Understanding Values from Around the World

Ronald does the wai.Today, every organization is a global brand. Thanks to Web 2.0, people from around the world can access your content, discover and interact with other members of your online communities, and add their own voice to the conversation.

This is exciting but also a little unnerving. How do you relate to people from another culture? What do you say, or not say, to start a conversation off right? Are there cultural taboos you need to be aware of?

Fortunately, a psychologist named Dr. Geert Hofstede set out to answer these types of questions for IBM in the 1970s and his research on cultures and their value systems remains an enormous help in understanding cultural differences. Because even genuinely small cultural mistakes can have enormous consequences, his dimensions of culture framework should be required reading for all social media practitioners.

The dimensions of culture are:

  • Power distance: This dimension reflects how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies with a high power distance (e.g., Malaysia, Guatemala, the Philippines, etc.) accept a hierarchical order where everybody has a place, and the hierarchical order requires no justification. In societies with low power distance (e.g., Austria, Israel, Denmark, etc.), people strive to equalise the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism: Societies on the high side of this dimension (e.g., the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, etc.) believe individuals should take care of themselves and their immediate families only. Societies on the low end (e.g., Guatemala, Ecuador, Pakistan, etc.) prefer tightly-knit social frameworks where individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: This dimension is about how a society deals with ambiguity. Should people try to control the future or just let it happen? Societies exhibiting strong uncertainty avoidance (e.g., Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, etc.) maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. Societies on the low end maintain a more relaxed attitude and value practice over principles (e.g., Denmark, Jamaica, Singapore, etc.)
  • Masculinity vs. femininity: The masculinity side of this dimension (e.g., Japan, Hungary, Venezuela, etc.) represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material reward for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity (e.g., Norway, Sweden, Costa Rica, etc.), stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.
  • Long-term vs. short-term orientation: This dimension is about a society’s search for virtue. Societies with a short-term orientation (e.g., United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, Venezuela, etc.) strive to establish absolute truth. Their people exhibit great respect for traditions, save little for the future, and focus on achieving quick results. Societies with a long-term orientation (e.g., China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.) believe truth depends on situation, context, and time. Their people adapt traditions quickly to changed conditions, tend to save and invest money, and look to the long term for achieving results.
  • Indulgence vs. restraint (the recently added sixth dimension): Societies with high indulgence (e.g., Venezuela, Mexico, El Salvador, etc.) believe in enjoying leisure and allow relatively free gratification of human drives. Societies with high restraint (e.g., Ukraine, Latvia, Egypt, etc.) suppress gratification and live under strict social norms.

Pretty enlightening, huh! When you grow up in a culture, it’s pretty easy to take your norms of behavior for granted and not realize there are so many completely different ways to perceive things. Check out the free online tool at the Geert Hofstede website where you can compare two cultures against each other and learn more.

Which dimension of culture do you think sparks the most cultural misunderstanding?

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About Monica

Monica specializes in strategic communications, web and new media, and print materials with an international or multi-cultural context. She has worked on national public outreach campaigns targeting multi-cultural audiences and has conceptualized, written, and/or designed multiple websites. Monica also has written, edited, and/or designed high-profile newsletters, brochures, and reports, including some prepared in collaboration with the White House. She holds a bachelor’s in journalism and a master of international service with a focus on international communication. Monica is based in Washington, D.C.