Gluster logo In the previous article, we outlined how cultural dissonance can cause issues when cultures collide. In this article, we talk about what makes up cultural identity, and perhaps help you become more aware of your own cultural assumptions.

In "Cultures and Organizations", the sociologist Geert Hofstede identified six dimensions for characterizing a culture. The effects of these dimensions can be analyzed according to multiple characteristics of a culture, including education, social structure, political and economic systems, religious attitudes, traditions, and customs.

The six dimensions that Hofstede identifies are:

  • Power distance index
  • Individualist vs collectivist
  • Masculine vs feminine
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Past vs future focus
  • Indulgence vs self-restraint

These dimensions capture the essence of a culture, and differences on a dimension can explain different approaches to government or parenting, for example. Let’s look at each dimension in turn.

Power Distance Index

Power distance represents the inherent respect and deference that is given to elders or leaders in the society. In some cultures, leaders are given respect and authority purely because of their status, while in other cultures, leaders are expected to earn respect and authority through their work and leadership.

In the workplace, low power distance cultures have a flat social structure, where people expect to be consulted on things that affect them, while high power distance cultures have a very strong hierarchical structure and a chain of command, and subordinates expect very clear instruction and definition of their scope of authority.

The social structure of cultures are also affected. In low power distance cultures, education is student-focused, and societal values taught by school and parents are around personal responsibility and equality. In high power distance cultures, students are expected to respect the teacher and conform, and key values are respect for elders, and obedience.

Individualist vs Collectivist

In individualist cultures, values of independence and autonomy are strongly valued. People are taught to speak their mind, and stand up for themselves. More value is placed on getting a task done than on maintaining or strengthening a relationship, when trade-offs need to be made in the workplace.

On the contrary, in collectivist cultures, the emphasis is more on belonging to part of a group. Collective responsibility and solidarity with others are valued, and when relationships are damaged, grudges can be held for a very long time. There is a strong focus on harmony over conflict, and "fitting in."

Masculine vs Feminine

Masculine and feminine in this dimension do not refer to male- or female-dominated, but rather refer to the set of values that are categorized as masculine or feminine, and their relative importance in the culture. Feminine characteristics are a focus on family, relationships, and quality of life. Masculine characteristics are a focus on ego, money, and status. When economic growth is a higher priority than the environment, employment is a key part of an individual’s identity.

In the business world, negotiation style is a key indicator of this dimension. If arguments are settled in an adversarial manner, with ideas being put to the test and challenged to see if they hold out, the culture is more masculine. More feminine cultures are focused on negotiation, by characterizing a shared problem, and collaborating as a group to get to a solution.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance index typically have a strong focus on law and order, are heavily regulated, and have strong faith-based societies. In low uncertainty avoidance cultures, people are open to change and innovation, are more comfortable with taking risks for future gains, and in general favor less regulation and a greater focus on citizen participation in politics.

In education, there is a difference in teaching style from highly standardized and structured learning in uncertainty avoiding cultures, to more open-ended learning on the other end of the spectrum. In the family, more traditional family structures and gender roles are found in cultures avoiding uncertainty, where low uncertainty avoiding cultures may have a rejection of the traditional family unit, fewer traditional gender roles, and a greater tolerance of diversity.

Past vs Future Focus

Also known as long-term vs short-term orientation, this dimension describes the cultural inclination to defer gain or tighten the belt now in order to invest in the future. A focus on the past and present implies a strong cultural identity with traditions, and an emotional investment in the way that things are done—for example, systems of government. Change is disruptive, and actively resisted.

On the other hand, perseverance, persistence, and saving for the future are valued in long-term or future focused cultures. Change is accepted as a normal part of society, and a high value is placed on "common sense" solutions to problems as they are encountered.

In government, the relative importance of investment in education vs investment in the economy is a key marker—future focused societies invest heavily in education, while past and present focused cultures place a higher emphasis on employment, GDP growth.

Indulgence vs Self-Restraint

Finally (and much later than the others), Hofstede describes an axis based on the cultural emphasis on self-restraint. This is correlated with long-term vs short-term orientation, but is slightly different.

Indulgent societies generally place an emphasis on consumption, have a higher tolerance for personal debt, and have a societal focus on entertainment and sports. In general, the happiness of the population is valued. There may be an increased occurrence of obesity, a higher birthrate, and more lenient attitudes to sex and sexuality. In cultures that value self-restraint, there is a greater emphasis on saving for the future, a focus on duty and responsibility, and in general, when asked, people may be less happy than in other cultures. Sexual attitudes are more conservative, and freedom of speech is less of a core value. Security is valued, and self-restrained cultures tend to have more security forces per capita.

In the first two articles, we have covered the issues caused by cultural dissonance, and the aspects of a cultural identity. In the next part, we get practical, talking about how you can uncover unstated assumptions about how human interactions work, and improve communication in your community.

(Image courtesy of Daniel Walker, under CC by 3.0.)