Hofstede's Five Dimensions

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Geert Hofstede was born in 1928 in the Netherlands. He had an interesting life pretty much filled with cultural shocks. Around his twentieth birthday, he decided to leave his native Netherlands and go to explore other places in the world. He went to do an internship as an assistant ship’s engineer in Indonesia; this was his first time out of the country and it proved to be his first cultural shock. Being immersed in a completely different culture, he was keen to observe and compare the cultural differences between the Netherlands and his new host country. Following his work experience in Indonesia, he followed his heart – a girl – to England, where he experienced his second cultural shock. This greatly influenced his career path, and led him to study cross-cultures.

Later on in life, he became a renowned researcher in cross-cultural differences, and even created a model which could be applied to the various cultures, to help understand their behaviours. Hofstede’s “Five Cultural Dimensions” include Power Distance (which focuses on the degree of equality, or inequality, between people in the country’s society); Individualism (which focuses on the degree the society reinforces individual or collective achievement and interpersonal relationships); Masculinity (which focuses on the degree the society reinforces, or does not reinforce, the traditional masculine work role model of male achievement, control, and power); Uncertainty Avoidance (which focuses on the level of tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity within the society - i.e. unstructured situations); and last but not least, Long-Term Orientation (which focuses on the degree the society embraces, or does not embrace, long-term devotion to traditional, forward-thinking values).

Although Geert Hofstede’s model was innovative, he was not the first cultural researcher to propose a model describing ways in which cultures can be analysed. Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr. (born in 1914 and died in 2009) was also an anthropologist – like Hofstede. He developed a concept that described the way people behave in “personal spaces” – called Proxemics. In the 1950s, E. T. Hall taught inter-cultural communications skills, wrote several books, and developed the concepts of high- and low- context cultures (saying what you mean, as opposed to adorning your sentences, and letting the setting explain the meaning of the statement). “He is considered a founding father of intercultural communication as an academic area of study”. Although Geert Hofstede did not, per se, base himself on E.T. Hall’s model and books on cross-cultural differences, we see that both researchers are fascinated by the same thing: foreign culture analysis. Both were amazed at the cultural differences even within the same geographical zones; when Hofstede went to England, he was shocked by the behaviour of the people there compared to his native country, the Netherlands. After receiving his PhD, Hall continued to study and analyse countries ranging from Europe, through the Middle East, and Asia – never tiring of the richness in the differences of the cultures he encountered.

G. Hofstede’s work is not an “extension” of Hall’s proxemics, but his dimensions brought Hall’s analyses a step further. Many critics say that Hofstede’s dimensions are superficial, that they are not applicable to all situations and contexts. However, in my view, they have the benefit of being well defined and can be used as a tool to further our understanding of what makes us different. This understanding is obviously an advantage, especially in the professional world, which crosses so many frontiers in today’s globalized context. It might seem simplistic to read too much into a greeting, a handshake, dress codes, etc. but many a business relationship can be built or fail due to the lack of proper etiquette.

Hofstede’s five dimensions aim to steer the uninitiated through the maze of cultural differences that can so easily trip up the...
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