Cultural values

Tim Mitchell, VP, USA, Global Integration discusses cultural values – and our own may come with a health warning.

One of the things that people often find confusing about national cultures is the way that different values can lead to the same result. For example, one of the recent hot topics here in the US has been the debate over the Affordable Healthcare Act (otherwise referred to as ‘Obama care’) and whether such measures lead to the erosion of the primacy of individualistic rights and the growth of a European-style group dependency.

[fresheggmediauploader mediatype(1)=”image” mediatitle(1)=”Obama” mediacode(1)=”web Obama.jpg” mediatype(2)=””]In Europe, the Swedish welfare state or Heimatstadt is often viewed as a classic example of this kind of social view.

However, I recently heard an interview on the BBC with a Swedish sociologist who explained it in terms of a culture that is highly individualistic rather than group oriented. From this view, the provision of health and social services for all means that no individual need be dependent upon any other eg parents do not need to rely on their children for support in their old age. Only the State can guarantee this.

The reporter went on to provide an example of how she’d seen this play out in real life: a couple recently moved into the next door apartment and the reporter decided to welcome them by baking a cake and taking it as a present. Much to her surprise, rather than being grateful her new neighbour looked at her in exasperation and said “But I don’t have time to bake you a cake in return.”

What she learned was that the Swedes dislike being under an obligation to anyone; this means that people pay for their own dinner at social gatherings and it’s very common for married couples to have separate bank accounts and/or legal identities.

This helps explain the recent case of the best selling author Stieg Larsson who died without having made his long term civil partner his legal heir, and the seeming anomaly whereby highly statist Sweden has a strong record of entrepreneurship, creating international success stories such as Skype, Spotify, Kazaa and MyCube and ranked above the US in the 2010/2011 Global Competitiveness Report produced by the World Economic Forum.

The ‘so what’ from this, apart from the obvious implications if you’re working with Swedish businesses or colleagues, is to emphasise the dangers of making snap judgements about other cultures based on our perspective and the importance of aligning values, which we can often easily share, before focusing on process, which is much harder.

Author: Tim Mitchell, Global Integration

What’s been your experience? We’d love to hear your opinions and shared experiences.

You can find out more about Global Integration’s cross cultural training on our Tools for Cross Cultural Success pages.


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