European People and Culture (what you didn’t learn in school !)


By Supachai Chuenjitwongsa

Recently one of the on-going issues for debate in Britain has been the problem of  immigration, especially from European countries. The discussion on TV programmes about immigration includes the benefits system, the healthcare service, employability and the economy. However, one does not often see British politicians and people discussing ways to understand the nature of European people and how to help European immigrants to become integrated into British culture. These aspects are, possibly, the fundamental factors regarding immigration which we may have been overlooking for a long time. In school we learn about European geography, history, and language; however, we rarely learn about European cultures and how they influence the characteristics of European people. Hence, it would be a good idea for us, as a starting point, to have a look at the European culture and its people in order to fully understand the root of immigration issues. This article will provide an overview of ‘European People and Culture’ (what we have not learned in schools) based on History and Geography (what we have already learned about in schools). For the cultural aspect, I use the Hofstede’s cultural model (1, 2) to explain the general traits of European people.

European cultures have been continuously shaped and transformed, not only by religions and languages, but also by other issues including politics, wars and economics (3). The cultural patterns within Europe were predominantly influenced by the Greek and Roman Empires for many centuries during and after the Bronze Age and on to the early Medieval Period. For example, Ancient Greek culture largely believed in the potential of humankind, and that people have control over their own lives, thoughts, and development (4). Legal systems, religions, and language were the most influential factors involved in human behaviour within the Roman Empire, apart from economics. This resulted in the Greek and Roman peoples developing a great sense of belonging within the Empire – ‘Collectivism’ (3).

After the Age of the Roman Empire, several groups of people began to migrate across Europe (3). The Germanic tribes, who accepted most of the Roman cultures and traits, had moved and settled down in Northern and Western Europe. The Slavic tribes migrated to Eastern Europe. Old Roman people still lived in Southern Europe. Celtic people, who had been living in Northern Europe and the British Isles since before the Roman Empire, were still settled in their own area. These settlements were the beginning of four major European cultural areas.

Northern and Western Europe share many similar historical cultures which influence human traits in these areas (4). During the Medieval period, every aspect of human being, including beliefs, values, and behavioural patterns, were controlled by Christianity. This might be an origin of the collectivist culture within Europe, where the religion created a sense of belonging with its focus on God. When churches were the centre of human activity, Christianity began to develop its power over other aspects of the society. Additionally, feudalism, which was developed during the Middle Ages, also created power structures and social classes amongst people. Consequently, these two factors probably led to the origin of ‘Large Power Distance’ cultures – where there are inequalities and an unequal distribution of power amongst people within a culture. Later, the constraints within Roman Catholicism resulted in churches gradually losing control of people. People began to question and reject Catholic theology and law. This situation resulted in the renaissance of Greek and Roman cultures and the development of Protestantism. However, once people gained more freedom to control their own lives, they focused more on the self and less on contributing towards the nation as they once had done. The power developed by Christian culture was gradually eliminated, as people began to concentrate on themselves and greater humanity, rather than the religion. This possibly explains why most Northern and Western European countries have two distinct cultural traits: ‘Small Power Distance’ – when people try to equalise the power and when they require justification when the power is used – and ‘Individualism’ where individuals need to take care of themselves (2).

The liberation and freedom experienced after the Renaissance period led to scientific discovery and advances in national development across Northern and Western Europe (4). One significant event was the Industrial Revolution in the UK during the 18th century.  It accelerated the development of technological cultures, political practices (e.g. modern democracy), and economic ideas (e.g. capitalism) in these European areas in the form of modern Liberalism. It also improved the educational levels of people, which enabled them to gain better self-control and to explore new things. This process was later called ‘Westernisation’ and impacted across the world. Academic research studies (5, 6) reveal information which supports this notion, that Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries and people were influenced by the ‘Westernisation’. The high level of competition amongst people and the need for survival within the capitalist culture led to the growth of another two ‘particular cultures’ in this part of Europe: ‘Short-Term Orientation’ where people think about the consequences of their actions only in the present situation (i.e. take each day as it comes) and ‘Masculinity’ which demonstrates preferences for achievement, assertiveness and reward for success (1).

In contrast, Southern and Eastern Europe both share many similarities which are influenced by Islamic culture and other cultures outside Europe (4). In Southern Europe, there is a significant mixture of cultures from many influences in the past. Firstly, although most of the Roman people still lived in this area after the fall of their Empire, this area was much influenced by Berber-Islamic cultures as a result of the invasion of the Moors from Northern Africa around the 7th century. Secondly, during the Dark Age, Christianity had also flourished in this area. Finally, the expansion of Westernisation along with its scientific discovery and industrial revolution from Western and Northern Europe also effected local cultures in this area during the 18th century. Hence, it possibly explains why several Southern European countries have cultural patterns which fall between Western and Islamic (and Eastern European) cultures, as shown in the Hofstede model.

In Eastern Europe, where one can find the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire – there original Greek and Roman cultures were established deeply for a millennium (3). However, because of its proximity to the Middle East and Asia, Eastern Europe was invaded by external people several times. The Mongol Empire occupied most of Eastern Europe during the 13th century and introduced Asian cultures, especially Confucianism, to this area. The nature of Confucianism is ‘Large Power Distance’, ‘Collectivism’, and ‘Femininity’ – that is, society prefers modesty, caring and quality of life (7, 8). Christianity expanded through Orthodox and Catholic Christian influences to this area during the Dark Age; however, its values and beliefs were not fully established as Eastern Europe was invaded by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks occupied and successfully integrated Islamic cultures into this area for several centuries, even whilst the area maintained large Christian populations. During the 18th century, Westernisation spread to the whole of Europe; however, it did not provide long-term changes to this area due to Communism which began in the early 20th century. Communism led to the rejection of Westernisation in favour of an alternative, the ultimate preservation of old traditions, and the establishment of communist ideology. As a result of the influences of many cultures, Eastern Europe comprises of very unique cultural traits which are almost opposite to those of Northern and Western Europe. Asian (Confucian) and Islamic influences also created two unique cultures in this area: ‘High Uncertainty Avoidance’ – where people are intolerant of unconventional circumstances, and ‘Constraint’ where people have limited freedom of speech (9). Communism provided a strong sense of belonging (e.g. collectivism) and perceived Western cultures as a threat.

What needs to be realised is that historical culture is only one aspect of ‘Culture’. The discussion above provides only general patterns of European cultures. It should not be generalised that all nations or all people within a nation share similar traits. Since the era of Colonialism between 16th and 20th century, when several European powers (e.g. Britain, Spain, France, Portugal) expanded and established colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, a large number of people from those colonies migrated into Europe. They also brought their own cultures and traditions into Europe, as well as integrating themselves into new cultures. Additionally, since the establishment of the EU, the free movement policy has allowed European citizens to migrate across Europe. This situation encourages cultural exchange and integration, which has changed Europe so that it has become one of the most complex multicultural areas in the world.

While my previous article focused on British people and culture (understanding ourselves), this article will give the readers a better insight into European people and culture (understanding others). As an academic, I hope this article will encourage better cultural integration and produce a more positive attitude toward the immigration issues within British society.


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  2. Pavlović Z. Modern World Cultures: Europe: Infobase Publishing, New York; 2006.
  3. Ostergren RC, Le Boss M. The Europeans: a geography of people, culture, and environment: Guilford Press; 2011.
  4. Ashkanasy NM, Trevor-Roberts E, Earnshaw L. The Anglo Cluster: legacy of the British empire. Journal of World Business. 2002;37(1):28-39.
  5. Szabo E, Brodbeck FC, Den Hartog DN, Reber G, Weibler J, Wunderer R. The Germanic Europe cluster: where employees have a voice. Journal of World Business. 2002;37(1):55-68.
  6. Phuong-Mai N, Terlouw C, Pilot A. Cooperative learning vs Confucian heritage culture’s collectivism: confrontation to reveal some cultural conflicts and mismatch. Asia Europe Journal. 2005;3(3):403-19.
  7. Watkins D. Learning and teaching: A cross-cultural perspective. School Leadership and Management. 2000;20(2):161-73.
  8. Rahim WAW, Nor Laila M, Shafie M, editors. Inducting the Dimensions of Islamic Culture: A Theoretical Building Approach and Website IA Design Application. 21st International Symposium Human Factors in Telecommunication: User Experience of ICTs; 2008: Prentice Hall.

  Supachai is a final year PhD student at Cardiff University. His research interests focus on training university academics how to teach, as well as the way in which culture influences teaching and learning in a university. He is originally from Thailand where he used to work as a full-time lecturer and a part-time dental practitioner. He speaks Welsh regularly and always encourages international students to learn Welsh. He was a volunteer at several Welsh festivals (including the Eisteddfod and Tafŵyl) to support Welsh learners. This is how he gives something back to the Welsh society.


Categories: Society / Cymdeithas

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