The Substance of Culture: Dimensions of Cultural Variation
Take a couple of minutes to answer the questions.
What is more important to you:
- to be successful in your career or to find a job which will bring you a sense of personal
- to take up a leading position in your company or to work with like-minded people?
- to invent a new device or to improve the devices you are already using?
- to be able to develop your potential or to work and live close to your family and friends?
Do you think the way you answered the questions is typical of you only or other people from your culture tend to hold similar views?
Let’s get back to the two quotations from Hofstede’s works:
- “Culture is the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others.”
- “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”
This Dutch social psychologist and anthropologist proposed, tested empirically and subsequently explained one of the most popular, although not the only model of describing cultural variations in today’s world. Let’s take a closer look at it. This model consists of six dimensions.
This dimension measures to what extent a society accepts that power in institutions and organisations is distributed unequally and explains the consequences of this. Societies which score highly on this dimension accept hierarchies and the people in such societies accept they have a certain place in this order. On the other hand, in societies which score low on this dimension, there are thought to be fewer inequalities. In the EU, an example of a country with a low PD index is Austria and an example of a large PD index is Bulgaria.
This dimension explains the extent to which individuals expect only to look after themselves and their immediate families. This is compared to the extent to which there is a tightly-knit social framework where people expect the groups to which they belong to look after them. In the EU, Germany and the Netherlands, for instance, are examples of individualist societies while Bulgaria and Slovenia are more collectivist.
This dimension has to do with certain values a society favours. Achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success are values which speak about a masculine society. On the other hand, a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life speak about a feminine society. In the EU, Germany and Poland represent masculine societies while the Netherlands – a feminine one.
The fourth dimension refers to the extent to which society members feel threatened by ambiguity and novelty. Greece, for example score 100% on this index and represents a culture with practically no tolerance for ambiguity and unorthodox behavior.
This dimension is about the different time frames in a society. Short-term oriented cultures value traditional methods, highly respect their past, while long-term oriented cultures consider the future rather than the present or the past and are goal and reward-oriented. The bigger the score on
The sixth dimension points to a society’s attitude to satisfying the immediate needs and personal desires of its members. Cultures which value indulgence allow more or less free gratification of basic and natural human needs. Those which value self-restraint follow strict social rules and norms and satisfaction of such drives is regulated and discouraged. Out of the EU countries, Austria is an example of a culture which values indulgence while Bulgaria and Estonia – restraint.
You may now wish to visit the Country comparison tool to explore the cultures you are interested in.
The Culture Map provides us with another way to look at cultural variations. Developed by Erin Meyer, this model is built on eight areas of cultural variations. The “map” is designed to help you understand where your own and other cultures are placed on these eight scales. The scales reflect some of the ideas discussed in the previous two topics as well as the 6 dimensions of cultural variations above.
As you learned in the Cultural orientations topic, in low-context cultures, communication tends to be direct, information is repeated for clarity’s sake. In high-context cultures, communication relies much more on what is read “between the lines” For example, US is a low-context culture while Japan is at the other extreme.
Different cultures give and decode feedback in different ways. This does not depend on whether a culture is a low-context or a high-context one. For example, the French culture is a high-context one but the French tend to be very direct in giving feedback, while Americans despite coming from a low-context culture would rather give you feedback in which critique is carefully intermingled with positive messages.
The two types of building your argumentation to persuade someone is again culturally bound. The principles first type means providing the whole picture, the theory behind the practice first while the application first type means outlining what has to be done in detail and later providing the background. Western cultures tend to be on application first end of the continuum and Asian culture – on its extreme – the principles first one.
As you learned above, cultures vary according to Power Distance, which also affects leadership, hierarchy and power. It comes into play based on the dynamics of how an organization distributes authority – such as the relationship between bosses and workers. In egalitarian cultures, it is not problematic for workers to disagree with their superiors while in hierarchical ones, this is not the case and employees act and communicate through the appropriate channels.
Scales 4 and 5 seem to be related as between in most egalitarian cultures decision making is consensual and in most hierarchical cultures decision making is top-down. However, this is not always the case. For example, the Japanese culture which is highly hierarchical, values consensual decision making.
abilities to do a job or perform a task created through having worked together) and “affective trust” (coming from your affective relationship with a person created through socializing). Instances of these two ends of the continuum would be Germany and the Netherlands for task-based trust and China, Brazil or India for affective trust.
The way we disagree and react to confrontation differs from the view that confrontation may have a positive effect to a complete avoidance of disputes and open disagreement. French culture is on the confrontational end of the scale while Japan at its other extreme like most Asian cultures where confrontation is seen as harmful to harmony.
This scale again has to do with the monochromic-polychromic distinction discussed in the Cultural orientations topic. In linear-time cultures, people stick to schedules and observe plans and deadlines (as in Germany or the USA). People from flexible-time cultures consider schedules changeable (as in Italy, Brazil or India).
Hand-on task and reflection
1 Think about you r experience in working on international teams. Choose an example of an unsuccessful task completion. Identify what cultures the other participants in the event come from and check on the two approaches to cultural variation discussed in this topic where these cultures stand.
Can you now come up with an explanation
Would your explanation differ if you belonged to one of the other cultures presented in the event?
2 Imagine you have to give negative feedback to a colleague from another culture. Map out how you can do it.