With the advent of the internet, we may feel like we are living in some form of global village. But if we allow that to translate into a belief that we are all the same, we will find ourselves running into problems. Each culture is different and these lead to differences in value. So when we try to communicate with one another, if we misread those cultural values, we can readily end up with misunderstandings, disputes, or conflict.
Dutch engineer and social scientist, Geert Hofstede, studied the systematic differences in national cultures and identified four, then five, then six dimensions on which to describe those differences.
Hostede was born in 1928, and grew up in The Hague, in the Netherlands. Although he went to study for an MSc in Mechanical Engineering at Delft University, in 1953, he had already had early experiences travelling to England and Indonesia, after technical college, which were to put him on the track of study cultures as a social psychologist. It was in post war England that he describes experiencing culture shock – his surprise at the difference between England and Holland, despite the geographic proximity and shared historical experiences.
After University, Hofstede spent two years with the Dutch army, and then ten in three commercial organisations, learning the craft of management. The third of these was IBM, where he founded the Personnel Research Department in 1965, which he led until 1971. It was during this time that he studied part-time for his PhD in Social Psychology at Groningen University.
It was also during this time that he gathered data on values and cultural outlook from 100,000 IBM employees around the world. This was to form the basis of his research, first published in Hofstede’s 1980 book, Culture’s Consequences. This compared cultural norms, behaviours and values across different countries. He originally identified 4 dimensions, which he later increased to five.
In 1980, he co-founded the Institute for Research on Intercultural Cooperation, which is now located at Tilburg University. He was its first director, until he retired in 1993.
Just before retirement, he revisited his research and the IBM data, writing Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind with Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov. Minkov’s own work led the group to include a sixth cultural dimension.
Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions
Hofstede originally described four cultural dimensions, which he expanded to six incorporating research by Michael Harris Bond into long-term orientation, and Michael Minkov into indulgence and restraint.
These six cultural dimensions are:
This measures the tendency for society members to prefer being part of a strong group. Western societies such as those of Northern Europe and North America tend to be more individualistic, whilst Latin America and Asia have more collectivist cultures.
Some societies are more tolerant of ambiguity and more accepting of change. Others enforce behavioural norms and regulations strongly, to suppress change. In Europe, Southern and Eastern countries, including Germany, are more avoidant, whilst the Anglophone and Nordic countries are more accepting. Chinese cultures have low scores for uncertainty avoidance.
This measures inequalities of power within the society, and the level of unquestioned authoritarianism. Traditional societies and societies with strong religious adherence seem also to have high scores, such as in Asia, Latin American and Africa. Northern European countries have lower scores.
Masculinity – Femininity
This dimension measures assertiveness, desire for material gain, and tendency to honour competitive personas, against a more empathic, caring and co-operative culture. This varies widely across continents, with Scandinavian countries strongly to the Feminine end of the spectrum, and Anglophone countries strongly Masculine.
Far Eastern countries like China are archetypes of very long range mind-sets, while Africa and the Muslim world, along with Anglophone countries are much shorter term in their outlook.
Indulgence – Self-restraint
This measures the extent to which people seek immediate gratification and pleasure, as opposed to a more disciplined, ascetic outlook, which strongly enforces social norms. Latin America and the Western countries tend to be more indulgent, whilst Asian countries and the Muslim world tend to be more restrained.
Hofstede’s work is not without its stern critics. Whilst I am unqualified to judge it against these, one criticism seems to be self-evidently valid. Hofstede’s original work was based on his IBM survey data. Whilst this did indeed span very many national cultures, the survey set was highly dominated by white collar males – the sales and engineering employees of IBM in the 1960s and 1970s. We have to question the representativeness of that sample.
And, whilst the cultural descriptions Hofstede’s work allocates to different nations ring true; we must also question how far this takes us from stereotyping. However, Hofstede’s work does find practical application in International commerce, particularly in the fields of marketing, communications, and negotiation.
Hofstede’s work has also been applied to organisational cultures, but this seems to be an extension beyond his original research base. For a stronger link to organisational cultures, we need to look at the work of another Dutchman, Fons Trompenaars, whose model of 14 cultural polarities is also widely used.
A Wide-ranging Interview with Geert Hofstede
You may enjoy the Cross Cultural Business Pocketbook.