2.5. Dimensions of culture

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.