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Cultural Differences In Internet Marketing

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iffCultural Differences in International Marketing

Cultures around the world differ in ways that are fundamental to how all aspects of business are conducted and the international marketer must be

sensitive to them. Fons Trompenaars, an expert in cross-cultural management, describes the kinds of dilemmas these differences pose and

looks at ways of resolving them

The impact of culture has long been recognised by marketing professionals in organisations that operate internationally. The necessity of understanding local forms of consumer behaviour and the careful attention that must be paid to language used in advertising for international campaigns are the two most conspicuous areas where cultural differences reveal themselves. But more important and more pervasive are the ways different cultural orientations influence managers and the decision making process itself.

Every country and every organisation faces a series of dilemmas in relation to people. There are basically five dimensions describing how we relate to other people and these five value orientations greatly influence our ways of doing business and managing, as well as our responses in the face of moral dilemmas. Our relative position along these dimensions guides our beliefs and actions through life.

1. Universalism versus particularism (the importance of rules versus relationships)

2. Individualism versus collectivism (primacy given to the individual versus the group)

3. Neutral versus emotional (how emotions are expressed)

4. Specific versus diffuse (the range of involvement expected)

5. Achievement versus ascription (how status is accorded)

For example, we all confront situations in which the established rules do not quite fit a particular circum-stance. Do we do what is deemed 'right' or do we adapt to the circumstances of the situation? If we are in a difficult meeting do we show how strongly we feel and risk the consequences, or do we show 'admirable restraint'? When we encounter a difficult problem do we break it apart into separate pieces to analyse and understand it, or do we see everything as related to everything else holistically? On what grounds do we show respect for someone's status and power - because they have achieved it or because other circumstances define it (like age, education or lineage)?

This article explores the implications of one of the key dilemmas that people face in dealing with other people: that is, how people deal with rules. We call this dilemma the universalist vs particularist dilemma.


Universalist, or rule-based, behaviour tends to be abstract. Try crossing the street when the light is red in a very rule-based society like Switzerland or Germany. Even if there is no traffic, you will still be frowned at. It also tends to imply equality in the sense that all persons falling under the rule should be treated the same. Finally, rule-based conduct has a tendency to resist exceptions that might weaken that rule. There is a fear that once you start to make exceptions for illegal conduct the system will collapse.

Particularist judgments focus on the exceptional nature of present circumstances. This person is not 'a citizen' but my friend, brother, husband, child or person of unique importance to me, with special claims on my love or my hatred. I must therefore sustain, protect or discount this person no matter what the rules say.

Business people from both societies will tend to think each other corrupt. A universalist will say of particularists 'they cannot be trusted because they will always help their friends'; a particularist, conversely, will say of universalists 'you cannot trust them; they would not even help a friend'. (The European Commission in Brussels is a continuing example of this dilemma.)

In practice we use both kinds of judgement, and in most situations we encounter they reinforce each other. If a female employee is harassed in the workplace we would disapprove of this because 'harassment is immoral and against company rules' and/or because 'it was a terrible experience for Jennifer and really upset her'. The universalist's chief objection, though, will be the breach of rules: 'women should not have to deal with harassment in the workplace; it is wrong'. The particularist is likely to be more disapproving because of the distress it caused to poor Jennifer.


Much of the research into this cultural dimension has come from America, and is influenced by American cultural preferences. The emerging consensus among these researchers is that universalism is a feature of modernisation per se - what happens when societies become more modern and complex. Particularism, they argue, is a feature of smaller, largely rural communities in which everyone knows everyone personally. The implication is that universalism and sophisticated business practice go together and all nations might be better if they more closely resembled America.

I do not accept this conclusion. Instead, I believe that cultural dilemmas need to be reconciled by understanding the advantages of each cultural preference. The creation of wealth and the development of industry should be an evolving process of discovering more and better universals covering and sustaining more particular cases and circumstances.

The following story, created by two Americans, Stouffer and Toby, is an exercise used in our workshops with international managers. It takes the form of a dilemma that measures universal and particularist responses:

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 20 miles per hour it may save him from serious consequences. What right has your friend to expect you to protect him?

a. My friend has a definite right as a friend to expect me to testify to the lower figure.

b. He has some right as a friend to expect me to testify to the lower figure.

c. He has no right as a friend to expect me to testify to the lower figure.

What do you think you would do



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