Culture and Cultural Dimensions–An Introduction





What follows is a short reflection on culture and cultural domains. The hope is that the concepts I present here will be tools that you can use for personal reflection and dialogue as you move through inter-cultural spaces.

When we approach the concept of culture, the first question is, what is culture? And maybe you want to pause for a moment and ask yourself when you hear the word culture, what do you think of? What are the words or images that come to your mind?

Well, here’s a definition from “Global People” that has some useful components.


There are a few crucial points in this definition. Culture is a set of values, assumptions, and orientations. So it’s more than just the way a person dresses or the food they eat.

Culture is a set of fundamental values that shape how we make meaning in the world. A group shares these values, be it an academic department, a nation, a subgroup within a country, or a business.

Culture influences our behavior, but we are not automatons. Saying the values we share helps us make sense of the world does not mean that we will act in a certain way simply because we’re in a cultural group. This idea is vital for avoiding the problem of stereotyping.

To sum up, culture will influence our behavior. It helps us make meaning but is not deterministic.

There are some useful analogies for thinking about culture. And you’ve probably seen some of these.

Culture is like a pair of glasses. It’s the lenses through which we view the world. We don’t always even analyze the power of the lenses, but they do influence our view. If we take those glasses off and try to put on other ones, we won’t see as well (make meaning).

Cultures like the water in which we swim. It’s so familiar to us that we don’t even analyze it or think about it or give it much thought. And yet it’s so influential in the way we approach the world.

Cultures like an onion, there are layers to it. There are superficial things that indicate certain things about cultures. And then there are deeper layers that we must peel it off and delve into if we want to understand a culture, including our own.

And then culture is like an iceberg similar concept. Some things are apparent about culture, and some things lie below the surface of observation or consciousness. So here is that iceberg.

Some things that come to mind when we think about culture are those external things: food, literature, language, art. Those are the things that are the visual manifestations of cultures, but the things that help us understand how culture influences our behavior and how we make meaning are the things that lie below the surface.

These include our views on beauty, the relationships in a family, power, who has it, how we make decisions, and our approach to time, which is very important in the work that we do. These are all things that we don’t analyze, but that influence us.

There are two ways of thinking about learning about cultural differences. When we’re sending students abroad or when we’re going abroad ourselves or into new cultural settings in the US, we often approach cultural learning in culture-specific ways. I’m going to country X. How do you greet people there? How do I act there? What should I avoid? What do I need to do? What do I need to do to avoid offending someone?

These are culture-specific pieces of knowledge, and they have value. We want to make sure that we’re honoring people in their places, but culture-specific approaches to learning about cultures do not get us very far.

If we want approaches that give us tools for thinking about culture more generally and moving within a variety of cultures at once, we need culture-general approaches. Culture-general knowledge uses models or frameworks to help us think about culture more broadly and, more generally, and compare our cultural understandings and values to others along using broad categories of comparison.

Two books that can help us delve into this general culture approach to thinking about culture are these two.

Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind and The Culture Map. Both layout ways of thinking about dimensions or framework for thinking about where cultures differ. I recommend both of them, but the Hofstede and Hofstede book provides more details on the research behind cultural dimensions.

Here are some of these dimensions that they bring up laid out as different ends of continuums. Here is a brief summary of each pair:

Individualism versus Collectivism 

Individualism is a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected only to take care of themselves and their immediate families.

Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”

Power Distance: High and Low

This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people.

People in societies exhibiting a significant degree of power distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place that needs no further justification. In societies with low power distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.

Uncertainty Avoidance: Strong and Weak 

The uncertainty avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?

Cultural groups exhibiting strong uncertainty avoidance maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. Weak uncertainty avoidance societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.

Time Orientation: Linear and Flexible

In a linear time-oriented culture, project steps (for example) are approached sequentially, completing one task before beginning the next—one thing at a time. No interruptions. The focus is on the deadline and sticking to the schedule. Emphasis is on promptness and good organization over flexibility.

Those with a flexible time orientation might approach project steps more fluidly, changing tasks as opportunities arise. Many things are dealt with at once, and interruptions accepted.

The focus is on adaptability and flexibility is valued over organization.

Communication: Low Context and High Context

In a low context setting, good communication is precise and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value.

In a high context setting, good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Messages are spoken and read between the lines, and body language and silence matter as much as the spoken word.

Decision Making: Consensual and Top-Down

In a consensual cultural setting, decisions are made in groups through unanimous agreement. In a top-down decision-making setting, decisions are made by individuals (usually an authority figure or figures)

Dealing with Disagreement: Confrontational and Non-Confrontational

In confrontational cultures, disagreement and debate is positive for the team or organization. Open confrontation is appropriate and will not negatively impact the relationship.

In a culture that avoids confrontation, disagreement and debate are seen as unfavorable for the team or organization. Open confrontation is inappropriate and will break group harmony or negatively impact the relationship.

Achievement and Nurturance

This dimension’s achievement side represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.

Its opposite, nurturance, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

People within a culture are distributed along the continuum–we’re not sitting at one pole or the other. That returns us to the point made earlier: culture influences but does not determine behavior.

If you consider a distribution, one cultural group may be more densely distributed to one end, and another distributed to another end of a given continuum. An individual in a given cultural group could just as easily be more like the other group than their own in terms of their proclivities, actions, and how they make meaning.

Adapted from Tara Harvey of True North Intercultural

We are thinking about culture because we want to develop our intercultural learning abilities. We want to advance in our ability to respond appropriately in different cultural spaces. This four-phase approach helps us think about our learning process.

First, we want to approach cultural learning first and foremost, to learn about ourselves. How do we make meaning? Can we define that? Or are we blind to it? Are we unable to see it because it is the water we swim in? And so we want to start cultural analysis by looking at ourselves how we make meaning.

Then we can use the same cultural-general tools to understand how others make meaning and how that may differ from our way.

A third important step in our learning processes is to begin engaging mindfully in contexts that disorient us. Culture, cultural difference, intercultural engagement in a lab, department, or a project can be disorienting. People may say or do things that we don’t understand. And so we want to use our understanding of ourselves and others, and how we may approach things differently to help us step back, if you will, and ask what is going on without prejudging the situation.

The fourth step is then obviously actually bridging cultural gaps, understanding ways that we can bridge differences so that we can meaningfully advance the goals of an organization or a project. Step four moves beyond being able not just to understand what’s going on, but also to take steps to acknowledge and work to move things forward despite differences. Step four does not mean I stop doing things that are the way I think are appropriate culturally. The “bridging” activity may start as being able to call it out and acknowledge the differences that exist.

This is a four-phase approach, and critical to applying it is developing some practices to prepare ourselves to experience and analyze difference.

A simple approach uses three steps: describe, interpret, evaluate. We can use it in everyday life. The idea is that when you come up against a situation that disorients or confuses you, you begin by looking at it without judging it. What do I see objectively? How many people are here? What do I see them doing? What can I describe in the simplest terms?

Next, what do I interpret them to be doing, or what do I believe they’re doing? This step involves considering multiple options, not just one. This step of interpretation pushes us to think about alternative explanations to what we see.

Once we’ve done those two, we can think about our emotional responses to what we are experiencing and whether those emotional responses are useful.

This is a brief introduction to some general concepts about culture and cultural dimensions. I would very much value the opportunity to discuss these ideas more if you are interested.

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