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.
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
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.
|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
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
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
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.
|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|
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
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.