I was at Heathrow this week and out the corner of my eye I did spy one of the first Olympian teams touchdown. Everyone was so happy and cheery. I wasn’t at all; I was seriously late for a meeting. For those teams and their smiley, flag adorned compatriots who were so happy and cheery in my peripheral vision, the Olympics aren’t just a sporting jolly. It is a occasion which represents a great deal more. It is special. Let me tell you why.
To even the most casual observer, the Olympics are a microcosm of Psychology, Sociology and Anthropology, one which is played out all over the globe every day. With the prolific rise in migration over the last two decades, it’s a story which is no longer confined to the Olympic village once the flame is lit. When we immerse ourselves and share cultures in this way we learn just as much about ourselves as we do another culture. As this story plays out across the global village, its study grows in both nuance and importance.
The above mentioned schools of thought explain social cohesion and group dynamics in great depth. Academics have flung out more experiments and spun more theories from them than is useful. While they make for interesting reading, there is one which preceded them all. It is elegant and all encompassing: During the 1970s, Geert Hofstede worked for IBM. It was a great opportunity to study groups of people within the same company, doing similar stuff but within different cultures. Following this study, he did what any self-respecting Psychologist would do. He wrote a good book. Therein he penned the 5 most prominent and enduring dimensions of culture. He was the original Hof. The dude from Knight Rider has nothing on this original.
These are they:
A low Uncertainty Avoidance culture or Olympic team encourages and promotes risk taking and innovation. A high Uncertainty Avoidance equivalent makes for stable, predictable and conservative surroundings. China is an example of a nation accelerating from one extreme to the other. It tells us how open individuals are open to change. When you watch the Olympics, notice how Australians thrive when the game plan goes awry – they come alive. Notice how teams like England and those in Far East Asia tend to become flustered. This dimension tells us how, generally speaking, a culture rewards and encourages performance and flexibility.
Individualism versus Collectivism
This is the most visible difference. This dimension speaks to whether behaviour is motivated by selfish intent or in the best interests of the wider group. This idea is represented in economic terms by that all time classic, “Capitalism versus Socialism”. It is around this idea where political debate is generally found, especially in these times when economic restructuring, socialised medicine, immigration and human rights are such hotly contested issues.
This is not to say that teams from Individualistic nations do better at solo sports, or vice versa – this is way too generalised. You will however find a bias to what type of sport is better supported or enjoyed at grass root levels.
When the teams land at Heathrow, depending on where they are from, the first thing that they may notice is London’s Time Orientation. It is all about whether value is given to the short term or the long term. Short term cultures enjoy speed, prompt service and getting things done quickly, e.g. Japan and Dubai. Longer term cultures are a little more relaxed, e.g. Spain and Italy. Time Orientation is associated with respect for the status quo – that is, how things have always been done. Time to move on, excuse the pun, because not only is this dimension less relevant to the Olympics, it happens to be a little of a sore point considering I was so late for my meeting at the time. My time orientation was markedly different from that of my client.
Masculinity versus Femininity
Now I apologise for evoking dated stereotypes here. (You’ll forgive me as these were alive and well when the Hof published.) Masculine cultures relish the competition of sport. Bring on strength, brute force and power! Here, social standing is based upon the car you drive, how many bathrooms your house has, how wide your flat screen TV is and the length of one’s job title. The US may spring to your mind. A high feminine society enjoys sport as a spectacle. Here credence is placed upon quality of life and a meaningful existence. For the modern day athlete, ambition, stress, family responsibility and the perception of wealth in sport are all in play.
Now here comes the Torch
Culture reaches into every facet of our lives. Economic migration has accelerated to a point where the Hof’s ideas are more relevant but less practical. The world is multicultural. In every direction, different cultures grow alongside one another and minority groups grow in number and influence. East London is a fantastic example of this and so a fitting backdrop for an Olympic village.
For the world to be happy and cheery more often, we shall look beyond politics and flags. What we deem important, the way we see ourselves in the world, our body language and demeanour and how we think and feel are far more cutting. This cannot be taught. It comes naturally when we re-socialise ourselves – sport offers the time to gain this sensitivity. We discover how others go about doing things within the context of something we are familiar with (unless you are like me who got tickets to one of the weird events no one knows anything about).
So when the Olympic torch lights up the stadium later this week, I bid you: think about what it means. It is a celebration of perhaps the only thing which brings the troubled nations of the world together. Until aliens land, this is what will make the Olympic spirit special.
Ryan writes about the world of psychology. He founded Subliminal Today, a self-improvement company which among other things produces subliminal cds containing focused NLP. Keep up on the latest by following Twitter @subliminaltoday and facebook.com/subliminaltoday or visiting Subliminal Today.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown and Company: New York.
Hofstede, G. (1980). Cultures Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (Cross Cultural Research and Methodology). Sage Publications: United States.
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