I’ve never done an app review before, but I figured this one was probably the best place to start! What better place than immediately following my foray into non-verbal communication and linguistic rituals?

CultureGPS, Lite Edition, is a nifty little free app that does one thing, but does it very well. As far as I can tell, it’s alone in that regard, as well – if there are other apps out there that evaluate cross-cultural differences, I’m unaware of them (and if you know, don’t hesitate to shout out in the comments! I’m curious).

This (lite version of a paid) app takes a cross-cultural psychological theory and allows you to compare any two countries in terms of their relative position on 5 social dimensions.  It’s a little complex, but it starts with  Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. Let me explain…

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory provides a framework for cross-cultural communication, and was originally conducted between 1967 and 1973 using IBM’s worldwide employees as subjects. It attempts to explain observed differences between cultures and allows these differences to be quantified (which was the most important part). It has been the basis of a great number of cross-cultural psychological studies. Recently, he has added a sixth axis – indulgence vs. restraint – but that is not included in this app.

Let me break down the 5 areas Hofstede identifies. From Wikipedia (and verified in the app itself):

  • Power distance index (PDI): “Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” Cultures that endorse low power distance expect and accept power relations that are more consultative or democratic. People relate to one another more as equals regardless of formal positions. Subordinates are more comfortable with and demand the right to contribute to and critique the decision making of those in power. In high power distance countries, less powerful accept power relations that are more autocratic and paternalistic. Subordinates acknowledge the power of others simply based on where they are situated in certain formal,hierarchical positions. As such, the power distance index Hofstede defines does not reflect an objective difference in power distribution, but rather the way people perceive power differences.
  • Individualism (IDV) vs. collectivism: “The degree to which individuals are integrated into groups”. In individualistic societies, the stress is put on personal achievements and individual rights. People are expected to stand up for themselves and their immediate family, and to choose their own affiliations. In contrast, in collectivist societies, individuals act predominantly as members of a lifelong and cohesive group or organization (note: “The word collectivism in this sense has no political meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state”). People have large extended families, which are used as a protection in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI): “a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity”. It reflects the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. People in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to be more emotional. They try to minimize the occurrence of unknown and unusual circumstances and to proceed with careful changes step by step planning and by implementing rules, laws and regulations. In contrast, low uncertainty avoidance cultures accept and feel comfortable in unstructured situations or changeable environments and try to have as few rules as possible. People in these cultures tend to be more pragmatic, they are more tolerant of change.
  • Masculinity (MAS) vs. Femininity: “The distribution of emotional roles between the genders”. Masculine cultures’ values are competitiveness, assertiveness, materialism, ambition and power, whereas feminine cultures place more value on relationships and quality of life. In masculine cultures, the differences between gender roles are more dramatic and less fluid than in feminine cultures where men and women have the same values emphasizing modesty and caring. As a result of the taboo on sexuality in many cultures, particularly masculine ones, and because of the obvious gender generalizations implied by Hofstede’s terminology, this dimension is often renamed by users of Hofstede’s work to Quantity of Life vs. Quality of Life.
  • Long term orientation (LTO) vs. short term orientation: First called “Confucian dynamism”, it describes societies’ time horizon. Long term oriented societies attach more importance to the future. They foster pragmatic values oriented towards rewards, including persistence, saving, and capacity for adaptation. In short term oriented societies, values promoted are related to the past and the present, including steadiness, respect for tradition, preservation of one’s face, reciprocation and fulfilling social obligations.
The app then allows you to choose a nation and view the results of Hofstede’s research (and of many, many others since him who have added to the database). It can also compare two countries, say, your home country against the nation you are visiting, and help you compare both of them, giving the high and low points on the range for each dimension.

Of course, it all makes the most sense when you use it in context. When I come across some baffling behavior that makes no sense to me, I pop open this app and see if there are widely divergent views on a particular scale that makes sense to me – usually there are, and this grants you a little insight into how the bizarre behavior might make a little more sense given the cultural attitudes the subject has grown up with. If I suspect that I’ve violated a taboo somehow, and yet everyone’s too polite to tell me so, this will often point me in the right direction and a google search can give me specifics.

On the surface, Vietnam, and especially Ho Chi Minh City, is a dizzying array of western and eastern, a clash of cultures that has morphed into a society where seemingly everyone knows a little English but few are fluent, where I pass Halloween shops, French bakeries, and Chinese restaurants in the same block and no one bats an eye. But deep down, Vietnamese are Vietnamese. They may wear English on their helmets, bikes, clothes, and bags, but there is no separating them from the culture they’ve grown up with – they simply adopted English as another form of personal expression. The same social traditions that mark many Asian countries are prominent and ingrained in Vietnam (although I would go on to say that Vietnam is particularly interesting and special, even among its SE Asian neighbors).
As a westerner looking at this app, it helps me realize that I am, indeed, a stranger in a strange land, as Heinlein so famously wrote. I may not be from Mars, but, deep down, it feels like it might be just as far. There are chasms we cannot cross, but we can understand that they are there, and, if necessary, we can send smoke signals to the individuals on the other side. The “point and smile” is remarkably effective, and very rarely harms anyone’s feelings.
I’ve enjoyed this app. I like to check out and compare the US to the countries of my friends, and their countries to Vietnam, looking at attitudes and possible behavioral differences that we might not even recognize in ourselves. As a tool for gaining knowledge about specific countries, it is poor. But as a tool to help explain, in context, the behaviors encountered in a foreign land, it’s been invaluable. 
With a little brainwork and a little observation, this app shines.
Thanks for reading! I hope you get a chance to check this app out on your future travels! If you do, please let me know how it goes for you. 🙂