13 Jan 2015

Using Anthropological Models to Inform Working Practices Between Cultures

Back in November 2014, we took a look at how various cultural dimensions might influence people’s expectations of web design. We looked at an anthropological model examining how various cultures value elements such as uncertainty avoidance, or how accepting people are of unequal power within a society.

The blog post explored how these cultural dimensions can best be catered to by web design and content. It proved very popular, so we thought we’d see what else anthropology can lend to those of us trying to do business globally.

We found two models that we thought well worth exploring – the Lewis model, which promises to help explain how to interact with people from different cultures, and the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map, which not only maps different cultural characteristics but offers an explanation as to how these evolve as a country develops.

The Lewis model

Richard Lewis brought together the fields of anthropology and linguistics to develop his model as an attempt to explain how national differences can impact on international business relations and pin down cultural diversity in a single model. The aim of the Lewis model is to provide guidance in how to interact successfully with other cultures.

How it works

The Lewis model assesses different cultures in terms of how they belong in these three categories:

1. Linear-actives

These are cultures that prefer to plan things. They value organization and logic and prefer to do one thing at a time. They are private, methodic and task-oriented. The Germans and the Swiss are in this category, as are Scandinavians, Americans, Brits and New Zealanders.

2. Multi-actives

These cultures tend to be rather lively and are comfortable multi-tasking. Scheduling tasks is of less importance in these cultures. The Lewis model classes many Latin American and Arab cultures under this category, as well as Indians and Africans.

3. Reactives

Those cultures place value on courtesy and respect. They are people-oriented and place value on keeping face. In dealing with people they tend to listen before reacting with care. The cultures of China, Vietnam, Japan, Finland and Turkey fall within this category.

The Lewis model takes the position of each culture in terms of each variable and plots it according to how much it fits into each category.

The Lewis Model
The Lewis Model

In this model, cultures aren’t confined to one particular category but can be placed according to how closely they can be mapped to one particular category.

For example, reactive cultures seem to have some elements in common with linear-active people and the cultures of Finland and Estonia tend to fit into either group.

But when either the reactive or linear-active cultures are juxtaposed with a multi-active culture, there can be clashes between their fundamental values.

Interrupting conversation is more likely to be considered acceptable in a multi-active culture than in either of the other two categories. The mannerisms of a multi-active culture, such as impulsiveness and loudness, are less acceptable and may be seen as rudeness. In a work situation, these traits may be considered unprofessional.

Why is it useful?

Lewis intends his model to have practical application to help people communicate cross-culturally when they have different values and beliefs, organize their world in different ways, and communicate and listen differently.

The model is intended to be used as a guide to business challenges such as negotiation and working in or leading teams. The model is now used as a basis for workshops between cross-cultural teams to support co-working.


Critics of the Lewis model point out that there’s very little science behind the approach, and accuse the model of being superficial and based on sweeping generalizations about different cultures. The case studies touted by Lewis’s organization have arguably more to do with a failure to communicate at all rather than any fundamental cultural differences.

Lewis suggests that his model can use cultural roots of behavior to foresee the reactions of different cultures to situations “with a surprising degree of accuracy”. It’s difficult to assess how successful the model is at doing this.

However, if you are in a situation where you need to communicate across cultures, the ideas put forth by the Lewis model are probably valuable to help inform your thinking about the kind of issues that may arise.

This model can perhaps be helpful in explaining why some cultures value certain behaviors, such as time-keeping. It’s probably overambitious to state that the model can be used to predict with a high degree of accuracy how a group of people from a particular culture might react to a given situation, however there are some ways it could offer insights to business trying to work cross-culturally.

One UK-based organization starting to outsource some of its business activities to the Philippines was baffled why the outsourced team periodically stopped communicating with them. This led to serious problems with projects being delayed. Eventually it was identified that the desire to save face was preventing the Philippino team from admitting they needed more information from the UK team about how to proceed with tasks before they could begin. The issues identified by the Lewis model could have helped to explain this behavior, although it perhaps doesn’t offer any solutions.

Models such as this one also offer us the opportunity to understand our own behavior and values – something that isn’t always factored in to studies of cultural understanding.

The Lewis model helps us understand where our own culture fits into the world’s spectrum of social values. Whilst it isn’t wise to rely too heavily on models of cultural behavior, the Lewis model raises some useful starting points to consider how to communicate between different cultural perspectives.

More information on the Lewis Model available at Richard Lewis communications.

The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map

The Inglehart-Welzel map was put together by political scientists based on a huge cross-national survey investigating beliefs and values worldwide. Run regularly since 1981 the survey has had nearly half a million respondents from 100 countries.

It explores approaches to major issues from religion to politics to economic and social life. The survey asks questions such as how important it is to have a job that is interesting or whether pay is the most important factor, whether divorce is ever acceptable, and whether children need to be taught obedience or their imaginations developed.

The research identified that two particular dimensions dominated their results. The researchers classed these as traditional/secular-rational and survival/self-expression values.

1. Traditional/secular-rational values

The traditional/secular-rational values dimension examines the difference between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not.

Those cultures that tend to be more traditional are concerned with family values, and their society is likely to encourage deference to authority. These traditional cultures tend to reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide, whilst embracing national pride.

By contrast, cultures with secular-rational values are likely to hold the opposite values across these issues. The two poles of the traditional/secular-rational dimensions could be described as ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’ world views.

2. Survival/self-expression values

The survival and self-expression values dimension reflects a society’s state of development to at least some extent. In developed countries, most of the population seems to take survival for granted, meaning an individual’s emphasis has shifted from pursuing financial security and safety to pursuing self-expression and a better quality of life. This dimension seems to reflect the stage of economic development the society is at and how successfully the culture has made the transition to become a post-industrial society.

Countries with shared value sets can be grouped to some extent, showing how these value dimensions seem to have a relationship with other cultural aspects such as language and religion, or a shared background in a political system such as communism.
What’s interesting about this anthropological model is that it attempts to explain how improvements in national standards of living can affect cultural values. As countries develop economically and in industrial terms, they tend to migrate across the chart, moving from lower left to the upper right as their wealth improves.

Proponents of this cultural map of the world say there’s evidence that nearly all developed countries have experienced this shift in values from more traditional to more secular/rational, and from valuing survival towards valuing self-expression.

In their findings, Inglehart and Welzel assert that societies ranking highly for self-expression values also tend to rank highly for interpersonal trust. The authors state that this culture of trust and tolerance, where individual freedom and self-expression is valued, are the values vital to a healthy democratic political system.

As countries evolve, the conditions for democracy increasingly emerge. Essentially this model explains that as an economy develops, what its citizens want out of life changes in terms of their political goals, religious values, and even sexual norms. Furthermore, the model claims that this change is predictable.

With development occurring at different speeds in different countries, and affecting different segments of the population in an uneven way, it seems hard to really predict how the dominant cultural attitude of the country will evolve in a predictable way. What’s perhaps more likely is that some segments of the population – such as the wealthy elite, urban areas, or the younger generation, will make the predicted values transition separately from their compatriots. This situation is likely to lead to an internal battle of wills as a gulf in values opens up between different population segments.

How long it takes for the rest of the country to catch up to this shift in values – or if this will ever happen – isn’t clear. Britain’s nationalistic, anti-liberal political movement UKIP has found little support in urban areas and among the young, suggesting the split between the traditional and secular-rational values dimension within one country.

In Iran, a country where 60% of the population is under 30, there’s often tension between the younger, more liberal bloc and the older voting population with more traditional values.

The incumbent regime has attempted to fight back against the younger more liberal generation using tactics such as raising the voting age. Most observers tend to agree that change is inevitable given the size of the youth bloc in the country, however it is impossible to predict the pace of change in practical terms.

It also seems to be the case that countries can reverse its transition in cultural values as the economy encounters difficulties. Greek voters have flirted with authoritarian, nationalistic politics since the economic crisis unfolded, and xenophobia has also raised its head. This suggests the country is following a reverse value path predicted by the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map.

The Inglehart-Welzel model tends to be admired for its scope and methods, although it is not without its academic critics. Many point to China, where the regime seems to defy the political fallout of economic growth, as evidence that authoritarian regimes are getting better at maintaining control whilst the economy develops. Inglehart and Welzel are keen to point out that modernization does not automatically lead to democracy and their model does not claim this is in any way inevitable.

The Inglehart-Welzel cultural map

The Inglehart-Welzel cultural map
The Inglehart-Welzel cultural map

What this means for global businesses

Every society has its own cultural nuances which have a substantial impact on how that culture does business. Understanding these nuances and using this knowledge to improve business practices across borders is key to a company’s international success.

Cross-cultural differences have long been identified as the most significant obstacle to successful international expansion but with the right frameworks in place, businesses should be better prepared to tackle these challenges head on.


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