According to the Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede cultures distinguish themselves along five axes:1
- Individualistic / Collectivistic
- This parameter delineates how personal needs and goals are prioritized vs. the needs and goals of the group/clan/organization.
- Masculine / Feminine
- Masculine societies have different rules for men and women, less so in feminine cultures.
- Uncertainty Avoidance
- This parameter measures if people are comfortable with taking risks, ready to change the way they work or live (low UA) or if people prefer the known systems (high UA).
- Power Distance
- The degree people are comfortable with influencing upwards. In high PD societies there is accept of inequality in distribution on power in society. Ex. employees will not readily give suggestions and feedback to their superiors.
- Time Perspective
- Long-term perspective, planning for future, perseverance values vs. short time past and present oriented.
In 2012 a sixth dimension was added.
- Indulgence vs. Restraint
- Gratification of human drives related to enjoying life and having fun vs. regulating and suppressing these needs by means of strict social norms.
Whenever people from cultures ranging high on one of these parameters have interactions with people from cultures from the opposite end of that scale they are bound to have expectations that differ as to what is the "right" way to behave.
People from low Power Distance cultures complain that they don't get respect by their foreign subordinates (higher PD) when they ask them to do something. Their subordinates are used to being told, not asked, and might not think that a polite request should be taken seriously. People from low Power Distance cultures complain that they don't get respect by their foreign superiors (higher PD) when they are being told to do something. The subordinates are used to being asked, not told, and feel treated like children if addressed in an authoritarian fashion.
Likewise can differences in Uncertainty Avoidance be a source of friction. In high UA cultures there are many rules from which you are not supposed to diverge. In low UA cultures there are frameworks for how you are expected to behave and more room for individual decision-making. In low UA countries there may be an attitude of "it is easier to get forgiveness than permission" and a high value on autonomy. Well, if your boss is high on UA, forgiveness may not be a sure thing.
The respect for rules is also linked to the Collectivistic/Individualistic perspective. In a Collectivistic society there is focus on your place in the group. If you make your own rules you will cause other group members to lose face. Functioning in a Collectivistic society is a bit like square dancing. Unless all eight people agree to go left instead of right it is not going to be a very fluid experience and you will step on some toes. However, if everybody agrees how to change the steps it can become both entertaining and efficient even if it looks nothing like what was originally planned.
The differences between Masculine and Feminine societies are so much illustrated by the Taliban regime at one end of the axis that we almost automatically define ourselves by the difference to this nightmare. We think that laws prohibiting sexual harassment and guaranteeing equal pay for equal work makes us a non-masculine society. But in truly Feminine societies there wouldn't be a need for these laws.
In the context of expat assimilation the Masculine/Feminine differences are some of the most difficult to cross because they, with their undertone of sexuality, touches on morality. It is one thing to accept that attitudes towards organizational hierarchy may be different, but feeling accused of behaving in amoral ways or that everybody around you behaves in ways where you feel sexually threatened is very challenging.
The Masculine/Feminine dichotomy relates not only to formal and informal rules for men and women but also to the culture's view of task vs. people orientation, aggression/assertiveness vs. compromise, competition, and acceptance of stress.
Differences in Time Perspective does not only influence the urgency people are willing to accept as the norm, but also attitudes towards experience and hence, respect for elders. If what is going to happen tomorrow may be similar to what happened yesterday, we may need knowledge about what we did last time these events happened. In a long term oriented society there will be planning for when these events will happen again, analyses of which other events may likely happen, and plans to counter negative effects. In a short term oriented society actions are reaction to events that have already happened. No countries are at either end of the spectrum. In the US we see ourselves as planners with long time perspectives, the space programs are a tribute to this view, but our main financial foci are the next quarterly reports and the political focus is the next election.
The latest parameter, Indulgence vs. Restraint, is related to how people view the relative importance of happiness and freedom of expression and how much control they feel they have on their own life.
Along with a host of other information, a profile along 4,5 or 6 of the dimensions is available for most countries on this website: geert-hofstede.com. If you look at the profile for your own country and the profile for the country you are moving to, it gives you an idea where the two cultures differ the most and, hence, where you are most likely to feel rubbed the wrong way by the local ways of doing things.
In this TEDx talk Fernando Lanzer, a Brazilian living in the Netherlands, illustrates many of the Hofstede concepts. Note that Masculinity in his presentation has been changed to Performance vs. Caring, a change of name I fully applaud as the original name was often a hindrance in discussing the differences in values.