Cross-cultural communication takes place when representatives of different cultures or social groups meet each other. Apart from linguistic discrepancies among nations, there are cultural barriers to understanding each other. Professor Geert Hofstede (1991) defined several dimensions across which different cultures may divert. These are 1) power distance index, 2) masculinity vs. femininity, 3) long-term vs short-term orientation, 4) uncertainty avoidance index, 5) indulgence vs restraint, and 6) individualism vs. collectivism.
To begin with, power distance index measures to what extent people in the culture tolerate the power and unequal distribution. So there is a potential of communication clashes in the group of people with diametrically opposite levels of such index. For example, some people might strongly oppose authoritarian style of management (thus preferring coaching style), whereas people of other cultures may find autocratic and controlling management fully acceptable.
Masculinity in the society measures the extent to which personal achievement, heroism and material reward is valued. In the feminine societies, people would anticipate quality of life, security and cooperation to be the highest virtues. As a matter of fact, men from masculine societies talking about their achievements to impress the interlocutor may not be very successful if their companion is from a feminine society.
Members of societies with long-term orientation tend to rapidly adapt to changes and innovation, thus valuing creativity and curiosity of their members. On the contrary, members of cultures with short-term orientation tend to be their exact opposite with traditions and customs being securely preserved and followed. They tend to be more conservative and less liberal in speech and attitudes than their counterparts with long-term orientation.
Uncertainty avoidance index measures the tolerance of a society to ambiguity. People coming from environments where this index values are high are more likely to avoid uncertainty. This consequently may affect the business communication among professionals such as nurses or brokers who might disagree on picking an appropriate treatment for a patient or trading strategy for an investment client, respectively.
Indulgence vs. restraint is another important cultural dimension. Indulgence measures the extent to which the society members are able to experience joy to simple things. Members of indulgent societies are believed to be masters of their destinies, whereas members of restrained cultures tend to think that external factors affect their happiness. Indulgent speakers may seem more optimistic, whereas restrained speakers tend to communicate with the air of pessimism.
Last but not the least, cultural individualism measures how the society members identify themselves. In the highly individualistic societies, people tend of themselves as “I”, whereas in the highly collectivist cultures this definition is altered to “We”. This has direct implications in communication, for such philosophical categories as humanism can be understood differently by people from individualistic (usually Western) and collectivist (usually Eastern) societies.
Possible Venues of Conflict Between USA and Mexico
The figure 1 compares the cultural dimensions of USA with that of Mexico (Hofstede Center 2016). As it can be seen from the chart, the two countries are similar along some dimensions (for example, masculinity) but very different along the others (for example, power distance). Those dimensions along which there is a biggest incompatibility bring the biggest concern about possible misunderstandings between the two nations.
With a score of 81, Mexico is considered to be a hierarchical society. In such a society, authority is tolerated and hierarchical orders within all branches of society are accepted. Bosses often have powers of benevolent autocrats, and while subordinates expect to act according to precise guidelines given to them “from above”, power holders themselves tend to be distant from their employees. Centralization is very popular. This being said, the US has power distance is equal to 40. According to such a low score, Americans value autonomy, independence and liberal approach. Direct and participating style of management within the organization is more common in the US than in Mexico. Leadership and respect are deserved through the expertise. Equal rights are established for both employers and employees, and the organizational hierarchy is set only for the sake of convenience. Employees are actively involved in the organization’s life, and managers prefer to coach rather than to control.
Another important ground for conflicts between the US and Mexico is individualism of these societies. With a score of 30 in individualism, Mexico can be considered to be a collectivistic society. It means that members of such a society are committed to belong to a group (such as family or extended family) rather than to retain their individualistic status. In such a society loyalty is very important, and it often serves a stronger driver for decision making than laws and regulation. Moreover, in collectivist societies it is part of the cultural education for people to be more responsible for their friends, peers and colleagues. As a matter of fact, organizations can also be considered as families, and failure of individual employees harms the reputation of the entire company, and the relationships between employers and employees are governed by moral principles rather than legal norms. On the other hand, the US with a score 91 is considered to be an individualistic society. In such a society, people put an emphasis on self-actualization of every individual, and therefore responsibility is taken only for themselves and close family members. Loyalty is an outcome of personal preferences rather than social norms. As opposed to Mexico, loyalty between employers and employees within the organization is based on contractual relationship. Communication is therefore very direct, and dissatisfaction and offence are openly expressed.
Finally, Mexico and the US are different along such a dimension as uncertainty avoidance. Mexico with a score of 82 is a country whose members would prefer avoiding uncertainty by any means. In such societies people tend to be conservative and rigid, therefore trying to avoid anything unorthodox and unconventional. People tend to value security and stability, and therefore any changes and even innovation might be postponed and even opposed, despite actually bringing positive results. There is an inner passion for rules in the society such as Mexico, even though these rules might not work well. On the other hand, the US has a score of 46 in the uncertainty avoidance index. Such a low score reflects the society’s aspiration for new ideas in all aspects of the society, including business practices and innovation. Tolerance and freedom of expression are more accepted in the US than in Mexico. Additivity to changes rather construction of precise rules is what characterizes the decision making within the organizations. Organizational planning is not detail oriented, usually short-term, and is ready to accommodate for any unexpected surprises. The curiosity and creativity are the two features that are highly valued among employees.
Avoiding Conflicts and Doing Business in Mexico
Over the past years, the increasing number of American firms started doing business in Mexico. Nonetheless, to achieve the utmost efficiency, one cannot avoid cultural considerations. The above described differences should be taken into account. Gordon (2014) writes that cultural discrepancies along such dimensions as individualism and uncertainty avoidance play a major role in doing business in Mexico, despite cultural convergence of the two nations. According to collectivist nature of Mexicans, employees need to feel that they are a part of the larger group such as organization, and failure to provide such perk to employees may lead to their reduced productivity. On the other hand, “uncertainty avoidance is still a strong tendency… due to the bleak prospects for most citizens who are on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum” (Gorton 2014).
To avoid a conflict, one should remember that personal relationships are very important for Mexicans – way more important than business contacts (Kluckhohn and Strodbeck 1961). Kluckhohn and Strodbeck (1961) write that for Mexicans friendship is more important than work, calling them rather “being” than “doing” culture. Even though it may lead to adverse consequences for the organizational culture, such as nepotism, Mexicans often hire employees based on their persona links to other workers rather than professional capability. As a matter of fact, it is important to befriend with business partners rather than just sign a contract.
Another important aspect is the way Mexicans and Americans handle time. Mexicans do not meet deadlines with the precision of Americans. Being late for meetings or even cancelling them is quite common, even though many Mexicans got used to doing business with Americans and therefore tend to show their respect by arriving on time. Given that Mexico is collectivist society with high value of family, Mexicans usually do not arrange meetings and negotiations on holidays reserving these days for their families. On the other hand, given high uncertainty avoidance index for Mexico, it is mandatory to confirm any meeting scheduled for the very distant time in the future on multiple occasions as the time approaches.
There are also miscellaneous minor details that an aspiring entrepreneur would need to consider in Mexico (Li 2012): 1) staring into someone’s eyes is considered to be extremely impolite; 2) throwing documents on the table is considered to be rude; 3) Mexicans have closer private space, and therefore backing away is considered to be unfriendly; 4) it is also impolite to address business partners by their first name, unless they personally suggested to do so; and finally, 5) a hand gesture saying OK is considered to be vulgar in all the countries of Latin America.
- Gorton, G. (2014). Managing in Mexico – An Ethnographic Comparison to Theory and Previous Research. Journal of International Business and Cultural Studies. Available at http://www.aabri.com/manuscripts/09214.pdf
- Hofstede, Geert. (1991). Cultures and organizations: software of the mind. London: McGraw-Hill.
- Hofstede Center. (2016). Cultural Dimensions. Available at http://geert-hofstede.com/mexico.html
- Kluckhohn, F., Strodtbeck, F. (1961). Variations in Value Orientations. Evanston IL: Row Peterson and Company.
- Li, Hao. (2012). Doing Business in Mexico: Culture Differences to Watch for. International Business Time. Available at http://www.ibtimes.com/doing-business-mexico-culture-differences-watch-413594