For a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural dimensions recently. On the one hand, I’ve noticed that many educators (and others) find learning about cultural dimensions incredibly insightful. However, I’ve also found that these concepts are often misunderstood or misused.
The purpose of this post is twofold. First, I want to introduce readers who are unfamiliar with cultural dimensions to this idea and point you to resources where you can learn more. At the same time, I want to offer a word of caution and some advice related to utilizing these concepts in intercultural teaching and learning.
What are Cultural Dimensions?
First, let’s briefly define cultural dimensions (for more info, see the resources outlined below). Also commonly referred to as value patterns, they are essentially frameworks for understanding cultural differences and similarities. Individualism/collectivism, for example, is one of the most well-known cultural dimensions. It relates to how people are culturally-conditioned to balance individual needs with group needs.
Essentially, there are many different questions or issues that people around the world have had to address. For example:
- What is our relationship to time?
- How do we relate to nature?
- How do we communicate?
All societies have had to answer these questions, and different groups have done so in unique ways. For example, people in a given society may begin to relate to time in a certain way and a norm is slowly established. That norm gets taught or transmitted—both explicitly and implicitly—to future generations, and eventually these ways of thinking about and engaging with time are simply taken as ‘truth.’ Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone within the group shares the same values, but they are familiar with the norms or expectations of the group.
As anthropologist Edward T. Hall, one of the first to explore these ideas, explains:
“Everything man is and does is modified by learning and is therefore malleable. But once learned, these behavior patterns, these habitual responses, these ways of interacting gradually sink below the surface of the mind and, like the admiral of a submerged submarine fleet, control from the depths. The hidden controls are usually experienced as though they were innate simply because they are not only ubiquitous but habitual as well. What makes it doubly hard to differentiate the innate from the acquired is the fact that, as people grow up, everyone around them shares the same patterns.” (Hall, 1977, p. 42)
A cultural dimension identifies one of these issues all cultures have had to address. Each dimension can be conceptualized as a continuum. Within a cultural group, people’s values may fall all along the continuum, representing the diversity within that group. And yet there’s typically a pattern—a bell curve that represents the ‘norm’ in that cultural group.
Learning about cultural dimensions can help us better understand our own innate culture—our expectations, norms, values, reactions, and ways of experiencing and making meaning of the world. These dimensions also provide us with value-neutral language and frameworks for understanding and exploring cultural differences.
If you’re interested in learning more about cultural dimensions, the following is a brief overview of a few individuals and resources I recommend investigating. (Click on the green hyperlinks below to see the related resources.)
>> The Pioneers: Edward T. Hall, Florence Kluckhohn & Fred Strodtbeck
During the early 1930s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall lived and worked on Hopi and Navajo reservations in the United States. Over the next several decades, in studies of culture with the Hopi, Navajo, and other ethnic groups in the southwestern United States, he began to identify patterns in cultural values.
Over the course of his decades-long career, Hall identified and explored cultural patterns in three primary areas: space, time, and context. He identified what are still today two of the most well-known cultural dimensions:
- monochronic/polychronic orientations toward time
- high-/low-context communication
In 1961, Florence Kluckhohn & Fred Strodtbeck published their book Variations in Value Orientations, in which they set out to operationalize a theoretical approach to values developed by Florence’s spouse, Clyde Kluckhohn.
They identified and explored five basic questions that need to be resolved by every society:
- What is the relationship of people to nature (and supernature)? (people-nature orientation)
- What is the temporal focus of human life? (time sense orientation)
- What is the character of innate human nature? (human nature orientation)
- What is the modality of human activity? (activity orientation)
- What is the modality of a human's social relationship to other human beings? (relational orientation)
>> Organizational Research: Geert Hofstede
Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede sought to build on the earlier work of anthropologists such as Hall and Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck through statistical study. Starting in the late 1960s, Hofstede had the opportunity to study a large body of survey data about the values of people in more than 50 countries around the world, all employees in local subsidiaries of the large multinational corporation IBM (a dataset that has both benefits and drawbacks).
Hofstede’s original research identified four different dimensions. Later, based on additional research by colleagues, he added a fifth. His research resulted in country “scores” for each dimension. He discusses the research and dimensions in depth in the three editions of his book, Cultures and Organizations. The five dimensions are:
- Power distance
- Uncertainty avoidance
- Long-term/short-term orientation (fifth dimension, added later)
>> Global Business Perspective: Andy Molinsky & Erin Meyer
More recently, several management experts have written about cultural dimensions and how to resolve the gaps people experience, specifically in the realm of global business. Prominent among these are Andy Molinsky and Erin Meyer.
In his book Global Dexterity, Andy Molinsky, professor of international business at Brandeis University in the United States, discusses the following six dimensions, each stated as questions that cultures must answer:
- Directness: How straightforwardly am I expected to communicate in this situation?
- Enthusiasm: How much positive emotion and energy am I expected to show to others in this situation?
- Formality: How much deference and respect am I expected to demonstrate in this situation?
- Assertiveness: How strongly am I expected to express my voice in this situation?
- Self-promotion: How positively am I expected to speak about my skills and accomplishments in this situation?
- Personal disclosure: How much can I reveal about myself in this situation?
Erin Meyer, originally from the U.S. and now a professor at INSEAD—a leading international business school in Paris, France—has identified eight cultural differences that make a difference when conducting business across borders. She discusses each of these in depth in her book, The Culture Map.
- Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
- Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
- Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
- Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
- Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
- Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
- Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
- Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time
One thing I’ve noticed and want to caution against is that these dimensions are often understood, used, and taught in overly-simplistic ways that tend to reify culture. People may focus on the culture-specific information—for example, Hofstede’s country scores—and therefore see the dimensions as prescriptive labels.
Most of the challenges surrounding cultural dimensions relate to a tendency to oversimplify something complex—culture. I believe that the issue is not so much with the frameworks, but with how they are utilized. It is important that, as learners and educators, we use cultural dimensions to understand our experiences in more complex, nuanced ways—not to enter into experiences with prescriptive, binary, simplistic thinking. Cultural dimensions can and should be used to complexify, not simplify!
I try to model a complex usage of cultural dimensions in all of my trainings, and specifically teach educators how to do this in the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program. The following are just a few brief tips for using and teaching cultural dimensions:
- Remember and emphasize that these are spectrums, not dichotomies.
- Lead with the culture-general frameworks, not with specific information about where certain cultural groups fall on these dimensions.
- Focus first on utilizing the dimensions to increase cultural self-awareness.
- Use the dimensions to consider how you may judge others’ actions or behaviors, and to explore how your own norms, values, or ways of behaving could be negatively perceived by others who have been socially- and culturally-conditioned differently.
Whatever your familiarity with cultural dimensions, I hope this post has provided some information that can help you deepen your understanding and complexify your usage of these concepts. If you’d like to learn more, consider enrolling in our online course, Navigating Cultural Differences (which focuses on your own intercultural development), or joining the 12-week train-the-trainer program, Facilitating Intercultural Learning.
Photo credit: Harry Quan, Unsplash
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