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Understanding Cultural Dynamics and Cross-

Cultural Communication

We all belong to an entire collection of cultures, which includes, national cultures,
subcultures (based on regions, tribes etc), organizational or corporate cultures, industry
cultures, professional or functional cultures. For that reason, culture can be defined as a
shared system of values, beliefs, and attitudes. It affects our own actions and the way we
distinguish the actions of others. Culture is not a product of a single individual’s
personality, nor does it usually change significantly from one generation to the next.
Various descriptions have been used to portray the process of understanding various
layers of culture:
1) Culture is an iceberg, of which we see only the visible tip, also called as explicit
culture. Explicit culture represented by artifacts and products, such as language, food,
artistic expression, behavior and lifestyle (pace, public display of emotions, noise,
physical contact, work ethics etc).
2) Culture is an onion, with layers that must be peeled away to reach the core of
implicit culture, the universal truths of the culture.
3) Culture is a mirror image, in which the values (what we would like to do, how we
would prefer to see ourselves) and norms (what we know we should do) are not same but
are transposed and sometimes opposite.
To be successful within an organization and in all societies in which the global
organization operates HR professionals must understand the complication of culture and
the probable effect of cultural forces on the execution of global strategies and the
development of local tactical HR practices. Being global requires an act of imagination –
being able to see the view from inside another person’s culture and using that
consciousness to create solutions and bridges.
There may be multiple types of culture in a global organization and the distances between
these cultures can create conflicts that will impede with the organization’s ability to
execute its global strategic plan. In this write-up we will try to understand various types
of culture, analyze the research work done in this domain and effect of various cultures
within team.
Complexities involved in Cross-Cultural Communication
The main and most important key to effectual cross-cultural communication is
knowledge. It is extremely essential that people understand the probable problems of
cross-cultural communication, and makes a huge cognizant effort to overcome these
problems. Also, it is important to assume that one’s efforts will not always be successful,
and adjust one’s behavior aptly.
A lot of people always assume that there is a momentous possibility that cultural
differences are the cause of communication problems. They should always be willing to
be tolerant and pardoning, rather than intimidating and hostile, if problems develop. One
should respond bit by bit and cautiously in cross-cultural exchanges, not jumping to the
conclusion that you know what is being thought and said.
William Ury in his paper advised that in case of any heated divergence one should stop,
listen, and think, or as he puts it “go to the balcony” when the situation gets stressed. By
this he means to withdraw from the situation, step back, and reflect on what is going on
before you act. This helps in cross cultural communication as well. When things seem to
be going faultily, stop or slow down and think. What could be going on here? Is it
possible I misinterpreted what they said, or they misinterpreted me? Often delusion is the
source of the crisis.
Reflective Listening is one of the key ingredients in cross-cultural communication.
Reflective Listening is used a lot to check out the meaning of what someone says – by
repeating back what you think you have heard. You are then able to substantiate that you
understand what has been said accurately. This is as helpful as many times words and
even gestures are used differently between languages or cultural groups.
Often mediators who are familiar with both cultures can be cooperative in cross-cultural
communication situations. They can help in translating both the matter and the way of
what is said. For instance, they can tone down strong statements that would be considered
unsuitable in one culture but not in another, before they are shared with people from a
culture that does not talk together in such a strong way. They can also correct the timing
of what is said and what does it implies. Some cultures move quickly to the reference or
direct to the subject; others talk about other things long enough to set up rapport or a
relationship with the other person. If discussion on the principal topic begins too soon,
the group that needs a “warm up” first will feel uncomfortable. A mediator or
intermediary who understands this can give details about problem, and make apt
procedural adjustments.
Sometimes mediators can also make the communication a bit more difficult. If a mediator
is the same culture or nationality as one of the disputants, but not the other, this gives the
facade of prejudice, even when none exists. Even when prejudice is not intended, it is
common for mediators to be more sympathetic or more understanding of the person who
is of his or her own culture, simply because they understand them better. Yet when the
mediator is of a third cultural group, the prospective for cross-cultural misunderstandings
increases further. In such cases engaging in extra discussions about the process and the
manner of carrying out the discussions is appropriate, as is extra time for confirming and
re-confirming understandings at every step in the conversation or negotiation process.
Types of Cultures – Classifications by Geert Hofstede and Trompenaars’ and

Geert Hofstede’s Dimensions of Culture

Geert Hofstede defined national culture as the set of collective beliefs and values that
distinguish people of one nationality from those of another. In his original work, Hofstede
identified four important dimensions in national culture:
1) Uncertainty Avoidance
2) Power Distance
3) Individualism versus Collectivism
4) Masculinity versus Femininity
Later he added another cultural dimension, “Confucian dynamism”, which captures the
difference between a long-term and short-term orientation.
1) Uncertainty Avoidance
This dimension refers to the extent to which people feel comfortable when they are
exposed to an ambiguous or uncertain situation. People in a low uncertainty avoidance
society are more willing to take risks and appreciate flexibility and informality in the
workplace. On the contrary, people in a high uncertainty avoidance society tend to be risk
averse and favor rigid formal decision-making processes in the workplace.
Under high uncertainty avoidance:
a) Security is a strong motivator relative to achievement or self-fulfillment.
b) Order and predictability are paramount.
c) Rules are important and must be obeyed to avoid chaos.
d) Communication is direct and unequivocal to avoid confusion (Often this directness
in high uncertainty avoidance countries is mistaken for rudeness).
In low uncertainty avoidance societies, managers are allowed to exercise more latitude
and discretion in their decision making rather than relying on rigid internal rules and
Countries that exhibits the culture of high uncertainty avoidance: Germany, Spain,
Portugal, Turkey, South Korea, Greece, Portugal, Latin America, Belgium, Japan, France
Countries that exhibits the culture of low uncertainty avoidance: the United States,
Malaysia, India, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Denmark, Sweden, Hong Kong
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A compensation specialist advises a Singapore company to
adopt a different compensation plan for its sales force in Japan. Unlike the home sales
force, which has low base pay and high commissions, the Japanese sales representatives
will receive high base pay and lower commissions.
B) Impact on Managed: Before beginning a project, a French employee of a global
non-profit organization asks copious questions to ensure perfect understanding of the
manager’s expectations.
Impact on Compensation Policies and Practices –
In countries that are Low on uncertainty avoidance, one can find Performance-based (at
risk) pay; external equity focus; flexibility; broad salary banding (few pay grades). On the
other side, countries that are high on uncertainty avoidance shows limited use of
performance-based pay; pay consistency and predictability.
2) Power Distance
Power distance refers to the extent that people have an equal distribution of power.
In a large power distance culture, power is concentrated at the top in the hands of
relatively few people whereas people at the bottom are subject to decisions and
instructions given by superiors. Conversely, in a small power distance culture, power is
equally distributed among the members of the society. It is important to note that the
particular predominant perspective on power distance is held and reinforced by most
members of the society.
Managers in high power distance societies tend to believe in giving subordinates detailed
instructions with little room for interpretation. Subordinates are supposed to respect the
authority and superiority of upper management.
The “mechanistic characteristics” of high power distance cultures, such as
a) inequality among the members in the society,
b) lack of free communication across different levels of the hierarchy, and
c) centralized control
…can stifle employee creativity and new ideas.
On the contrary, the “organic characteristics” of low power distance cultures, such as
a) lack of hierarchical authority, and
b) less centralization
…tends to promote employee interaction, lateral communication and less emphasis on the
Countries that exhibit the culture of high power distance: Malaysia, Latin America,
Middle East, China, Mexico, Panama, Indonesia, and India
Countries that exhibit the culture of low power distance: Austria, Australia, New
Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Israel, Scandinavian Countries, the United Kingdom, and the
United States
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: Two headquarters’ managers demonstrate the effects of their
cultures. A Saudi manager remains aloof from subordinates, tends to retain significant
projects rather than delegating them and expects subordinates to step forward quickly to
assume blame when things go wrong. On the other hand, a Danish manager enjoys
sharing assignments and credit with subordinates but always assumes blame for any
B) Impact on Managed: A British training specialist goes to work for a Malaysian
domestic company. He cannot understand why his attempts to offer suggestions are
coldly received and why he is receiving poor performance reviews.
Impact on Compensation Policies and Practices –
In countries or cultures that emphasizes on low power distance, one can observe
employee participation and involvement in reward determination and distribution
techniques; profit sharing; gain sharing etc. On the other hand, in cultures with where
high power distance dominates, no employee participation/involvement will be noted.
One can note status distinctions reinforced by pay and rewards.
3) Individualism versus collectivism
Individualism means that people seek and protect their own interests over the common
goal of the society and their role in the society.
In an individualist culture, people are comfortable with having the authority to make a
decision based on what the individual thinks is best. On the other hand, in collectivistic
culture, people tend to belong to groups and look after each other in exchange for loyalty.
a) In individualistic societies, employees are provided with a great deal of personal
freedom and autonomy. On the other hand, collective cultures do not usually allow the
same amount of freedom and independence necessary for organizational members to
think creatively and thereby, fail to cultivate an environment that fosters an innovative
b) While an individualist culture tends to emphasize individual merit or achievement,
collectivistic culture measures contributions to teamwork and group achievement.
c) Collective cultures put a great deal of pressure on their members to conform to one
another without their being aware of it. The overwhelming and unconscious pressure for
conformity and uniformity in collective cultures does not cultivate an environment for
diversity and provides less room for people to deviate from established norms, thus
impeding the innovation process.
Countries that exhibit individualism culture: Sweden, the United States, Canada, the
United Kingdom, Australia, France, Italy, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium
Countries that exhibit collectivism culture: Ecuador, Colombia, Hong Kong, Latin
America, Taiwan, Pakistan, Indonesia, South Korea, China,
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A U.S. manager in a Latin American country plans to
promote an individual based on her work on an important project. Other managers
explain that they use a broader range of factors in this decision, including evidence of
B) Impact on Managed: The performance of a South Korean sales force improves
dramatically when incentives are changed from individual rewards to team bonuses.
Impact on Compensation Policies and Practices –
In collectivism cultures, companies should emphasize on group-based contingent
rewards; non-economic rewards that satisfy recognition needs with minimal individual
distinction. In individualistic cultures, companies pay more attention on individual-based
contingent rewards; individual praise and recognition.
4) Masculinity versus Femininity
Masculine Culture
Characteristics of masculine culture:
a) A masculine culture is basically a performance-driven society where rewards and
recognition for performance are the primary motivational factors for achievement.
b) In masculine cultures some major innovations are simply the outcome of financial
rewards, prestige and a sense of accomplishment.
c) In societies that are dominated by masculine culture, people are supposed to be
competitive, ambitious, and assertive and risk taking, in order to achieve their goals. This
type of culture tends to give the utmost respect and admiration to the successful achiever
who fulfills his or her ambition and demonstrates assertiveness and willingness to take
risks in order to achieve goals.
Feminine Culture
Characteristics of feminine culture:
a) In feminine cultures, people tend to emphasize the quality of the “whole” life rather
than money, success and social status, which are easier to quantify.
b) Organizations with a feminine culture are not as competitive as those with a
masculine culture, because the former places higher priority on concern for others and
little distinction is made between men and women in the same position.
Countries that exhibit Masculine culture: Switzerland, the United States, the United
Kingdom, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Venezuela, Italy
Countries that exhibit Feminine culture: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden,
Scandinavian Countries, Netherlands, Chile, Thailand
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A Swedish company promotes employee development
practices such as coaching and mentoring that emphasize providing empathy and support.
A manager in Japan has trouble performing this part of job.
B) Impact on Managed: An HR department in Austria has been instructed by its
Danish headquarters to implement a new work-life balance program. They try, but the
program is not well accepted or implemented locally.
Impact on Compensation Policies and Practices –
In companies that exhibit feminine culture, one can note that strong emphasis being
placed on social benefits; quality of work life; work-life balance; job security; emphasis
on sharing versus competing for rewards. Masculine cultures emphasizes on
performance-based pay; competition in pay, promotion and recognition.
5) Confucian Dynamism (or long-term versus short-term orientation)
Using a different survey instrument called the “Chinese Value Survey (CVS), Hofstede
and Bond identified a new cultural dimension, “long-term verses short-term orientation”.
In their analysis they found that societies with long-term orientation show following
a) Adaption of tradition to the modern context
b) High savings ratio driven by thrift
c) Patience and perseverance toward slow results and
d) Concern with respecting the demand of virtue
On the other hand, societies with short-term orientations exhibit the following
a) Respect for traditions
b) Lower savings rates
c) Quick result orientation, and
d) Concern with possessing the truth
Confucian dynamism may reflect a society’s search for virtue rather than truth. Along
with the different proclivity toward uncertainty avoidance, short-term versus long-term
orientation also has been identified as a main source of conflict resulting in decreased
performance in international joint-ventures.
Countries that exhibit long-term orientation: China, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, India
Countries that exhibit short-term orientation: West Africa, Philippines, Norway, the
United Kingdom, the United States
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A Chinese manager faced with promoting one of two Nigerian
supervisors chooses the one with the most tenure and best work attendance.
B) Impact on Managed: A Nigerian supervisor cannot understand why he’s been
passed over for promotion in his Chinese-owned company, though he is well placed in
this community and has given his manager appropriate gifts.
Trompenaars’ and Hampden-Turner’s cultural factors
Adopting Parson’s five relational orientations as their starting point, Trompenaar and
Hampden-Turner identified SEVEN important cultural dimensions. They viewed culture
mainly as the way in which a group of people solves problems and reconciles dilemmas.
1) Universalism versus Particularism
Universalism is a belief that there exists only a single management principle that should
be applied to all situations. People from universalistic cultures tend to believe that their
way of doing business or managing people is the universal one and the best way and
therefore should be adopted by all other countries. Conversely, particularistic cultures
highlight the peculiarity and distinctiveness of a country’s culture that is different from
those of other countries. Both at a country and individual levels, the emphasis is on
building long-term relationships and being sensitive and responsive to the unique
circumstances surrounding that relationship.
Some characteristic features:
a) Unlike people in a universalistic culture, people in a particularistic culture assume
that local circumstances determine the way of doing business in different countries.
b) People from universalistic cultures also tend to believe in absolute justice and truth
and extend great resources to their protection.
c) Those high in universalism take moral principles very seriously because they
recognize the existence of a unified approach to business. In contrast, people in
particularistic cultures tend to interpret justice or moral convictions in a more flexible
manner, depending on the local and current circumstances.
Countries that exhibit universalistic cultures: Switzerland, Canada, the United States,
the United Kingdom, Sweden
Countries that exhibit particularistic cultures: Venezuela, Korea, Russia, China,
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A Swiss manager insists that an employee be fired for
absenteeism, although the employee has been caring for sick parents and has been
making up for absences by working extra hours at home.
B) Impact on Managed: An HR manager in Venezuela has been interpreting the U.S.
parent company’s rules flexibly to accommodate local culture but now faces a negative
performance review by headquarters senior managers.
2) Specific versus Diffuse Cultures
In specific cultures, people clearly separate public space from private space. Furthermore,
in specific cultures the size of public space is relatively large compare to private or
personal space and is greatly compartmentalized. In other words, people in a specific
culture tend to be very friendly and willing to open their public space to other people with
whom they do not have an acquaintance and admit them into a segregated compartment
with a limited personal commitment. On the contrary, in diffuse cultures, the distinction
between private and public spaces is rather unclear and blurry. Everything is related and
business is just another form of social interaction. Business relationships are expected to
be enduring and spill over into personal relationships and vice versa.
Some characteristic features:
a) Specific cultures tend to compartmentalize public and private life into separate
roles, where one role does not influence another. However, in a diffuse culture roles tend
to extend beyond their official boundaries. It is no wonder that diffuse cultures tend to
have greater difficulty with role confusion.
b) For diffuse cultures the size of public space is almost equal to that of private space.
Therefore, in diffuse cultures, people tend to reserve even their public space for those
whom they are familiar with, because accepting the entry of unknown people could also
mean the uncomfortable opening of their private space.
Countries that exhibit specific cultures: Sweden, Netherlands, the United Kingdom,
Countries that exhibit diffuse cultures: China, Nigeria, Kuwait, and Singapore
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A manager of a Venezuelan energy company is cool to a
young employee’s request for mentorship until a common friend makes the request.
B) Impact on Managed: A British manager brought in to work for a Singapore MNC
may have hurt his advancement by repeatedly evading the boss’s invitations to social
gathering in favor of spending time with other expatriates.
3) Achievement versus Ascription Cultures
Achievement cultures value personal competency and an outcome resulting from
individual hard work. What matters most in an achievement culture is an objective track
record of individual accomplishment. In contrast, an ascription culture means that people
are conferred a certain status based on specific characteristics such as title, position, age
and profession. People in an ascription culture value personal connections and family
background more than the individual’s qualifications. They expect those in authority to
act in accordance with the roles ascribed to them by fate or a divine power; actual
performance and results are less important. Appearance accorded by title and status is
more important than substance driven by individual qualification.
In an ascription culture, a high-trust relationship is based on membership of a common
family, province or class of graduates. These represent preexisting relationships.
Countries that exhibit achievement cultures: the United States, Australia, Canada, the
United Kingdom, Netherlands
Countries that exhibit ascription cultures: Egypt, Argentina, Czech Republic, Korea,
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A British manager supervising a Czech office senses hostility
among the office employees after promoting a young worker. They obviously disagreed
with the choice.
B) Impact on Managed: An ambitious young Australian who has struggled to
educate and establish herself is baffled by her Egyptian managers, who seem more
impressed with the connections of her Egyptian team members than with her
4) Individualism versus Communitarianism
Individualism refers to the culture that emphasizes the interests of self or of his/her own
immediate family. Individualism is about the rights of the individual. It seeks to let each
person grow or fail on their own, and sees group-focus as denuding the individual of their
inalienable rights.
In contrast, communitarianism, a synonym for collectivism, emphasis group interests
before individual interests and seeking group consensus in decision making. It seeks to
put the family, group, company and country before the individual. It sees individualism as
selfish and short-sighted.
Countries that exhibits individualistic cultures: Israel, Canada, the United States,
Countries that exhibits communitarian cultures: Egypt, Mexico, India, Japan, France
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A Japanese team leader has trouble creating harmony within
a global design team composed of Americans and Mexicans.
B) Impact on Managed: An Indian employee assigned to a Canadian office is
perplexed by the competition among project teams that the office’s managers try to
5) Affective versus Neutral Culture
People in affective or emotional cultures are not hesitant to reveal their innermost
feelings whereas people in neutral cultures tend to control their emotions carefully and
maintain their composure.
People in neutral cultures may consider the behaviors of people from affective cultures
immature; people from affective cultures may view the stoic behaviors of people from
neutral cultures as insincere and deceiving. This perception may cause problems during
cross-cultural negotiations between managers from affective and neutral cultures.
Countries that exhibits neutral cultures: Ethiopia, Japan, Hong Kong, China, India
Countries that exhibits affective cultures: Kuwait, Egypt, Spain, Russia, Argentina
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A Spanish manager of a Japanese electronics subsidiary is
corrected gently by visiting Japanese managers for expressing anger at a violation of
clean-room rules.
B) Impact on Managed: A Russian international assignee working for a Hong Kong
real estate firm is convinced that her manager doesn’t like her. Her manager never seems
open or relaxed when meeting with her.
6) Time as sequence vs. Time as synchronization
A mono-chronic, or sequential, approach to time means that people use time in a linear
way. Time is perceived as being a tangible asset almost like money. In this type of
culture, punctuality is a virtue and people need to always keep schedules. At the same
time, they tend to make a clear distinction between work and pleasure. People may be
relaxed only during their leisure time, while they concentrate on assigned tasks only
during working hours.
In contrast, a poly-chronic, or a synchronous, approach to time suggests that people use
time in a circular way. People in this cultures tend to have a more flexible view about
time and can handle multiple agendas at the same time. They also consider that
maintaining human relations is more important than keeping schedules. Accordingly, they
do not clearly separate their work from pleasure and do not mind mixing them.
Countries that exhibit sequential cultures: the United States, Japan, Netherlands
Countries that exhibit synchronic cultures: France, Spain, Belgium
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A Japanese project team leader is irritated and doesn’t know
what to do with a French team member who is continually late to team meetings.
B) Impact on Managed: A Belgian work unit thinks it’s unreasonable and arrogant
when the U.S. headquarters cancels a traditional social ritual in order to meet a looming
7) Inner-directed versus Outer-directed
This cultural dimension concerns how people in a society orient themselves to nature.
First, people can think that human beings are supposed to dominate nature. Second, some
people believe that they need to live in harmony with nature. A third and final orientation
toward nature is a sense of subjugation to nature. In other words, human being cannot and
should not master nature because a Supreme Being or supernatural force is supposed to
govern individual fate and destiny.
Inner-directed (or also called as future oriented culture) is about thinking and personal
judgment, ‘in our heads’. It assumes that thinking is the most powerful tool and that
considered ideas and intuitive approaches are the best way. People in this culture tend to
believe that they can improve their situations and even influence nature as a result of their
own actions and ideas.
In contrast, Outer-directed (or also called as past oriented culture) is seeking data in the
outer world. It assumes that we live in the ‘real world’ and that is where we should look
for our information and decisions. People in this culture do not believe that individual
actions and ideas can change the will of a supreme being, who is supposed to decree what
will happen in future.
Countries that exhibit inner-directed cultures: Israel, Norway, the United States, the
United Kingdom, France
Countries that exhibit outer-directed cultures: Venezuela, China, Russia, Kuwait,
From Organization’s Perspective –
A) Impact on Manager: A British company has outsourced design of a component to
a Russian firm. The British expect a design that ensures top performance across the full
range of criteria and the latest technology. The Russians argue that the British should
think more about what their end customers really require.
B) Impact on Managed: A Norwegian employee assumes that if he works hard
enough, he will be rewarded with a promotion.
Understanding cultural differences is critical for the success of an organization in global
arena because there are roles played by culture that influences talent management
strategies and practices at workplace. In this write-up we have examined several
important dimensions of various cultures for gaining insights and understanding the
cultures of employees that staff our organizations domestically and overseas. We hope
that this write-up will be of some use to HR professionals that are managing and
developing talents at global stage.
References –
1. International Human Resource Management – A Multinational Company
Perspective, By – Monir H. Tayeb
2. Aligning Human Resources and Business Strategy, By – Linda Holbeche
3. Managing a Global Workforce, By – Charles M. Vance and Yongsun Paik