If I asked you to list a couple of cultural stereotypes, you could probably come up with them without giving it a second thought. Germans are punctual, Norwegians reserved, Italians loud and the Japanese respectful. And while some stereotypes are not completely untrue, they are also not very useful when it comes to knowing what to expect from a culture of a country you are planning on moving to.
Luckily, there’s a scientific way to get the information you need to be better prepared for entering a new culture. In the late 1970s, after a decade of research, psychologist Dr. Geert Hofstede published his Cultural dimensions model that has since become an internationally recognized standard for understanding cultural differences.
What are cultural dimensions?
According to Hofstede, culture can only be used meaningfully by comparison. The six dimensions of his model are used to compare national cultures to one another based on their preferences in those six aspects. The six dimensions are:
1. POWER DISTANCE INDEX (PDI)
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.
2. INDIVIDUALISM VERSUS COLLECTIVISM (IDV)
This dimension determines whether the people’s self-image in a country is defined in terms of “I” or “we”. For example, the US rank high on the Individualism scale, while Japan has a highly collectivistic culture.
3. MASCULINITY VERSUS FEMININITY (MAS)
The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, Femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.
4. UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE INDEX (UAI)
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?
5. LONG TERM ORIENTATION VERSUS SHORT TERM NORMATIVE ORIENTATION (LTO)
Every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Societies prioritize these two existential goals differently.
This dimension determines whether the society prefers to maintain time-honored traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion or if they are taking a more pragmatic approach and they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.
6. INDULGENCE VERSUS RESTRAINT (IVR)
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 society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.
How can the cultural dimensions help you adapt to a new culture?
Unlike stereotypes, the cultural dimensions theory has its basis in research and facts which makes them a great tool to get an idea of what drives the behavior of the people whose culture you are moving to. By figuring out the differences and similarities between your culture and others, you will know which aspects you might find tricky to adapt to and you will be better prepared for what’s to come. Having that knowledge also influences how you view and interpret other people’s behavior.
For example, knowing that Norway is an Individualistic society will make it easier to cope with the fact that most Norwegians will not jump to the opportunity to help a stranger find a job. You will know that it’s not personal, but that it is just a cultural determination of their society. On the other hand, you will not be completely shocked when a complete stranger from a collectivistic culture invites you to their home for dinner because you will know that they are coming from a society where things like that are encouraged and appreciated, and not creepy.
To find out how your culture compares to others, go to Hofstede Institute’s website and enter the names of the countries you’d like to compare.