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How Social Media Confirms What We Know About Cultures

Yes, social media is transforming the world into a global village. It has never been easier to stay in touch with your friends on the other side of the world.

However, our recent white paper suggests that our cultural differences are still alive and kicking – and they have a profound impact on the way we deal with social media. Some of our findings even confirm what we know about culture from well-established academic literature. In other words: people from different nationalities react to social media in a way that could have been predicted by social science. In this post, I’d like to take you through the four cultural dimensions that academic Geert Hofstede created to explain how cultures differ back in the Eighties, and if they can be seen reflected in today’s social media channels.

Social media tips around the world

Click image to enlarge

1. Individualism, skepticism and blogging

In the white paper’s chapter ‘Social media tips by market’, both the UK and the Netherlands are cited as being skeptical towards corporate content on social media: ‘Nobody likes braggers, but the Dutch have a particular dislike for it’.

Both countries score high on power distance. Hofstede did a research among IBM employees in 50 countries. Power distance, or the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally, is the first of the cultural dimensions.

It is not hard to see a link between a lack of willingness to accept authority and skepticism towards companies. Similarly, the Dutch are  fond of blogging: there are many platforms that allow guest contributions. Which suggests that in a culture with low power distance, anyone can be an expert.

On the other side of the spectrum is Singapore: their high level of power distance is reflected in the white paper’s advice that companies should be very cautious about offending the government or nation.

2. Rules and regulations to avoid uncertainty

Some countries in our white paper are extremely focused on data privacy: namely Spain, Belgium and Germany. The Spanish and Belgian’s particularly, score high on Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance dimension – which means they are intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. People in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance try to minimize the occurrence of unknown and unusual circumstances by implementing rules, laws and regulations.

3. Masculinity, sexuality and Klout scores

Masculinity, the third dimension, refers to values such as competitiveness, assertiveness, materialism, ambition and power. Masculine cultures tend to have a taboo on sexuality. One of the tips for companies that want to enter the realms of social media in Italy, the most masculine society in our white paper (based on Hofstede’s research), is to avoid topics such as sexuality, religion and crime on social media.

Another aspect of masculine cultures is that they value the ‘quantity of life’, like money and power, instead of quality (happiness, relationships).

Allow me to engage in a bit of speculation here.

Although there is no evidence in the white paper, it is not hard to imagine that a masculine culture would attach more value to the quantity side of social media. This would imply that masculine cultures (such as Italy, UK, Germany, US) are more focused on Klout scores, number of Twitter followers and the ROI of social media than feminine cultures like the Nordics and the Netherlands.

4. Individualism and the adoption of social media

The fourth dimension is individualism. It is not easy to link this to the way cultures deal with social media, because there seems to be a direct relationship between a country’s wealth and its level of individualism. Countries on the top of this index are the Anglo-Saxon and western European countries – on the lower bottom are cultures in Africa, South America and Asia.

It is almost impossible to say anything about the relationship between individualism and social media, because it is very likely that the average income per head is somewhere in between, influencing both factors.

Of course, this analysis is hardly academic – it is anecdotic at best. So, do you agree? Do we still stick to our old cultural values, even in the online world? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Freek Janssen is also a regular contributor on Dutch blogs Marketing Facts and Bijgespijkerd

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  • http://twitter.com/tvanrheeden Tom van Rheeden

    There is a good book connecting these cultural dimensions with marketing implications by Marieke de Mooij, called Global Marketing and Advertising – Understanding Cultural Paradoxes. (you can find it on Amazon, don’t know if I’m allowed to include the link here).

    The Indidivualism/Collectivism-dimension is especially interesting when analyzing social media sharing behavior across cultures. The reasons for say Chinese people (in general) to share certain information/blogposts/launching virals/’what have you’ are likely to be VERY different compared to Americans.

    So for a Global PR agency (like Lewis) understanding the mechanisms behind sharing behavior across cultures can really, really help them in their social media campaigns.

    • Freek Janssen

      Thank you Tom, that really does sound interesting. I must say that this dimension (individualism/collectivism) was the hardest one to interpret since social media is about individuals linking to groups (new or existing). Can you explain the difference in sharing behavior?

      • http://twitter.com/tvanrheeden Tom van Rheeden

        Hi Freek,

        I’ve explained some of the aspects in possible differences in sharing behavior in the following blog post. I hope you like it:

        http://bit.ly/ncSuDC

        • Freek Janssen

          Great, Tom :) !

          I would advice everyone interested in this topic to read this post: how the individualism / collectivism influences the use of social media. Summarizing: collectivist cultures tend to communicate more indirectly, so don’t for example ask someone in Japan to ‘please RT’. Won’t work. Fantastic stuff!

        • Lisan te Woerd

          Hi there,

          I’m very interested in the article you’re talking about but unfortunately, the link is not working anymore. Is the article still anywhere to be found online?

          Thanks!

  • Todd

    Excellent piece. In my graduate level Crisis Communication course we are studying Hofstede’s theory and how it relates to crisis situations. However, I really enjoyed your perspective on the impact of social media in a intercultural environment.

    • Freek Janssen

      Thanks, Todd! All other insights are welcome, would love to hear about them!

  • Bram Koster

    Hi Freek, very interesting stuff! Just wanted to point out an error in the bit about power distance. You write about UK and the Netherlands: “Both countries score high on power distance.” I think that should be “low”, not “high”. Especially since later on, you write: “On the other side of the spectrum is Singapore: their high level of power distance is reflected …”

    Now on to Tom van Rheeden’s blogpost! :)

    • Freek Janssen

      You’re absolutely right, Bram. Thanks for flagging!