Working Across Cultures – An Analysis of Data from Hofstede

Working across cultures has become the norm across most sectors of the economy, across the span of our lives, and in our social-justice organizations.  Many (all?) conflicts have cross-cultural dimensions, with globalization bringing people from different cultures into contact much more than in the past.

But the notion of “culture” is contested and hard to define.  And definitions themselves can lead us to lose our understanding of the great variability of culture in any given human context.  For example, we routinely underestimate variability within our own culture, and overestimate variability across cultures… (1)

Still, models and frameworks can be helpful starting points.  The most well-known framework for understanding culture is Hofstede’s “dimensions”(2):

  • Power distance – “… the extent to which the less powerful members oforganizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.”
  • Uncertainty Avoidance – “… is not the same as risk avoidance; it deals with a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.”
  • Individualism – “… Individualism on the one side versus its opposite, Collectivism, as a societal, not an individual characteristic, is the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups.”
  • Masculinity – Femininity – “… Masculinity versus its opposite, Femininity, again as a societal, not as an individual characteristic, refers to the distribution of values between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society…”
  • Long-Term vs. Short-Term Orientation: “… Values found at (the long-term) pole were perseverance, thrift, ordering relationships by status, and having a sense of shame; values at the opposite, short term pole were reciprocating social obligations, respect for tradition, protecting one’s ‘face’, and personal steadiness and stability…”
  • Indulgence versus Restraint – “… the sixth Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.”

Hofstede has gathered data for these six “Dimensions” across nearly 100 countries, with results available in his publications and via several websites.

I recently wondered if Hofstede’s data could be analyzed to provide indications of which pairs of countries are closest, and most different in terms of their national culture; and which pairs might, therefore, be least, or most, likely to find themselves in conflict.

To start, I took his results for the 80 countries where I could find data for all six “Dimensions”.  I compared each “Dimension” for each of the 6,241 pairs of countries, measuring the absolute value of different for each “Dimension”.  (By the way, this is why we have spreadsheets!)

The results are interesting, somewhat as expected, but still there are some surprises:

  • The country with the greatest overall cultural difference with all other countries is Denmark.  That is, when comparing Denmark with each of the other 79 countries, summing differences between Denmark’s six “Dimensions” and those of each of the other 79 countries, the result shows that Denmark is the most different in aggregate.  The other nine of the top ten countries with the greatest aggregate incompatibility across the range of other countries are:
    • Japan;
    • Sweden;
    • Slovakia;
    • Latvia;
    • United Kingdom;
    • Venezuela;
    • Netherlands;
    • China;
    • Cape Verde.
  • The flip side: the country which has the greater overall aggregate cultural compatibility with all other countries is Brazil.  The other nine of the top ten countries with the greatest challenges working across the range of other countries are:
    • Zambia;
    • Turkey;
    • Thailand;
    • Tanzania;
    • Spain;
    • Libya;
    • Jordan;
    • Iran;
    • Croatia.

(Note: it’s not that Denmark’s culture is the most difficult to work with, or that Brazil’s is the easiest.  Rather, when looking at 79 other countries across the world, Brazil’s “Dimensions” are, overall, most similar across the range of pairs, and Denmark’s most different.)

On a more micro level, some pairs of countries are more compatible and some are more incompatible.  The top ten most-compatible pairs, using Hofstede’s “Dimensions”, are:

  • Australia – USA;
  • Brazil – Turkey;
  • Estonia – Lithuania;
  • Romania – Serbia;
  • Tanzania – Zambia;
  • Canada – New Zealand;
  • Canada – USA;
  • Iceland – Norway;
  • Romania – Turkey;
  • Spain – Turkey.

And the top ten least-compatible pairs of countries, are:

  • Denmark – Albania;
  • Denmark – Iraq;
  • Denmark – Russia;
  • Denmark – Slovakia;
  • Sweden – Albania;
  • Sweden – Iraq;
  • Cape Verde – Hungary;
  • Estonia – Venezuela;
  • Latvia – Venezuela;
  • Lithuania – Venezuela.

Of course, as I said earlier, these numbers greatly simplify (and certainly homogenize) our view of “national culture” and we should not draw conclusions simply from the numbers.  They point us towards further analysis – in productive or misleading ways.

Still, I’m a bit surprised at some of the results.  For example, Denmark’s results seem strange to me.  And I wouldn’t have guessed how strongly Turkey seems to be compatible with a range of other cultures – perhaps my own lack of experience is showing here?!

Other results seem to confirm my own experience – as a (globe-trotting) American, my (long and happy) experience working with Aussies and Canadians is consistent with the analysis.  And certainly I would have thought that Brazil, with its multi-cultural makeup, would be compatible with many other cultures…

Interesting?  I invite comments…


(1) Avouch, K. (2003).  Type I and Type II Errors in Culturally Sensitive Conflict Resolution Practice.  Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 20 (3).

(2) Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).