Understanding cultural diversity

Welcome into the  "understanding cultural diversity" section!

This section aims at presenting theoretical models and analytical grids that enable to understand the basics of cultural diversity.

Those models have been developed by:

  • G Hofstede
  • E.T Hall
  • F Trompenaars

Those models are neither perfect, nor exhaustive. They nevertheless prove very useful to:

  • enhance pertinent criteria of differenciation
  • facilitate compareason between countries on each criterium
  • explain why some cross cultural relations are "itching"
  • provide means to bridge cultural gaps


Have a pleasant cross cultural journey!



According to E.Schein*, culture can be defined as the way a group of persons resolve problems and dilemmas to which it is comfronted.

Culture has multiple layers:

  • country or region
  • company or organization
  • business or profession. 

Culture is uneasy to grasp

It is made of elements that are visible ( fashion, architecture, the arts,...) and of others, norms and values, that are not, at least immediately.

The perspective on one's own culture as well as on other's is biased:

  • One is immerged on his/her culture, and other cultures are seen through the filters of one's own culture.
  • Our perception on cultures that seem the most distant spontaneously enhance the differences rather than similarities.
  • We are cumbersomed with images (cultural stereotypes) which may alterate our perception of reality.

at stakes with the cross cultural approach

Knowing one's culture and understanding oneself. acknowledging cultures and individuals' diversity. Identifying differences as well as similarities in order to facilitate communication and exchanges.


*E Schein. Organizational Culture and Leadership

Theories & models

Culture has been the subject of many anthropologists'studies, which have provided theoretician with a better understanding of it's intrinsic characteristics and with tools to further analyse it.

On a practical ground, researchers have privileged a comparative approach, based on the identification of differences rather than similarities.

Geert Hofstede

"If the brain is the hardware, culture is the software… and if you don't know the software of a country, you cannot use the programme!" - G Hofstede 


An anthropologist, G. Hofstede has led, from 1967 to 1973, a large international survey on cultural values brought by IBM staff around the world.

G Hofstede has elaborated a data bank with 116.000 questionnaires, from 72 subsidiaries. Those questionnaires have constituted the material for an important comparative study on various cultural environments which ultimately led to the hierarchical mental software theory.

G Hofstede aimed at defining differenciation criteria that explain cultural diversity. He thus throw light on 4 main dimensions:

  • Hierarchical distance
  • Control of uncertainty
  • Individualisme
  • Masculinity

Upon the request from Asian countries he also worked on a fifth dimension:

  • Long term orientation.



All organization implies a form of hierarchy. From one country to the other, there may be important variations upon the extent and the form of domination a society is accepting or not.

Hierarchical distance is measured by the perception a subordinate has of his superior's power. This dimension reveals the level of inequality which is expected and accepted by individuals.

The countries ranking

  • In European latin countries, South America and Africa a long hierarchical distance prevails.
  • In Anglo-saxon Countries, Scandinavia, Germany and Austria on the contrary, the hierarchical distance is short.

► Illustration

Impact on companies

  • In short hierarchical distance countries, the management staff is proportionally less important and the wage scale is limited.
  • In long hierarchical distance countries, the importance of management staff is higher and the wage scale wider.


This illustration compares the countries distribution on the hierarchical distance axis (0 to 100 from the shortest to the longest HD).

Most Asian countries have rather long hierarchical distances with Malaysia and Philippines having the longest HD.

By Compareason, most western countries have a slightly shorter HD, with France and Mexico being exceptions.

Source: fig. realized based on G Hofstede studies


This dimension refers to the way individuals are dealing with risk.

In societies where control of uncertainty is high, individuals seek to enhance their level of security through 3 ways: technology (to vye against natural challenges), rules of law (to protect individuals against human deviances) and religion (to answer human condition related questions).

How do countries rank?

In most South European countries  and in South America, the control of uncertainty is high.

In anglo-saxon countries, in Germany and Scandinavia, in South East Asia, India and Africa, the control of uncertainty is low.


Impact on companies

The higher the level of anxiety, the more important the constraints and the ways to manage this anxiety.

In countries with low control of uncertainty, individual initiative is encouraged and new ideas are well tolerated.



Source: fig. realized based on G Hofstede studies


Some countries are more community oriented than others. The way individuals interact and live together within the family or in society, varies considerably from one country to the other.


  • In communautarist cultures, family is considered extensively  (grands parents, parents, children).
  • In more individualist cultures, the concept of family is restricted to the family cell.

The individual and the group

  • Communautarist societies encourage individuals to mingle into the group.
  • In individualist societies, the individual and his personal accomplishment come first.


  • In communautarist cultures, relations between the employer and it's employees are based on moral grounds ( with great emphasis on relation and confidence).
  • In individualist cultures, relations are mostly based on personal interests and governed by contracts. 


  • Communautarist societies try to avoid conflict and look for consensus.
  • Individualist societies feel perfectly well with tensions and conflict.


How do countries rank?

  • Amongst anglo-saxon countries, Australia and Great Britain are the most individualist.
  • Western Africa, Pakistan and Guatemala are deeply rooted in a communautarist spirit.




Source: fig. realized based on G Hofstede studies



This criteria distinguishes societies where roles attributed to males (economic activities) and roles attributed to females (children and housing) are strongly differenciated (Masculine societies) and societies where differences are scarce (feminine societies).

Compared with feminine societies, masculine societies are characterized by the following aspects:

  • Ambition
  • Prevalence of professional life on private life
  • Harsh behaviours (one doesn't show his feelings)
  • Preference on individual decisions
  • Wage as a valorisation mark for individuals

In maculine societies, work is considered as a way to accomplish oe's career ambitions. Conflicts are harsch and open.

Within feminine societies, work is primarily considered as a way to create cordial and cooperative relations. The accent is on discussion and search of consensus.

How do countries rank?

Countries with a high masculinity index: Japan, Germany, Italy, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia.

Countries with a high feminity index: Scandinavia and Holland.

Anglo saxon and Asian countries, Peru, Chile, Yugoslavia and African countries are in the middle.




Source: fig. realized based on G Hofstede studies

Long term orientation

Source: fig. realized based on G Hofstede studies

E.T Hall

An anthropologist, E.T Hall studied the informal rules (hidden dimension) that are unconscously conditioning our behaviour.

He explored this dimension on 3 main fields: communication, time and space

  • Communication: rich vs poor context
  • Time: polychrony vs monochrony
  • Space: distance of comfort



For E.T Hall, Culture is a process for:

creating emittingretaining ► treating information.

Beyond words, the context ( the way we speak, our gestures,..)is, in itself, a important vehicle of communication. The context is often essential to the correct understanding of the message, as words alone do not suffice to express all the values it contents.

Rich vs poor context

  • In case of a rich context, the most important part of the message resides in elements that surrounds the linguistic message pers se.
  • In case of poor contexts, all the information is included in the message.


Oriental cultures are characterized by very rich context whereas communication in the US culture takes place in a mostly poor context.


For E.T Hall, Time itself is a language that structures and organizes activities.

Cultures differenciate according upon whether they are polychronic (doing several things at the same time) or monochronic (one thing at a time).

Monochronic cultures have the following characteristics:

  • One thing at a time
  • Respect of established schedules
  • Punctuality
  • Slowliness an method
  • Respect of delays
  • Distance with employees
  • Reserve in relations with others
  • Respect of previous commitment and of given word


By contrast, polychronic cultures are characterized by:

  • Frequent changes of occupation
  • Multi tasking
  • Numerous modifications in the planning
  • Poor punctuality
  • Rapidity and disorder
  • A tendency to lose patience
  • Strong personal and  professional relationships
  • Emphasis on the relation rather than objective.


How do countries rank?

  • Monochronic cultures: Anglo-saxon countries, Germany, North Europe and japan.
  • Polychronic cultures: South of Europe, France, Latin America, India.