Archive for Values

Examining our values


I believe that before we can communicate effectively with others, it’s critical to identify our own values that we’ve internalized since childhood. If we become aware of our values, our beliefs, and our assumptions, and how they translate into our particular style of parenting, or our particular style of teaching for example, then we will have an easier time working with others, or raising children together. There is a Dutch anthropologist named Geert Hoefstede, who came up with four very helpful “value dimensions” – as he calls them – that can clarify for us why we do the things we do – He explains these value dimensions in his book “Culture’s Consequences: International differences in work-related values” published in 1988.

This research is very powerful because it raises your level of awareness every time you come in contact with someone from a different cultural background. Because they show us how our values influence our every day behavior – things that we do subconsciously – so that instead of judging someone for doing something that doesn’t match our way of doing things, we can recognize that this person has a different value system than ours and has a different way of behaving or a different assumption of how things should be. We take on the role of the anthropologist and we can take a step back, instead of rushing to judgment or falling back on labels or stereotypes.

Obviously these value dimensions represent only generalizations – there is great diversity in each cultural group – and for many of us who’ve grown up in more than one country we will often identify with more than one value systems – but at least this research gives us a foundation, to help us to stay more open-minded and aware when we encounter different behaviors and different ways of thinking.

The first value orientation – which is mentioned the most often – is Individualism and Collectivism. If you come from an invidividualist culture like the US, the focus is on your personal needs and becoming self-efficient from an early age – With collectivism, in countries like Japan and Guatemala, there are stronger ties to the family, which promotes interdependence. And caring for one another comes before your own personal needs. According to the research, close to 70% of the world’s cultures can be described as collectivistic. Which means for many immigrant children moving to the U.S. they will have to find a way to go from a more collectivistic value system at home to a more individualistic value system in school.

In many collectivistic cultures, children are taught to respect their elders as the source of knowledge. They’re less likely to be asked to express and share their opinions or contradict someone of a higher status. So, of course, in the classroom, students might resist raising their hand and assert their opinions ut loud. Unfortunately the hesitation in group discussions might be interpreted as a lack of knowledge or motivation, instead of simple respect toward the teacher.

In an individualistic culture, competition is highly valued, whereas in a collectivistic culture, the focus is on cooperation. This might show up during tests, when a child might feel compelled to help another child find the correct answers, which in a US school would most probably be interpreted as cheating.

The second value dimension that helps us see how people’s expectations might differ from ours is called Small Distance Power and Large Distance Power. In Small Distance Power there is equality between family members. In Large Distance Power, there is a defined hierarchy. Parents and grandparents have authority over children that is seldom questioned.

For example, in France, a Large Distance Power culture, there is an emphasis on formality. Children learn early on to use the Vous form, which is the You formal, to address elders. As they grow, they learn to use it when addressing people of a higher status or people they meet for the first time. Siblings also each have a rank in the family, which grants them different discretions.

When parents come from opposite cultural dimensions, there are inevitable frictions. One parent might expect complete authority when making decisions for the family, while the other parent might prefer to give his children more power and engage them in the decision process. My husband and I noticed our cultural differences in the way we let children interrupt adult conversations. In large distance power cultures like France, children are often taught to wait for adults to finish speaking, whereas in small distance power cultures, like Canada where my husband’s from, children’s needs come first and parents will often break a conversation to attend to them. In some families, that can be interpreted as a lack of respect for the elders.

The third value dimension is Weak Uncertainty Avoidance, where the focus in on taking risks and encouraging changes and new ideas, and Strong Uncertainty Avoidance, where the focus in more on setting rules and regulations. Children are guided along a path and deviation is not encouraged. Parents who come from a strong uncertainty avoidance culture often impose more restrictions on their children compared to their American classmates when it comes to activities like spending time after school with friends, or attending parties in the evening. In addition, parents might not be comfortable letting go of their authority and discipline or they might refuse to send their children to summer camps or far-away field trips.

In the US, with a weak uncertainty orientation, children are often given more freedom and flexibility in their choices. For example, when we moved to the States, my sisters and I were amazed at the range of classes offered in school that encourage new and diverse ideas. I studied Journalism in junior and high school, and I never would have been able to do that in France. I would have been guided toward a career in business, like everybody else, because that’s what you do. I wouldn’t have been able to pursue a career as a writer has I stayed in France, let alone publish a book in my second language! So even through all the pains of culture shock, I’m still grateful we moved here!

The fourth cultural dimension is Masculinity and Feminity. This one affects how children are socialized. In “masculine” cultures, the dominant values are geared toward assertiveness and the acquisition of things. In “feminine” cultures, the dominant values are geared toward a genuine concern for people and their quality of life. Disagreements caused by this cultural orientation can show up in unexpected ways. For example, if one parent is from a masculine culture where achievement and ambition are important, and the other parent is from a feminine culture where rich and nurturing family time together comes first, the discussion of how much the children should get involved with after-school activities can get complicated quickly.

What I have found is that once we clarify our own values, our attitudes, and our behavior patterns, the better we can recognize strategies to deal with our disagreements or – better yet – prevent misunderstandings. Different cultural values and beliefs do not have to be a constant source of tension and frustration. We use our differences to teach our children early on that there is more than one way to look at things. When children witness cooperation they learn that people can have different perspectives on issues but still respect one another. And that makes for more comfortable family reunions, doesn’t it?

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