Six dimensions to understand cultural differences in the world

Published: March 25, 2019 4:43:10 AM

These dimensions have become a global standard for understanding cultural differences

Hofstede studied people who worked for IBM in more than 50 countries.

By Vidya Hattangadi

Every nation is perceived in the minds of people differently for its culture, for its standard of living and for some unique quality of people. Some countries are known for good things, some for bad, and others are perceived with a mixed reaction. Culture is a strong element of people’s lives. It controls their views, their values, their humour, their hopes, their loyalties, and their worries and doubts. So when you are working with people and building relationships with them, it helps to have some perspective and understanding of their cultures.

In large organisations, cultural differences can act as a barrier to communication, and they can affect team building. Employees need to build understanding of other cultures to work effectively with people from different cultures. Psychologist Geert Hofstede—a Dutch social psychologist and an employee of IBM—published his cultural dimensions model at the end of the 1970s, based on a decade of research that he conducted at IBM from 1965 to 1971. Since then, it’s become an internationally-recognised standard for understanding cultural differences.

Hofstede studied people who worked for IBM in more than 50 countries. Initially, he identified four dimensions that could distinguish one culture from another. Later, he added fifth and sixth dimensions, in collaboration with Michael H Bond and Michael Minkov. Hofstede, Bond and Minkov scored each country on a scale of 0-100 for each dimension. The six dimensions are as follows:

Power Distance Index (PDI): Hofstede’s PDI measures the extent to which inequality and power are tolerated. High PDI indicates a culture accepts inequity and power differences, and encourages bureaucracy. It also shows high respect for rank and authority. Low PDI indicates that a culture encourages organisational structures that are flat and appreciates decentralised decision-making responsibility, encourages participative style of management, and places emphasis on power distribution. For example, Germany scored 35 on the cultural scale of Hofstede’s analysis, compared to Arab countries where the power distance is very high (80) and Austria where it is very low with a score of 11.

Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV): This dimension considers individualistic versus collective approach of a society. A person’s self-image is defined as ‘I’ in a loosely-knit social framework. Each individual in a family is expected to take care of only himself/herself. As opposed to this, in collectivism, families are tightly-knit in society in which individuals expect their relatives or members of a particular group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of ‘I’ or ‘we’. The Japanese are known as a collectivistic society (scoring 46), whereas the US can clearly been seen as an individualistic society (scoring 91).

Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS): This dimension is also referred to as ‘tough versus tender’, and considers the preference of society for achievement, attitude towards sexual equality, behaviour, etc. The masculine side of this dimension represents a preference in a society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success; such a society, at large, is more competitive. As opposite to this trait, in a feministic trait, preference is given to cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Such a society, at large, is more nurturing. In the business context, MAS is sometimes also related to as ‘tough versus tender’ cultures. Japan is considered to be a very masculine country, whereas the Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Sweden are considered highly feminine.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI): This index considers the extent to which uncertainty and ambiguity are tolerated. This dimension considers how unknown situations and unexpected events are dealt with in a country. High UAI indicates lower tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity and risk-taking. The unknown is minimised through strict rules and regulations. Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Poland, Japan, France, Argentina, Chile, Turkey and South Korea score high on this dimension. Low UAI indicates higher tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity and risk-taking. The unknown is more openly accepted. Singapore, Denmark, Sweden, China, the UK, India, Malaysia and the US score low on the uncertainty dimension.

Long-Term Orientation versus Short-Term Orientation (LTO): Different cultures have different expectations or assign different meanings to what time is. Some cultures perceive time to be scarce, while others believe time to be infinite. Some view time management as a skill, while others find it unimportant. Every society maintains a link with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and preparing for the future. Long-term orientated countries focus on the future. China and Japan are known for their long-term orientation. Short-term oriented countries focus on present and past more than the future. Morocco, for example, is a short-term oriented country.

Indulgence versus Restraint (IND): It’s a relatively new dimension of the model. This dimension is defined as the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses, based on the way they were raised. Relatively weak control is called ‘indulgence’ and relatively strong control is called ‘restraint’. Cultures can, therefore, be described as ‘indulgent’ or ‘restrained’. Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. The best example is the US. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates them by means of strict social norms. The examples are Russia, and Eastern European countries such as Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Hungary.

-The author is a management thinker and blogger

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