An Evaluation of ‘Close neighbours and distant friends-perceptions of cultural distance’
Due to managing across cultures happening in enterprises which operate in different countries and different regions, there must be a certain issue referred to as cultural distance. There is a paper on cultural distance (Chapman, et al., 2007) with a huge amount of research on how cultural distance influence the understanding amongst managers from Germany, the United Kingdom and Poland. The researchers divided the three nationalities into German/Polish, and UK/Polish as contrasts, and then they interviewed the members of the different nationalities separately to get empirical data. After the qualitative, interpretive analyzing, they combined the historical data and found that even though the Polish culture is remarkably different from the German and the British, Poland and the UK perceive themselves as close, whereas Poland perceives Germany as different (Chapman, et al., 2007). In this paper, I try to evaluate the research paper in three main parts; an examination of the theoretical framework, a discussion of research methods adopted, and an assessment of the wider implications (Sliwa, 2009). The researchers said in the end of paper that they hope their approach may help managers to manage across cultures. I think the efficient approach is to respect cultural differences and to try to narrow cultural distance.
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First of all, the researchers have analyzed Hofstede’s works which are broadly cited in literature relating to international business and international management (Hofstede, 1991). They use cultural dimensions theory to divide the three countries, in order to compare and analyze them clearly and efficiently. However, they found that Hofstede’s dimensions are simplications of the research. In my opinion, Hofstede’s culture rankings of these three countries are too weak and inappropriate. The data collected by Hofstede trace back to thirty years ago, which is a little behind the times of today (Schneider and Barsoux, 2003). Even though his research involved more than 40 different countries, it was still restricted to one company (IBM), and the interviewees were almost managers, not ‘normal’ employees. This made some people (especially in other multinational corporations) think that the research is not comprehensive and lacks from persuasion. After all, every large multinational company has its own corporate culture which would influence the results of managing in different cultures. Hofstede’s research is a static research which does not refer to the analysis of cultural evaluation and influential aspects of cultural values.
Secondly, the researchers adopt Shenkar’s (2001: 523-524) theory about four illusions of cultural distance to support the paper. Conventionally, people think that a German manager faces the same cultural distance with Polish colleagues in Germany as a Polish manager faces in Poland. This assumption caused by ‘illusion of symmetry’ is not supported. We can also see that the differences of UK/Polish and differences of German/Polish are symmetrical, but more complex and subtle (Chapman, et al., 2007). The researchers mentioned the ‘illusion of causality’ and cited that ‘small cultural distances’ without anticipation could cause bigger problems than those ‘large cultural distances’ with a forewarning. I agree that the mention and citation do not serve each other right. The ‘illusion of causality’ is mainly about interpreting other non-cultural factors which influence the FDI pattern, sequence, and performance (Shankar, 2001: 524). Chapman et al (2007) creates a concept called the ‘illusion of neutrality’. I think this is a brilliant idea. It is true that when the two countries (e.g. Germany and Poland) get evolved in political dispute or warfare, they can hardly treat each other neutrally. As a result, some small cultural differences matter. For other countries (e.g. the UK and Poland), who have no conflict of interests, they can ignore or tolerate the large cultural differences. But in relation to the ‘illusion of stability’, we can find that the cultural distance could not be constant. In other words, the neutral perceptions of cultural distance between the UK and Poland will change over time, as well as the intense perspectives of cultural distance between Germany and Poland.
Last but not least, the researchers mainly focus on studying ‘perception’, and that is ‘ethnographic in character’ (Chapman, et al., 2007). For that reason, the concept of ‘psychic distance’ should be distinguished form ‘cultural distance’. When the managers from Germany, the UK, and Poland deal with each other, they always consciously or unconsciously believe in and depend on their own conceptions. The reasons are that they were taught what is right or wrong, what is responsible or responsible, what is altruistic or materialistic, etc. On this point, the indivisible relationship of our own culture makes us born with an ethnocentric tendency which results in psychic distance.
The researchers used a qualitative, interpretive research strategy and focused on analyzing the managerial perceptions (Chapman, et al., 2007). In order to discover the opinions of German, British and Polish managers who participated in international business activities, the researchers adopted in-depth interviews to collect data. There were 63 face-to-face interviews, and the respondents were general managers from 12 companies in Germany, the UK and Poland. I think usage of the qualitative methodological approach to study this cultural distance topic is an appropriate way because it is more flexible. The open-ended questions gave these managers more opportunities to say in their own words their genuine feelings about working with their foreign colleagues. The researchers do not need to anticipate the answers, in that way, they have a chance to use ‘probe’ (Family Health International, 2009) to encourage the respondents to elaborate on their answers. The ‘transparency’ (Bryman and Bell, 2007: 424) of this qualitative research is satisfying. For instance, it tells us how the people were chosen for interviews, as well as the specific process of qualitative data analysis. To some extent, the problems of generalization limit the research. The two contrasts, three countries, twelve companies, 63 face-to-face interviews and unknown age, gender, religion belief, etc. are a bit restricted to represent other settings. Moreover, they employed a ‘snowballing’ technique (Marschan, 1996), which might neglect some executives who are low-profile. As the authors said in the paper, they use Microsoft Word to deal with the long transcripts to organize themes. Sometimes they would inevitably add a few personal conceptions when they organize data. This would cause the research to become too subjective.
Researchers’ Findings and Conclusions
What the researchers have found mainly reveals that the cultural distance among Germany, the UK, and Poland is different on the individual managerial experience level. The relationship between Germany and Poland is close but tense, and the UK and Poland have a relative distant but easy relationship. Therefore, Chapman, et al. (2007) concludes that cultural distance is both created and interpreted by the perceivers, and the creation and interpretation are influenced by experience and history. I think the empirical evidence written in the paper does not reflect the tight relationship between German managers and Polish managers. The authors considered the influences of the war too much, and subjectively judge that the relationship between Germans and Polish is tense. Besides, the German managers are much more familiar with Polish managers, compared to the British and the Polish. It is interesting that the perceptions of German and British to Polish are quite similar in the fig.1 and fig. 3 (Chapman, et al., 2007). Their conclusion is a different angle to interpreting the cultural distance. I argue that the interviewee sample the researchers chose cannot be ‘generalized to the other settings’ (Bryman and Bell, 2007: 423). The historical issues could have some impact on the interactions of individuals, but it should be added that historical problems have less influence on the younger generation. With the process of cultural globalisaion and integration of different cultures, cultural distance is reduced remarkably.
Implications for individuals involved in cross-cultural management:
As the researchers said in the article, they hoped international business managers because of certain historical circumstances could understand the unfriendliness of others, but not be hurt by it. It is true that the experiences of countries might influence one’s attitude when he or she works with foreign colleagues. Therefore, when a person starts to deal with international business, it is important to understand cultural distance and the influence on behaviors caused by it. The influences will be prominent on the level of individual managerial practice. People always come across various kinds of problems at the time they work in different cultural contexts. It is because people have different world views and modes of thinking because different culture backgrounds. Due to the diversiform modes of thinking, people’s views of the problems are from different angles, the styles and methods of solutions are disparate, inevitably, the setbacks, conflicts, and projects failure are coming after ‘each insists his own views’ (Holliday, Hyde, and Kullman, 2004). To avoid the unnecessary conflicts and misunderstandings, the international managers have to identify and appreciate the other members’ values and faith, and realize that cultural differences have influence on enterprises’ interior mechanism.
Chapman, M., Mattos, H.G., Clegg, J. and Buckley, P.J. (2007). Close neighbours and distant friends-perceptions of cultural distance. International Business Review, 17(2008), 217-237.
Bryman, A. & Bell, E. (2007). Business Research Methods 2nd Ed, New York: Oxford University Press.
Family Health International. (2009). Qualitative Research Methods Overview. [Online] Available at: http://www.fhi.org/NR/rdonlyres/etl7vogszehu5s4stpzb3tyqlpp7rojv4waq37elpbyei3tgmc4ty6dunbccfzxtaj2rvbaubzmz4f/overview1.pdf [Accessed 13 Nov. 2009].
Sliwa, M. (2009). Managing Across Cultures. [Handout] September 2009 ed. Newcastle: Newcastle University.
Hofestede, G. (1991). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. London: McGrw-Hill.
Schneider, S.C. and Barsoux, J. (2003). Managing Across Cultures. 2nd ed. Harlow: Financial Times Prentice Hall.
Shenkar, O. (2001). Cultural distance revisited: Towards a more rigorous conceptualization and measurement of cultural differences. Journal of International Business Studies, 32(3), 519-535 third quarter.
Marschan, R. (1996). New structural forms and inter-unit communication in multinationals. The case of Kone elevators. Ph.D. Thesis. Helsinki: Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration.
Holliday, A., Hyde, M. and Kullman, J. (2004). Intercultural communication: An Advanced Resource Book. London: Routledge press.
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