Cultural Dimensions & Standards: How To Decode Cultures

There are a number of models using cultural dimensions and cultural standards that try to make cultural peculiarities comparable. Learn more about the models of Geert Hofstede, Edward T Hall and AlexanderThomas.
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Values, traditions and assumptions of what is considered right or wrong contribute to determining our visible behaviour, our actions and the way we communicate within a culture. But how can we describe differences between cultures, and how can we compare them with one another regarding their peculiarities? For this purpose, there are several models that try to make cultural peculiarities comparable.

Cultural Dimensions Model By Geert Hofstede

One of the best-known models is the cultural dimensions model by Geert Hofstede. In the 1960s and 70s, the Dutchman conducted a broad empirical study showing several cultural differences. Even though the results of his research – which has been continued over the past decades to ensure an up to date database – have been heavily discussed among scientists, it is currently the model that is applied most of all to compare cultures.

According to Hofstede, cultural dimensions are a means of selecting specific cultural aspects and examining them. Next, it is possible to compare these aspects with each other by entering them on a scale and setting them in relation to one another.

This way, the cultural dimensions defined by Geert Hofstede help describe human behaviour independently from the results of the study. In a way, they visualise the aspects that you notice when collaborating with people from other cultures but find difficult to describe. They, therefore, make a valuable contribution to the elements of Awareness and Knowledge when increasing your intercultural competence.

The 5 Cultural Dimensions By Geert Hofstede:

1. Power Distance
2. Individualism vs Collectivism
3. Uncertainty avoidance
4. Masculinity vs Femininity
5. Long Term Orientation vs Short Term Orientation

Power Distance

The dimension of the Power Distance expresses to which extent people of a culture accept or somewhat equalise power inequalities. It analyses the way people feel about the level of power distribution in a culture.

Low scores mean that a culture wants democratic power relations and members of society are viewed as equals. High scores mean that formal hierarchical positions are accepted.

Low Power Distance:

  • Decisions are made after consulting the
    employees
  • Superiors and employees should be
    treated equally
  • Managers tend to see themselves as
    practical and systematic

High Power Distance

  • Decisions are made in a patriarchal way
  • The difference between superiors and
    employees should be clearly visible
  • Managers tend to see themselves as
    benevolent decision-makers

Individualism vs Collectivism

The dimension of Individualism vs Collectivism describes to which degree members of a culture feel part of the community and if they feel accountable to it. It shows that for individualistic cultures, it is essential to attain personal goals, whereas collectivist societies rank the purposes of the group higher than those of the individual.

Individualism

  • Identity is part of each individual
  • Guidelines apply equally to everybody
  • Individual initiative is asked for

Collectivism

  • Identity is part of the social system
  • Guidelines are applied according to
    the context
  • Harmony has priority over individual
    initiative

Uncertainty Avoidance

The dimension of Uncertainty Avoidance shows if the members of a culture are rather put off by something new or if they are curious about it. Thus, it measures how a society deals with unknown or unexpected situations and the stress of change.

Cultures with a high score are less tolerant towards change. They implement rigid rules and laws to prevent the unexpected. Societies with a low score are more open to change and tend to have fewer rules.

Strong Uncertainty Avoidance

  • Strong resistance to changes
  • Unfamiliar issues are perceived as a
    threat
  • Seniority principle

Weak Uncertainty Avoidance

  • Weak resistance to changes
  • Unfamiliar issues are perceived as a
    challenge
  • Achievement principle

Masculinity vs Femininity

The dimension of Masculinity vs Femininity expresses to what extent the members of a culture feel accountable to gender roles. It describes the importance a culture puts on both stereotypical masculine and feminine values.

Cultures with a high score on the masculinity scale have more differences between genders and tend to be more competitive. Cultures with a low score have fewer differences between genders and place a higher value on building relationships.

Femininity

  • Low achievement motivation
  • Work issues that influence private
    life are not tolerated
  • Relationship-oriented
  • More leisure time is chosen over a
    better remuneration

Masculinity

  • High achievement motivation
  • Work issues that influence private
    life are tolerated
  • Object-oriented
  • A better remuneration is chosen
    over more leisure time

Long Term Orientation vs Short Term Orientation

The dimension of Long Term Orientation vs Short Term Orientation describes a society’s time horizon. Long-term-oriented cultures see time as linear and look rather to the future. Also, they are goal-oriented and value rewards. On the other hand, short term oriented cultures value the building of relationships and traditional methods. The past and the present are interconnected, which means that anything that cannot be done today can be done tomorrow.

Low Long-Term Orientation

  • Traditions are assigned nostalgic value
    “water under the bridge “
  • Social changes are easily implemented
  • Social conditions are rather instable and
    nonbinding

High Long Term Orientation

  • Traditions are part of the present
  • Today’s actions are considered
    highly binding for the future
  • Stable, binding social community for
    generations

Cultural Dimension Model By Geert Alfonsus Trompenaars

Alfonsus (Fons) Trompenaars (born 1953, Amsterdam) is a Dutch-French organisational theorist, management consultant, and author in the field of cross-cultural communication known for the development of Trompenaars’ model of national culture differences. His model encompasses the following seven dimensions:

Universalism vs. Particularism

This dimension deals with the question if correct behaviour can be determined via univesal rules or if, depending on the person or the situation, exceptions/variations of these rules are acceptable.

Neutral vs. Emotional

This dimension disusses to which degree publicly expressed emotions are tolerated. This refers not only to emotional outbursts but also to gestures, facial expressions and smiling.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Similar to Hofstedes identical dimension: Relationship between the individual and society i. e. the collective and its significance within society.

Specific vs. Vague

How clearly separated or unclearly interrelated are personal and professional relationships?

Performance vs. Decent (Achievement vs. Ascription)

This dimension deals with the question if status is achieved through effort and performance or through decent or membership (birth, relatives, group membership, age, gender, education, job etc.)

Dealing with and significance of
external surroundings

How do cultures estimate their chances of being able to determine their fate themselves or how strongly do they belive they are at mercy of nature/the environment?

Dealing with and significance of time

Synchronal: Past, presence, future are one

Sequential: looking ahead

Cultural Dimensions Model By Edward Twitchell Hall. Jr

Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr. (1914 – 2009) was an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher. He is remembered for developing the concept of proxemics and exploring cultural and social cohesion. Hence his dimensions are:

  • High- and low-context cultures
  • Monochronic and polychronic understanding of time

High- And Low-Context Cultures

High-context cultures strongly depend on external surroundings, the current situation and non-verbal communication, verbal communication is rather vague. On the contrary, in low-context cultures, verbal communication is straightforward.

Mono- And Polychronic Understanding Of Time

A monochronic understanding of time means: “One after the other”. In polychronic cultures, many different things are done at the same time.

Cultural Standards by Alexander Thomas

A different approach – also controversial but helpful – is the one about cultural standards. It is based on the work of Alexander Thomas, a retired tenured professor for social psychology and organisational psychology at Regensburg University, Germany. 

Alexander Thomas does not divide national culture into individual dimensions. Instead, his cultural standards are in contrast to dimensions based on the comparison of concrete cultures. 

“Cultural standards can be understood as all kinds of perception, thinking, judgements and actions, that are considered normal, natural, typical and compulsory by the majority of the members of a certain culture. Individual and public behaviour is evaluated and regulated on the basis of these standards.” (Source: Alexander Thomas)

According to Thomas, cultural standards are the main characteristics of a culture that give orientation regarding perception, thought patterns and interaction. They are:

  • binding for the members of the specific culture
  • unconscious
  • defining what is considered to be normal
  • changeable
  • bound to values

They also

  • give orientation
  • establish order
  • influence ones thinking, feelings and action

and they are not really meaningful in terms of the quality of action but show you that almost all members of a particular culture act a certain way.

All presented models and concepts are stereotypical; they describe a general tendency. In real life, however, you are always going to deal with individuals and their personalities.

Key Takeaways

  • Models that explain cultures are stereotyping – with all the advantages and disadvantages that go with stereotypes.
  • All models are controversial but at the same time helpful to decode cultures.
  • Cultural dimensions arrange cultures on a scale and in this way create a model to compare cultures.
  • The best-known dimensions model is that by Geert Hofstede but a range of others also exist.
  • Cultural standards are aspects of a culture that its members consider normal, typical and mandatory. Cultural standards try to extract the essence of a culture.
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