ABC of expat woman's life: D - Dimensions of culture

03 May 2011, by

"Don't be so Dutch!" That is what my mother told me one morning while having a Skype chat. Don't be so Dutch! What did she mean by that?

To put it in the right context, she was actually trying to persuade me to go and see the doctor. Stubborn as I am, I was strongly resistant to this idea as I "knew" what the doctor is going to tell me anyway: "Take paracetamol and rest for few days."

It made me think though: What does it mean to be Dutch or Polish? How can one separate different cultures when acting in more than one?

Working as an expat coach & counselor in an international environment revealed that it is extremely important to understand where people come from. The question that kept me busy for some time was "How come that certain cultures clash more with each other than others?" 

Cultural dimensions

In order to better understand how cultures differ, Geert Hofstede identified five main dimensions based on which you can compare cultures.

When I saw it, a couple of years ago, it became obvious to me (Polish cultural context) why certain things were sometimes irritating or difficult to understand. So, I will use the Dutch culture as an example to describe them.

Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions
Source: Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions

Power distance index (PDI)

PDI is the extent to which less powerful members accept that power is distributed unequally.

For example, in countries like the Netherlands (low PDI), children learn to act independently and have their own opinion and it is not surprising to have a discussion with your boss.

On the other hand, in countries with high PDI, power is a fact and inequalities are part of a reality that cannot be questioned. In this case, children are expected to respect and obey their parents.

Individualism index (IDV)

The individualism versus collectivism index explains the relationship between an individual and a group.

The Netherlands, just like Australia, USA and UK, belongs to those countries where individuality is present and rewarded: children quickly learn how to develop their own independent "self" and have the right to form their own opinion.

Moreover, "being polite" is OK but what scores highest is honesty - probably the root of the Dutch directness.

On the other side, there are countries such as Greece, Poland, Spain and many Asian ones where groups create a stronger sense of identity and as expected, loyalty to the group is a very important value.

Another important aspect of the collectivistic cultures is the harmony in the group, a fact that partially explains why it is not very popular to confront others as opposed to the individualistic cultures where conflicts and confrontation are an integral part of life.

all nationalities apple

Masculinity index (MAS)

MAS explains the distribution of roles between sexes and indicates how society perceives and appreciates the softer or harder qualities (i.e. shyness versus assertiveness).

In countries were masculinity is leading, male and female roles are clearly defined: "hard" qualities (competitiveness, assertiveness etc.) are highly valued, while women are expected to take on more "traditional" roles such as taking care of the family and household.

The Netherlands belongs to the group of countries with the lowest masculinity index (together with Sweden, Norway and Finland). Consequently, men can show their softer sides and share the activities in a household.

For example, it is quite accepted that fathers are also taking their "parental leave," which is not an option in countries with higher MAS.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)

UAI demonstrates to which extent people are avoiding uncertainties and how they react to unknown situations.

Usually, in countries with high UAI, "things that are different are dangerous" is the rule and people try to control uncertainties by applying strict laws and regulations, whereas in countries with low UAI (like the Netherlands) there is more room for novelty and tolerance for different things and people.

Long-Term Orientation Index (LTO)

On the long term orientation axis, we have the following values: perseverance, thrift, sense of shame and ordering relationships by status as opposed to the short term axis where respecting tradition, protecting your "face," personal steadiness and stability prevail. The Western cultures tend to have low scores on this index.

The imposrtance of the cultural blueprint

Understanding your own cultural blueprint is very important for your new life in a new country with its own unique culture.

Even though many European countries share specific scores, huge differences in other dimensions may exist; each country has its own unique mixture of the above mentioned dimensions not to mention history and traditions that also shape local cultures.

As I have already mentioned in my previous article regarding culture shock, understanding your own background and of course, the background of people from different countries, allows you to avoid frustrations and misunderstandings.

Please feel free to share your "Dutch culture" story and how are you dealing with the cultural differences in the Netherlands.

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Comments arranged by date (Total 19 comments)  
May 04 2011, 08:41AM

Hehe, this reminds me a talk I had with a foreign friend of mine who fancies a Dutch guy. I have told her a couple of times simply to go and either ask him out or something like that, not just give some wibes/hints into his direction and hoping that he will understand. He won't - because he is male and Dutch, which makes it double.
Apart from that, Dutch directness is one of the best things in this country because I never need to worry about how people will feel about me telling something too direct. Also it leaves out those weird moments when you think "Is he saying that just because of being nice or does he really mean it?" Luckily Dutch say only if they mean it - and if they do not say, then they do not want to say. Easy!

May 04 2011, 09:32AM

Great article! My only question is: Dutch follow their agendas all the time and I have hardly seen any spontaneous decisions. Is that reflected in these cultural dimensions? Any valid arguments to avoid it? Thanks

May 04 2011, 09:36AM

The famous "Dutch directness" can also be oddly circumspect, however: it's very confusing the first time your boss has a talk with you about something the coworker next to you complained about - after you'd already discussed it with the coworker and been assured they had no problem. When it first happened, I thought it was just one person's avoidance of an issue, but later learned (from Dutch people!) that this is very typical Dutch behavior. Definitely alien to me, since I am also from a "direct" culture, and we do not have that as a typical response.

May 04 2011, 09:51AM

Good point! So, we have to accept certain behaviours or at least partly. The question is whether we have to behave the same way. What do you think?

May 04 2011, 10:03AM

Good question Sergios. I think it very much depends on circumstances. If you are for example doing business in a country which has a different business etiquette I think it is very helpful to follow it. It makes it more probable that you are going to be successful in your business. However I believe there is also extent to that too. If you are coming for example from culture when it is not common to be direct it is going to be very difficult for you to act direct. You simply will not be authentic. In such cases I would suggest staying true to yourself. However understanding that for other party it is a common behavior can be very helpful.

May 04 2011, 10:51AM

I agree it depends on context. If you are from a culture in which it is polite to both refuse food and polite to insist (in my grandma's country, it's almost hilarious: you have to do this back and forth like 20 times before you can eat - and you never get to leave the table afterward) and you move to somewhere that isn't normal, you have to adjust to some degree. If you refuse food in the Netherlands, people will politely assume you don't want food. You learn pretty quickly not to do that if you are really hungry, even if it feels rude!

At work, I would not copy my Dutch coworker's behavior, because it would feel unnatural and, as Dorota describes, inauthentic. I do think it is important to know what is considered normal, though, especially in situations where my usual behavior would be considered strange. That way, depending on the situation, I can adjust my actions, apologize and explain that it's typical where I'm from, or at the least, understand what's going on around me.

May 04 2011, 11:01AM

hahaha great example about your grandmother! I love it.

I think that in international companies which hire a lot of internationals the cultural trainings should be on the agenda. Not only for the internationals to learn about the host country culture but also for locals to understand where are the others coming from.

May 04 2011, 12:17PM

Very interesting article! Being Swedish and together with a French we often end up in discussions with comments like "it's because you're Swedish / French... Your article explains a lot and makes it clear that people from different countries have different reference frames. It made me realize that it is as important to understand your own culture as the new culture when moving and integrating to a new country.

September 14 2012, 11:30AM

Moa, this should be very interesting to experience, and as Dorota called 'cultural triangle' in your case is build on pretty big differences as well, I can imagine. I experience the cultural triangle as well but my husband is Serbian and I am Polish, so we actually have very similar cultures and hierarchy of values, which makes it easy for us as a couple to live in the third country which is Netherlands. But it will be interesting when our daughter grows up and I am sure she will bring more Dutch element to our little equation while we also be doing our best to teach her about the values from her parent's countries. I will be very curious to see what cultural identity she will be inclining to.

May 04 2011, 12:55PM

Thanks for sharing Moa. Are you living in the Netherlands? I can imagine that living in the 'cultural triangle' (Swedish, French & Dutch) is even more challenging.

May 04 2011, 02:33PM

We are living in the Netherlands and it is, as you very nicely expressed a 'cultural triangle' where one sometimes get a a bit lost regarding cultural identity. But your article gave some guidance - thanks!

May 04 2011, 02:18PM

I bet! I'm also dating a (German) expat, and it is funny to compare our cultural differences to each other's and to Dutch ones. I also feel compelled to post this link - hilarious anecdotes about a U.K. man's longtime expat girlfriend:

"...factor in my being English while she is German, which not only makes each one of us personally and absolutely responsible for the history, and the social and cultural mores of our respective countries, but also opens up a whole field of sub-arguments grounded in grammatical and semantic disputes ..."

May 08 2011, 05:31PM

Interesting article, I too am experiencing the "cultural triangle" (nicely put!) - being from the UK and living in Holland with a Norwegian. One small thing I found odd in the original study is the Netherlands having a similar Masculinity Index score to the Scandinavian countries. I've found attitudes markedly different - with traditional gender roles much stronger in the Netherlands than what I've seen in Norway. That's just my experience though, and I realise this is entirely anecdotal and not data-driven!

May 09 2011, 01:24PM

Dorota, thank you for your article, which I found very interesting.
I agree that it is important to be aware of and understand our own cultural blueprint. Which is not all that easy! What we have learned in our early years seems to be right and normal and this cultural luggage is part of our frame of reference.

I am Dutch and I lived in the US for a while. There people found me pretty weird because I had never shaved my legs. I recall someone saying that she found it unhygienic.
When people from India visited me the Netherlands they were shocked to find out that we put our elderly away in special homes for the elderly. How could we be so rude and disrespectful?

It takes some courage to question and revalue all the right and normal things when we enter a different culture. Even within one culture differences between subcultures or regional differences can be huge.

When, on an individual basis, we learn to discuss, understand and respect our (cultural) differences, we contribute to a world in which people can be different and yet live together in a peaceful way. Isn’t that the challenging and interesting part of meeting people from different cultural backgrounds?
Let’s be eager to find out about cultural differences instead of being annoyed by them!

May 09 2011, 02:03PM

Speaking about elderly homes, actually it is not only Indians who find it weird - it is not common in Latvia as well and I had quite a long discussion with one of my Dutch friends the other day. I can imagine that it makes more sense for old people to be in elderly homes where they get proper attention and care, but I would never imagine telling it to my Latvian relatives and friends. They would not understand me and think that I am disrespectful (which they think anyways as I did not go home to visit my family for Christmas or Easter).
It would be interesting to know about other European countries and the situation there regarding the care about elderly people. E.g, in the UK it is quite common to have in-house care, a person who is living with the elderly 24/7.

May 09 2011, 06:40PM

Thank you @jvangent for your comment. I fully agree with you that through understanding and respect for differences we contribute to more tolerant in my opinion better world.

When I moved to the Netherlands I was also very surprised if not shocked by many things that were different here. In Poland as in Latvia it is not a standard practice to 'give your parents away' to the elderly institutions. Having said that I was confronted with the situations when people did and they paid enormous price in terms of 'guilt feeling'. Even if they did not have another option they still felt very guilty about it. And also here in the Netherlands I met people who put their parents in an elderly house and even if we internationals think it is so normal to do it here, these people were devastated and felt very guilty about it.

Myself as a young mother I was in the beginning shocked that in the Netherlands a lot of people decide to put their children to the creche when the baby is 4 months old. I spent two years with my daughter at home. Looking from the perspective I am not fully convinced that this was the best way to do it. Not for me and not for my daughter. Given my cultural background I had it so strongly imprinted in me and I thought this is the only way I can do it. I do not think if I knew what I know now I would wait two years again before putting my daughter in creche.

I agree that living in a foreign country is also a big lesson of confrontation with yourself and your own cultural background. The longer I live in the Netherlands the more I start to take under close look my own background and to think and question 'Does it make sense that I was learned to do it that way?" That is why I also love that I have a foreign husband we can both learn from each other's cultures and choose the best from both!

June 08 2012, 08:54AM

being polish myself and giving presentation about the Hosftede's dimensions yesterday at my University, I enjoyed reading the article :) thanks!

June 08 2012, 09:15AM

I am also Polish woman married to a German man- we are living in the Netherlands. I found this approach of 7 dimensions interesting. Several thoughts on this, though:
1) I think it is not enough to describe cultures as a whole, but it is a start. For example, some things (media, books, films Internet, food, religion) are missing. And yet they are a big part of what culture is.
2)Also, I believe that the IDV (individuality index) is not enough to describe what individuality is. For example, in Poland, loyalty to your country and family is expected. But, I feel that the loyalty to the EU (and other transnational entities) is bigger in other countries than in Poland. So it's a relative variable.
3) This approach means that there is your culture and there is the other culture. In fact, those two (and maybe even more) merge together and create something else that will be different for everybody. Culture can be a choice!

September 14 2012, 10:57AM

Thank you for this interesting article! I heard exactly the same words from my mother! :). The dimensions you presented are thought provoking. Thinking about many factors defining one's own culture, some time ago I started to compare how mother language can also shape behaviours or perception of members of different cultures / nations. I am not a linguist, so obviously I cannot put scientific edge into my discoveries. And even though I can speak 3 languages well, 1 more on a conversational level, and I have a basic understanding of other 2, I can hardly say I am a poliglot either. However I noticed on my own example that in certain languages passive verb forms are being used more frequently and in others they are hardly used. And depending on the frequency of use, people's approach to their own doings can vary quite dramatically. For example, in Polish, we use that passive form quite often e.g. 'the vase broke itself' ('wazon sie stlukl') and even though it is impossible that vase broke itself really, we get away with this vague explanation of what just happened. Or we just shift responsibility for what happened to an object. Native English people most likely would say that 'Peter broke the glass' and also add a few details on how it happened exactly. I remember when I just came to Netherlands, I didn't have such a strong sense of driving my own fate as I have right now; I thought I am more dependent on external circumstances when it comes to my future. Then I quickly learnt that whatever awaits me, will only depend on me and my actions. And this was the moment when I started to handle things better and shape the reality around me rather than melt into already established circumstances. Then I also noticed that I stopped using passive form in my native language and started to admit bravely that "I broke the vase" but also that "I achieved success in..." which until some time ago, would be perceived in my mother language as a bit impolite showing off.
I would really like to explore if there is any relationship between the language and respective culture. Do you have any similar observations?

About the Author
Dorota Klop-Sowinska

I specialize in international career and expat coaching. I am a certified coach / counselor at Dutch...



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