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Culture clash

by Paul Hudson
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New ‘Cultural lens’ challenges European stereotypes  
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European values and behaviour laid bare

Getting to grips with cultural differences across Europe can be a frustrating experience, obscured by assumptions about national stereotypes.

Intersperience has adopted a fresh analytical approach which sheds new light on this complex issue, making it possible to move beyond stereotypes and to develop a solid understanding of Europe from a cultural perspective.

We have created a ‘cultural lens’ which provides a unique perspective on European cultural values and behaviour. As part of a major international research project, we analysed attitudinal and behaviourial traits across Europe on the basis of six key dimensions.

We used our ‘cultural lens’ to develop a deeper understanding of cultural issues. Overlooking cultural differences can lead to cultural shocks. Business books contain salutory lessons on costly blunders as a result of marketing campaigns failing to take account of cultural differences.

Our unique analytical approach to cultural issues will benefit organisations seeking the best way to engage with the 500 million citizens in the European Union as well as those in neighbouring nations.

In simple terms, culture is a shared and learned system of values and beliefs that shape and influence perceptions and behaviour within society. Understanding which societies share common cultural traits can provide the key to unlocking lucrative growth opportunities.

The European Union represents an attractive market of 27 states, while non-EU nations such as Russia feature high on corporate growth agendas.

A desire to possess a share of these markets is a strong driver for overcoming barriers to cultural understanding but historically businesses have struggled to grapple with these issues in a systematic way.

We developed our ‘cultural lens’ to provide a robust framework to measure and compare culturally-defined behaviour. Our team of multilingual researchers conducted 2,600 surveys across Europe and used the lens to accurately pinpoint on an axis those nations which share similar cultural traits.

One dimension we examined closely is the concept of ‘high context’ and ‘low context’ cultures within Europe. It is a critical dimension because whether a nation belongs to a high or low context culture has implications for the best way to communicate with its citizens from a sales and marketing perspective.

Overall, Western European nations emerged as ‘low context’ cultures, more oriented towards the short term, more individualistic, and valuing assertiveness and material possessions. In contrast, Eastern Europe generally comprises ‘high context’ countries, more oriented towards the long term, more collectivist and valuing nurture within society.

‘Low context’ cultures tend to prefer explicit, direct and unambiguous communication which should be reflected in brand messaging whereas ‘high context’ cultures place a higher value on non-verbal forms of communication, focusing on how something is said as much as what is said.

Using our lens to obtain a unique measurement of the relative ‘cultural distance’ between nations enabled us to identify clusters of nations with not only shared behaviour but also common service expectations and preferences.

It threw up some surprising groupings of nations with striking cultural similarities. The main clusters we identified are:

- the North Sea cluster of the UK and Denmark

- the Nordic and Germanic cluster of Sweden, Germany and Austria

- the Latin cluster of Spain, Italy and Romania

- the Eastern cluster of Russia, Turkey, Belarus and the Ukraine

Although an East-West cultural divide clearly exists on some levels, we identified significant cultural differences between Eastern European nations - for example Russia, Turkey, Belarus and the Ukraine constitute a cluster but only just as their common cultural behaviours are relatively weakly shared.

We also uncovered evidence of many intra-regional differences within Western Europe. For example, Scandinavia is often viewed as a homogenous region but we found that Denmark shares more common cultural traits with the UK than its Scandinavian neighbours.

Likewise in Eastern Europe, Romania emerged as more culturally similar to Spain and Italy than its Eastern European neighbours, while in southwest Europe, there is significant cultural distance between Spain and Italy.

Pinpointing shared cultural behaviours has both practical and strategic implications for businesses operating across European borders as cultural behaviour influences brand perception and how people decode advertising and marketing messages.

It influences whether people will respond positively or negatively towards a campaign that celebrates individualism and material wealth or one which appeals to more nurturing collective values within a society.

There are also profound implications for the development of customer service networks both from an operational and strategic perspective because service expectations and preferences are culturally bound.

For example the Latin cluster of Spain, Italy and Romania (high context cultures) prefer highly personalised service and to engage with a ‘real’ person. By contrast, the UK and Denmark (low context cultures) place a higher value on efficiency and speed.

Also, some cultures are more open to disclosing personal data than others, even if the information is being sought in order to improve the service provided to them.

As a result, reorganisation or rationalisation of customer service operations across geographic lines for instance can be problematic if these issues are not fully understood. It can result in lower customer satisfaction or even customer alienation and defection - the bottom line implications are clear.

There are also implications for performance metrics used in customer service operations, as some cultures might not respond favourably to an organisation where staff are rewarded for the brevity of calls. (Average call handling times are common key performance indicators within customer contact centres).

Being aware of whether you are dealing with a high or low context culture is important when deploying self-service solutions which often entail greater use of technology such as webchat, SMS or automated voice response. These might be more cost-efficient, but could alienate customers in cultures which are less impressed with speedy service than personal engagement.

The key message from our research is that if the battle for the hearts and minds of European consumers is to be waged effectively, organisations need to put cultural issues at the heart of their strategic planning process.

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