One of the most challenging times in my career as a Technical Writer was when the management of our organization decided to launch our software product in the Japanese market and asked us unsuspecting technical writers to localize all the content for the product. Localization is the process of adapting existing content to suit the target market. As naive as we were, we used Google Translate and converted all our text – around 1500 pages of it – to Japanese. At the end of the project, we felt accomplished and proud, and celebrated a job well done with pizza and cake.
I realized my folly when I was introduced to the concepts of national culture, intercultural dimensions, static and dynamic approaches, and so on in the Advanced International Communication class. In today’s hyper-connected world, a product or website created in one country is readily accessible to a person halfway across the globe at the click of a button, thereby opening up a global market for the organizations. The organizations then need to be mindful about how their products and websites are perceived in different areas of the world so that they can craft their messages to appeal to the global audience and increase the reach of their products and services. Since the messages are usually crafted by the technical communicators, it is important for them to educate themselves about the theories and practices of intercultural communication. I realized that translating the language is just a part, albeit an important one, in the localizing process. But the crux of the localization process is understanding the cultural differences between the nations and customizing your message accordingly. And that is where intercultural theories like Hofstede’s cultural dimensions come into the picture.
The inception and evolution of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions
Professor Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist and a former IBM employee. He conducted a broad study of how values in a multicultural workplace are influenced by the national cultures of the employees. He based his study on the value scores collected from over 116000 IBM employees from over 70 countries between 1967 and 1973. Out of this data, he used the data from 40 countries with the largest number of respondents, and subsequently extended his analysis to 50 countries and 3 regions.
Professor Hofstede defines national culture as the “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others.” From his study, he developed his model of culture wherein he identified the values that distinguished national cultures from each other. He categorized them into four dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Masculinity vs. Femininity, and Uncertainty Avoidance.
In 1991, a colleague of Hofstede, Michael Harris Bond, conducted research in East Asia and analyzed his data in a different way. When he analyzed the data using Hofstede’s method, he found the same four dimensions. But Hofstede and his colleague, both belonged to Western countries. They wanted to administer the survey without their western influence. So they asked their Chinese colleagues to prepare the survey questionnaire, and then administered that questionnaire. They found the same four intercultural dimensions from the results of this survey as well. And they found an additional dimension, namely the Confuscian Dynamism, that is long-term vs. short-term orientation.
In 2010, a sixth dimension was added based on the research conducted by Michael Minkov, who analyzed the World Values Survey data for 93 countries. This new dimension is called Indulgence vs. Restraint.
Professor Hofstede assigned scores to each dimension for every country. These scores, or indexes, range from 0 to 100, with 50 being the median.
To summarize, the six cultural dimensions of Hofstede’s theory are:
The extent to which people in the society expect and accept unequal distribution of power. People in high power distance societies accept hierarchies and are more deferential towards authority figures, whereas people in low power distance societies expect a more democratic and consultative atmosphere and do not hesitate to question authority figures.
- Individualism vs. Collectivism
The extent to which people are bound by their social networks. People in individualistic societies prefer loosely-knit social frameworks, whereas people in collectivist societies prefer tightly-knit social communities.
- Masculinity vs. Femininity
The extent to which people prefer materialistic rewards or intangible rewards. Masculine societies focus more on achievement and accomplishments, and are competitive. Feminine societies value mutual care, quality of life, and so on.
The extent to which people feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. It shows the extent to which people in the society are open to risk-taking and experimenting, as opposed to being risk-averse.
- Long-term orientation vs. Short-term orientation
The extent to which people value principles and traditions and do not deviate from those norms.
The extent to which people allow gratification with respect to enjoying life and having fun.
Applying Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to technical communication
I realized the importance of knowing and applying the intercultural communication theories in the real world when I read an article about Match.com not being able to capture the Indian market. In India, marriage and relationships are the biggest drivers of the society, and the sheer number of people means a huge market for a well-developed relationships service. I was curious to know why a service so popular and successful in the US was unable to capture the Indian market. At the time, we were studying the cultural dimensions in the Advanced International Communication course. Out of curiosity, I researched the Match.com website from the intercultural perspective. It was no surprise it was not doing well in the Indian market. Though the website has an Indian counterpart, it is not customized for the Indian audience. The profiles talk about the user and their preferences, while not referring to family, community, location, and salary at all. To be successful in the collectivist and long-term oriented society in India, they need to drastically revamp not only their website but also their core offerings and compatibility algorithms. But these changes are normally out of the scope of influence of a technical communicator. What we can influence though are the information products.
To understand how Hofstede’s cultural dimensions can help technical communicators localize their information products, we can refer to the process of localizing content proposed by Nancy Hoft (1995). She advises us to research the international variables, analyze the competition, identify international resources, and synthesize data. To better understand the practical application of the theory, let us consider the example of a US-based website that could be localized for a foreign market. The website I have chosen for this exercise is Plated.com.
Plated is a fast-growing startup based in New York. It delivers ready-to-cook pre-proportioned ingredients and chef-designed recipes to the customers’ doorstep, so as to enable them to prepare a delicious meal without the efforts of recipe-hunting and grocery-shopping. I love the idea and wish we had something similar back home in India. So I wondered: if the management at Plated.com wanted to expand their operations to India and wanted to localize the content to suit the Indian market, how could they go about it.
To localize the website, we would first need to study the existing website and analyze its cultural orientation. As Hofstede states, culture exists only by comparison. Thus we would compare the cultural orientation of the United States with the cultural orientation of India. Next, we would study the existing Indian websites similar to plated.com, and analyze what works for the Indian community. This analysis will help us come up with concrete, implementable steps to localize the content.
Comparing America and India in terms of Hofstede’s dimensions
To compare the cultural values in the American and Indian societies, let us refer to the data provided by The Hofstede Centre.
Power Distance (PDI)
This dimension refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
United States has a Power Distance Index of 40, which means it is a Low Power Distance society:
- The people give importance to equal rights in all aspects of American society and government.
- Within US-based organizations, hierarchy is established for convenience. Employees are comfortable finding their own way of doing things and approaching superiors only to get their doubts clarified.
India has a Power Distance Index of 77, which means it is a High Power Distance society:
- The people appreciate hierarchy and a top-down structure in society and organizations.
- In Indian organizations, the employees are dependent on the boss or power holder for directions. They expect to be given explicit instructions to carry out their tasks.
Individualism vs. Collectivism (IDV)
This dimension refers to the extent to which people are bound by their social networks. People in individualistic societies prefer loosely-knit social frameworks, whereas people in collectivist societies prefer tightly-knit social communities.
United States has an IDV Index of 91, which means it is an Individualist society.
- Society is loosely-knit in which people look only after themselves and their immediate families.
- Americans are accustomed to doing business or interacting with people they don’t know very well. They are not shy to approach their counterparts in order to seek information.
India has an IDV Index of 48, which means it is a mixed society with collectivist as well as individualistic traits.
- The collectivist traits of the Indian society indicate that people prefer belonging to a larger social communities. Actions of individuals are influenced by family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and other social groups.
- The individualist traits of the Indian society indicate that people are individually responsible for the way they lead their lives.
Masculinity vs. Femininity (MAS)
This dimension refers to the extent to which people prefer materialistic rewards or intangible rewards. Masculine societies focus more on achievement and accomplishments, and are competitive. Feminine societies value mutual care, quality of life, and so on.
United States has a MAS Index of 62, which means it is a Masculine society.
- People strive to be the best they can be.
- Many American assessment systems are based on precise target setting.
India has a MAS Index of 56, which means it is a Masculine society.
- Visual display of success and power is common and accepted in the Indian society.
- However, India is also a spiritual country, so the lessons in humility and abstinence temper the Masculine tendencies to some extent.
Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)
This dimension refers to the extent to which members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
United States has a UAI of 46, which means there is low Uncertainty Avoidance among the people.
- The people are open to new ideas, innovative products, and are willing to try something new or different.
- They are less emotionally expressive.
India has a UAI of 40, which means there is low Uncertainty Avoidance among the people.
- The people accept imperfection.
- India is a patient nation with high tolerance levels.
Long-term vs. Short-term orientation (LTO)
This dimension refers to the extent to which people value principles and traditions and do not deviate from the norms.
United States has a LTO of 26, which means it is a short-term oriented society.
- People are open to changes occurring in their environment. They are comfortable with one-time interactions.
- They are not bound by long-held values and investments.
India has a LTO of 51, which means it is also a long-term oriented society.
- People prefer conforming to long-held values and traditions.
- They focus on long-term value creation and relationship building.
Indulgence vs. Restraint (IND)
This dimension refers to the extent to which people allow gratification with respect to enjoying life and having fun.
United States has an IND of 68, which means it is an indulgent nation.
- People prefer enjoying their lives and living in comfort.
- They would not think much about saving for the future as opposed to having a good time now.
India has an IND of 26, which means it has the culture of restraint.
- People prefer to budget their expenses and save for the future.
- They look down on others who choose to live their lives comfortably at the risk of not investing in the future.
Summary of comparison
To localize the content, we need to focus on the cultural values that received opposite scores and then try to address them in the content. Let us see which dimensions have values on the opposite sides of the median.
|Individualism vs. Collectivism
|Masculinity vs. Femininity
|Long-term vs. Short-term orientation
|Indulgence vs. Restraint
From the comparison, it is evident that to localize the American website for the Indian market, we need to focus on the cultural dimensions of Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Long-term vs. Short-term orientation, and Indulgence vs. Restraint.
Analyzing plated.com and comparing with Indian websites
To perform comparative analysis of the American website plated.com, I chose two Indian websites in the same category: Localbanya.com and Goodybox.me. I compared these websites based on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions:
India being a society with high power distance index, the website targeted towards an Indian audience needs to address this dimension. Power distance in web communication can be established by establishing credibility and authority. This can be done by incorporating the bio-sketches of founders and testimonials of expert users.
Another feature of a society with a preference for a higher power distance is that they require explicit instructions. Thus one way to establish power distance is to spell out the procedure and rules to use the website.
Plated.com fails to incorporate these elements in the website. The About Us page is hard to find and has no information about the people behind the website. The details of the team members are difficult to locate.
The How It Works section is under-explained. The existing content would work for the American users who prefer low power distance. These users do not require explicit instructions, and prefer figuring things out for themselves. But it might not work with the Indian audience, who would feel much confident about using the services provided by the website if the team had spelled out the rules and procedure in detail.
Now let us see how the Indian websites establish Power Distance. The About Us page of Localbanya.com talks about the founders in detail, thereby giving a personal touch to the website. It also establishes credibility through the wording of their message: “At the helm of Localbanya’s success is a management team of experienced and high calibre professionals from globally recognized organizations.”
The How it works page at Localbanya.com is as detailed as it can be. It strives to answer all the questions that the user might possibly have, thereby addressing the basic power distance characteristic of needing explicit instructions.
The Home page at Goodybox.me showcases testimonials of satisfied users that establish the credibility and trustworthiness of the service.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
India demonstrates mixed tendencies for the dimension of Individualism vs. Collectivism. The individualistic tendencies of the Indian population are well-addressed by the existing content on Plated.com that was originally designed to cater to the individualist American society. But it misses the mark while addressing the collectivist trends in the Indian society.
The website focuses on individuals exclusively. It does talk about how “cooking brings us together”, but only in the context of date nights and weekends. Family being the fabric of the Indian society, the Indian audience would not be able to relate to content that does not refer to family, friends, and society.
Contrast this with the language used by Goodybox.me. Their welcome screen talks about snacks that are perfect for home and office. They talk about “100% kids-friendly snacks”, and how they “donate a meal to a hungry child for every goody box delivered” on their home page. Their About Us page tells the story of how the founders started the company because they did not find nutritious snacks for their kids and wanted to provide healthy eating options to other families as well.
The blog of Localbanya.com features user-contributed recipes and suggestions, thereby promoting a sense of community and sharing.
Long-term vs. Short-term orientation
India being a long-term oriented society, it is important to cater to the need for value creation and establishing relationships.
Plated.com does not create any long-term value proposition for the user. Whereas its Indian counterparts – Localbanya.com talks about how for them “customer always comes first.” This indicates that they are thinking and working towards establishing a long-sustaining relationship with the customer, not a one-time business transaction.
Indulgence vs. Restraint
Indian culture puts emphasis on restraint over indulgence. Shopping online instead of at a mortar-and-bricks grocery store is an indulgence. Focusing on the comfort and ease of placing your order at the click of a button would work well with the indulgent American population. But in India, it would be considered unwise to shop online just to save oneself the trouble of going to the grocery store.
The Indian website creators know this well, and pulled the strings to the Indian customers’ hearts – bargains and deals. Their website focuses on deals and bargains, and super-value plans that resonate with the bargain-crazy Indian audience.
On comparing the Indian and American cultures based on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, and analyzing the Indian and American websites, I think the team at Plated.com would be well-advised to make the following changes:
- Establish authority through the About Us page: Include the bio-sketches of the founders.
- Include testimonials of expert users.
- Elaborate the How it works section: Detailed FAQs, process, and so on.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
- Reword the content to focus more on the societal units of family, kids, friends, and society at large.
- Plated prides itself on how the ingredients it sources come from farmers directly. They can emphasize this benefit to the farmers on their home page.
- They can include user-shared recipes, contributions, and success stories of customers in their blog.
Long-term vs. short-term
- They can talk about the nutritional value of the food they provide to indicate they are concerned about the overall long-term health of their customers.
- Plated supports sustainable farming and environment-friendly shipping practices. They can promote content related to these areas on their website to indicate long-term value proposition for the society in general.
Indulgence vs. Restraint
- They need to talk about deals and bargains and highlight them on their website.
- They also need to include super-value monthly plans in their offerings.
Limitations of Hofstede’s theory
Though Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions is substantive and practically applicable, it is not without its limitations. This model of culture is a static approach to national culture. Thanks to the omnipresent Internet and ease of transportation, the geographical and ideological lines between nations are blurring, resulting in exposure and influence of western world on the Indian mindset. It is a very strong possibility that the scores assigned to the cultural values decades ago could have changed. The Indians in the metropolitan cities might actually identify and relate to the American version of the website. Thus the limitations of Hofstede’s theory also results in limitations of its application for localizing content. Nevertheless, it is definitely a good starting point for the localization process.
In today’s web-based world, technical communicators need to be aware of the intercultural theories and practices and put them into practice to enable their organizations to reach out and capture the international markets. While doing so, they need to be mindful of the dynamic changes in the cultural values, and craft their message accordingly.
Hofstede, G. & Hofstede, G. J. & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (Rev. 3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hoft, N. (1995). International Technical Communication. New York: Wiley Technical Communications Library.