Same, same, but different: Cultural Dimensions.

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"Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to live without."
William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

The Dutch cultural psychologist and sociologist Geert Hofstede connects culture with a "mental software": culture is the "collective programming of mind, that differentiates members of one group or one category of humans of another." Every human has a "mental programming" which he`s been tought since he was born. The source of this programming is our social surrounding, where we grow up and collect our life experiences. Most of it is acquired during early childhood. Hofstede refers to one of the most extensive empirical studies about cultural differences ever conducted. In 1968 and 1972 he interviewed 116.000 IBM employees in 53 countries. The results showed common problems in different countries, however the solutions differed from country to country. These could be summarized in what Hofstede calls "Cultural Dimensions". They are a good instrument to win a group-related "cultural overview". Here are the 5 dimensions:
  • Low vs. high power distance: This dimension measures how much the less powerful members of organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.
  • Collectivism vs. individualism: This dimension measures how much members of a culture define themselces apart from their group memberships.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity: This dimension measures the value placed on traditionally male (i.e. competitiveness, ambition) or female (i.e. relationships, quality of life) values.
  • Low vs. high uncertainty avoidance: This dimension measures how many members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. If cultures have a high uncertainty avoidance, people prefer explicit rules rather than flexible guidelines.
  • Long vs. short term orientation: This dimension describes a society`s "time horizon", or the importance attached to the future vs. the past and present. It tries to distinguish the difference in thinking between the East and the West.
Hofstede`s work can be criticized as too trivialized and simplifying. It`s also limited to certain branches and social classes of society and the way his questions were phrased is very "western". This system clearly bears the risk of declaring nations, developing stereotypes and therefore leading to prejudices of certain cultures and people. Thus a crucial factor for the tenability of those dimensions is to apply them in a critical, reflective way. One should always be aware of cultural change and the constraints of Hofstede`s concept.

On his website, Hofstede published the data for every nation he examinde. Here`s what he found out about my homecountry, Germany.

Power distance: Compared to Arab countries, which have a very high power distance, Germany is somewhat in the middle. Like in most other western European countries, the gap between rich and poor is not too big and there`s a broad middle-class. Germans have a strong belief in equality, but also in the opportunity to rise in society.

Individualism: Germany can be considered as a very individualistic country. People stress on personal achievements and individual rights. Group work is important, but everyone has the right to stress his own opinion and is expected to reflect it. That may be related to Eastern Germany being a socialist country for over 40 years. Growing up in a system that strongly oppresses any kind of individualism and stresses collectivism makes people value the right to make their own decissions even more.

Masculinity: Germany is rather masculine than feminin, the index of 66 is exactly as high as the UK`s. Masculine traits include assertiveness, material success, power, strength and individual achievements. I agree with the fact that ambition is a very common German attribute. Also, female values like relationships and family are still decreasing. People turn away from marriage, the average number of children per couple is 1.3.

Uncertainty Avoidance: The German Uncertainty Avoidance Index is rather high. Germans don`t like uncertainty, but they love to make plans and organize in advance in order to avoid it. Germans rely heavily on rules, law and regulations. This relates to the international stereotype of the inflexible, well-organized German who never dares to break a rule.

I`m trying to relate his findings to the other German-speaking countries, Austria and Switzerland. These three cultures, especially Germany and Austria are traditionally perceived as being more or less the same, since they share a common language, history, religion and customs. But the graphics clearly show that there are substantial differences between those countries, althought they appear to be so similar.

For example, the power distance index in Austria is much lower than in Switzerland and Germany, and the masculinity index is a lot higher. According to this, material prosperty is a lot more important than the maintenance of relationships in Austria. People have distinct conceptions of what a man or a woman should be like, interferences are not wanted. The higher power distance index shows that there are lower expectations of equality in Germany and Switzerland than in Austria. Hofstede`s results are making a very important point: We are similar, but not the same.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. & Minkov, M. (2010): Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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