When talking about cultural differences I like using cultural dimensions as a starter to that conversation. Although there are both pros and cons of using them, and you need to use them wisely, there are many amazing advantages of using cultural dimensions when working across cultures.
Very briefly, a few words about the cultural dimensions as such.
You probably by now are familiar with Erin Meyer’s classification of dimensions as I am a big fan of her work within the field and have been presenting some of her finding in the recent posts. You can also read more detailed classification by Cultural Intelligence Center on my blog, where dimensions such as Power Distance, Universalism vs Particularism or Context have been mentioned. However, those models have actually derived from some older concepts. Other most classic dimensions concepts that you may find are ones by pioneers of the field Edward Hall or Geert Hofstede. And let’s make it clear, this is not by any means an exhaustive list of all the research that has been done in this field, just a couple of most famous researchers.
Most of the concepts assume that there is a number of dimensions, with two opposite ends, where each culture or society group is located at a certain point on the spectrum. You can then compare the cultures with each other on various dimensions. But why exactly is this useful? Is this not just pigeonholing people into a few categories?
One of the bigger challenges in the field of cross-cultural psychology and communication is that many people don’t realise how much influence the culture may have on people’s behaviours, teams effectiveness or ability to adapt to living abroad. Of course it’s not like we can just blame our cultures for everything. But we should acknowledge that our background does matter when interacting with people from different cultures. Also, we should be aware that certain behaviours are just easier to adapt to a new culture than others, depending for example on how much they are connected to values.
Using cultural dimensions as a way of increasing awareness among intercultural teams, managers or expats helps put their experiences into some frames that are more tangible. Which leads us to the next point.
Help begin a conversation
When you have a common framework with the terminology and descriptions behind it, it’s easier to start a dialogue about own experiences and group it into topics that arise in, for example, all team members’ lives or all family members’ lives. The fact that you have a common language to discuss this, makes the whole thing easier. It enables you to no longer speak to each other about some abstract concept of culture, general descriptions, but rather a tangible framework. As easy as that. It’s as if you suddenly began to speak the same language to each other.
Cultural dimensions also help reduce the complexity of how the culture is defined which makes them a great tool, applicable to many people’s lives. It’s no longer an academic concept of some generic, abstract entity, it becomes a tool that you can use to deal with various challenges you face when working across cultures.
It’s great for initial training of managers who manage teams globally. It’s especially important nowadays when a lot of the work is done remotely. Especially now we need to be aware of values commonly shared in cultures and behaviours that might derive from them. Intercultural intelligence, alongside many other skills, is essential for managers today and cultural dimensions help start the process of arranging knowledge and experiences in order to better understand themselves and their teams.
The dimensions are also in a similar way helpful for expats or expats-to-be in predicting potential challenges that they may face when moving abroad and preparing to deal with them. They also help understand the “new you” after moving abroad as well as sometimes unpredictable behaviours or reactions that you might face during the transition period.
Allow for comparison
And the last thought which to some extent adds to the points above – cultural dimensions allow comparing cultures. And I don’t mean it in a bad way. As much as they can be, they’re objective and based on a thorough research, so even though they of course operate on the population averages, they give us a general overview of the differences that we might see between people from two different cultures. It also allows emphasizing similarities, on which you can then build your relations with other cultures.
What’s extremely important when talking about cultural dimensions is that you can’t just take them for granted. These are not perfect tools, they don’t take into account individual differences between people and one theory doesn’t usually cover all aspects of culture. If you only stick to one concept in your work, you might miss out on some important information that were included in others.
Make sure you treat cultural dimensions as a tool to build awareness and help discuss your experiences with others, instead of taking the culture’s descriptions exactly as they are. Provided that you do that, there is a great chance that your cross-cultural relations either in a professional or private life will gain on quality.
Have you encountered cultural dimensions concepts before? What did you think of them? Did they help you in your cross-cultural work?