Dimensions of Culture … or … Why We All See the Same Things Differently

This is the first post in a new series on the dimensions of culture. In this post, we introduce you to the cultural dimensions behind our attitudes, actions and reactions — our cultural programming.

What are the dimensions of culture?

They are a way of understanding how and why cultures differ. They have been developed over the last 50–60 years by researchers who have studied almost 100 countries.

Why are they important?

Each dimension represents a set of values that affect the way in which the people who have those values see and understand the world. Our values are the mental programming behind our behaviour, thoughts and feelings.

These differences in values are what cause conflict and misunderstanding between people from different cultures — and also between nations and any other group that holds a particular set of values, such as tribes or organisations. 

Therefore, if you want to connect successfully with people from other cultures, the first step is to understand what your own cultural values are and how they affect you.

The second step is to understand how the other person is influenced by the values of their culture, so that you can better understand their behaviour.

We do this by understanding which cultural dimensions strongly influence our own culture, and which dimensions strongly influence the culture of the other person or group.

What are the major cultural dimensions?

Below is a list of major cultural dimensions.

You will see that each set of dimensions is a pair of opposites along a scale. At each end of the scale, the influence of that dimension (and the values it represents) is very strong. In the middle, the two dimensions have equal influence. Most people’s values lie somewhere in between the two poles.

See if you recognise which dimensions are present in your culture and influence you. You might also recognise dimensions that influence people you know and work with.

Note: This is a quick overview to get you started. We’ll explain each dimension in more detail in upcoming posts.


Major Cultural Dimensions

Power Distance

How a society handles inequalities among people.

High power distance <—————> Low power distance

High power distance = strong hierarchy and control

Important values: respect for authority, chain of command, it is not OK to question authority, express opinions and ideas only when requested to

Low power distance = everyone is equal; high degree of individual autonomy

Important values: equality, it is OK to question authority, free exchange of opinions and ideas

Individualism vs Collectivism

Whether people are focused on their personal interests or their group’s interests. Also known as Me vs We.

Individualism <—————-> Collectivism

Individualism = individuals take care of themselves and their immediate family

Important values: individual well-being, personal achievement, self-fulfillment

Collectivism = Individuals expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

Important values: group well-being, strong sense of duty, group achievement

Masculinity vs Femininity

Whether societies are ‘tough’ or ‘tender’.

Masculinity <—————-> Femininity

High masculinity = a tendency towards masculine values

Important values: achievement, heroism, assertiveness, material rewards for success, competitiveness, power, measurement, testing, ‘workaholism’

High femininity = a tendency towards feminine values

Important values: cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, quality of life, the arts, consensus, relationship building, aesthetic values, trust within business dealings, personal time

Uncertainty Avoidance

How comfortable a society is with uncertainty.

High uncertainty avoidance <————-> Low uncertainty avoidance

High uncertainty avoidance = rigid codes of belief and behaviour; intolerance of unorthodox behaviour and ideas

Important values: strict laws and rules governing behaviour, fear of unknown or ‘different’ people, ideas, situations, places etc., risk-avoidance, rules should be followed exactly, control of the unknown future

Low uncertainty avoidance = a relaxed attitude towards the unknown future, people and ideas

Important values: acceptance of different opinions, people, ideas, situations, etc., tolerance, innovation, risk-taking, rules are for general guidance, curiosity about the unknown future

Long-term Orientation vs Short-term Orientation

Preparing for the future vs looking towards the past (also called Flexhumility (LTO) vs Monumentalism (STO)).

Long-term orientation <————–> Short-term orientation

Long-term orientation = a pragmatic approach toward life; encouraging thrift and modern education as a way to prepare for the future

Important values: pragmatic innovation and adaptation, modern education is necessary for success, long-term sustainability (especially in business), save for the future, responsibility to obligations, compromise is pragmatic, modesty, ‘what’ and ‘how’

Short-term orientation = maintenance of time-honoured traditions and norms; suspicion of societal change

Important values: respect for tradition, steadfastness, change is bad, religiousness, short-term profit, spend money now, rights and values, compromise is weakness, self-aggrandisement, ‘why’

Indulgence vs Restraint

How much a society allows gratification of desires and fun.

Indulgence <—————-> Restraint

Indulgence = relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun

Important values: personal control over one’s life, freedom to enjoy life, work-life balance, creativity

Restraint = suppressing gratification of needs and regulating it via strict social norms

Important values: self-restraint, societal control over personal behaviour, strong work ethic, strict professionalism, structure

In the next post we’ll help you understand how power distance influences people’s perspective, actions and reactions — including your own. You’ll also gain an understanding of how differences in power distance can cause problems in a business context.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in exploring this topic further, the World Values Survey is the largest ongoing study of cultural values globally.

The WVS website has charts, maps, videos and a lot of information about how values affect the behaviour of people, organisations and nations both now and in the past.

Do you recognise your value dimensions? Tell us on the BECC Academy LinkedIn page!

Note: The understanding of these major dimensions was largely developed through research by Geert Hofstede and others.


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