The world is becoming a melting pot, whether we like it or not. It may be a very glamourous arena of expats occupying high-end jobs in multinational corporations or a dehumanising reality of the many refugees who escape war torn countries. In any case, we are mingling with a wider range of individuals from a wider array of cultures as a consequence of globalization. Many people are drawn to international environments for several reasons. Some are driven by curiosity and a thirst for adventure… while others wonder about their place in the world or go through some important personal journey of discovery. Whatever the actual motifs of venturing into the unknown, we need to navigate through the mosaic of cultures so that we can grow and flourish, rather than getting lost in multiculturalism.
I firmly believe that intercultural spaces reveal a lot about the global community with the ugly and beautiful sides starkly visible at the same time. Living and working in Guatemala has been both fascinating and challenging. It forces me to reconsider my basic assumptions. That is in fact how the research into cultural differences was born. Starting in the fifties up to late seventies, a number of social scientists observed that humankind had to respond to some universal social problems such as:
distribution of power
need for predictability
integration of individuals into groups
emotional roles between genders
orientation in time
fulfilling human desires
Consequently, each national group created a set of basic assumptions that became a part of the “collective programming of the mind” (Hofstede, 2011) and as a result gave rise to cultures that we can vividly recognise on TV through some landmarks and symbols. Thus, every society has some specific preferences that reflect how its members approach the universal problems of humanity. Individuals from different parts of the world see life in various ways through the lens of their personal and cultural heritage. These differences can help or hinder deepening inter-cultural contact, be it in our private of professional roles. Thankfully, there are some useful ideas that can explain human diversity and bridge the gap between people across the globe.
Geert Hofstede started his research in the seventies by examining 100 thousand questionnaires of IBM employees coming from 50 different countries. His model evolved over the years and was validated by a large body of statistical tests and ample data bases. The point is that he worked very hard to find some reliable measures of cultural differences based on compelling evidence. As a result the Hofstede Model of Cultural Dimensions was born. The framework measures six aspects of cultures on a continuous scale of polar opposites. Every country is positioned in relation to others based on a score that indicates general national preferences in relation to:
Small Power Distance vs Large Power Distance
Low Uncertainty Avoidance vs High Uncertainty Avoidance
Collectivism vs Individualism
Femininity vs Masculinity
Short Term Orientation vs Long Term Orientation
Restraint vs Indulgence
Hofstede says that societal cultures are based on what we value (often unconsciously) and this determines our decision making and eventually creates cultural diversity across the world. A word of caution – there are some links between personality and culture, however these should not be used to stereotype. These are broad, statistical tendencies that give us an idea of national cultures, but we must approach people as unique individuals as this creates more genuine relationships.
Below you can find a description of the six Cultural Dimensions of the Hofstede model along with some broad characteristics and examples of countries.
Power distance is the degree to which the less powerful members of society accept and expect unequal distribution of power. Countries with a high power distance love hierarchy and obedience, while countries with a smaller power distance promote equality and allow folks at the bottom of the social ladder to move up.
Uncertainty avoidance is the degree to which members of a society tolerate ambiguity or how comfortable they feel with the unknow. People living in countries with low uncertainty avoidance are O.K. with risk and can embrace chaos. Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance have a need to control and predict to minimise risk.
Collectivism is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. Highly individualistic societies maintain looser ties and value personal freedom. Collectivist cultures expect loyalty to the group at the expense of individual needs and wants.
Masculinity versus Femininity dimension measures the distribution of values between genders. Some critics say that the name is inaccurate and may reinforce stereotypes. Masculinity is traditionally associated with being tough and femininity with being tender. In societies with high scores women display more masculine-like traits (i.e. assertive & competitive) whereas cultures with lower scores have a greater balance of emotional gender roles.
Short-Term versus Long-Term orientation is the degree to which efforts are focused on durable and stable future gains. High scores are present for cultures that value perseverance and are future oriented. Low scores are found in societies with a more ‘in-the-moment’ attitude and who see immediate obligations as more important.
Restraint versus Indulgence dimension measures the degree to which enjoyment and fulfilling desires are allowed. Countries with higher scores emphasise leisure and having fun while their opposite concentrate on work and maintaining order in society.
O.K. by now you may be saturated with information, so it’s time to apply it.
- Open this website.
- Type the name of a country or countries you are interested in.
- You will have a graph representing the score in the 6 Cultural Dimensions.
- You can compare up to 4 countries.
- What is your experience of the score of your chosen country?
- Talk to someone with a different score to the country you represent. How do you experience this difference?
- Holding these difference in mind ask yourself “Am I willing to believe that I and all people are equal?” (Roberts, 1983). This is one of the most vital questions that we need to answer when relating interculturally. According to Roberts, one of the most insidious cultural messages we receive is “the notion that some human being are superior to other human beings”. This is of course false and in order to build bridges across cultures we have to recognise the value and dignity of every human being we come across. It doesn’t mean we have to like everyone. It means that everyone deserves to be respected and honoured as unique and valuable.
- How would you like to act personally beyond the tendencies of the cultural conditioning you were exposed to?
In a nutshell, intercultural connections are about awareness of yourself and others. We need to recognise the cultural conditioning we were exposed to and act in ways that reflect our personal values. Sometimes the two match and sometimes there are in conflit. Striking a balance and developing an examined approach that feels right is what makes people more interculturally competent.
Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).
You can access the Hofstede paper below
Denton L. Roberts (1983) Cultural Scripts: The Problem of Supremacy,
Transactional Analysis Journal, 13:4, 253-254