Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Danger of Focusing too much on Cultural Differences

This time of year is always very stressful for me. Although it is a busy time of year as I have a full courseload, research to present in August right after the semester ends, university committees to serve on, a 21 month son at home, and a trip to the US to plan after my presentation is finished, this is not a source of my stress. The source of my stress lies in the two weeks I devote in my "Meeting of Multicultural Educators" class at university to studying the "national values" of other countries. Professor Geert Hofstede, classifies national values into five dimensions: power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masuculinty vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and long term orientation vs. short term orientation. Approximately 76 countries/ regions have been ranked on the degree to which they show characteristics of each dimension. For example Uncertainty Avoidance is defines as reflecting "the extent to which a society attempts to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. Cultures that scored high in uncertainty avoidance prefer rules (e.g. about religion and food) and structured circumstances, and employees tend to remain longer with their present employer."(from Wikipedia (2006). Geert Hofstede.)
Many of my students, who are of course Japanese, seem to prefer structured situations to unstructured situations and hesitate to ask open-ended questions. Conversely, when I was a student in the USA it seems that a majority of the questions I was asked were open-ended. Furthermore, when a teacher asked a question to the class I would raise my hand and try to guess the answer even if I was only 50% certain that I knew the answer. In terms of uncertainty avoidance, Japan scores much higher that the US. Although Hofstede's theory is not without its critics and problems, I find it a fascinating way to look at the national cultures of various countries and also helpful. If a teacher knows that the students he will teach are more likely to handle open-ended questions differently than the students from his home country, he will not put his students in uncomfortable situations as frequently nor will he feel frustration when a student does not answer his question.
Nevertheless, when I study Hofstede's national values I start feeling melancholic; I am ready to jump on the boat and cross the Pacific to the U.S. Why? I think the reason is that I start to think too much of the differences between the U.S. and Japan and start feeling culture shock. My surroundings become unfamiliar and I develop the urge to be back in my familiar environment where peoples' behavior makes sense to me. After the two weeks with Hofstede end, I seem to get reaccustomed to Japan and stop thinking about the differences between it and my home country.

1 comment:

aNne said...

thanks for sharing the link to Hofstede's study. its quite interesting!