2 Intercultural Communication and Cultural Relativism

Concerns about Cultural Relativism

The Tuckerian Turn:

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A simple, fruitful approach towards learning intercultural communication skills, as a parsimonious way of giving valuable perspective to the various skills and concepts demonstrating the relationship between , , , verbal and nonverbal language, , and /interviewing, is to apply the three questions Dr. Charles Tucker would pose to his students in every Communication class he taught at Northern Illinois University. Professor Tucker stated that: “Communication courses ask you to consider three fundamental questions: “Who am I?” “Who are you?” and, “What are we doing here together?” In a profound sense, these three questions enlighten and guide the approach to the class in this PressBook.

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Professor Tucker asks his students, “Who am I?” In doing so, Tucker’s first question points to an examination of one’s self and works towards the student “self” arriving at an understanding of both who the student is as a person and, necessarily, having knowledge of one’s own culture–after all, the elements or components of their own culture help define who the student is–who the student regards herself to be, and how, through what kind of lens, the student perceives the world. If we hope to move on towards , necessary for navigating our globalized world, individuals must honestly confront and answer, but then move beyond the first question and be open to taking the risk of asking those of other cultures the second question, “Who are you?”

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The first question, “Who am I?” is a key to opening the door that allows relationship and knowledge between the “self” and the “other.” Now, as explained above, this open relationship and knowledge are gained by asking the second question, “Who are you?” Through this question, posed to someone (the other) of another very different culture, real intercultural communication begins to emerge. Remember that, before asking questions of someone of another culture, one’s own culture is vital in shaping your individual identity, values, worldview, beliefs, biases, language, religion, and means and methods of interpersonal communication. Having gained some knowledge of oneself and one’s culture along with the interrelationship between the two, the basis for meaningful intercultural communication with the other is more solid and success more likely. This stands to reason, as possessing knowledge of the other’s culture, i.e., a knowledge of the same cultural concepts, some mentioned above, that are used to understand one’s own culture can now be focused on the culture of the other.  Such knowledge allows for better, more informed, questioning and dialogue by allowing the student to ask relevant and useful questions directed to genuine learning about the other and their culture.

Cultural Relativism: The Elephant in the Discourse

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A note of caution must be made, however. As just mentioned, the student, to be an effective cultural communicator/interviewer, needs to be keenly aware of their own predispositions and assumptions and that, put broadly, that their own cultural forms who or what they are. Given this, as Stephen Fuchs (2001) points out, “cultural observers are also cultured observers, they come with a ‘habitus,’ which means that observers are [conditioned by their own culture and] are trained and accustomed to using distinctions of their own culture…[which] provides observers with the material and symbolic means of observation….” (p.155).

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Fuchs (2001) argues for the pervasiveness of culture in shaping vital aspects of its members’ identity. Still, the profound and pervasive influence of one’s own culture in shaping perception and and imparting to its members its own peculiar categories, distinctions, and means of approaching and learning from the world and from other cultures does not, in and of itself, prevent the possibility of acquiring a genuine, meaningful, and, in a real sense, objective, understanding of other cultures through careful, informed, and respectful intercultural communication/interviewing. Intercultural communication competence of great meaning and depth may be arrived at precisely because, though such communication indeed occurs between individuals shaped by their own unique and profoundly distinct cultures, the even more profound similarity of a common humanity or human nature visible and accessible via intercultural communication trumps the barriers of cultural differences. In fact, the existence of a common human nature is the key that allows the interviewer and interviewee to open closed doors and begin to acquire a deeper understanding of own each of their cultures. This reservation against cultural relativism, specifically linguistic relativism stems from the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.” Hussein (2012) explains that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserts the influence of language on thought and perception, which strongly implies that speakers of different languages from different cultures perceive reality differently–language, in effect, determines worldview (p.642).

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At this juncture, it is important to deeply stress once more that human beings are not necessarily bound and blinded by culture with its unique categories, concepts, and constructs when honestly, respectfully, and openly observing, learning about and understanding other cultures. That this mutual understanding may occur is, unfortunately, contested or clouded by the pervasive underlying concept of “.” Many scholars and students hold, consciously or unconsciously, some form of cultural relativism which regards cultural, religious, social, legal, familial, economic, etc. beliefs, practices, and traditions as relative to a given culture (Chin-Dahler, 2010). It is premised on the idea that all aspects of human cultures are relative to one another; that is, all cultures are equally valid and any standard of evaluation, assessment and judgment must be culturally internal only–any cultural criticism must come from persons of that culture. Persons of other cultures and traditions characterized by differing perceptions, values, and worldviews cannot hope to reach the point where any moral judgment or evaluation regarding the other culture can be reasonably made apart from cultural biases–such evaluations are labeled “” (a strong tendency to reflexively view one’s own cultural worldview, beliefs, and practices as superior to those of other cultures); and is considered a legitimate obstacle to intercultural understanding, respect and dignity. Cultural relativism holds that a culture’s values emerge in the context of particular social, cultural, economic, political, geographical and environmental conditions. Hence, each culture is relative to one another and can only be assessed according to its own lens, boundaries, and worldview.

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In this view, to be culturally sensitive and amenable to communicating with, and learning about, other cultures, one must adopt an attitude of openness, neutrality and closely monitor or even censor one’s judgments that, as indicated, stem from one’s own unique cultural worldview and biases. Because, for cultural relativism, every person’s values and worldview are culturally determined, no reasonable normative judgments can be made–all cultures and aspects of cultures are equal before the bar of values and morality which are, in and of themselves, culturally determined and hence relative. Thus, we must be tolerant and open-minded in the relativistic sense by wholly suspending judgment when learning about or interacting with those of other cultures.  So, for example, a westerner has no basis upon which to legitimately criticize the cultural practice of female genital mutilation. In France, immigrants and refugees who practice female genital mutilation, polygamy, arranged marriages of underage girls or coerced marriages of women, often openly defend their cultural practices as legitimate simply because they are cultural practices they wish to preserve of which a westerner, or western values, according to cultural relativism, hold no truck.  In Guatemala, a stunted child of 4 years old wanders aimlessly in the dark, utterly ignored by global sophisticates of other cultures who, as cultural relativists and global citizens, ignore the child because of the Guatemalan practice of poor women and their children coming down from the mountains to beg from tourists for a living–who dares judge, act rightly?

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For , all outsiders must, in the worst sense of the word, be tolerant and non-judgmental in the face of cultural practices and beliefs other than one’s own. Such a stance is unfortunate. In the history of the United States, many critics foreign and domestic, appealing to standards of universal human justice as articulated in the Declaration of Independence (for Lincoln, our founding document), openly and rightly criticized our institution of slavery as abhorrent not only to universal human rights and equality, but stood as a glaring example of hypocrisy in the face of our own culture’s guiding principles of human equality and unalienable rights, true everywhere and always.

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Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink, such as cannibalism, human sacrifice, and female genital mutilation, and human trafficking have had to be accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned or viewed critically and in an ethnocentric light. Other issues begin to “blur.” The world weighed in on whether or not children should be separated from their parents at the US Border as the parents sought asylum.  The continued conversation about children’s rights concerning work, education, and access to clean water and sanitation show these rights are not universally held throughout the world. Yet, if one believes in human rights, does not one believe in a sense of some truth?

Professor Patrick Deenan (2012), referring to American culture, was struck by Allan Bloom’s critique of relativism.

Bloom made an altogether different argument: American youth were increasingly raised to believe that nothing was True, that every belief was merely the expression of an opinion or preference. Americans were raised to be ‘cultural relativists,’ with a default attitude of non-judgmentalism. Not only all other traditions but even one’s own (whatever that might be) were simply views that happened to be held by some people and could not be judged as inferior or superior to any other. [No opinion held by one person can be determined to be superior to the opinion of another; nor can any one culture be assessed by the values of another or universal values, for that matter]. He bemoaned particularly the decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true. In one arresting passage, he waxed nostalgic for the days when people cared: ‘It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another, but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously’… (Deneen, 2012).

Of course, if values, beliefs, attitudes, language, worldviews, etc. were, in fact, fundamentally culture-bound as cultural relativism contends, then it follows that researchers/business people/individuals from one culture could never hope to understand and communicate deeply and meaningfully with those of another culture.  Ironically, the simple fact that the very concepts of culture, intercultural communication, and intercultural communication competence are all “constructs” or insights of various Western thinkers of Western cultures does not, by dint of origin, necessarily diminish their explanatory effectiveness or usefulness for the mutual and understanding between individuals of different cultures (Nisbett, 2003).

The Tuckerian Turn: Beware the “Echo Chamber:”

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Interviewees who attempt to forthrightly respond to the “Who are you?” question(s) impart valuable insights into their particular perspective of their own culture. These insights emerge from Professor Tucker’s third question, “What are we doing here together?” As we shall see, it is this question that eventually leads to intercultural communication competence and/or confidence.

Regarding Professor Tucker’s third question, “What are we doing here together?” along with its intercultural perspective, it must be mentioned, unfortunately, that in these divisive times there often exists a barrier or wall, largely self-imposed, which impedes or prohibits moving from the notion of “Who am I?” (i.e., understanding our own culture) to an honest consideration of the next question, “Who are you?”–a question asked of someone from a different culture that is fundamental to begin the process of learning about other cultures and thus ultimately engaging competently in intercultural communication through Tucker’s third question. A wall is built between cultures; it prevents moving forward from Professor Tucker’s first question by limiting, in our social media age, our communication to those people who are “just like me” in many aspects of culture: nation, appearance, political opinions, economic circumstances, religious beliefs, social practices and overall values, norms, and worldview. A straightjacket is applied and tied to our opinions and conversations, limiting our conversation to unchallenging “like-minded friends” and comfortable “contacts”–often termed the echo chamber–in which the conversation consists of “Who am I?” and perhaps “Who are we?” and, finally, “Why are they out to get us–we who are guardians of the true and good?”

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In his professional blog, seminal Communication scholar John Stewart (2017) remarks,

It’s called the ‘ syndrome….’ We only listen or speak inside closed chambers that echo [and amplify] our current beliefs and opinions.”

The result, Stewart continues, is polarized (or polarizing) communication of one-sided arguments, spoken to the choir, that necessarily “reduce[s] the quality of our critical thinking” (2017).  Moreover, says Stewart, such communication divides us from friends, family and colleagues–truly a danger to a democracy the health of which requires open, honest civil discourse. In sum, we become trapped in a “Thunderdome” of our own making, where any deviation from the loudest “Echo” is promptly ostracized. Read more:  http://www.johnstewart.org/blog/2017/12/8/echo-chamber-or-community.html.  To gain more information about critical thinking, in general, and to gain a better vocabulary on terms related to critical inquiry see: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/open-minded-inquiry/579 .

Note that cultural relativism is entirely consistent with this development. If no means exists to assess and evaluate opinions, they are all equal after all. Certainly, then, the loudest opinions shouting down rival opinions as “fake news” will prevail.

Describing Culture

Anyone who has had an intercultural encounter or participated in intercultural communication can tell you that they encountered differences between themselves and others. Acknowledging the differences isn’t difficult. Rather, the difficulties come from describing the differences using terms that accurately convey the subtle meanings within cultures.

The study of cross-cultural analysis incorporates the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and communication. Within cross-cultural analysis, several names dominate our understanding of culture—Florence Kluckhohn, Fred Strodtbeck, Geert Hofstede and Edward T. Hall. Although new ideas are continually being proposed, Hofstede remains the leading thinker on how we see cultures.

This section will review both the thinkers and the main components of how they define culture. These theories provide a comprehensive and enduring understanding of the key factors that shape a culture. By understanding the key concepts and theories, you should be able to formulate your own analysis of the different cultures.

Value Orientation Theory

What is the inherent nature of human beings?

According to Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, this is a question that all societies ask, and there are generally three different responses. The people in some societies are inclined to believe that people are inherently evil and that the society must exercise strong measures to keep the evil impulses of people in check. On the other hand, other societies are more likely to see human beings as basically good and possessing an inherent tendency towards goodness. Between these two poles are societies that see human beings as possessing the potential to be either good or evil depending upon the influences that surround them. Societies also differ on whether human nature is immutable (unchangeable) or mutable (changeable). In next chapter, we’ll discuss this in more detail.

What is the relationship between human beings and the natural world?

Some societies believe nature is a powerful force in the face of which human beings are essentially helpless. We could describe this as “nature over humans.” Other societies are more likely to believe that through intelligence and the application of knowledge, humans can control nature. In other words, they embrace a “humans over nature” position. Between these two extremes are the societies who believe humans are wise to strive to live in “harmony with nature.”

What is the best way to think about time?

Some societies are rooted in the past, believing that people should learn from history and strive to preserve the traditions of the past. Other societies place more value on the here and now, believing people should live fully in the present. Then there are societies that place the greatest value on the future, believing people should always delay immediate satisfactions while they plan and work hard to make a better future.

What is the proper mode of human activity?

In some societies, “being” is the most valued orientation. Striving for great things is not necessary or important. In other societies, “becoming” is what is most valued. Life is regarded as a process of continual unfolding. Our purpose on earth, the people might say, is to become fully human. Finally, there are societies that are primarily oriented to “doing.” In such societies, people are likely to think of the inactive life as a wasted life. People are more likely to express the view that we are here to work hard and that human worth is measured by the sum of accomplishments.

What is the ideal relationship between the individual and society?

Expressed another way, we can say the concern is about how a society is best organized. People in some societies think it most natural that a society be organized [by groups or collectives]. They hold to the view that some people should lead and others should follow. Leaders, they feel, should make all the important decisions [for the group]. Other societies are best described as valuing collateral relationships. In such societies, everyone has an important role to play in society; therefore, important decisions should be made by consensus. In still other societies, the individual is the primary unit of society. In societies that place great value on individualism, people are likely to believe that each person should have control over his/her own destiny. When groups convene to make decisions, they should follow the principle of “one person, one vote.”

As Hill (2002) has observed, Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck did not consider the theory to be complete. In fact, they originally proposed a sixth value orientation—Space: here, there, or far away, which they could not quite figure out how to investigate at the time. Today, the Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck framework is just one among many attempts to study universal human values.

Hofstede’s Dimensions of National Culture Theory

Geert Hofstede, sometimes called the father of modern cross-cultural science and thinking, is a social psychologist who focused on a comparison of nations using a statistical analysis of two unique databases. The first and largest database composed of answers that matched employee samples from forty different countries to the same survey questions focused on attitudes and beliefs. The second consisted of answers to some of the same questions by Hofstede’s executive students who came from fifteen countries and from a variety of companies and industries. He developed a framework for understanding the systematic differences between nations in these two databases. This framework focused on value dimensions. Values, in this case, are broad preferences for one state of affairs over others, and they are mostly unconscious.

Most of us understand that values are our own culture’s or society’s ideas about what is good, bad, acceptable, or unacceptable. Hofstede developed a framework for understanding how these values underlie organizational behavior. Through his database research, he identified five key value dimensions (power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, & time) that analyze and interpret the behaviors, values, and attitudes of a national culture (Hofstede, 1980).

Power Distance

Power distance refers to how openly a society or culture accepts or does not accept differences between people, as in hierarchies in the workplace, in politics, and so on. For example, high power distance cultures openly accept that a boss is “higher” and as such deserves a more formal respect and authority. Examples of these cultures include Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines. In Japan or Mexico, the senior person is almost a father figure and is automatically given respect and usually loyalty without questions.

In Southern Europe, Latin America, and much of Asia, power is an integral part of the social equation. People tend to accept relationships of servitude. An individual’s status, age, and seniority command respect—they’re what make it all right for the lower-ranked person to take orders. Subordinates expect to be told what to do and won’t take initiative or speak their minds unless a manager explicitly asks for their opinion.

At the other end of the spectrum are low power distance cultures, in which superiors and subordinates are more likely to see each other as equal in power. Countries found at this end of the spectrum include Austria and Denmark. To be sure, not all cultures view power in the same ways. In Sweden, Norway, and Israel, for example, respect for equality is a warranty of freedom. Subordinates and managers alike often have carte blanche to speak their minds.

Interestingly enough, research indicates that the United States tilts toward low power distance but is more in the middle of the scale than Germany and the United Kingdom. The United States has a culture of promoting participation at the office while maintaining control in the hands of the manager. People in this type of culture tend to be relatively laid-back about status and social standing—but there’s a firm understanding of who has the power. What’s surprising for many people is that countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia actually rank lower on the power distance spectrum than the United States.

In a high power distance culture, you would probably be much less likely to challenge a decision, to provide an alternative, or to give input. If you are working with someone from a high power distance culture, you may need to take extra care to elicit feedback and involve them in the discussion because their cultural framework may preclude their participation. They may have learned that less powerful people must accept decisions without comment, even if they have a concern or know there is a significant problem.

Figure A map which shows the relative power distance of nations around the world

Individualism vs. collectivism

Individualism vs. collectivism anchor opposite ends of a continuum that describes how people define themselves and their relationships with others. Individualism is just what it sounds like. It refers to people’s tendency to take care of themselves and their immediate circle of family and friends, perhaps at the expense of the overall society. In individualistic cultures, what counts most is self-realization. Initiating alone, sweating alone, achieving alone— not necessarily collective efforts—are what win applause. In individualistic cultures, competition is the fuel of success.

The United States and Northern European societies are often labeled as individualistic. In the United States, individualism is valued and promoted—from its political structure (individual rights and democracy) to entrepreneurial zeal (capitalism). Other examples of high-individualism cultures include Australia and the United Kingdom.

Communication is more direct in individualistic societies but more indirect in collectivistic societies. The U.S. ranks very high in individualism, and South Korea ranks quite low. Japan falls close to the middle.

When we talk about masculine or feminine cultures, we’re not talking about diversity issues. It’s about how a society views traits that are considered masculine or feminine. Each carries with it a set of cultural expectations and norms for gender behavior and gender roles across life.

Traditionally perceived “masculine” values are assertiveness, materialism, and less concern for others. In masculine-oriented cultures, gender roles are usually crisply defined. Men tend to be more focused on performance, ambition, and material success. They cut tough and independent personas, while women cultivate modesty and quality of life. Cultures in Japan and Latin American are examples of masculine-oriented cultures.

In contrast, feminine cultures are thought to emphasize “feminine” values: concern for all, an emphasis on the quality of life, and an emphasis on relationships. In feminine-oriented cultures, both genders swap roles, with the focus on quality of life, service, and independence. The Scandinavian cultures rank as feminine cultures, as do cultures in Switzerland and New Zealand. The United States is actually more moderate, and its score is ranked in the middle between masculine and feminine classifications. For all these factors, it’s important to remember that cultures don’t necessarily fall neatly into one camp or the other. The range of difference is one aspect of intercultural communication that requires significant attention when a communicator enters a new environment.

Uncertainty avoidance

When we meet each other for the first time, we often use what we have previously learned to understand our current context. We also do this to reduce our uncertainty. People who have high uncertainty avoidance generally prefer to steer clear of conflict and competition. They tend to appreciate very clear instructions. They dislike ambiguity. At the office, sharply defined rules and rituals are used to get tasks completed. Stability and what is known are preferred to instability and the unknown.

Some cultures, such as the U.S. and Britain, are highly tolerant of uncertainty, while others go to great lengths to reduce the element of surprise. Cultures in the Arab world, for example, are high in uncertainty avoidance; they tend to be resistant to change and reluctant to take risks. Whereas a U.S. business negotiator might enthusiastically agree to try a new procedure, the Egyptian counterpart would likely refuse to get involved until all the details are worked out.

Berger and Calabrese (1975) developed uncertainty reduction theory to examine this dynamic aspect of communication. Here are seven axioms of uncertainty:

1) There is a high level of uncertainty at first. As we get to know one another, our verbal communication increases and our uncertainty begins to decrease.

2) Following verbal communication, as nonverbal communication increases, uncertainty will continue to decrease, and we will express more nonverbal displays of affiliation, like nodding one’s head to express agreement.

3) When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, we tend to increase our information-seeking behavior, perhaps asking questions to gain more insight. As our understanding increases, uncertainty decreases, as does the information-seeking behavior.

4) When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, the communication interaction is not as personal or intimate. As uncertainty is reduced, intimacy increases.

5) When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, communication will feature more reciprocity, or displays of respect. As uncertainty decreases, reciprocity may diminish.

6) Differences between people increase uncertainty, while similarities decrease it.

7) Higher levels of uncertainty are associated with a decrease in the indication of liking the other person, while reductions in uncertainty are associated with liking the other person more.

8) In educational settings, people from countries high in uncertainty avoidance expect their teachers to be experts with all of the answers. People from countries low in uncertainty avoidance don’t mind it when a teacher says, “I don’t know.”

Long-term vs. short-term orientation

The fifth dimension is long-term orientation, which refers to whether a culture has a long-term or short-term orientation. This dimension was added by Hofstede after the original four you just read about. It resulted in the effort to understand the difference in thinking between the East and the West. Certain values are associated with each orientation. The long-term orientation values persistence, perseverance, thriftiness, and having a sense of shame. These are evident in traditional Eastern cultures. Long-term orientation is often marked by persistence, thrift and frugality, and an order to relationships based on age and status. A sense of shame, both personal and for the family and community, is also observed across generations. What an individual does reflects on the family, and is carried by immediate and extended family members.

The short-term orientation values tradition only to the extent of fulfilling social obligations or providing gifts or favors. While there may be a respect for tradition, there is also an emphasis on personal representation and honor, a reflection of identity and integrity. Personal stability and consistency are also valued in a short-term oriented culture, contributing to an overall sense of predictability and familiarity. These cultures are more likely to be focused on the immediate or short-term impact of an issue. Not surprisingly, the United Kingdom and the United States rank low on the long-term orientation.

Another OER Textbook Shares this information about Hofested.

Hofstede’s Dimensions of Culture

This material was written by Keith Green, Ruth Fairchild, Bev Knudsen, & Darcy Lease-Gubrud – Riverland Community College.

Individualism and Collectivism

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Figure Image 4

According to Hofstede,

The left side of this dimension, called Individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families only. Its opposite, Collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we” (Hofstede, 2012a).

In a highly individualistic culture, members are able to make choices based on personal preference with little regard for others, except for close family or significant relationships. They can pursue their own wants and needs free from concerns about meeting social expectations. The United States is a highly individualistic culture. While we value the role of certain aspects of collectivism such as government, social organizations, or other forms of collective action, at our core we strongly believe it is up to each person to find and follow their path in life.

In a highly collectivistic culture, just the opposite is true. It is the role of individuals to fulfill their place in the overall social order. Personal wants and needs are secondary to the needs of the society at large. There is immense pressure to adhere to social norms, and those who fail to conform risk social isolation, disconnection from family, and perhaps some form of banishment. China is typically considered a highly collectivistic culture. In China, multigenerational homes are common, and tradition calls for the oldest son to care for his parents as they age.

High Power-Distance and Low Power-Distance

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Figure Image 5

Power is a normal feature of any relationship or society. How power is perceived, however, varies among cultures:

The power distance dimension of culture expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect power to be distributed unequally. The fundamental issue is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of power distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low power distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power (Hofstede, 2012a).

In high power-distance cultures, the members accept some having more power and some having less power, and that this power distribution is natural and normal. Those with power are assumed to deserve it, and likewise those without power are assumed to be in their proper place. In such a culture, there will be a rigid adherence to the use of titles, “Sir,” “Ma’am,” “Officer,” “Reverend,” and so on. The directives of those with higher power are to be obeyed, with little question.

In low power-distance cultures, the distribution of power is considered far more arbitrary and viewed as a result of luck, money, heritage, or other external variables. For a person to be seen as having power, something must justify their power. A wealthy person is typically seen as more powerful in western cultures. Elected officials, like United States Senators, will be seen as powerful since they had to win their office by receiving majority support. In these cultures, individuals who attempt to assert power are often faced with those who stand up to them, question them, ignore them, or otherwise refuse to acknowledge their power. While some titles may be used, they will be used far less than in a high power-distance culture. For example, in colleges and universities in the U.S., it is far more common for students to address their instructors on a first-name basis, and engage in casual conversation on personal topics. In contrast, in a high power-distance culture like Japan, the students rise and bow as the teacher enters the room, address them formally at all times, and rarely engage in any personal conversation.

High Uncertainty Avoidance and Low Uncertainty Avoidance

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Figure Image 6

As you have already learned in this course, humans do not like uncertainty, and the drive to lower uncertainty to increase predictability and comfort is quite strong. How cultures handle uncertainty varies:

The uncertainty avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong [uncertainty avoidance] maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideasWeak [uncertainty avoidance] societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles (Hofstede, 2012a).

Consider how one avoids uncertainty: by limiting change, adhering to tradition, and sticking to past practice. High uncertainty avoidance cultures place a very high value on history, doing things as they have been done in the past, and honoring stable cultural norms. Even though the U.S. is generally low in uncertainty avoidance, we can see some evidence of a degree of higher uncertainty avoidance related to certain social issues. As society changes, there are many who will decry the changes as they are “forgetting the past,” “dishonoring our forebears,” or “abandoning sacred traditions.” In the controversy over same-sex marriage, the phrase “traditional marriage” is used to refer to a two person, heterosexual marriage, suggesting same-sex marriage is a violation of tradition. Changing social norms creates uncertainty, and for many change is very unsettling.

In a low uncertainty avoidance culture, change is seen as inevitable, normal, and even preferable to stasis. In such a culture innovation in all areas is valued, whether it be in technology, business, social norms, or human relationship. Businesses in the U.S. that can change rapidly, innovate quickly, and respond immediately to market and social pressures are seen as far more successful. While Microsoft™ has long dominated the world market in computer operating systems, they are regularly criticized for being slow to change and to respond to changing consumer demands, which suggests a high uncertainty avoidance culture within that business. Apple™, on the other hand, has been praised for its innovation and ability to respond more quickly to market demands, suggesting a low uncertainty avoidance culture.

Long-Term Orientation and Short-Term Orientation

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Figure Image 7

People and cultures view time in different ways. For some, the “here and now” is paramount, and for others, “saving for a rainy day” is the dominant view.

The long-term orientation dimension can be interpreted as dealing with society’s search for virtue. Societies with a short-term orientation generally have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth. They are normative in their thinking. They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results. In societies with a long-term orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time. They show an ability to adapt traditions to changed conditions, a strong propensity to save and invest, thriftiness, and perseverance in achieving results (Hofstede, 2012a).

In a long-term culture, significant emphasis is placed on planning for the future. For example, the savings rates in France and Germany are 2-4 times greater than in the U.S., suggesting cultures with more of a “plan ahead” mentality (Pasquali & Aridas, 2012). These long-term cultures see change and social evolution are normal, integral parts of the human condition.
In a short-term culture, emphasis is placed far more on the “here and now.” Immediate needs and desires are paramount, with longer-term issues left for another day. The U.S. falls more into this type. Legislation tends to be passed to handle immediate problems, and it can be challenging for lawmakers to convince voters of the need to look at issues from a long-term perspective. With the fairly easy access to credit, consumers are encouraged to buy now versus waiting. We see evidence of the need to establish “absolute Truth” in our political arena on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and gun control. Our culture does not tend to favor middle grounds in which truth is not clear-cut.

Masculine and Feminine

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Figure Image 8

Expectations for gender roles are a core component of any culture. All cultures have some sense of what it means to be a “man” or a “woman.” Masculine cultures are traditionally seen as more aggressive and domineering, while feminine cultures are traditionally seen as more nurturing and caring. Hofstede (2012a) states:

The masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material reward for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

In a masculine culture, such as the U.S., winning is highly valued. We respect and honor those who demonstrate power and high degrees of competence. Consider the role of competitive sports such as football, basketball, or baseball, and how the rituals of identifying the best are significant events. The 2017 Super Bowl had 111 million viewers, (Huddleston, 2017) and the World Series regularly receives high ratings, with the final game in 2016 ending at the highest rating in ten years (Perez, 2016).

More feminine societies, such as those in the Scandinavian countries, will certainly have their sporting moments. However, the culture is far more structured to provide aid and support to citizens, focusing their energies on providing a reasonable quality of life for all (Hofstede, 2012b).

Indulgence and Restraint

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Figure Image 9

A more recent addition to Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, the indulgence/restraint continuum addresses the degree of rigidity of social norms of behavior. He states:

Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having funRestraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms (Hofstede, 2012a).

Indulgent cultures are comfortable with individuals acting on their more basic human drives. Sexual mores are less restrictive, and one can act more spontaneously than in cultures of restraint. Those in indulgent cultures will tend to communicate fewer messages of judgment and evaluation. Every spring thousands of U.S. college students flock to places like Cancun, Mexico, to engage in a week of fairly indulgent behavior. Feeling free from the social expectations of home, many will engage in some intense partying, sexual activity, and fairly limitless behaviors.

Cultures of restraint, such as many Islamic countries, have rigid social expectations of behavior that can be quite narrow. Guidelines on dress, food, drink, and behaviors are rigid and may even be formalized in law. In the U.S., a generally indulgent culture, there are sub-cultures that are more restraint focused. The Amish are highly restrained by social norms, but so too can be inner-city gangs. Areas of the country, like Utah with its large Mormon culture, or the Deep South with its large evangelical Christian culture, are more restrained than areas such as San Francisco or New York City. Rural areas often have more rigid social norms than do urban areas. Those in more restraint-oriented cultures will identify those not adhering to these norms, placing pressure on them, either openly or subtly, to conform to social expectations.


“Culture” by Keith Green, Ruth Fairchild, Bev Knudsen, & Darcy Lease-Gubrud, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC .



Among the various attempts by social scientists to study human values from a cultural perspective, Hofstede’s is certainly popular. In fact, it would be a rare culture text that did not pay special attention to Hofstede’s theory. Value dimensions are all evolving as many people gain experience outside their home cultures and countries, therefore, in practice, these five dimensions do not occur as single values but are really woven together and interdependent, creating very complex cultural interactions. Even though these five values are constantly shifting and not static, they help us begin to understand how and why people from different cultures may think and act as they do.

However, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are not without critics. It has been faulted for promoting a largely static view of culture (Hamden-Turner & Trompenaars, 1997) and as Orr & Hauser (2008) have suggested, the world has changed in dramatic ways since Hofstede’s research began.

Individualism and Collectism and Interpersonal Conflict Potential

*Adapted and Attributed to Robert Jersak  who attributes Language and Culture in Context: A Primer on Intercultural Communication (2020) by Robert Godwin-Jones.

By now, we understand that communication is about the sending and receiving of messages, and that messages are all human behavior. We also understand that culture is much more than what we observe, but instead culture is also the deep assumptions that groups of people have about what is right and what is true. What we need at this point is a way to define and understand the common differences in values and beliefs across cultures. This way, we can begin to examine common areas of intercultural misunderstandings and conflicts. This leads us to the idea of cultural taxonomies.

In the academic study of intercultural communication, cultures are often characterized as belonging to particular categories, often referred to as cultural taxonomies (i.e., a type of classification scheme). Many of the characteristics used go back to work done by Geert Hofstede in the 1970’s, who studied the cultural dimensions of workers for IBM in a variety of countries (1980). The most important and prevalent category often used to characterize and contrast cultures is one we already briefly explored in a previous lesson: individualism versus collectivism. Cultures labeled as individualistic (most often Western countries including those in North America and Northern Europe) are seen as emphasizing the rights of the individual to self-determination, with children being brought up to be assertive and distinctive. In contrast, collectivistic cultures (seen as prevalent in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East) emphasize group identity and conformity, with children expected to be obedient and respectful.

So, how does a cultural taxonomy like individualism vs. collectivism become useful to us? Let’s explore this dialogue sample from the book Understanding the World’s Cultures:

We observe and overhear two individuals chatting. By their clothing and their voice, they appear to be culturally different. This is what we hear of their conversation:

SHARON: So, Fatima, you’ll be graduating in May. Congratulations!

FATIMA: Thank you.

SHARON: Do you have a job lined up?

FATIMA: Yes I do. I’ll be working for the Central Bank.

SHARON: Good for you. Have you found a place to live yet?

FATIMA: Actually, the bank is very near my parents’ place

SHARON: That’s nice. So you’ll be living quite near them.

This certainly isn’t a full-scale intercultural conflict; however there is a crucial intercultural misunderstanding embedded in this conversation. Sharon seems likely to come from an individualist-leaning culture, where it is common and expected for children to move away from their parents and start an independent life after graduation. She assumes that Fatima will behave in ways that are familiar to Sharon. Fatima, however, may come from a collectivist-leaning culture, and her most important priority may be to ensure her parents’ well being rather than to move out of the house. it may even be a cultural expectation that she remain with her parents as they age. She may be confused as to why anyone would choose to leave their parents alone as they age.

Adapted from:

Language and Culture in Context: A Primer on Intercultural Communication (2020) by Robert Godwin-Jones.


Edward T. Hall

Edward T. Hall was a respected anthropologist who applied his field to the understanding of cultures and intercultural communications. Hall is best noted for three principal categories that analyze and interpret how communications and interactions between cultures differ: context, space, and time.

Figure A graph which shows the level of context in various world cultures

High and low context refers to how a message is communicated. In high-context cultures, such as those found in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the physical context of the message carries a great deal of importance. People tend to be more indirect and to expect the person they are communicating with to decode the implicit part of their message. While the person sending the message takes painstaking care in crafting the message, the person receiving the message is expected to read it within context. The message may lack the verbal directness you would expect in a low-context culture. In high-context cultures, body language is as important and sometimes more important than the actual words spoken.

In contrast, in low-context cultures such as the United States and most Northern European countries, people tend to be explicit and direct in their communication. Satisfying individual needs is important. You’re probably familiar with some well-known low-context mottos: “Say what you mean” and “Don’t beat around the bush.” The guiding principle is to minimize the margins of misunderstanding or doubt. Low-context communication aspires to get straight to the point.

Communication between people from high-context and low-context cultures can be confusing. In business interactions, people from low-context cultures tend to listen primarily to the words spoken; they tend not to be as cognizant of nonverbal aspects. As a result, people often miss important clues that could tell them more about the specific issue.


Space refers to the study of physical space and people. Hall called this the study of proxemics, which focuses on space and distance between people as they interact. Space refers to everything from how close people stand to one another to how people might mark their territory or boundaries in the workplace and in other settings. Stand too close to someone from the United States, which prefers a “safe” physical distance, and you are apt to make them uncomfortable. How close is too close depends on where you are from. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all establish a comfort zone when interacting with others. Standing distances shrink and expand across cultures. Latins, Spaniards, and Filipinos (whose culture has been influenced by three centuries of Spanish colonization) stand rather close even in business encounters. In cultures that have a low need for territory, people not only tend to stand closer together but also are more willing to share their space—whether it be a workplace, an office, a seat on a train, or even ownership of a business project.

Attitudes toward Time: Polychronic versus Monochronic Cultures

Hall identified that time is another important concept greatly influenced by culture. In polychronic cultures—polychronic literally means “many times”—people can do several things at the same time. In monochronic cultures, or “one-time” cultures, people tend to do one task at a time.

This isn’t to suggest that people in polychronic cultures are better at multitasking. Rather, people in monochronic cultures, such as Northern Europe and North America, tend to schedule one event at a time. For them, an appointment that starts at 8 a.m. is an appointment that starts at 8 a.m.—or 8:05 at the latest. People are expected to arrive on time, whether for a board meeting or a family picnic. Time is a means of imposing order. Often the meeting has a firm end time as well, and even if the agenda is not finished, it’s not unusual to end the meeting and finish the agenda at another scheduled meeting.

In polychronic cultures, by contrast, time is nice, but people and relationships matter more. Finishing a task may also matter more. If you’ve ever been to Latin America, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East, you know all about living with relaxed timetables. People might attend to three things at once and think nothing of it. Or they may cluster informally, rather than arrange themselves in a queue. In polychronic cultures, it’s not considered an insult to walk into a meeting or a party well past the appointed hour.

In polychronic cultures, people regard work as part of a larger interaction with a community. If an agenda is not complete, people in polychronic cultures are less likely to simply end the meeting and are more likely to continue to finish the business at hand.

Those who prefer monochronic order may find polychronic order frustrating and hard to manage effectively. Those raised with a polychronic sensibility, on the other hand, might resent the “tyranny of the clock” and prefer to be focused on completing the tasks at hand.

What Else Determines a Culture?

The three approaches to the study of cultural values (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, Hofstede, and Hall) presented in this chapter provide a framework for a comparative analysis between cultures. Additionally, there are other external factors that also constitute a culture—identities, language, manners, media, relationships, and conflict, to name a few. Coming chapters will help us to understand how more cultural traits are incorporated into daily life.


“Culture” by Keith Green, Ruth Fairchild, Bev Knudsen, & Darcy Lease-Gubrud, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC .

Language and Culture in Context: A Primer on Intercultural Communication (2020) by Robert Godwin-Jones.


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