National cultures

Many think of culture as a singular phenomenon that varies only across geographical barriers. However, we acknowledge that culture exists on six distinct levels, and that taking these levels into account can help individuals adjust to different cultural surroundings as they encounter them at work, at home and abroad. The six levels of culture are: national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and individual. Here, we will be discussing the national/societal level of culture.

The national/societal level of culture is perhaps the most prevalent in both academic and popular perceptions of cultural differences – indeed, many use the terms “nationality” and “culture” interchangeably. While this type of thinking can be useful for foreigners to determine the core cultural values prevalent in a country, there are many underlying complexities in every national culture. After all, cultures are older than even the idea of the nation-state, and while the geographic boundaries of countries are imposed by political actors, culture is organic.

In today’s globalized business world, with its focus on emerging markets and shifting economic relationships, determining cultural differences across nationalities is necessary for any organization’s internationalization strategy. But it is dangerous to overly simplify cultural differences across countries. Problems converge frequently as a result of depictions of specific business cultures through simplistic, nationality-based comparisons.

That is why there is value in signifying national/societal culture as but one level of a more complex system. In doing so, individuals acknowledge that within each country there are core values that are safe to assume to be present, but that there are five other levels of culture to take into account. For example, a foreign businessperson seeking to expand their enterprise in China would do well to assume that the core values of saving face (“mianzi”) and establishing relationships (“guanxi”) are applicable to all business situations in the country. Knowing this, the foreign businessperson would avoid raising their voice to or questioning their Chinese partners in a meeting to avoid causing them to lose face. Similarly, this businessperson would know to ask their Chinese contacts to facilitate initial introductions with potential partners in order to kick-start the relationship. Assuming that these fundamental values are present can help our foreign businessperson prepare their business ventures and adapt their strategies.

However, the existence of possible exceptions should not be ignored or disregarded. For example, a particular Chinese organization might have a culture that values more direct communication. Similarly, functional groups within organizations – such as Human Resources employees, engineers and IT personnel – have distinct cultures as well. This is why it is essential to account for all six levels of culture when interacting and collaborating with others.

Although it is safer to accept the existence of some core values in any given culture, the social identities, contexts and circumstances are dynamic and varied across all levels, creating the chance to formulate nuanced strategies.

With this in mind, we seek to responsibly represent the differences and similarities among nationalities by referencing the national/societal as but one of six levels of culture, and by identifying their respective relevance to managers and leaders in today’s globalizing business world.

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