Posted by: Dr. G | 27-March-2010

Dealing With Cultural Differences – Prof. Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Let’s do a gedankenexeperiment: imagine you could be labeled according to your cultural background. Say a set of five basic indicators would suffice to characterize your people – and you. Like on a dashboard, five instruments would have a needle, and their deflections would represent your values and belief systems, and thus how you usually act and re-act under certain circumstances.

Picture we put you in a room with 20 people. The needle deflections on their dashboards are similar among themselves – but completely opposed to yours. Now imagine you are given the target to complete a complex task together.

How do you think this would work out?

What would be the impact if you knew the scores of the basic indicators of the others and yourself vs. not knowing them?

What would be the outcome if you were a team member?

What would you have to do as a team leader to make the project a success?

Merely a theoretical situation? Not at all! It is a reality for all of us who are working and living in a different country, and also for those who interact with foreigners in a business environment regularly.

And the 5 criteria indeed exist: Geert Hofstede (TM) has developed a beautiful concept called “cultural dimensions”. I recommend to look up the detailed explanation on the Itim homepage, but for those in a rush, I will try to give a very brief explanation extracting it down to just one sentence:

Power Distance Index (PDI)
indicates how the less powerful members of organizations or institutions accept the unequal distribution of power.

Individualism (IDV)
in individualist societies the ties between individuals are lose; in the opposite collectivist societies, individuals are highly integrated into groups

Masculinity (MAS)
typical masculine values are assertiveness and competiveness vs. feminine values e.g. being modest and caring

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; members of a society with a high UAI feel uncomfortable in unstructured situations, leading to strict rules and regulations.

Long-Term Orientation (LTO)
In long term oriented societies, people value actions and attitudes that affect the future: persistence/perseverance, thrift, and shame, whereas in short term oriented societies, people value actions and attitudes that are affected by the past or the present: normative statements, immediate stability, protecting one’s own face, respect for tradition, and reciprocation of greetings, favors, and gifts. (I understand this is related to the teachings of Confucius)

What score do you give yourself in each indicator? Do you know the ratings of the people you deal with?

Yes? That’s a great start! Identify similarities and differences. Focus on the gaps, and be aware of the consequences. Now you are already in a good starting position to master the inevitable intercultural challenges. Congratulations!

No? Hmmmm… You better work on this – or prepare yourself for tough times.

Very helpful: Hofstede graphs with the scores of the cultural dimensions for almost all countries on the Itim homepage!

This it what it looks like for my wonderful host country:

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions for Thailand

Prof. Hofstede offers a useful tool to compare a foreign country with your home country.

It’s not only very useful, but also fun.

I did it for myself, have a look: 

Oh boy, seems that relocating has turned my world of beliefs upside down within a 12 hours flight: four out of five indicators completely opposite! Can you imagine that working in Thailand

has its challenges for me? And, yes, I also pity the Thai people forced to work with me…

Do it for yourself and get yourself some food for thought .

Six Quick Tips to overcome intercultural challenges when working abroad:

  1. Be aware that cultural differences do exist.
  2. Learn more about this topic, e.g. by reading well known “cultural shock” books series
    For my fellow Germans in the Land of Smiles I recommend “Kulturschock Thailand”
  3. Attend a seminar that prepares you for your assignment abroad. Companies taking your expatriation and sustainability will cover the costs.
    I attended one at IFIM  in Germany which I can I highly recommend.
  4. Get an experienced mentor or personal coach to assist you in your individual situation
  5. Although cultural differences are a fact, avoid stereotyping and see how you and the people you are dealing with fit into these patterns, and where you deviate from it.
  6. Be patient, and don’t beat yourself up if things are not going right. Acknowledge that you are privileged to encounter such amazing experiences, and enjoy the adventure!

Have FUN and LIVE life to the fullest!


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