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

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

"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.

Source: Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions 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.

 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.

Dorota Klop-Sowinska


Dorota Klop-Sowinska

Official Member of Forbes Coaches Council. I specialize in international career and expat coaching. I am the author of the book Career Jump! How to Successfully Change Your Professional Path...

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