Around the World: 4 Cultural Dimensions That Impact Your Messages

September 30, 2016

This article was adapted from Alaimo’s book “Pitch, Tweet or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication,” which Routledge published in August.

The key to developing an effective international PR campaign is understanding the cultures in which you operate. As Patricia Curtin and T. Kenn Gaither put it: “Cultural constructs don’t affect public relations practice; they are the essence of public relations practice.”

The cultural researcher Geert Hofstede has identified a number of dimensions in which cultures around the world differ that should inform how you craft your messages for different countries. Below are four major differences:

Individualism vs. collectivism

Individualistic cultures stress the importance of the individual, while collectivist societies place greater importance on the group that one belongs to. In collectivist societies, such as China and South Korea, people tend to grow up with members of their extended family, who share resources like their salaries. By contrast, in individualistic societies, such as the U.S., U.K. and Australia, people see their identities as distinct from those of others.

The level of collectivism of a society determines whether your PR messages should focus on the individual or group. For example, Coca-Cola launched its “Share a Coke” campaign in Australia in 2012 by printing popular names of Australian people on the outside of their cans — a practice they went on to replicate in many individualistic countries. By contrast, in Japan — a collectivist and nationalistic society — instead of printing individual names on cans, the company printed codes, which consumers could use to download music and share it with their friends, through a partnership with the Japanese company Sony.

Uncertainty avoidance

According to Hofstede and his colleagues, uncertainty avoidance refers to “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations.” Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance, such as Greece, Portugal and Russia, exhibit greater levels of stress anxiety. More people in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance feel unhappy, and they have more worries about money and their health.

People tend to be more neurotic and less agreeable. Circumstances or luck — as opposed to one’s own ability — are believed to be the causes of events. By contrast, in cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, such as Great Britain and the U.S., the unknown is met with curiosity rather than anxiety. Stress and emotions are internalized rather than exhibited openly.

In addition to impacting how you frame your messages, a country’s level of uncertainty avoidance can also impact how local organizations respond to crises. The researcher Maureen Taylor found that “low uncertainty avoidance organizations may not view isolated incidents as constituting a crisis and, thus, may do little to communicate to publics about the situation.”

If you are operating in such a culture, then you may need to work extra hard to convince clients that signs of possible problems should be addressed urgently.

Power distance

Hofstede reports that cultures with high power distance, such as Russia, China and Mexico, are more hierarchical. Children are expected to show respect and obedience toward their parents and teachers.

In the workplace, subordinates are expected to follow orders from their bosses. Status symbols are valued and the gap between salaries at the top and bottom of an organization is large. By contrast, cultures with low power distance, such as Sweden and Norway, are more egalitarian. Status symbols are suspect and salary gaps are narrower.

Researchers have found that, in countries with high power distance, governments tend to exert significant control on society and, therefore, it is important for PR practitioners to develop close relationships with government decision-makers. It can also be harder for PR practitioners to influence organizational decision-making if they are not senior enough within their organizations.

Masculinity vs. femininity

Hofstede and his colleagues report that, in a masculine society, such as Japan and Italy, “emotional gender roles are clearly distinct: Men are supposed to be assertive, tough and focused on material success, whereas women are supposed to be more modest, tender and concerned with the quality of life.” Masculine societies place importance on individual salaries, recognition, advancement, hard work and challenges. Money is prized over leisure time.

Feminine cultures prize relationships and quality of life. Individuals are more modest, even in situations such as job interviews, bragging is considered to be a negative quality, and people even underrate their own skills and performances. Individuals are comfortable with being marked as average, as opposed to the best, at what they do.

Once again, these differences will significantly impact how you frame your messages in different cultures.

Wondering how the countries in which you are communicating are characterized? The tools on Hofstede’s website allow you to identify how particular nations around the world rank on these and other cultural dimensions.

Kara Alaimo, Ph.D.
Kara Alaimo, Ph.D., is a global PR consultant, assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, and a former communicator at the U.N. and in the Obama administration. Her book “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication” was published by Routledge in August 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @karaalaimo.


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