During this meeting the partnership agreed on the final format of training module prototypes, and on the last steps to finalise their translation and localisation to the partners’ country-specific contexts. The structure and layout of the online training modules and the Mobile Assistant app were discussed together with a time-schedule to test the materials developed.

A young man from Afghanistan is riding on a bike. He is on his way to the mosque for Friday prayers. He is riding on a cycle path against the flow of traffic, alongside a main road with three lanes. In the distance a police car is slowly approaching. The young man accelerates, but has no chance of avoiding an encounter with the police. The police car stops and calls him back.

Two police officers step out of the car, a man and a woman. The woman is the officer in charge. She asks the young man if he hadn’t noticed that he was driving on the wrong side. The cars are coming towards him, so he should be using the opposite side. The young man gives her a quick glance and steps to his bicycle, muttering something, and gets ready to drive on. The woman police officer tells him to stop and repeats her observation that he was driving on the wrong side. This time the young man turns to her colleague and says that he was driving on a cycle path, he doesn’t understand what the problem is. He has to go otherwise he will be too late for Friday prayers. The male police officer takes a step forward but doesn’t say anything. The female police officer says that driving against the flow of traffic isn’t allowed because it can be dangerous. It carries a fine of €30. She also asks for his documents. The young man again turns to the male colleague and reluctantly hands over his documents to him. The female police officer asks if he would like to pay the fine on the spot or if he would rather wait for the invoice sent by post. The young man, looking far away in the distance, decides to pay directly. The woman police officer, trying not to show her frustration, writes the fine and hands it over to the young man, who takes it and pays it without glancing at the female officer even once.

Why do you think did the young man reacted in the way described? Please read the possible answers and choose the most likely one. More than one answer can play a role in the situation.

One evening, there was a big commotion in a refugee centre of a German speaking country. A group of 20 North African refugees was very excited and emotional. The noise of the group talking loudly could be heard all over the centre. The young social worker on duty was surprised by the sudden increase in noise and went to see what had happened. Several of the refugees explained to him excitedly that one of their mates had received official notice that he would be sent back to his home country and that they were very upset by this. The social worker in charge was not able to calm the group down. The more he tried to explain the situation to the whole group the more the refugees became upset. The social worker was unable to manage the situation any longer. He felt he couldn’t get through to anybody because of the confusion in the room. Finally he called the police.

Why do you think the young social worker couldn’t control the situation? Please read the possible answers and choose the most probable one.. More than one answer can play a role in the situation.

One morning a young man from a Middle Eastern country enters the counselling centre for migrants where he wants to determine his personal objectives and have his competencies assessed. He is very keen on participating in a language and vocational training programme. It is not the first time he has spoken to his counsellor but he has never been as serious about his objectives as he is now. He knocks at the door, enters the room and greets the counsellor. The counsellor greets him in return and asks him to sit down. The young man sits down but instead of waiting for the counsellor to get down to business, the young man asks him how he is and how his holidays were. He had noticed the counsellor was away because he had seen a note on the door a week ago when he had happened to pass by. The counsellor is a little surprised to be asked about his holidays. Nevertheless he replies that his holidays were very nice. This encourages the young man to ask further about where he had been for his holidays, and to ask whether he had been away by himself or with his family, and how old his children are. The counsellor’s surprise slowly turns into irritation. He has the impression the young man wants to know everything about his private life and he doesn’t know how to stop him.

Why do you think the young man asks so many questions? Please read the possible answers and choose the most probable one. More than one answer can play a role in the situation.

Intercultural information on the case study ‘The Bicycle’

In Muslim societies a man usually has a higher position than a woman. The reason for this is that the Koran (Surah 4, 34) grants men more personal endowments and the capability to sustain women economically. Consequently, male predominance is divinely ordained.

This means that the reasons given in question 1 are not likely to be probable motives for the young man’s behaviour. The young man’s behaviour is due to this religious belief which makes it difficult for him to accept a woman’s authority. In his understanding the male colleague ‘must’ have a higher position.

It is part of the self-conception of Muslim cultures that the honour of men and women has to be preserved under all circumstances. An honourable woman has to behave demurely (Surah 24, 31) in order not to provoke the man (sexually). A woman, who according to Muslim understanding talks too openly to a male stranger, compromises her own honour and that of her husband and harms his reputation.

In the case study ‘Bicycle’, this means that the topic of gender in question 3 is very likely to be the real cause of the conflict. In the eyes of the young man, the woman police officer, acting according to her code of conduct as a member of a western police force is probably not an honourable woman, because she behaved contrary to his understanding of female honour. His behaviour may reflect the negative, stereotyped image western women have in the eyes of some Muslim men because they do not comply with the role religious rules set. But there is another possible explanation.

In Muslim societies a strict code of conduct has to be followed. Eye- and body-contact between Muslim men and women not belonging to the same family is extremely rare. Even a handshake can be compromising. In Muslim cultures it is always the woman who decides if she agrees to shake hands with a man. In the case study ‘Bicycle’ the young man may act according to his code of conduct. In this case not looking at the female police officer would mean that he treats her respectfully.

Muslim religion is based on five pillars: statement of faith, prayer, charity, fasting (Ramadan) and pilgrimage to Mecca.

Practitioners of the Muslim religion should pray five times a day. It is up to the individual to see how they can combine praying hours with other duties. Many Muslims place particular importance on Friday prayers, especially if they have not had the opportunity to follow their praying duties during the week. It is likely that this explanation also plays a role in the case study (question 2).

Although it is understandable that the young man was under emotional stress, it is rather unlikely (question 4) that this is the reason why he only spoke to the male officer. The gender- issue explained above is much more likely to be the real motive for his behaviour.


  • Don’t take behaviour personally – it could have cultural reasons.
  • Accept that in other cultures the topic of gender is treated differently.
  • Accept that in other cultures religion is practiced differently.
  • Don’t lose confidence in your professional role and status.
  • Stay calm and keep in mind the cultural differences in gender attitudes.

Intercultural information on the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’

It is unlikely that the social worker didn’t get through to the upset group because his voice wasn’t loud enough (question 1) or because he didn’t try hard enough (question 2).

The cultural dimension ‘collectivism – individualism’ might play a role in the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’. North Africa, with countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, together with other countries from the Middle-East, have a higher score in collectivism than for example Poland, the Czech Republic or Germany and Austria.

In more collectivist cultures the group and group’s interests count more than the wishes and expectations of the individual. The individual identifies with and through the group. Therefore, the announced deportation of one refugee is a concern for the whole group and not just for a single member of the group. This is probably the reason why in the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’ the whole group was upset.

In collectivistic cultures with strongly defined authority structures, such as in North Africa, some individual members have a higher position in the group and can be regarded as the respected authority. In many collectivistic and hierarchical cultures, for example some Arab and African ones, a strong tribal authority carries the decision-making power and is the spokesman for the group. As the social worker in the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’ is not a member of the group it is very likely that he lacks the required authority (question 3).

In the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’ communication would probably have been easier if it had gone via the person with the highest authority in the group. In the example, the social worker could have tried to single out the most respected person in the group and explained the situation to him. This person would then communicate the information to the rest of the group. In this respect it is quite likely that the social worker lacked adequate communication skills (question 4).

Another point is that in North African countries,   such as Morocco, ambiguous situations trigger a high level of stress. The announcement of a deportation is in itself a highly unclear and stressful situation – even more so for cultures with a low ambiguity tolerance index. This also partly explains the commotion in the group. The moment the situation becomes clearer (thanks to the information given, by the authority of the group) the entire group will calm down.


  • Determine who is the person with the highest authority, for example by trying to find out who the oldest person is or by observing who the group is referring to.
  • Communicate only with the person who appears to have been given higher authority by the group.
  • Be as reassuring as you can.

Intercultural information on the case study ‘Individual coaching session’ à cultural advice section

In some countries, such as in the Middle-East but also in Eastern Europe, people are more used to communicating on a relationship level. In other countries, such as Germany for example, people are more task-oriented. In these countries communication is about the task at hand more than about building relationships.

For people from countries where communication is more about building good relationships it is important to establish a personal relationship first before moving on to serious topics or business. This was very likely the young man’s intention in the case study (question 3). He tried to establish a personal relationship with his counsellor. It is, therefore, very unlikely that the young man doesn’t respect the counsellor (question 2).

On the contrary, as the meeting was so important to the young man, he probably did his best to be friendly by asking a lot of questions about topics others could perceive as private. Whether a topic is perceived as private or not can be a matter of culture. Some Arab and African cultures have complex and highly formal greeting patterns with ritualised questions for example about family, health and general well-being. It is rather likely that the young man reproduced the communication patterns which, from his perspective, he knew to be the most appropriate for this important situation (question 4).

The counsellor on the other hand, probably preferred to finish what he was doing before giving the young man his full attention. If the counsellor were a little more experienced, he would probably have taken the opportunity to ask some questions in return to demonstrate politeness and at the same time increase his level of information about the young man. This would have improved the level of trust and congeniality on both sides.


  • Accept that questions that seem ‘private’ to you may just be polite for other cultures.
  • Remember that other cultures have different communication patterns that may seem strange to you.
  • Try to respond by asking the same type of questions in return. Your counterpart may well reward you with trust and openness.

Bolten, J. (2013), “Fuzzy Cultures: Konsequenzen eines offenen und mehrwertigen Kulturbegriffs für Konzeptualisierungen interkultureller Personalentwicklungsmaßnahmen”. In: Mondial: Sietar Journal für interkulturelle Perspektiven (2013), pp. 4-10.

Frank, Hannes (2016), Interkulturelle Kompetenz in der Polizeiausbildung: Zwischen Theorie und praktischen Möglichkeiten, Reihe: Polizeiwissenschaftliche Analysen, Bd. 29, Frankfurt/Main: Verlag für Polizeiwissenschaft.

Franzke, Bettina, Shvaikovska, Vitalia (2016), Interkulturelles Training in einer Einwanderungsgesellschaft: 55 Critical Incidents für die Arbeitsfelder Jobcenter, Kommunalverwaltung, Kunst und Polizei, Bielefeld: wbv Media.

Franzke, Bettina (2017), Interkulturelle Kompetenz und verantwortungsvolles Handeln in der Flüchtlingshilfe: Ein Praxisbuch für ehrenamtlich Engagierte, Mannheim: Wellhoferverlag.

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books.

Hecht-El Minshawi, Beatrice, Kehl-Bodrogi, Krisztina (2004), Muslime in Beruf und Alltag verstehen. Business zwischen Orient und Okzident. Wichtige Infos in Englisch, Weinheim/Basel: Beltz Verlag.

Hofstede, G. and Hofstede G.J. (2009), “Die Regeln des sozialen Spiels”. In: G. Hofstede and G.J. Hofstede, ed., Lokales Denken, globales Handeln. 4th ed. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, p. 2.

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Kabasci, Kirstin (22006), Kulturschock. Kleine Golfstaaten. Oman, Bielefeld: Reise Know-How Verlag Peter Rump GmbH.

Mast, K.J., Schmid Mast. M. (2007), “Stereotyp und Vorurteil“. In: J. Straub et al., ed., Grundbegriffe – Theorien – Anwendungsfelder. 1st ed. Stuttgart and Weimar: J.B. Metzler, pp. 69 – 76.

Meyer, Erin (2014), The Culture Map, New York: Public Affairs.

Schönpflug, Ute (2005), “Migration und Integration”. In: A. Thomas, E.-U. Kinast and S. Schroll-Machl, ed., Handbuch Interkulturelle Kommunikation und Kooperation, vol. 1, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, pp. 328-???

Thomas, A. (2005), “Kultur und Kulturstandards”. In: A. Thomas, E.-U. Kinast and S. Schroll-Machl, ed., Handbuch Interkulturelle Kommunikation und Kooperation, vol. 1, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, pp. 19-31.

Thomas, A. (2010), “Culture and Cultural Standards”. In: A. Thomas et al., ed., Handbook of Intercultural Communication and Cooperation, 2nd ed., Göttingen: Vanderhoek & Rupprecht, p. 22.

Triandis, H. C. (2002). “Subjective culture”. In: W. J. Lonner et. al. (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture. 2,2 [pdf]. Bellingham: Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, p.3. Available at: https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1021 [Accessed 25.11.2017].

Trompenaars, F. (1997), Riding the Waves of Culture. 2. ed., London, Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, p. 6.


https://www.teachingandlearning.ie/digital-badges/developing-intercultural-awareness/ (4.10.2018)

https://www.ijab.de/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/PDFs/IKUS-Werkstatt/IKUS-CD_IMPULSE.pdf (4.10.2018)

https://languages4work.eu/ (4.10.2018)

Dimensions of culture

Give yourself a minute to reflect on how you communicate your decisions to your colleagues or how you tell a family that they will soon be deported. Do you expect that somebody from another culture who has the same duties as you have will say it in the same way?

You probably answered ‘no’. But how can we compare how members act and react in certain situations?

One possibility is working with dimensions of culture. Dimensions of culture are based on the hypothesis that there are universal categories of human behaviour common to all cultures but of which cultures show culture-specific manifestations when it comes to finding solutions for certain challenges (Layes, 2005; Thomas, 2010).

Dimensions of culture offer the chance to make observations and classifications of national cultural behaviour which can be helpful in gaining a general understanding. They provide a basis for reflection concerning behaviour which may seem strange to us.

Various culture dimensions have been developed which aim to define and illustrate the different ways members of a culture handle the following problematic areas which all cultures face. The culture dimensions described here are taken from the works of the most renowned developers of cultural dimensions: Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Edward T. Hall and the Globe Study.


Disclaimer: Of course there is the risk of stereotyping when one tries to attribute what are ‘typical’ behaviours. But one has to keep in mind that cultural dimensions are unconscious orientations which are based on what can be observed and what is normal for most members of a certain culture. It is important to remember to approach another culture not by looking at it through one’s own cultural lens but by observing it neutrally and by postponing judgments.


Power Distance

Are you accustomed to hierarchical structures in the police forces or in NGO institutions? Do you address your boss in a similar way as you address your colleagues?


This dimension concerns the extent to which an imbalance of power in social relations is accepted by members of a culture. In cultures with high power-distance a wide gap between those with power and those without it is regarded as unproblematic and expected. This leads to complex hierarchies which are difficult to permeate.

In cultures with low power-distance, marked differences in power distribution are regarded as very problematic and are often fought against vigorously. This consequently leads to very flat hierarchies which are easier to permeate.


Low Power Distance High Power Distance
Flat organisation pyramids Tall organisation pyramids
Consultative leadership Authoritative leadership
Subordinate-superior relations are pragmatic Subordinate-superior relations are polarised
  • Hierarchy is established simply because one person ‘has to be the boss’
  • Hierarchy reflects the existential inequality
  • Small proportion of supervisors
  • Large proportion of supervisors


In some fields like the police forces the dimension ‘Power Distance’ shows in the strong differentiation of grades, tasks and responsibilities. It can also show in the way staff members of public institutions relate to their clients. In countries with high Power Distance, members of staff might appear less obliging and cooperative than in countries with low Power Distance.

Generally, the dimension is noticeable through the sort of expectations the subordinate has towards the superior and in the way the superior conveys information. In some countries like those of the Middle East, but also some Mediterranean ones (like France and Italy) subordinates expect their boss to behave in an authoritative manner.



How loyal do you feel to your family, friends or institution?


This dimension concerns the extent to which members of a culture regard themselves as members of a collective entity and feel an obligation to the common good. The members of collectivist cultures regard themselves as a member of a group and attempt to align their goals to those of the group.

The members of individualist cultures regard themselves primarily as autonomous individuals and aim to reach their personal goals independent of the interests of social groups.


Collectivism Individualism
People act for the good of the group they belong to People act for the good of their own goals
Group/family is the reference point Individual self as reference point
  • Tightly-knit social framework
  • Loosely-knit social framework
  • Group responsibility for tasks
  • Individual responsibility for tasks


The dimension ‘Individualism/Collectivism’ can show in some rather collectivistic cultures, such as some Asian, African, Eastern European and Middle Eastern ones, in how tightly the families are knit and in the way the family or in-group shows cohesion and loyalty.

Sometimes the whole family decides over the well-being of the single members. It can happen that the family decisions do not take into account the wishes of an individual member. The family can ignore them for the sake of the common well-being of the entire family. This would happen for example when the family decides that one member should emigrate to Europe in order to seek their fortune there. In many cases the person who has emigrated regularly sends money to sustain the family. In these cases the family decision takes precedent over the will of the single person.


Uncertainty avoidance

How comfortable do you feel when the working processes in your police station or social institution don’t seem clear to you?


This dimension lays out to what extent unclear and ambiguous situations create insecurity and concern in a culture. For members of cultures with high uncertainty avoidance, rules which regulate private and public life have a high level of commitment. Unclear, unregulated situations create a feeling of disorientation which can even lead to aggression. This leads to the construction of very complex and rigid social systems.

For members of cultures with low insecurity avoidance, rules to regulate private and public life receive lower commitment. Chaos and unclear situations are reacted to with relative ease. This leads to very flexible regulation systems.


Low Uncertainty Avoidance High Uncertainty Avoidance
Norms and rules have less importance in the avoidance of unexpected outcomes Norms and rules structure actions to avoid unexpected outcomes
Precision and punctuality have to be learned and managed Precision and punctuality come naturally
  • Record keeping has to be learned and managed
  • Record keeping comes naturally
  • Power of superiors depends on position
  • Power of superiors depends on control of uncertainties and relationships


Countries with a low tolerance for unclear or ambiguous situations show this dimension by having highly defined structures and regulations in order to prevent unforeseen and therefore stressful events. For example, processes determining how migrants are assigned accommodation or language courses may be more or less defined and structured.

Conflicts can arise when different expectations regarding the situation collide. In a multicultural surrounding, clear and simple instructions for colleagues and collaborators and rules and regulations handed out to newly arrived migrants, for example, either in paper format or visible as signs and signposts, may help those with a low ambiguity tolerance in unstructured and chaotic situations.

It is also imaginable that staff members of a shelter with low tolerance for ambiguity rely, for example, during the contact-time with migrants on written documents or record details on a computer, investing little time in the personal and direct conversation with the person in need. In this case the person in need, missing, for example eye-contact and gestures, could feel neglected or not taken seriously and as a consequence could be less cooperative and lose trust.


Gender Egalitarianism (Globe)

How many female superiors do you have in your institution?

Cultures handle gender and inequality in different ways: they minimise it to different extents.


High Gender Egalitarianism Low Gender Egalitarianism
No visible traditional assignment of roles Visible traditional assignment of roles
Equality of education Lower level of female education
  • Women in management positions
  • Fewer women in management positions
  • Career ambition optional for both men and women
  • Career ambition compulsory for men, optional for women


In some western cultures with a low gender egalitarianism score, like Germany, Austria and some Mediterranean countries (e.g. Italy, Spain) but also in some countries of the Middle East (e.g. Turkey, Egypt, Iran) men have dominant roles in society.

In the Vocal in Need context, this dimension shows in a noticeable role division: Men are ‘naturally’ chief inspectors, managers of a NGO etc. – women are ‘naturally’ secretaries, assistants etc.

Men from countries with a low gender egalitarianism score may not like to receive instructions from women in a higher position. As they do not tolerate what is in their perspective an inversion of naturally given roles, they may display a kind of behaviour towards the women that could seem arrogant and patronising.


Relationships and rules: Universalism/particularism (Fons Trompenaars)

As a police officer or NGO worker, imagine you are confronted with a person that needs your help. Would you help this person even if this means disobeying a rule?


This dimension describes how far a culture assumes that it is possible to define generally accepted rules for human co-existence and to insist on their implementation under any circumstances. Whereas universalist cultures are convinced that this is possible, particularist cultures focus much more strongly on specific circumstances and reject strictly following rules.



Universalism Particularism
Rules and norms don’t depend on the context Focus on present circumstances, exceptions are possible
Place greater importance on agreements Place greater importance on relationships


In the Vocal in Need context the dimension ‘Universalism – Particularism’ shows, for example, in the relationship between police staff/NGO members and migrants.

In universalistic cultures, all migrants are equal and are treated according to their status as migrants. In particularistic cultures, such as some Muslim, Arab and also Mediterranean countries, it can happen that members of those countries expect to be favoured or maybe are actually favoured because of their relationship with the staff: the chief inspector might be a good friend or he may pursue some personal motive. In all these cases, rules are constantly renegotiated on the basis of personal preference.

The particularist system may seem incomprehensible and unfair to members of universalistic cultures, especially if there is no opportunity to enter the privileged situation of being favoured as well. The particularist system can cause feelings of insecurity, helplessness and anger. For members of particularistic cultures, the universalistic rule adherence may seem incomprehensible and annoying. It can even cause aggression and resentment.


High/low context (Hall)

How explicitly do you tell asylum seekers about the hopelessness of their application for asylum? How directly would you tell a colleague that he/she has made a mistake?


Low context cultures say what they mean. The focus of the message is on the literal meaning.

High context cultures communicate with indirect messages. It is necessary to read between the lines and non-verbal communication is important in decoding messages correctly.

High context cultures Low context cultures
Covert, implicit messages – many contextual elements help people understand Overt, explicit messages – little information has to be taken from the context
Much nonverbal communication Less importance non-verbal communication, more focus on verbal communication
  • Reserved inward reactions
  • Little focus on of body language
  • Strong sense of family
  • Flexible and open grouping patterns


This dimension shows, for example, in the way migrants convey their problems or tell others about their experiences.

Migrants coming from a high context culture may appear reserved and emotionally distant, from the point of view of a low context culture. Members of high context cultures are used to conveying feelings and emotions like insecurity and fear without referring directly to the actual situation. This communication style may, in the eyes of the low context culture, seem lengthy and complicated.

Low context cultures convey information, for example about the state of the application for asylum in a straightforward manner, without ‘hiding’ behind metaphors or other rhetoric. In the eyes of those culturally not used to it, the direct communication style might appear unfriendly, offending or maybe even shocking.


The concept of ‘‚face‘

The concept of face‘ is not defined as a cultural dimension but nevertheless appears to be a behavioural pattern that is widespread among cultures. It seems to be a universal pattern, which cultures have come to find solutions for in their own way over time.

‘Face’ is mostly associated with the Asian, especially Chinese, cultures. But western societies have it, too, – in a culturally adapted way – where it shows in the concepts of honour, prestige, good/bad appearance and is connected to the concept of shame and fear.

In Asian cultures, as in western ones, ‘face’ implies the idea of the self and how the self as well as others can benefit from a certain behaviour. Transgression of social norms can lead to loss of face.

Especially in Asian cultures, people tend to act according to the idea of avoiding loss of the face (one’s own or the partner’s) and of contributing to gaining face (one’s own or the partner’s), which, as a consequence, reflects positively on one’s own image.


It can happen that migrants in some situations may appear proud or overconfident. These are situations in which the underlying emotion may be fear or shame, for example when they haven’t understood what the person in charge of the shelter has said or where they disagree with somebody from the institution. To admit to not having understood or to disagree would lead not only to a loss of their own face but also to that of the person they are talking to. Therefore it is sometimes difficult to get a concrete statement.

It might be better for the person in charge of the shelter or the police staff to try to imagine and communicate what the migrants might feel. This might make it easier for the migrants to express their emotions or thoughts.