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?
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?
- The Hofstede's Dimensions in a Nutshell
- Key Takeaways
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
- long-/short-term orientation
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 Distance||Large Power Distance|
|Use of power should be legitimate and is subject to criteria of good and evil||Power is a basic fact of society antedating good or evil: its legitimacy is irrelevant|
|Parents treat children as equals||Parents teach children obedience|
|Older people are neither respected nor feared||Older people are both respected and feared|
|Student-centered education||Teacher-centered education|
|Hierarchy means inequality of roles, established for convenience||Hierarchy means existential inequality|
|Subordinates expect to be consulted||Subordinates expect to be told what to do|
|Pluralist governments based on majority vote and changed peacefully||Autocratic governments based on co-optation and changed by revolution|
|Corruption rare; scandals end political careers||Corruption frequent; scandals are covered up|
|Income distribution in society rather even||Income distribution in society very uneven|
|Religions stressing equality of believers||Religions 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 only||People are born into extended families or clans which protect them in exchange for loyalty|
|"I" – consciousness||"We" – consciousness|
|Right of privacy||Stress on belonging|
|Speaking one's mind is healthy||Harmony should always be maintained|
|Others classified as individuals||Others classified as in-group or out-group|
|Personal opinion expected: one person one vote||Opinions 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 indispensable||Languages in which the word "I" is avoided|
|Purpose of education is learning how to learn||Purpose 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 genders||Maximum emotional and social role differentiation between the genders|
|Men and women should be modest and caring||Men should be and women may be assertive and ambitious|
|Balance between family and work||Work prevails over family|
|Sympathy for the weak||Admiration for the strong|
|Both fathers and mothers deal with facts and feelings||Fathers 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 children||Fathers decide on family size|
|Many women in elected political positions||Few women in elected political positions|
|Religion focuses on fellow human beings||Religion 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 comes||The uncertainty inherent in life is felt as a continuous threat that must be fought|
|Ease, lower stress, self-control, low anxiety||Higher stress, emotionality, anxiety, neuroticism|
|Higher scores on subjective health and wellbeing||Lower scores on subjective health and well-being|
|Tolerance of deviant persons and ideas: what is different is curious||Intolerance 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 problem||Staying in jobs even if disliked|
|Dislike of rules - written or unwritten||Emotional need for rules – even if not obeyed|
|In politics, citizens feel and are seen as competent towards authorities||In 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 now||Most important events in life will occur in the future|
|Personal steadiness and stability: a good person is always the same||A 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 sacrosanct||Traditions are adaptable to changed circumstances|
|Family life guided by imperatives||Family life guided by shared tasks|
|Supposed to be proud of one’s country||Trying to learn from other countries|
|Service to others is an important goal||Thrift and perseverance are important goals|
|Social spending and consumption||Large savings quote, funds available for investment|
|Students attribute success and failure to luck||Students attribute success to effort and failure to lack of effort|
|Slow or no economic growth of poor countries||Fast 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 important||Freedom of speech is not a primary concern|
|Higher importance of leisure||Lower importance of leisure|
|More likely to remember positive emotions||Less likely to remember positive emotions|
|In countries with educated populations, higher birthrates||In 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 people||In 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 priority||Higher 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.
- 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
- long-/short-term orientation
- 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). https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1014
(4) Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J. & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (Rev. 3 rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill