Cross-cultural theories

„If our world is to become a global village, the need for better understanding and communication among people from different cultures is crucial”

Paul R. Kimmel

What is culture? 

Many authors and researchers quote Geert Hofstede when defining culture. His definition dates from 1980, and used the same definition in the revised edition in 2010. According to him, culture is the collective mental programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another. It is a collective phenomenon, because it is at least partly shared with people who live or lived within the same social environment, which is where it was learned. Culture is learned, not inherited. It derives from one’s social environment, not from one’s genes. Culture should be distinguished from human nature on one side, and from an individual’s personality on the other (Hofstede-Minkov, 2010, p. 11):


Culture is not the same as identity. As seen in Hofstede’s “culture onion”, it is composed by values – the deepest layer – and rituals, heroes and symbols, which are subsumed under the term practices (Hofstede, 2001, p. 10). These are the visible layers of culture, often represented as the top of the cultural iceberg. According to many theorists and researchers, Hofstede is the founder of the term mental programming, but Kim is quoting Cronen, Chen&Pierce, saying that the cultural factors are programmed in our minds since early childhood, determining our values, way of thinking, attitude and behavior (Kim, 1988, 46).

Trompenaars’s model regarding the layers of culture distinguishes the explicit and implicit layer, the basic idea being the same. He says that “culture is the way in which a group of people solve problems” (Trompenaars, 1993, p. 6).

Both Hofstede and Trompenaars made the conclusions and designed the models based on researches made on multinational companies and organizations. The research methodology they used were questionnaires and interviews, the subjects being the employees and managers of the companies.

Hofstede – layers of culture

As almost everyone belongs to a number of different groups and categories of people at the same time, people unavoidably carry several layers of mental programming within themselves, corresponding to different levels of culture. Trompenaars and Lewis also talk about national and organizational culture, while Hofstede presents the following types of culture:

  • a national level according to one’s country ( or countries for people who migrated during their lifetime);
  • a regional and/or ethnic and/or religious and/or linguistic affiliation level, as most nations are composed of culturally different regions and/ or ethnic and/or religious and/or language groups;
  • a gender level, according to whether a person was born as a girl or as a boy;
  • a generation level, which separates grandparents from parents from children;
  • a social class level, associated with educational opportunities and with a person’s occupation or profession;
  • for those who are employed, an organizational or corporate level according to the way employees have been socialized by their work organization.

Understanding cultural differences

Now, that we understood what is culture, let’s see what cultural diversity is by presenting the main models that classify the cultural differences. In order to understand other cultures, it is very important to identify and classify them. This may give the perception that it can lead to stereotyping, but as Richard Lewis also concludes, after the encounter with many cultures, the different classifications and cultural characteristics are representative. Even if people differ in personality, environment, education, the collective programming in the family and society has a strong influence on the individual’s way of thinking and behavior. Keeping this in mind, a person can avoid frustrations and embarrassing situations when working or doing business with people with different cultural backgrounds.

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions

  • power distance (from small to large )
  • collectivism versus individualism
  • femininity versus masculinity
  • uncertainty avoidance (from weak to strong).
  • long-term orientation in life to a short-term orientation (recently added).

Each of these terms existed already in some part of the social sciences, and they seemed to apply reasonably well to the basic problem area each dimension stands for. Together they form a five-dimensional (5-D) model of differences among national cultures. Each country in this model is characterized by a score on each of the five dimensions (Hofstede, 2010, p.29).

Trompenaars – the basis of cultural differences in relationship with people

As defined above, Trompenaars said that culture is the way people solve problems. Based on the solutions each culture chooses to certain problems, he defined the following dimensions (Trompenaars, 1993, p. 8-10):

Universalism versus particularism – The first dimension defines how people judge the behaviors of their colleagues. People from universalistic cultures focus more on rules, are more precise when defining contracts and tend to define global standards for company policies and human resources practices. Within more particularistic national cultures, the focus is more on the relationships; contracts can be adapted to satisfy new requirements in specific situations and local variations of company and human resources policies are created to adapt to different requirements.

Individualism versus collectivism – This dimension classifies countries according to the balance between the individual and group interests. Generally, team members with individualist mindsets see the improvements to their groups as the means to achieve their own objectives. By contrast, the team members from communitarian cultures see the improvements to individual capacities as a step towards the group prosperity.

Neutral versus emotional – According to Trompenaars, people from neutral cultures admire cool and self-possessed conducts and control their feelings, which can suddenly explode during stressful periods. When working with stakeholders from neutral countries you may consider avoiding warm, expressive or enthusiastic behaviors, prepare beforehand, concentrate on the topics being discussed and look carefully for small cues showing that the person is angry or pleased. People from cultures high on affectivity use all forms of gesturing, smiling and body language to openly voice their feelings, and admire heated, vital and animated expressions.

Specific versus diffuse – Trompenaars researched differences in how people engage colleagues in specific or multiple areas of their lives, classifying the results into two groups: people from more specific-oriented cultures tend to keep private and business agendas separate, having a completely different relation of authority in each social group. In diffuse-oriented countries, the authority level at work can reflect into social areas, and employees can adopt a subordinated attitude when meeting their managers outside office hours.

Achievement versus ascription – This dimension, presented in Trompenaars studies, is very similar to Hofstede’s power distance concept. People from achievement-oriented countries respect their colleagues based on previous achievements and the demonstration of knowledge, and show their job titles only when relevant. On the other hand, people from ascription-oriented cultures use their titles extensively and usually respect their superiors in hierarchy.

Attitudes to time – Trompenaars identified that different cultures assign diverse meanings to the past, present and future. People in past-oriented cultures tend to show respect for ancestors and older people and frequently put things in a traditional or historic context. People in present-oriented cultures enjoy the activities of the moment and present relationships. People from future-oriented cultures enjoy discussing prospects, potentials and future achievement.

Attitudes to the environment – Trompenaars shows how people from different countries relate to their natural environment and changes. Global project stakeholders from internal-oriented cultures may show a more dominant attitude, focus on their own functions and groups and be uncomfortable in change situations. Stakeholders from external-oriented cultures are generally more flexible and willing to compromise, valuing harmony and focusing on their colleagues, being more comfortable with change.

Trompenaars – finite and infinite game

This genius theory was developed by Trompenaars at the end of the 90s, also by a quantitative research conducted in companies in 58 countries, among 34.000 middle and senior managers, and it is still applicable nowadays. The rapid economic development of East Asian tiger economies made him research the reasons behind the fast GDP growth and economic prosperity in these countries, based on the seven cultural dimensions presented above. They realized that this development is happening due to the Eastern way of working, thinking and values, in one word, their culture. The symbols of finite and infinite game represent the competitive and profit-oriented Western societies versus the cyclic, collaborative, improvement and market share oriented Eastern players.

Table 2.1 summarizes the further explained differences (Trompenaars, 1997, p. 30, adapted from James P. Carse):

Finite Game Infinite Game
The purpose is to win The purpose is to improve the game
Winners exclude losers Winners teach losers better plays
Improves trough the fittest surviving Improves trough game evolving
Winner-takes-all Winning widely shared
Aims are identical Aims are divers
Relative simplicity Relative complexity
Rules fixed in advance Rules changed by agreement
Rules resemble debating contests Rules resemble grammar of original utterances
Compete for mature markets Grow new markets
Short term decisive contests Long term

Edward T. Hall cultural dimensions

 Factor  High-context culture
 Low-context culture
Overtness of messages Many covert and implicit messages, with use of metaphor and reading between the lines. Many overt and explicit messages that are simple and clear.
 Locus of control and attribution for failure Inner locus of control and personal acceptance for
 Outer locus of control and blame of others for failure
 Use of non-verbal communication  Much nonverbal communication More focus on verbal communication than body language
Expression of reaction Reserved, inward reactions Visible, external, outward reaction
Cohesion and separation of groups Strong diistinction  between ingroup and outgroup. Strong  sense of family. Flexible and open grouping patterns, changing as needed
 People bonds Strong people bonds with affiliation to family and community Fragile bonds between people with little sense of loyalty.
Level of commitment to relationships  High commitment to long-term relationships.
Relationship more important than task.
 Low commitment to relationship. Task more important than relationships.
Flexibility of time Time is open and flexible.
Process is more important than product
Time is highly organized.
Product is more important than process


Richard D. Lewis – cultural types

After summarizing the previous theories, Lewis concludes with creating a new one, that classifies countries and their culture in three different dimensions. He refers to his model and book as a comprehensive and handy way of understanding and identifying different cultures. The LMR model depends on age, profession and field of study, which influences the way people change their behavior and communication style (Lewis, 2005, p. 41).


Culture and organizations

Since the human element gain importance in the organizational theories, the culture started to play a very important role. Hofstede says “that organizations are symbolic entities; they function according to implicit models according to the minds of their members, and these models are culturally determined.” (Hofstede, 2010, p. 375). Trompenaars defines organizations similarly, taking the culture into consideration: “the organization is a subjective construct and its employees will give meaning to their environment based on their own particular cultural programming.” As Lewis also says, the concept organization has different meanings for different cultures.

Organizational culture

Trompenaars points that the organizational culture is shaped by the cultural preferences of leaders and employees. He says that that the main aspects of organizational structure that determine corporate culture are the general relationship between employees and their organization, the authority system, and the general views of employees about the organization’s destiny, purpose and their role in this (Trompenaars, 1993, p. 138). Both Trompenaars and Hofstede developed organizational models:

Hofstede organizational culture types

  • The contest model (`winner takes all´): Competitive Anglo-Saxon cultures with low power distance, high individualism and masculinity, and fairly low scores on uncertainty avoidance. Examples: Australia, New Zealand, UK and USA.
  • The network model (consensus): Highly individualistic, `feminine´ societies with low power distance like Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Everyone is supposed to be involved in decision-making.
  • The organization as a family (loyalty and hierarchy): Found in societies that score high on power distance and collectivism and have powerful in-groups and paternalistic leaders. Examples: China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore.
  • The pyramidal organization (loyalty, hierarchy and implicit order): Found in collective societies with large power distance and uncertainty avoidance. Examples: much of Latin America (especially Brazil), Greece, Portugal, Russia and Thailand.
  • The solar system (hierarchy and an impersonal bureaucracy): Similar to the pyramid structure, but with greater individualism. Examples: Belgium, France, Northern Italy, Spain and French speaking Switzerland.
  • The well-oiled machine (order): Found in societies with low power distance and high uncertainty avoidance, carefully balanced procedures and rules, not much hierarchy. Examples: Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, German speaking Switzerland.


Variables Family Eiffel Tower Guided Missile Incubator
Relationship between employees Diffuse relationships to organic whole to which one is bonded Specific role in mechanical system of required interactions Specific tasks in cybernetic system targeted upon shared objectives Diffuse, spontaneous relationships growing out of shared creative process
Attitudes toward authority Status is ascribed to parent figures who are close and powerful Status is ascribed to superior roles, which are distant yet powerful Status is achieved by project group members who contribute to targeted goals Status is achieved by individuals exemplifying creativity and growth
Ways of thinking and learning Intuitive, holistic, lateral, and error-correcting Logical, analytical, vertical, and rationally efficient Problems centered, professional, practical, cross-disciplinary Process oriented, creative, an hoc, inspirational
Attitudes towards people Family members Human resources Specialists and experts Co-creators
Ways of changing “Father” changes course Change rules and procedures Shift aim as target moves Improvise and attune
Ways of motivating and rewarding Intrinsic satisfaction in being loved and respected Promote to greater position, larger role Pay or credit for performance and problems solved Participating in the process of creating new realities
Management style Management by subjectives Management by job description Management by objectives Management by enthusiasm
Criticism and conflict resolution Turn other cheeks, save others’ faces, do not lose power game Criticism is accusation of irrationalism unless there are procedures to arbitrate conflict Constructive task-related only, then admit error fast and correct Must improve creative idea, not negate it

Table: Organizational culture, Chapter 13, ppt., IBUS 681, Dr. Yang

Intercultural encounters and cultural shock

Intercultural or cross-cultural encounters exist since two people from different cultures met. Intercultural communication is simply the communication between people belonging to different cultures, while multiculturalism is the coexistence of different cultural identities in an existing cultural environment (Curtin-Gaither, 2008, 224). Curtin and Gaither also say that the cultural identity is not defined by the geographical origin. Many authors talk about the cultural diversity and multiculturalism as an advantage, which leads to intercultural cooperation. According to Hofstede, intercultural encounters does not automatically breed mutual understanding, language and discourse playing a crucial role in these interactions. Lewis developed different discourse models for different cultures, and he also explained how the members of these cultures think and use their discourse, especially in business meetings. In today’s’ globalized environment and market, the encounter with different cultures is inevitable, since the existence of multinational organizations, international partnerships, meetings, cooperation and training. But, as Lewis says, there are countries with good intercultural and adaptation skills and there are also countries that are not having the same intercultural skills. An important phenomenon occurred in a different cultural environment and during these encounters is the cultural shock. Many authors defined cultural shock, but in my opinion Kim has the most comprehensive one, since the stages presented in other theories are relevant, but cultural shock cannot be considered as a linear process. According to Kim, cultural shock is not a linearly and constantly adapting and changing phenomenon, but a constant and cyclic one, which, thanks to the “intercultural stress” situations develop intercultural, communication and adaptation skills through a constant development and learning process. While preferring to use this term instead of cultural shock, he “stress” is treated as a positive phenomenon of the adaptation process (Kim, 1988, 56).


A few books that I recommend to those who became interested in the topic:

  • Curtin, A. Patricia – Gaither, T. Kenn, International Public Relations: Negotiating Culture, Identity, and Power
  • Hoftede, Geert, Cultures and organizations : software of the mind : intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival
  • Kim, Young Yun, Communication and Cross-cultural Adaptation: An Integrative Theory
  • Kim, Young Yun, Beyond Cultural Identity
  • Lewis, Richard D., When cultures collide : leading across cultures
  • Trompenaars, Fons – Hampden-Turner, Charles, Mastering the infinite game: How East Asian values are transforming business practices
  • Trompenaars, Fons, Riding the waves of culture : understanding cultural diversity in business
  • Wood, Phil – Landry, Charles – The intercultural city: planning for diversity advantage

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