Classifying Cultures - The Hofstede Model

Did you know that what you perceive about a culture actually says more about your own culture than it does about the other culture?

For example, I am a Croatian living in Germany. Most Croatians may see the Germans as too focused on structure and timelines. But, on the other hand, the Japanese may find them to be disorganised and late. Just last week, my train was late or delayed six times - unacceptable for the Japanese. 

So, how can the Germans be both disorganised and structured? Or late and timely? Because the Croatians and the Japanese have different points of comparison, they perceive German culture differently. 

What does this tell us? 

It's impossible to describe a culture in absolutes because your perspective depends on your cultural background. 

Disclaimer: In this and other articles about culture, I'm focusing on cultural norms, but it's important to note that not all individuals in a given culture behave in the same way. Individual differences exist in all cultures. 

Table of Contents

What Is Culture?

Researchers (1) have observed that people from different countries are not just different; their difference is very specific and has a pattern. More precisely, they found a pattern in different ways of thinking, values, beliefs, and difference in preferences. This leads us to one possible definition: culture is the characteristics, customs, beliefs, values, behaviours, assumptions, and expectations shared by a particular group. Culture defines the "correct" way to perceive, think, feel, and act in that society. 

So, if our culture strongly influences us, how do people on opposite sides of the cultural spectrum interact?

To work effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds, you must be aware of cultural differences. Let's explore some of these differences from the perspective proposed by Hofstede (2, 3).  

The Hofstede's Dimensions in a Nutshell

Geert Hofstede based his model on a study of IBM employees in over fifty countries. He identified five (later added one more) dimensions or 'problem areas' which represent differences among national cultures: 

  • power distance
  • uncertainty avoidance
  • individualism/collectivism
  • masculinity/femininity
  • long-/short-term orientation
  • indulgence/restraint.

Learning tip - as you go through the following dimensions, think about your culture. Where would you place your country on the cultural spectrum?

Power Distance Index (PDI)

The fundamental issue in this dimension is how a society handles inequalities among people. More specifically, the dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. 

Small Power DistanceLarge Power Distance
Use of power should be legitimate and is subject to criteria of good and evilPower is a basic fact of society antedating good or evil: its legitimacy is irrelevant 
Parents treat children as equalsParents teach children obedience
Older people are neither respected nor fearedOlder people are both respected and feared
Student-centered educationTeacher-centered education
Hierarchy means inequality of roles, established for convenienceHierarchy means existential inequality
Subordinates expect to be consultedSubordinates expect to be told what to do
Pluralist governments based on majority vote and changed peacefullyAutocratic governments based on co-optation and changed by revolution
Corruption rare; scandals end political careersCorruption frequent; scandals are covered up
Income distribution in society rather even Income distribution in society very uneven
Religions stressing equality of believersReligions with a hierarchy of priests

Individualism Versus Collectivism (IDV)

Individualism (versus collectivism) is the preference of people to belong to a loosely knit society where importance is placed on the self and autonomy. In opposition, collectivist structures emphasise interdependent social units, such as the family, rather than the self.

Everyone is supposed to take care of themselves and their immediate family onlyPeople are born into extended families or clans which protect them in exchange for loyalty 
"I" – consciousness "We" – consciousness
Right of privacyStress on belonging 
Speaking one's mind is healthyHarmony should always be maintained
Others classified as individualsOthers classified as in-group or out-group 
Personal opinion expected: one person one voteOpinions and votes predetermined by in-group
Transgression of norms leads to guilt feelings Transgression of norms leads to shame feelings
Languages in which the word "I" is indispensableLanguages in which the word "I" is avoided 
Purpose of education is learning how to learnPurpose of education is learning how to do
Task prevails over relationship Relationship prevails over task

Masculinity Versus Femininity (MAS)

The Masculinity side of this dimension represents cultures with distinct gender roles where men focus on success, competition and rewards. In contrast, women focus on tender values such as quality of life and modesty. Femininity represents cultures where gender roles overlap.

Minimum emotional and social role differentiation between the gendersMaximum emotional and social role differentiation between the genders 
Men and women should be modest and caringMen should be and women may be assertive and ambitious 
Balance between family and workWork prevails over family 
Sympathy for the weak Admiration for the strong
Both fathers and mothers deal with facts and feelingsFathers deal with facts, mothers with feelings
Both boys and girls may cry but neither should fight Girls cry, boys don’t; boys should fight back, girls shouldn’t fight 
Mothers decide on number of childrenFathers decide on family size
Many women in elected political positionsFew women in elected political positions
Religion focuses on fellow human beingsReligion focuses on God or gods
Matter-of-fact attitudes about sexuality; sex is a way of relating Moralistic attitudes about sexuality; sex is a way of performing 

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)

This dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?

Weak Uncertainty Avoidance Strong Uncertainty Avoidance
The uncertainty inherent in life is accepted and each day is taken as it comesThe uncertainty inherent in life is felt as a continuous threat that must be fought 
Ease, lower stress, self-control, low anxietyHigher stress, emotionality, anxiety, neuroticism
Higher scores on subjective health and wellbeingLower scores on subjective health and well-being
Tolerance of deviant persons and ideas: what is different is curiousIntolerance of deviant persons and ideas: what is different is dangerous 
Comfortable with ambiguity and chaos Need for clarity and structure
Teachers may say ‘I don’t know’Teachers supposed to have all the answers
Changing jobs no problemStaying in jobs even if disliked
Dislike of rules - written or unwrittenEmotional need for rules – even if not obeyed
In politics, citizens feel and are seen as competent towards authoritiesIn politics, citizens feel and are seen as incompetent towards authorities 
In religion, philosophy and science: relativism and empiricism In religion, philosophy and science: belief in ultimate truths and grand theories

Long-Term Orientation Versus Short-Term Normative Orientation (LTO)

Every society has to maintain some links with its past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Societies prioritise these two existential goals differently.

Short-Term Orientation Long-Term Orientation
Most important events in life occurred in the past or take place nowMost important events in life will occur in the future 
Personal steadiness and stability: a good person is always the sameA good person adapts to the circumstances
There are universal guidelines about what is good and evil What is good and evil depends upon the circumstances
Traditions are sacrosanctTraditions are adaptable to changed circumstances 
Family life guided by imperativesFamily life guided by shared tasks 
Supposed to be proud of one’s countryTrying to learn from other countries
Service to others is an important goalThrift and perseverance are important goals
Social spending and consumptionLarge savings quote, funds available for investment
Students attribute success and failure to luckStudents attribute success to effort and failure to lack of effort
Slow or no economic growth of poor countriesFast economic growth of countries up till a level of prosperity

Indulgence Versus Restraint (IVR)

This sixth and new dimension was added in the 2010 book (4). Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by employing strict social norms.

Higher percentage of people declaring themselves very happy Fewer very happy people
A perception of personal life control A perception of helplessness: what happens to me is not my own doing 
Freedom of speech seen as importantFreedom of speech is not a primary concern
Higher importance of leisureLower importance of leisure
More likely to remember positive emotionsLess likely to remember positive emotions
In countries with educated populations, higher birthratesIn countries with educated populations, lower birthrates
More people actively involved in sports Fewer people actively involved in sports
In countries with enough food, higher percentages of obese peopleIn countries with enough food, fewer obese people
In wealthy countries, lenient sexual norms In wealthy countries, stricter sexual norms
Maintaining order in the nation is not given a high priorityHigher number of police officers per 100,000 population 


Learning about these dimensions should help us understand and handle our social world's complex reality. Good cross-cultural communicators recognise that cultural differences exist in various aspects: communication patterns, preferences, and norms. Most importantly, good communicators adapt their communication and don't judge. 

You can make cross-cultural communications faster, smoother, and more effective with a few slight adjustments. 

Get more tips for effective cross-cultural communication in the next article.

Key Takeaways

  • The way we perceive other cultures depends on our own cultural background.
  • Culture defines the "correct" way to perceive, think, feel, and act in that society.
  • Hofstede identified five (later added one more) dimensions or 'problem areas' which represent differences among national cultures: 
    • power distance
    • uncertainty avoidance
    • individualism/collectivism
    • masculinity/femininity
    • long-/short-term orientation
    • indulgence/restrain
  • good cross-cultural communicators adapt their communication and don't judge. 

Suggested reading on the topic

(1) Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (2012). Riding the waves of culture: understanding cultural diversity in global business (3rd ed). Nicholas Brealey International.

(2) Hofstede, G. (1997). Cultures and Organisations. Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

(3) Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalising Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).

(4) Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J. & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (Rev. 3 rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill