Ethics as defined by Raiborn and Payne (1990) “…is a system of value principles or practices and a definition of right and wrong” (Raiborn & Payne, 1990). The main question arising regarding this definition of ethics is – how do we know what is right and wrong?
If we want to continue exploring ethics and to try to understand how it applies in different countries we also look at another definition whereas ethics is described as “a social, religious or civil code of behavior considered correct especially that of a particular group, profession or individual” (Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, 1979), meaning it can differ for one society compared to another. Another thing that helps us differentiating between different countries and societies is the culture.
Culture is “the systems of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people” Gudykunst and Kim (1992) and their “behavior through social learning”. (Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, 1979) According to Kumar et al. (1998, p. 255) the cultural values “are a result of complex transactions that take place between individuals and their social environment. ” There are many studies which are linking the individual value systems with the social environment and define morals and values as implicit components of national culture (Bower, 1973; Hoge et al. , 1974; Kirchner et al. 1972; Kumar et al. , 1991) and ethics as an “application of moral values”.
They also proof the correlation between personal values and personal ethical behavior with cultural values. All those studies prove that this relationship together with the demographic variables could indeed affect individual ethical intention and behavior. Nowadays, many companies are dealing with illegal and unethical behavior as well as with conflicts arising after expanding business to other countries, which in many cases is the cause of lack of knowledge and understanding of other cultures and cultural values.
This happens because culture does affect people drastically in terms of what they believe to be right or wrong and sometimes result in actions that might seem unethical and even be considered illegal. Said in other words, the culture of a society has significant effects on ethics, as the expectations for “right” behavior from some societies towards others are defined mainly by the culture they belong to. For example, the child labor is something that is prohibited in many countries, including U. S. , by laws and company policies.
It would be very unethical and also illegal to see child labor in a U. S. company, while in countries like Pakistan this would be considered normal, well accepted and fully legal. As a matter of fact, the child labor is considered something positive in Pakistan, as it improves the family’s welfare and keeps children away from the streets and all the great dangers out there. There are many theories and studies that are looking into the relationship of culture and ethics. The aim of this paper is to outline and provide examples for this correlation and the actual effects of cultures on ethics overall.
One well-known technique used for measuring the cultural differences among different societies, using multiple indicators, is formulated by Hofstede (1997) as a result of his comparative research which included 53 countries. According to his technique there are six indexes, also called value dimensions (sixth index was added in 2012), based on which countries were evaluated. These indexes include Power Distance, Collectivism versus Individualism, Feminity versus Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long-term versus Short-term and Indulgence versus Restraint oriented cultures.
The greater the difference in scores between different countries in any of those indexes, the bigger the gaps in terms of expectations towards “right” behavior when people from those countries interact. If we look into the results provided after the “comparative research” we see that there are groups of countries sharing similar and close beliefs and values compared to others which have completely different perceptions and thus would behave differently in particular situations.
Misunderstandings and miscommunications are often seen between people from different countries and in many of the cases this is mainly due to such cultural differences. For instance, in some countries it is normal for people to kiss on their cheeks even when they meet for the first time while in others such gesture would be considered improper and even offensive. Other similar examples would be the clothing, the use of alcohol, the eating style, concept of time, etc. It is generally accepted for women in some Arab countries to wear special swimming suits covering the whole body while women in countries like Norway would be topless while being at the beach.
When it comes to eating style, in some countries like India, people would eat with their hands and not using any cutlery. For countries like France and Germany, people having such eating style will be considered as ill-mannered. Same thing will be valid for slurping sounds made while eating although it is absolutely normal for people in Japan, especially with noddle soup. Another interesting example is the communication styles.
In many countries such as U. S. they will teach you in universities and at school how important the body language and eye contact is when communicating with others while in some countries like India it is considered disrespectful to look somebody directly in the eyes while talking. We will use Hofstede work and review some of the value indexes defined in his research as well as the positioning of different countries among the curve to get better understanding of the perceptions and expectations of individuals belonging to those countries.
The Power Distance index is showing the acceptance of inequality in power and authority. In different countries people with power and authority would have different impact and influence on ethics. According to Hofstede research, the people from countries which have low “Power Distance” (PD) are used to ask politely (and to be asked in the same manner) when something needs to be done rather than addressing it in an authoritarian fashion. In many occasions subordinates from countries with high PD might not even accept seriously the request as they are used to be told what to do.
The research of Hofstede classifies Latin and Asian countries, African areas and the Arab world as countries with very high PD (Guatemala – 95) while Anglo and Germanic countries like Austria (11) and Denmark (18) have much lower PD. In European countries there is a trend for lower PD in northern countries and higher in southern and eastern parts – for instance Poland (68) and Spain (57) versus Sweden (31) and UK (35). U. S is considered in the middle with a score of 40. In some African countries the “right thing” to do would be dictated by powerful people.
Even though there are laws that prohibit violence in some areas a person can even get killed if a powerful figure consider it a must and nobody would judge the act or consider it improper. In term of business relations, Canada and the U. S. (both have relatively lower PD when compared to other countries) are more likely not to consider formal codes of ethics the way they would consider informal and industry norms, when setting up a business entity. On the other hand, a country like France or Austria would rather build up a foundation mainly by counting on the ethical code and not that much to the informal norms.
This will not mean that any of those countries business will be immoral in any way this is just the way things would work. Another index described by Hofstede is the “Uncertainty Avoidance” (UA). It shows us which countries allow more room for individual decision-making compared to countries where there are many rules that are not supposed to be diverged as well as the degree for tolerance of any deviations from group/organizational norms. One interesting fact for people from countries with low UA is that there is an attitude of “it is easier to get forgiveness than permission”.
Such countries are the Nordic, Anglo and Chinese culture countries, while countries with higher UA include Japan, Southern and Eastern Europe, German speaking countries, and Latin American countries. Some of them, even though being located at similar geographical positions have quite different index scores. For instance Germany (65) and Belgium (94) have much higher scores when compared to Sweden (29) and Denmark (23). For instance, Japan will be less likely to perceive any ethical problems when compared to the U. S as it has much higher UA score.
It would also stick and use the professional and industry ethical norms when settling a business. If a US citizen decides to start living and working in Japan the culture and the work environment would be rather different and a situation which would be considered wrong and unethical (e. g. the work relations) in his/her country would not be noticed and/or addressed by any of the native co-workers. There are many interesting examples when it comes to typical potential conflicts and misunderstandings related to these culture characteristics.
People in India sometimes in the business world would really believe that “it is easier to get forgiveness than permission”. They cannot say “No” and would often end up committing to complete tasks that are not fully understood or when they are not capable of doing it. If they work together with people from Japan their attitude might not be understood and well accepted and even considered unethical if third parties or clients are also involved and the end result is not delivered as per the expectations.
The individualistic versus collectivistic perspective describes the extent to which people from different countries respect the rules and if they tend to prioritize their personal goals and needs rather than the needs and goals of a group of people (country/society/group/organization/clan). When it comes to this index there is a clear gap between less developed and Eastern countries and more developed and Western countries. Countries that are considered highly individualistic by Hofstede are North America and Europe. On the other hand, Asia, Africa and Latin America have very strong collectivistic values.
The countries from the Arab world as well as Japan are in the middle. To get a better understanding of the vast difference in terms of scores we can compare U. S. which got a grade of 91 points to Columbia which only got 13 points or Guatemala with 6 points. If we compare Asians and Western cultures and their social networks, we see that western cultures have rather loosed social norms than Asian cultures. Asian cultures are collectivistic and have basic rules for social relationships provided by Confucianism, that they tend to follow. Those are allowing them to establish personal bonds and maintain good relationships.
Another interesting thing is the degree of self-disclosure. The Japanese people compared to Americans tend not to disclose any information regarding intimate topics and to be very discrete in relationships. One example of how discrete those cultures are is the ban of Facebook and even Google in some countries. The perception towards strangers is also something that is different for collectivistic and individualistic societies. Individualistic cultures are more open to communicate with strangers than collectivistic societies. For instance, Asian countries are much more anxious to do that as they fear about their harmony and bonds.
The same thing is observed when talking about responsibility towards others. The countries with individualistic cultures are used to help and protect people that depend on them while in collectivistic countries it depends. When it comes to human interactions, something very interesting is the perception of compliments. For example, in Asia (collectivistic cultures) people are not used to complain much and/or to accept compliments. This is also part of the cultural norms that allow them to keep their balance. You can never know how a compliment can be perceived depending on the audience.
Another set of characteristics describing the perception of some rules and to big extend the ethics towards women in different societies is the “Masculine and Feminine” index. The countries defined as masculine tend to have different rules for men and women and thus different behavior would be observed in the communications and behavior of such individuals while such rules are much less or even absent in feminine countries. For this index the results of different countries varies from country to country independently from the geographical region.
Norway (8) and Sweden (5) are the two countries with lowest masculinity scores and Japan (95) is one of the countries with the highest score. In some European countries the scores are rather high and for Latin countries they vary. What is important to note about this index is the fact that some cultures (with high masculine scores) are more conductive to unethical conduct than others due to the fact that they encourage the males to strive for success and to be very competitive and ambitious. This behavior and values often serve as a reason for engagement in unethical behavior.
If we look at Sweden and we try to compare it with U. S or Japan, we would discover that there are much more overlapping positions for both men and women and thus the people in this society do not need to be overly competitive or ambitious. Another thing related to this topic is the way women and men are perceived and treated within a society. Even nowadays there are many countries that have totally different perceptions and rules even laws that others do not understand. Both in the business world and in life we see and read stories all the time that just does not make sense to us.
But for some cultures they do matter and are considered right and fully accepted by the society they live in. To sum up, the research and analysis done by Hofstede is just one of the many studies on the topic of cultures. Even though there were some limitations of this theory and some argued that there are many other factors involved that were not considered in this work, it proves very solidly that cultures matter when it comes to ethics. There is a strong relationship between the national cultural values, individual values and ethical intensions and behavior.
The perceptions and cultural background are to a big extend very important for all people when they determine what is “wrong” and “right” and thus what is moral and what is not ethical. One very important thing to learn from this paper is to always research well the culture of the people you intend to communicate with or even do business in order to achieve success and not to get into a conflict. Also last but not least, do not judge people if you do not know anything about their culture because what looks ethical to you is not necessarily the case for them.