others crave companionship. We easily recognize that there is great variation among the individuals who live near us. Yet, when we speak of people from elsewhere, we seem to inevitably characterize them based on their country of origin.

Statisticians, when they speak of national averages, often make the same mistake.

New research published in Management International Review (paywall) shows how misguided such generalizations are. Three researchers analyzed decades of values-based surveys and found that only between 16% and 21% of the variation in cultural values could be explained by differences between countries. In other words, the vast majority of what makes us culturally distinct from one another has nothing to do with our homeland.

To determine what factors really are associated with culture, the authors combined data from 558 prior surveys that each measured one or more of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. These are traits, such as individualism and masculinity, that describe work-related cultural values. (They are not a measure of visible cultural traits, such as food or dress.) Though the validity of Hofstede’s dimensions has been questioned, they have the singular benefit of having been in use for decades, which allows for historical and international comparisons.

The researchers found that both demographic factors, such as age, and environmental factors, such as long-term unemployment rates, were more correlated with cultural values than nationality. Occupation and socio-economic status were the most strongly correlated, suggesting that our values are more economically driven than we usually give them credit for being.

The evidence implies that people with similar jobs and incomes are more culturally alike, regardless of where they live. Vas Taras, the lead author on the study, puts it this way: “Tell me how much you make and I will make a pretty accurate prediction about your cultural values. Tell me what your nationality is and I probably will make a wrong prediction.”

Taras says our misguided belief that countries are cultures has caused businesses to teach their employees useless or even harmful ways of interacting with their international peers. Chinese and American lawyers might be trained to interact based on the assumption that the Chinese person is less individualistic, even though their similar socio-economic situations make it probable they are actually quite alike in that regard.

The country, as the unit of authority (and a source of data), is often a convenient way of generalizing about a population. However, our focus on countries can mask broad variations within them. In the majority of cases we would be better off identifying people by the factors that constrain their lives, like income, rather than by the lines surrounding them on a map.

The image at the top of this post was shared under a Creative Commons license on Flickr. It has been cropped.