How does culture influence behaviour? It was the summer of 2012, and I was on a two-week English campus in Dublin. My class was composed of 4 Italian guys like 5 Russian friends, and me. One day, the teacher asked if we would report one of our parents to the authority if they committed a homicide. To my surprise, the vote was even. All the Italians raised a hand for reporting, while all the Russians voted for a secret. And like you, I wondered why.

What’s Culture?

To give a bit of context, it is necessary to talk about culture. According to the dictionary, culture is “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time”. But also “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organisation (such as a business)”. We talked about culture also here.

What’s critical to understand is that the festivities, ways of greetings, or typical food you tend to define as “culture” is just the tip of the iceberg.

Actual societies result from millennia of religions, wars, royal marriages, conquers, schools, phylosophers, climate changes and adaptation. But how exactly do a population shape its behaviours according to the culture? That’s what Geert Hofstede unveiled.

Gert Hofstede

Gerard Hendrik Hofstede was a Dutch social psychologist, Professor Emeritus of Organizational Anthropology and International Management at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and IBM employee.

At IBM International, he started working as a management trainer and manager of personnel research. Moreover, he played an active role in introducing and applying employee opinion surveys in over 70 national subsidiaries of IBM around the world.

In 1971, he took a two-year sabbatical to dig into a 10000 questionnaire database and proposed the six dimension model.

The 6 Dimensions of a Culture

The Hofstede model of national culture consists of six dimensions. The cultural dimensions represent independent preferences for one state of affairs over another that distinguish countries (rather than individuals) from each other.

The country scores on the dimensions are relative, in that we are all human and simultaneously we are all unique. In other words, culture can only be used meaningfully by comparison. The model consists of the following dimensions:

  1. Power Distance: how well does society accept hierarchy inequalities among individuals? In high power distance societies, leaders are more dominant, organisational structures are more profound, and the elderly are respected.
  2. Individualism vs collectivism: defines whether it’s more important the individual or the group, or whether people’s self-image is an “I” or a “We”.
  3. Masculinity and Femininity: masculine society tends to reward competition and survival, where the best raises from the crowd. On the other side, in feminine society, people tend to “walk at the pace of the slower one”, making sure that no one is left out.
  4. Uncertainty avoidance: how confident do the people of society feel with ambiguity and diversity? How do they cope with unforeseen events? According to the extreme you’re in, you will find more essential rules or praxis.
  5. Long term orientation: how does a culture consider past and future? Some prefer to rely on traditions and be suspicious of reforms, while others like to invest in the future.
  6. Indulgence and restraint: Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a community that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it using strict social norms.

Implications and Limits

These dimensions are robust because they help you make sense of the world. However, for sure, the following observations are strong over-simplification, and correlation doesn’t imply causality, but still, I believe that the Hofstede framework is compelling for understanding other cultures:

  • Northern European countries tend to have a low masculinity rate, and they are recognised for the massive welfare of the population.
  • East European countries and Russia have low individualism rates, and they embraced a strong collective government form as Communism.
  • The USA has a very high individualism rate, and it’s probably the country where the concept of individual rights is essential.
  • Japan is the most masculine country in the world, the competition in the workplace is extreme, and you can sometimes read news about Japanese workers dying at the desk.

And you can notice many more exciting things! If you go to Hofstede Insights, you could check your own country and see if the results reflect reality.

Source: Hofstede, Geert (2001). Culture’s Consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.)

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