Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published May 04, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


key Points

  • Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions Theory, developed by Geert Hofstede, is a framework used to understand the differences in culture across countries.
  • Hofstede’s initial six key dimensions include power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism-collectivism, masculinity-femininity, and short vs. long-term orientation. Later researchers added restraint vs. indulgence to this list.
  • The extent to which individual countries share key dimensions depends on a number of factors, such as shared language and geographical location.
  • Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are widely used to understand etiquette and facilitate communication across cultures, in areas ranging from business to diplomacy.

History and Overview

Hofstede's cultural values or dimensions provide a framework through which sociologists can describe the effects of culture on the values of its members, and how these values relate to the behavior of people who live within a culture.

Outside of sociology, Hofstede's work is also applicable to fields such as cross-cultural psychology, international management, and cross-cultural communication.

The Dutch management researcher, Geert Hofstede, created the cultural dimensions theory in 1980 (Hofstede, 1980).

Hofstede's cultural dimensions originate from a large survey that he conducted from the 1960s to 1970s that examined value differences among different divisions of IBM, a multinational computer manufacturing company.

This study encompassed over 100,000 employees from 50 countries across 3 regions. Hoftstede, using a specific statistical method called factor analysis, initially identified four value dimensions: individualism and collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity and femininity.

Later research from Chinese sociologists identified a fifty dimension, long term or short term orientation (Bond, 1991).

Finally, a replication of Hofstede's study, conducted across 93 separate countries, confirmed the existence of the five dimensions and identified a sixth known as indulgence and restraint (Hofstede & Minkov, 2010).

Cultural Dimensions

Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory for cross-cultural communication explains the effect of a society's culture on the value of its members and values relate to behaviour.

Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory (1980) examined people’s values in the workplace and created differentiation along three dimensions: small/large power distance, strong/weak uncertainty avoidance, masculinity/femininity, and individualism/collectivism.

Power-Distance Index

The power distance index describes the extent to which the less powerful members or an organization or institution — such as a family — accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

Although there is a certain degree of inequality in all societies, Hofstede notes that there is relatively more equality in some societies than in others.

Individuals in societies that have a high degree of power distance accept hierarchies where everyone has a place in a ranking without the need for justification.

Meanwhile, societies with low power distance seek to have an equal distribution of power. The implication of this is that cultures that endorse and expect relations that are more consultative or democratic, or egalitarian.

In countries with low power distance index values, there tends to be more equality between parents and children, with parents more likely to accept it if children argue or "talk back" to authority.

In low power distance index workplaces, employers and managers are more likely to ask employees for input; in fact, those at the lower ends of the hierarchy expect to be asked for their input (Hofstede, 1980).

Meanwhile, in countries with high power distance, parents may expect children to obey without questioning their authority. Those of higher status may also regularly experience obvious displays of subordination and respect from subordinates.

Superiors and subordinates are unlikely to see each other as equals in the workplace, and employees assume that higher-ups will make decisions without asking them for input.

These major differences in how institutions operate make status more important in high power distance countries than low power distance ones (Hofstede, 1980).

Collectivism vs. Individualism

Individualism and collectivism, respectively, refer to the integration of individuals into groups.

Individualistic societies stress achievement and individual rights, focusing on the needs of oneself and one's immediate family.

A person's self-image in this category is defined as "I." In contrast, collectivist societies place a greater importance on the goals and well-being of the group, with a person's self-image in this category being more similar to a "We."

Those from collectivist cultures put more emphasis on relationships and loyalty than people from individualistic cultures.

They tend to belong to fewer groups, but are defined more by their membership in them. Lastly, communication tends to be more direct in individualistic societies, but more indirect in collectivistic ones (Hofstede, 1980).

Uncertainty Avoidance Index

The uncertainty avoidance dimension of Hofstede's cultural dimensions addresses a society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

This dimension reflects the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with their anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. In its most simplified form, uncertainty avoidance refers to how threatening change is to a culture (Hofstede, 1980).

A high uncertainty avoidance index indicates a low tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk-taking. Both the institutions and individuals within these societies seek to minimize the unknown through strict rules, regulations, and so forth.

People within these cultures also tend to be more emotional. In contrast, those in low uncertainty avoidance cultures accept and feel comfortable in unstructured situations or changeable environments and try to have as few rules as possible. This means that people within these cultures tend to be more tolerant of change.

The unknown is more openly accepted, and less strict rules and regulations may ensue.

For example, a student may be more accepting of a teacher saying they do not know the answer to a question in a low uncertainty avoidance culture than a high uncertainty avoidance one (Hofstede, 1980).

Femininity vs. Masculinity

Femininity vs. masculinity, also known as gender role differentiation, is yet another one of Hofstede's six dimensions of national culture. This dimension looks at how much a society values traditional masculine and feminine roles.

A masculine society values assertiveness, courage, strength, and competition; a feminine society values cooperation, nurturing, and quality of life (Hofstede, 1980).

A high femininity score indicates that traditionally feminine gender roles are more important in that society; a low femininity score indicates that those roles are less important.

For example, a country with a high femininity score is likely to have better maternity leave policies and more affordable child care.

Meanwhile, a country with a low femininity score is likely to have more women in leadership positions and higher rates of female entrepreneurship (Hofstede, 1980).

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Orientation

The long term and short term orientation dimension refers to the degree to which cultures encourage delaying gratification or the material, social, and emotional needs of its members (Hofstede, 1980).

Societies with long term orientations show focus on the future in a way that delays short-term success in favor of success in the long-term.

These societies emphasize traits such as persistence, perseverance, thrift, saving, long-term growth, and the capacity for adaptation.

Short-term orientation in a society, in contrast, indicates a focus on the near future, involves delivering short-term success or gratification, and places a stronger emphasis on the present than the future.

The end result of this is an emphasis on quick results and respect for tradition. The values of a short term society are related to the past and the present, and can result in unrestrained spending, often in response to social or ecological pressure (Hofstede, 1980).

Restraint vs. Indulgence

Finally, the restraint and indulgence dimension considers the extent and tendency for a society to fulfill its desires.

That is to say, this dimension is a measure of societal impulse and desire control. High levels of indulgence indicate that a society allows relatively free gratification, and high levels of bon de vivre.

Meanwhile, restraint indicates that a society tends to suppress the gratification of needs and regulate them through social norms.

For example, in a highly indulgent society, people may tend to spend more money on luxuries and enjoy more freedom when it comes to leisure time activities. In a restrained society, people are more likely to save money and focus on practical needs (Hofstede, 2011).

Correlations of Hofstede's Dimensions with other country differences

Hofstede's dimensions have been found to correlate with a variety of other country difference variables, including:

  • geographical proximity,
  • shared language,
  • related historical background,
  • similar religious beliefs and practices,
  • common philosophical influences,
  • and identical political systems (Hofstede, 2011).

For example, countries that share a border tend to have more similarities in culture than those that are further apart.

This is because people who live close to each other are more likely to interact with each other on a regular basis, which leads to a greater understanding and appreciation of each other's cultures.

Similarly, countries that share a common language tend to have more similarities in culture than those that do not.

Those who speak the same language can communicate more easily with each other, which leads to a greater understanding and appreciation of each other's cultures (Hofstede, 2011).

Finally, countries that have similar historical backgrounds tend to have more similarities in culture than those that do not.

People who share a common history are more likely to have similar values and beliefs, which leads, it has generally been theorized, to a greater understanding and appreciation of each other's cultures.

Cultural difference awareness

Geert Hofstede shed light on how cultural differences are still significant today, in a world that is becoming more and more diverse.

Hofstede's cultural dimensions can be used to help explain why certain behaviors are more or less common in different cultures.

For example, individualism vs. collectivism can help explain why some cultures place more emphasis on personal achievement than others. masculinity vs. feminism could help explain why some cultures are more competitive than others.

And long-term vs. short-term orientation can help explain why some cultures focus more on the future than the present (Hofstede, 2011).

International communication and negotiation

Hofstede's cultural dimensions can also be used to predict how people from different cultures will interact with each other.

For example, if two people from cultures with high levels of power distance meet, they may have difficulty communicating because they have different expectations about who should be in charge (Hofstede, 2011).

In Business

Finally, Hofstede's cultural dimensions can be used to help businesses adapt their products and marketing to different cultures.

For example, if a company wants to sell its products in a country with a high collectivism score, it may need to design its packaging and advertising to appeal to groups rather than individuals.

Within a business, Hofstede’s framework can also help managers to understand why their employees behave the way they do.

For example, if a manager is having difficulty getting her employees to work together as a team, she may need to take into account that her employees come from cultures with different levels of collectivism (Hofstede, 2011).


Evaluation

Although the cultural value dimensions identified by Hofstede and others are useful ways to think about culture and study cultural psychology, the theory has been chronically questioned and critiqued.

Most of this criticism has been directed at the methodology of Hofstede's original study.

Orr and Hauser (2008) note, Hofstede's questionnaire was not originally designed to measure culture, but workplace satisfaction. Indeed, many of the conclusions are based on a small number of responses.

Although Hofstede administered 117,000 questionnaires, he used the results from 40 countries, only six of which had more than 1000 respondents.

This has led critics to question the representativeness of the original sample.

Furthermore, Hofstede conducted this study using the employees of a multinational corporation, who — especially when the study was conducted in the 1960s and 1970s — were overwhelmingly highly educated, mostly male, and performed so-called "white collar" work (McSweeney, 2002).

Hofstede's theory has also been criticized for promoting a static view of culture that does not respond to the influences or changes of other cultures.

For example, as Hamden-Turner and Trompenaars (1997) have envisioned, the cultural influence of western powers such as the United States has likely influenced a tide of individualism in the notoriously collectivist Japanese culture.

Nonetheless, Hofstede's theory still has a few enduring strengths. As McSweeney (2002) notes, Hofstede's work has "stimulated a great deal of cross-cultural research and provided a useful framework for the comparative study of cultures'' (p. 83).

Additionally, as Orr and Hauser (2008) point out, Hofstede's dimensions have been found to be correlated with actual behavior in cross-cultural studies, suggesting that it does hold some validity.

All in all, as McSweeney (2002) points out, Hofstede's theory is a useful starting point for cultural analysis, but there have been many additional, and more methodologically rigorous advances made in the last several decades.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, May 04). Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/hofstedes-cultural-dimensions-theory.html

APA Style References

Bond, M. H. (1991). Beyond the Chinese face: Insights from psychology. Oxford University Press, USA.

Hampden-Turner, C., & Trompenaars, F. (1997). Response to geert hofstede. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 21(1), 149.

 Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture and organizations. International studies of management & organization, 10(4), 15-41. 

Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing cultures: The Hofstede model in context. Online readings in psychology and culture, 2(1), 2307-0919. 

Hofstede, G., & Minkov, M. (2010). Long-versus short-term orientation: new perspectives. Asia Pacific Business Review, 16(4), 493-504.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences (Vol. Sage): Beverly Hills, CA.

Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the mind. London, England: McGraw-Hill.

McSweeney, B. (2002). The essentials of scholarship: A reply to Geert Hofstede. Human Relations, 55(11), 1363-1372. 

Orr, L. M., & Hauser, W. J. (2008). A re-inquiry of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions: A call for 21st century cross-cultural research. Marketing Management Journal, 18(2), 1-19.