Intercultural communication

Intercultural communication

As a German in Spain I feel like I am the most precise, punctual and reliable, when I am back home though people characterise me as spontaneous, volatile and non-committal. Here in Spain when playing pingpong or table football I am almost always singled out as the competitive one, whereas at home I am with the losers, looking for harmony.

It’s funny how I am perceived in such a different way only 2000km apart. I’ve had the chance to travel a lot through Europe, I have lived in different countries and I feel that we as Europeans are so similar and close to each other but then again, whenever I stumble upon these differences in perception I am reminded of how and superficial my view is. I was really curious to more and digged up some interesting intercultural communication research by the dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede.

I guess every communication is an exchange of information between two parties, between two people. A messages in encoded, sent and then decoded to be understood and interpreted. Obviously, along the line bits can get lost or interpreted in a different way than intended. And this interpretation depends on our background, our past experiences. Our interpretation can be different because of our culture, our religion, our social status, our motivation, our current emotional state or even because of non-verbal signals that are caught or not caught.

Hofstede differentiates four different dimensions when talking about cultures. He says a culture is defined by its relationship to power, by its uncertainty avoidance, by individualism and by masculinity. He presents a theory of contingency in which a culture is characterized by a degree between masculinity and feminity for example. His theoretical model from the 1970s is based on field research done at IBM. He was critized for having chosen a non-representative group (very limited to only one company) and for treating one nation as a whole (especially in Germany we know that it is not true, there are non-neglectable differences between the West and East part of Germany).

I am going to present his research to you as I have read it as I found it very interesting to think about disussions or even misunderstandings I have had with friends of different backgrounds in a more abstract way. Sometimes, using theoretical models and forgetting our personal situation and emotions, it is easier to understand what is going on, to understand where the misunderstanding stems from and what we can do solve it.

The Power Distance

The first dimension that Geert Hofstede describes as characteristic of a culture is its Power Distance. The Power Distance or Relationship to power Index measures to what degree, a society accepts inequalities in the distribution of power between different members of society. Do less powerful society members accept that there is inequality in the distribution of power, do they expect it or do they fight it? This can be seen on an organizational level in a company but also on smaller level in a family. Cultures that show a low power distance index have power relationships that are democratic and consultive.

The United Kingdom falls in this category – having a low power distance index – and believes that inequalities are not right and should be minimized. Japan is somewhat in the middle, with a score of 46 Hofstede calls it a borderline hierarchical society. Japanese people are conscious of their position in a hierarchy – you can see this through their behavior with elders for example. Guatemala and other Central and Southern American countries is an example for a very hierarchical society, a society that accepts and even expects differences in the power distribution. You can imagine that coming from the United Kingdom to work in Guatemala would need a big effort of change to adapt to the culture.

The degree of Individualism

The second dimension on which culture is measured is its degree of Individualism versus collectivism. It’s the extent to which an individual is integrated in a group, we are talking about a consciousness for the self versus a consciousness for the group. In an individual society the ties between two people are very loose, everyone is expected to fight for himself and to protect and care for himself and his/her closest family. Such a society is focussed on personal achievements and individual rights. In a society oriented to collectivism, a person is integral part of a strong, cohesive we-group from his birth. The individual is protected by the group for life and absolute loyalty is expected of him/her. In these societies you will find very large extended families.

China for example has a very low score of 16 on the individualism scale, which makes it a highly collectivist culture as you may have guessed. In China, people act in the interests of the group and not necessarily in their own. Personal relationships are very important and when not belonging to a group you might be felt like you are treated coldly or even with hostility. For about six months a friend of mine shared a flat with two chinese people. They were very nice when we were out all together with their friends: we laughed about common jokes, we shared meals and cooked together and sometimes even came together to study. When they were home, without their group however they gave me the cold shoulder, barely greeting or acknowledging me. I didn’t understand what was going and oftentimes felt pushed off. On the other extreme of the scale, you will find countries like the United Kingdom, Australia or the United States, highly individualistic societies. In Britain kids are taught from a very early to think for themselves and to set out to find their purpose in life. Happiness is found through personal fulfilment rather than a collective.

The Uncertainty Avoidance

The third dimension of culture according to Hofstede is its uncertainty avoidance. It defines the extent to which members of a society feel threatened by unknown or uncertain situations. It is tolerance for ambiguity. Cultures that seek to avoid uncertainties, do so by minimizing those kind of situations through social regulations. People are antsy, uneasy, very emotional and mostly convinced of one predominant opinion. You will a lot of rules, laws and regulations in these countries. In countries that accept uncertainty, on the other hand, you will find more relaxed, easy-going people that are open towards new or different opinions. These people feel comfortable in unstructurered situations or in changing environments and they are usually more tolerant towards change and more pragmatic.

The uncertainty avoidance is at its highest in Latin American countries, Southern and Eastern Europe (including German speaking countries) and Japan. Chile for example shows a score of 75 and with it a need for rules and an elaborate legal system. Life is structured and dependent upon experts and authorities. Swedish people, on the other hand, feel comfortable with uncertainty (a score of 20). People believe that there should be only as many rules as necessary, they accept a deviance from the norm and practices is more important than principle. You will find them open to innovation, flexible when it comes to schedules and sometimes lacking in precision and punctuality.

Masculinity vs. Femininity

A culture can also be measured by Masculinity or Femininity, by the distribution of emotional roles between the genders. Masculine cultures value competitiveness, assertiveness, ambition, power and materialisms in men whereas women are expected to care for relationships and quality of life. The differences between gender roles are very harsh in masculine cultures, where men are expected to be decisive, assertive, focussed on professional success where as women are expected to be caring, tender, modest and concerned about the quality of life. In feminine cultures, the gender roles are more overlapping as both men and women are concerned with attaining life quality, modesty and sensibility.

In a feminine cultures you might notice that the roles are interwined and not distributed clearly, that quality of life is very important to all members of society, that equality between the genders is expected, that work is seen as a source of income to live (the goal of work is life, you work to live and you don’t live for work), that people are motivated by helping, that people symapthise with the weaker and that small and slow can be beautiful.

In a masculine culture you will see that men under constant pressure to prove themselves and that they are dominant, that gender roles are clearly defined, that quality of life is measured by quantity of wealth, that it is the goal in life to work, that independency is encouraged, that material things are very important, that people are motivated by goals and ambition, that only the best will be admired and that big and fast are beautiful.

Masculinity is extremely low in Nordic countries. Sweden is a feminine culture: It is important to have a balance between life and work, to be supportive of one another (also visible in management styles) and to be involved in the process of decision making. The society thrives fro consensus (through long discussions, negotiations and compromise) and equality, solidarity and quality in work life are highly valued. There is a Scandinavian concept called “Lagom” which advices people not to boast or to show off. Lagom means something like “not too much, not too little, not too noticeable, everything in moderation” and ensures that everybody h as enough and nobody goes without. In Japan, in contrast, masculinity is very high (score of 95). As it is a collective society, competition is not seen between individuals but between groups. Masculinity can be seen through the Japanese drive for excellence and perfection and through their motivation to fight against a competing team.

The Time Horizon and Indulgence Dimensions

Two additional contingencies on which a culture can be measured are Long term orientation and Indulgence but they don’t have as much research as the others. Long term orientation describes the time horizon in which a society moves. Long term oriented societies look towards the future whereas short term oriented societies tend to look back. Long term oriented societies are reward-oriented and aim for persistence, saving and adaptability. Short term oriented societies on the other hand, value steadiness, traditions and reciprocation.

The Indulgence contingency describes the extent to which society controls its desires and impulses. Indulgent societies are flexible about human desires related to enjoying life and having fun, whereas restrained societies regulate those gratifications through strict normes.

My country Germany has a rather low score in the indulgent dimension (score of 40) indicating that the German culture is restrained. We tend to be cynical and pessimistic, we do not emphasise leisure time and feel that indulging is somewhat wrong. Sweden, even if only a couple of kilometres away, is a culture of indulgence. They exhibit a willingness to realise their impulses and desires with regard to enjoying life and having fun. Swedish are optimistic and have a positive attitude towards life. For them leisure time is important and they feel free to act as they please and to spend money as they wish.

I am trying to apply this theory to my personal situation. I am German (and Italian, but I will try to forget this for a while to make it less complicated) and I have been living in Spain for two years now. What has changed for me and do I actually notice it?


  • Power Distance: 26

Germany has a low score in the power distance dimension, it is a high decentralised country supported by its middle class. We don’t like control but collaboration and participation which can been seen through direct communication and frequent, inclusive meetings in the offices. Leadership is not based on charisma but rather on expertise and knowledge. I think we tend to believe in equality and opportunity for each individual.

  • Individualism: 72

Germany is a truly individualistic society with a small nuclear family and a strong belief in self realization. You might heard of German directness, and I really think it is true. We speak our minds according to the slogan “honest, even if it hurts” which can be a rough surprise to visitors. Germans are loyal based on personal preferences for people and because of a sense of duty and responsibility.

  • Masculinity: 68

Germany is a rather masculine society, but not on the extreme end of the spectrum. We value performance which is visible early on in the educational system. Children are separated based on their school achievements at the age of 10 (or even younger) into different educational tracks: some will go to college whereas others will go to a apprenticeship.

We show our successes and status through cars, watches (maybe that’s no longer true) and electronical devices. My house, my car, my boat is surely true for Germany. People “live in order to work” and get their satisfaction and sense of self from their work. As it is in masculine societies, men (or Managers) are expected to be decisive and assertive.

  • Uncertainty Avoidance: 55

In Germany you will find a slight tendency to avoid uncertainty. In almost any occasion a systematic overview is given in order to proceed to details, taking a deductive rather than inductive approach. Nevertheless, details are very important and show that a topic is well thought-out. Germans rely strongly on expertise especially when own uncertain decisions are not covered by the responsibility of the boss (because of the low Power Distance).


  • Power Distance: 49

Spaniards seem not to express any preference in this dimension.

  • Individualism: 53

The Spanish society is rather collectivistic. An emphasise is put on the group and teamwork comes very naturally. A person is an integral part of strong group from the beginning of his/her life and very loyal to it. To me this became visible through the strong bond my friends here have with their families, a lot of them live at home in their twenties (or in the neighbourhood) and would feel like they were abandoning their group by moving out or moving to a different country. Groups are formed early on in school and tend to last for a long time. The engineers I work with all come from the same university, almost everybody I know has been in a relationship for a very long time (and might not be 100% satisfied), a group of friends from kindergarten that now does not seem to have much in common, still meet every friday for a beer and when recruiting somebody new for a position, the first in line are always close friends or relatives. I am not saying that this is a bad thing or that decisions are made upon the known, it simply came as a surprise to me that the horizon we move in here is so small.

I see that my sense for individualism is much stronger. I grew up more independently and more focussed on myself.

  • Masculinity: 41

Here in Spain the key word seems to be consensus. Children are educated in search of harmony, they are incentivized not to stand out, to polarize or to take sides. Excessive competitiveness is seen negatively.

I come from a rather masculine culture where decisions are taken by one leader, therefore arriving here discussions and negotiations seemed infinite to me. I am more used to competitiveness, assertiveness and an exhibition of ambition. I struggled with this change at the beginning and sometimes even after two years I have to cut myself short not to stop a discussion. I have learned that here it is important to find consensus and that a decision cannot be taken by one person. It is slower (and for me more nerve consuming), but in the end the decision is easily accepted by all.

  • Uncertainty Avoidance: 75

Spanish society does not like uncertainty and tries to avoid it at all cost. There is a rule for everything, stress is caused by change and life is made more complex by these regulations and the avoidance of confrontation. I would agree with Hofstede who says that “people are antsy, uneasy, very emotional and mostly convinced of one predominant opinion”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.