How To Make Sense of Culture – Watch Out For These Cultural Dimensions

“No society is healthy or creative or strong unless that society has a set of common values that give meaning and purpose to group life (…) and that do not outrage men’s reason, and, at the same time, appeal to their emotions.”

Clyde Kluckhohn – Culture and Behavior.

But what is culture, really? Culture is a set of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that are expected, reinforced and rewarded.

These values and attitudes are also reflected in communication. The meaning of things is not absolute. For each and every one of us, meaning is constructed by filtering the factual context through the cultural values we have been raised and socialized in. Language is therefore a system of symbols which can serve as a guide to how a certain culture perceives reality.

With the advent of globalization and the intensification of foreign trade, frequent interactions with different cultures became the norm.  The challenge of coming to a mutual understanding grew and became pressing.

To help us evaluate and “measure” culture, scientists have come up with different cultural dimensions.

Take Edward T. Hall, for example. He looks at low-context cultures vs. high-context cultures. In a high-context culture, rules are often unwritten and have to be deduced from contextual cues – which can be quite confusing for people unfamiliar with the culture. Time is flexible and not very organized, the process is more important than the result. In low-context cultures on the other hand, rules are always explained and not taken for granted, time is carefully planned and scheduled (doing one thing at a time), and the outcome is more important than the process.

The Dutch expert Geert Hofstede classifies cultures according to the following criteria:

  1. Power Distance Index (PDI) – the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  2. Individualism (IDV) versus its opposite, collectivism – the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onward are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families.
  3. Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity, refers to the distribution of roles between the genders.
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.
  5. Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation: values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift, persistence and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition and the current hierarchy, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one’s ‘face’. Focusing on the future or on the present/past has a significant impact on decision-making.


Another group of scientists, Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner have come up with yet another interesting cultural model. Have a look at these fascinating 7 dimensions:

  1. Universalism vs. particularism (“What is more important, the rules or the relationships?”)
  2. Individualism vs. collectivism (“Do we function as a group or as individuals?”)
  3. Neutral vs. emotional (“Do we display our emotions?”)
  4. Specific vs. diffuse (“How separate do we keep our private and working lives?”)
  5. Achievement vs. ascription (“Do we have to prove ourselves to receive status or is it given to us?”)
  6. Sequential vs. synchronic (“Do we do things one at a time, or several things at once?”)
  7. Internal vs. external control (“Do we control the environment or are we controlled by it?”)

Depending on the human-time relationship, cultures can be: past-oriented, present-oriented or future-oriented.

To wrap things up I would like to talk about a very practical synthetic model.  This is the patented Cultural Orientations Model (developed by TM Corp. and presented by Ms. Mira Bergelson in her recent class on Contexts of Intercultural Communication on Coursera ). It is based on its predecessors and describes general preferences in particular cultures, mostly restricted to work-related situations. The COM’s 10 cultural dimensions that any person doing business abroad should keep in mind are:

  • Time (tangible vs. intangible, fixed vs. fluid, single-focus vs. multitasking, past vs. present vs. future, etc.)
  • Action (doing vs. being)
  • Communication (direct vs. indirect, high-context vs. low-context, expressive vs. instrumental, formal vs. informal)
  • Space (public vs. private)
  • Power (hierarchy vs. equality)
  • Individualism (individualism vs. collectivism, universalistic vs. particularistic)
  • Competitiveness (feminine vs. masculine, how are people motivated, cooperative vs. competitive)
  • Information structure (order vs. flexibility, stability vs. change, ambiguity, dealing with new information)
  • Thinking (inductive vs. deductive)
  • Environment (control of the environment vs. harmony with the environment vs. submission to the environment)

(additional sources:,;, Joerg Schmitz)

I think this forms a very useful framework for approaching different cultures. I am excited to see how the new social-media-driven “tribalism” will affect these dimensions within established national cultures and how new sub-cultures and co-cultures will emerge.




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