Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.” Prof. Geert Hofstede, Emeritus Professor, Maastricht University.
Being one of the top tourist destinations, numerous articles have been written on Maldivian culture and several such articles can be seen on websites promoting Maldives to travelers. Most of these articles are written from a perspective which captures the easily seen or visual aspects of the culture to attract travelers and none from a perspective which captures the hidden aspects such as the values, beliefs and norms which drives the behaviour which forms the visual attributes and attitudes of the culture. A perspective which would be very helpful for expatriates looking for work and multinational companies which plans to do business in Maldivian culture.
One approach which could help to unlock the hidden beliefs, values and norms of a culture is the application of Hofstede Cultural Dimensions developed by Prof. Geert Hofstede in his book titled “Hofstede, Geert (2001). Culture’s Consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.)” on a chosen culture. This article is the result of my attempt to analyse Maldivian culture through the Hofstede cultural dimensions lens to unlock some of the hidden aspects of our culture. According to Hofstede there are five key dimensions which we could use to analyse a given culture; they are Individualism vs. Collectivism, Power Distance, Masculinity vs. Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Short Term vs. Long Term Orientation.
The discussions and conclusions I have drawn below on the Hofstede cultural dimensions are purely based on my personal experiences and discussions I had with my close friends and academics. The conclusions, therefore, should not be taken as scientific and serves as a simple approximation of where we might fit into, as far as these cultural dimensions are concerned.
In addition, these discussions are fairly generic; discounting the difference there might exist between sub-cultures within the Maldivian society. However, I hope to explore sub-cultures in one of my future articles.
Individualism vs Collectivism
In individualistic cultures, there is high tendency for people to look after themselves and their immediate family only. Ties between individuals are loose and everyone is expected to look after themselves without much dependence on others for their own wellbeing. High individual initiative, personal achievement, appreciation and acceptance of people for who they are, are some of the features one could find in an individualistic culture. On the other hand, in collective societies people are closely knit together and it is common place for extended families living under one roof. People are expected dress and act according to acceptable norms within the collective and anyone who behaves different from the collective norms are perceived negatively in such cultures. The most commonly quoted individualistic culture is the United States while most of the Arab countries fall into the category of collective culture.
In Maldivian culture, it is commonplace for extended families to live under one roof and there is expectation placed upon individuals to help out financially and emotionally to even extended family members. Financial assistance for medical treatments, weddings and other family activities are expected from other members in extended family.
Moreover, there is low acceptance of individual responsibility. For example, some young people can still be seen depending on their parents for financial assistance even after getting married
In addition, there is a strong pressure upon people to follow what is regarded as the norms of the society. This can be seen by people’s reluctance to accept small changes which some society members brought to the prayer, in spite the fact that many Islamic scholars have spoken that those changes are inline with the traditions of prophet Mohamed (PBUH) or the difficulty which people find in accepting the way HEP Mohamed Nasheed conducts himself as the President of the Maldives and his policies such as privatization, although the latter applies more to our willingness to avoid uncertainty.
Based on these observations, I am inclined to believe Maldives is fairly a collective culture with strong pressures upon individuals to follow what is regarded as the collective norms of the society.
Power Distance is a measures extend to which less powerful members of an institution, organisation or society accepts that power is distributed unequally. In high Power Distance cultures, less powerful members obey blindly to the orders of their superiors. They are less likely to question their superiors. Authoritarian, highly centralized and bureaucratic systems are common features of high power distance institutions and cultures. On the other hand low Power Distance Cultures are there is less acceptance of high degree of power inequality. Less powerful members of the society are more likely to question their superiors and collective decision making is preferred. Japan, turkey and iran falls into the category of high power distance cultures while countries such as the US, Great Britain and Netherlands falls into low power distance cultures
In the beginning of 2004, Maldives underwent democratic reform process which has resulted in the country’s first ever multi-party election in 2008, where the incumbent president defeated the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom which has occupied the office for 30 years since 1978. The democratic reform process saw people gaining freedoms that they never had under the previous constitution or was withheld under the previous regime. As a result people started freely expressing their views without any fear of intimidation and imprisonment, and can bee seen freely questioning the decisions of the authority through mass demonstrations, media and in public. The same trend can be seen in both government and private institutions where employees freely question decisions of their superiors and even contesting some decisions in court. For example, employees can be seen lodging termination decisions of the management under unfair dismissal in Labour Tribunal.
In light of these changes I believe Maldives is currently moving away from a high power distance to a low power distance culture, although, it may take a few more years for it to fully become a low power distance culture. And in the future where we will stand in this dimension will largely depend on the way islam and democracy is shaped in the Maldives. A more Islamic fundamentalist approach could result in a higher power distance whilst strong democratic values would lower the power distance barrier.
Masculinity vs Femininity
In masculine cultures the dominant social values are success, money and things, hence people living in high masculine cultures places great emphasis on high earnings, wealth, advancement and recognition and are subjected to high job stress associated to these values. On the other hand, feminine cultures values the dominant values are caring for others and the quality of life, hence high importance is give to cooperation, friendly atmosphere and employment security.
In Maldivian culture, individuals who have achieved high academic qualifications or have managed to amass huge wealth are considered to be high achievers irrespective of the quality of their life. For instance, majority of families who come to the Capital Male’ to educate their children stays back in Male’ after their children have completed their education when they have the possibility of going back to their islands where they can enjoy a better quality life with more spacious living and peace.
Numerous other examples can be seen in our culture which suggests that we are a very masculine culture which values material success over quality of life.
Uncertainty Avoidance is a measure of society’s tolerance level for uncertainty and ambiguity. It measures the extend to which people feel threatened by unstructured situations; situations which are novel, unknown, surprising and different from usual. Strong uncertainty avoidance cultures have a high need for security, strong belief in experts and their knowledge, more written rules and regulations and low level of risk taking. On the other hand weak uncertainty avoidance cultures are more open to new ideas, less written rules and are more willing to take risks. Countries such as the US, Bangladesh ranks as a country which has weak uncertainty avoidance while countries such as Pakistan and Japan are ranked as strong uncertainty avoidance cultures. This could explain the behaviour of so many Bangladeshis’ who risk everything they have to come to the Maldives looking for work.
Maldivian culture has low tolerance level for change. As a result it makes it takes time for new changes to become accepted within the society. For instance, when engines were first introduced in 1970s by then the President Honorable Ibrahim Nasir the fishermen were very critical and resisted this change citing that fish shoals would not surface due to the loud noise the engines generated. Fast track 30 years, now all the fishing vessels are equipped with engines and it would not have been possible for Maldivian fishing industry to be where it is now in terms of the scale of production and number of markets which we supply fish without this mechanization of fishing vessels.
Similarly, the policy changes brought about by the government of President Nasheed is perceived negatively by a vast majority of the society as most of these policy changes represent a huge breakaway from the policies of the past governments. For example, some people can be seen dismissing ‘Madhana’ – health insurance scheme, introduced by the current government without even understanding the way how an insurance program works or the benefits which they might obtain from participating in this program.
Numerous other examples can be seen which suggests our desire to avoid uncertain and ambiguous situations, hence I feel we might be classified as a strong uncertainty avoidance culture.
Short Term vs Long Term Orientation
It is the cultural trait that focuses on to what extent the group invests for the future, is persevering, and is patient in waiting for results. In long Term oriented cultures, people are not only focused on activities of the present but also investing their resources so they can reap the benefits in the future, especially on ‘rainy days’. Hence planning, saving, patience, thrift, having a sense of shame, ordering relationships by status and perseverance are some of the values associated with Long Term Oriented cultures. On the other hand, short term oriented cultures people value actions or attitudes that are affected by the past or present and less focus on the future. Immediate stability, saving one’s own face, respect for tradition and reciprocation of gifts, favours, greetings are some of the values associated with short term oriented cultures.
In analyzing Maldivian culture through the time orientation dimension, a lot of values associated with short term oriented cultures can been seen in our culture. For instance, one of the most striking feature of our culture is warm hospitality of our people. We are known to go all the way in making visitors feel comfortable and well fed even if it means it puts us in an uncomfortable situation or we have to spend the night with little or no food.
Similarly, the way laws and regulations are enacted in the Maldives also indicates the reactive nature of our culture. It is very common to see laws and regulations being enacted by the government following various unfortunate accidents or events which results in huge financial losses, injuries or loss of lives. For example, road bumpers and speed limit were introduced after huge injuries and deaths resulted from high speed collisions in Male’.
Another notable feature which indicates our time orientation is the saving habit, which is almost non-existent. Consumption is high in our society and a lot of people can be seen borrowing money from friends and family members towards the end of the month after they run out of that month’s salary. Hence, it is rare to find people, especially among young people, who set aside a set amount at the end of the month for savings.