Ever wonder why 2 people can have completely different reactions to the same thing? Or why some people just don’t seem to “see sense” in the same way you do, regardless of how obvious the problem/solution may be to you?
The answer to this may lie in the fact that each person has been raised with and learned a certain set of values and behavioural codes. Usually these are a part of the larger culture that they belong to, occasionally they are specific to that particular family.
In any case, this “culture” that they have learned will shape how they see things, how they make decisions, what they find important, what they think is terrific, tedious or offensive. And at times this “culture” can clash with another one, causing conflict or problems that may have been avoided if more time had been taken to understand the mindset and behavioural code of the other rather than insisting that ours is best.
This article addresses the “7 Dimensions of Culture Model” which was created by Fons Tromenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner and was published in their book “Riding the Waves of Culture”. We will look at seemingly opposing mindsets for each of the 7 dimensions, and see some examples of how they could play out in reality.
The goal of this article is to understand people from different cultural backgrounds (and basically different mindsets) better, not to judge if one is better then the other because there will never be a proper answer for that. It is also not meant to be a tool for stereotyping, but rather to raise our own awareness of mindsets that may be different then our own.
Why did I choose this tool?
Having interacted with so many different cultures and lived in so many countries that have seemingly opposite cultures, I have either experienced or seen these differences play out in everyday life, working and decision making, and I find this tool very helpful as a way of organizing this information in a logical way and helpful to understand, rather than judge, the potential differences between us.
How does this apply to being a trainer?
As trainers we will be working with people from all different cultures, sometimes as participants (this one I find easier) and sometimes also as fellow trainers. Understanding the different value systems people can have could help to resolve conflicts much more quickly and painlessly, as well as enable us to empathize with someone who thinks differently rather than judging them or insisting that things be done “our way”. If we look at the motivation behind someone’s actions rather than judging the action itself, it is more likely that we will find the good intention behind what can at first seem to us as “wrong” behavior. Perhaps even their intention is the same as ours, but their implementation (code of conduct) can be completely different.
“The 7 Dimensions of Culture” model was developed by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner after spending 10 years researching the preferences and values of people in dozens of cultures around the world. As part of this research, they sent questionnaires to more than 46,000 managers in 40 countries.
They found that people from different cultures aren’t just randomly different from one another, but rather that they differ in very specific, even predictable, ways. This is because each culture has its own way of thinking, its own values and beliefs, and different preferences placed on a variety of different factors.
Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner concluded that what distinguishes people from one culture compared with another is where these preferences fall in one of the following seven dimensions*:
- Universalism versus particularism.
- Individualism versus communitarianism.
- Specific versus diffuse.
- Neutral versus emotional.
- Achievement versus ascription.
- Sequential time versus synchronous time.
- Internal direction versus outer direction.
We’ll look at each dimension in detail below.
Applying the Model
Let’s look at each of the dimensions in detail, and explore some of the strategies that you can use with people who fit the characteristics highlighted in each dimension.
For each dimension, we’ve included some of the national cultures that Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner identified as having a preference at each extreme of that particular dimension. You can use this as a general guide, but remember to treat people as individuals, and to avoid stereotyping.
The cultural dimensions don’t take into account people’s personal experiences or differences between sub-cultures within the country, so bear this in mind when you’re applying the model. This is especially relevant in today’s global environment, where people can be influenced by many different cultures.
Be sensible in how you apply these strategies. In practice, there will be many other factors that will have a bearing on how you manage people and communicate with them.
- Universalism Versus Particularism
(Rules Versus Relationships)
|Universalism||People with a “universalist” mindset place a high importance on laws, rules and obligations. In general rules will come before relationships and individual circumstances. They don’t like to make exceptions, but rather to have a standard way in which they make decisions.||Tom believes that everyone should pay the same amount as a participation fee in the training course. Linda on the other hand believes that the required payment should be adjusted according to the country where the participant is from, the value of their local currency, and other factors that may influence their financial capabilities.|
|Particularism||People with a “particularist” mindset believe that circumstances and relationships dictate the rules that they live by, that rules are guidelines and not set in stone, and they should use their best judgement to make decisions in different situations. They operate more on internal values rather than predetermined rules and regulations.|
Typical universalist cultures include the U.S., Canada, the U.K, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland.
Typical particularistic cultures include Russia, Latin-America, and China.
- Individualism Versus Communitarianism
(The Individual Versus The Group)
|Individualism||People with an “individualist” mindset believe in personal freedom and achievement. They believe that you make your own decisions, carry the responsibility for them alone, and that you must take care of yourself.||Ayla is capable of putting her own responsibilities on the back burner while she helps her in-laws to move houses. Coleen on the other hand would be happy to help, but only if she has free time and doesn’t have any work to do on the day of the move. She wouldn’t dare ask for time off for this purpose, while Ayla would do so without hesitation.|
|Communitarianism||People with a “communitarianist” mindset believe that the needs of the group are more important than the needs of the individual. The group works together to provide help and safety, in exchange for loyalty and camaraderie. The group needs come before the individuals’ needs.|
Typical individualist cultures include the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland.
Typical communitarian cultures include countries in Latin-America, Africa, Turkey and Japan.
- Specific Versus Diffuse
(Level of overlap between work and personal life)
|Specific||People that have a “specific” mindset keep work and personal lives separate. They believe that having a good relationship with co-workers is secondary to getting work done, and they would never imagine mixing their personal live with their work life.||Marianne wants to draw a clear line between who is her boss (superior), who is her colleague, and who is her friend, and she does not want these categories to be mixed under any circumstances. Nicola on the other hand sees the same person as a boss, friend and colleague and has no problem either hanging out with or working with this person.|
|Diffuse||People with the “diffuse” mindset have a less clear line drawn between personal life and work life. They may see no issue with talking to or helping friends during “work time” and will be just as likely to meet with clients or colleagues out of work hours to solve business matters or just to strengthen relationships.|
Typical specific cultures include the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands.
Typical diffuse cultures include Argentina, Spain, Russia, India, and China.
- Neutral Versus Emotional
(How People Deal with Emotions)
|Neutral||People with the “neutral” mindset make a great effort to control their emotions. They believe that words and actions should have logical reasons instead of being based on feelings and emotions. They may go to great lengths to hide their feelings, and will avoid spontaneous expressions of emotion whether negative or positive.||Mary and Gino are having a project meeting, and at a certain point Gino exclaims with a lot of emotion “We aren’t making any progress and I’m frustrated!” Mary looks a bit surprised and then says “You don’t have to be so emotional and react so strongly, let’s just be logical about this” which leaves Gino completely perplexed because in his perception he was just expressing himself and did nothing wrong. To him, Mary’s reaction seems wrong and suppressive. Mary on the other hand doesn’t understand why Gino can’t just discuss everything calmly without getting worked up.|
|Emotional||People with the “emotional” mindset consider emotions to be natural, normal and welcome. They may have no qualms with expressing both negative and positive emotions, and they think it’s ok to be guided by emotions and intuition as well instead of relying only on logic and reason.|
Typical neutral cultures include the U.K., Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany.
Typical emotional cultures include Italy, France, Spain, and countries in Latin-America.
- Achievement Versus Ascription
(How People View Status)
|Achievement||People with the “achievement” mindset believe that you should earn your worth and respect, and that you deserve to be rewarded for actual accomplishments and effort rather than status and position.||Linda has only been at her new job for a week, and she is already discussing with her colleague all the things she thinks could be better at work. She already has a list of ideas and suggestions, and is ready to present them to the manager. When she is discussing this with Eric, he feels very apprehensive about the idea of a newbie wanting to change so many things. He thinks that she should be in the company longer and maybe in a few years when she is a “senior” she can try to implement some changes. She advises her not to go ahead with presenting her ideas, as he believes they will not be well received by the management.|
|Ascription||People with the “ascription” mindset will place more value on roles, titles and positions rather than actual individual effort and achievement. They believe that respect must be given based on title and status and would be hesitant to challenge authority figures even if they think they have a better way.|
Typical achievement cultures include the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Scandinavia.
Typical ascription cultures include France, Italy, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.
- Sequential Time Versus Synchronous Time
(How People Manage Time)
|Sequential Time||People with the “sequential time” mindset like events to happen in the order which they have been planned. They highly value punctuality, planning, sticking with the plan, meeting deadlines and staying on schedule. In this culture, “time is money,” and people don’t appreciate it when their schedule is thrown off or people are late, no matter the reason.||When Brian and his girlfriend Lisa go on vacation, they always have problems. Brian will have everything planned out including where they will be, when, with who, what the weather will be like, what they should bring, and where they will eat. Lisa on the other hand thinks that vacation should be about doing what you want, when you want to do it, without sticking to any kind of schedules or commitments. Brian thinks planning everything in advance is what makes them take full advantage of their vacation time and not waste it. To Lisa, this makes the vacation feel boring, rigid and lacking in spontaneity.|
|Synchronous Time||People that have the “synchronous time” mindset are more likely to see plans, time, people and relationships and interconnected and dynamic, and will be willing to shift things around depending on what they think is important at that moment. Priorities and relationships will be what determine their actions, and they will manage their time according to those things rather than manage those things according to the time.|
Typical sequential-time cultures include Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.
Typical synchronous-time cultures include Japan, Argentina, and Mexico.
- Internal Direction Versus Outer Direction
(How People Relate to Their Environment)
|Internal Direction||People with the mindset of “internal direction” are usually self-motivated in achieving the goals that they find worthwhile and important. They will do fine with minimal supervision, and won’t be able to handle a lot of micro-managing or external interference. They are or can easily become self-directed learners.||Jake and Rachel are both very interested in understanding different cultures. But they go about it in completely different ways. Rachel has signed up for an accredited class on intercultural studies, and is waiting for the class to start so that she can make progress on the topic. She will only feel like she has achieved her goal when she gets high grades and receives her certificate. Jake on the other hand has already started on his goal. He is talking with people from all different cultures and focusing on understanding them better, and learning a few words from their language. He is asking them questions that he finds are important pieces to understanding their culture. He will know he has achieved his goal when he feels confident communicating with and connecting with people from all different cultures.|
|Outer Direction||People who have the “outer direction” mindset need more instruction and motivation coming from the outside. They will also need reassurance from others that they are doing well. Their learning and working requires structure, clear instructions and externally validated benchmarks of success or failure.|
Typical internal-direction cultures include Israel, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K.
Typical outer-direction cultures include China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
What is my personal culture? Am I more prone to:
- Universalism or particularism?
- Individualism or communitarianism?
- Specific or diffuse?
- Neutral or emotional?
- Achievement or ascription?
- Sequential time or synchronous time?
- Internal direction or outer direction?
Did I become this way because of the culture of the country I was raised in? Or were there other factors that influenced my personal culture?
Have I ever clashed with someone who had a mindset opposite then mine, based on one of these 7 points?
How did I respond to this clash? Did I try to get them to do it my way, or did I try to understand why they thought the way they did?
Go through the list again, thinking about which side you have chosen for each category. Now ask yourself, are there occasions when being the opposite of what I am now would actually be the best? What would they be?
Are there aspects of me, based on the above list, that could use a bit of softening, changing, flexibility or moderation? What are they?
Based on what you decided you are most prone to (from the reflection exercises), you can practice acting the opposite way just to see how you feel and what kind of results you get. This will develop your cultural flexibility and give you more options of how to behave and respond in different situations. Even if you don’t change yourself permanently, you will have gained the ability to behave and respond differently when you choose to do so (rather then being on auto-pilot based on your cultural upbringing).