Cultural Clusters: Mapping Cultural Distance

Cultural Clusters: Mapping Cultural Distance

by Felicity Menzies

Researchers have identified culturally distinct clusters of nations. Each cultural cluster reflects a shared history, religion, economic development, regional proximity, and other factors. Within each cluster, nations are similar on three to four cultural value orientations. The patterning of cultural value emphases in one cluster distinguishes it from another cluster.

Clustering nations into culturally similar groups is helpful for summarising the similarities and differences among societies. It is a more efficient way to learn about cultural differences than focusing on societies one at a time.

From a practical perspective, clustering provides a framework for managing cultural diversity. Cluster-based information can help assess the likely success of transferring human resources, managerial practices, training, or consumer products across societies.

Although the nations within each cluster share an emphasis on three or four cultural values, they can be different on other values. Care must be taken to appreciate the differences within each cluster. Clusters are a useful starting point, but it is too simplistic to say that all nations in a cluster are the same. Further, within each nation, individuals vary in the extent to which they adopt the dominant cultural emphases of their country.


The Anglo cluster includes Great Britain, Australia, South Africa (White), Canada (English speaking), New Zealand, Ireland, and the United States. This cluster has a cultural emphasis on Doing Orientation, Individualism, Assertiveness, and Indulgence. And relative cultural de-emphasis on Uncertainty Avoidance and Power Distance. The United States is the highest-scoring nation on Individualism, closely followed by other Anglo countries. The Anglo value profile reflects a high personal goal orientation, where rewards are based on merit, and individual-achievement goals take precedence over family or collective bonds. Within the Anglo cluster, the United States is higher in Doing Orientation and Power Distance than other nations in the cluster. French-Canadian culture is closer to the culture of Western European, particularly France, than Anglo-Canadian culture— a reflection of its historical and linguistic roots.

West Europe

The West Europe cluster includes the nations of Germany (formerly West and East Germany), Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Canada (French speaking), Spain, Portugal, Greece, and the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. Overall, West Europe has a cultural emphasis on Individualism and Being Orientation, and a relative cultural de-emphasis on Power Distance. This value profile typifies democratic welfare states, where concern for the environment is high. Within the West Europe cluster, Greece is higher on Doing Orientation, Power Distance, and Collectivism, and France and French-speaking Switzerland are higher on Power Distance.

One of the most interesting findings is the cultural distance between the ‘Western’ industrialised cultures of non–English speaking West Europe and the Anglo cultures.  It is too simplistic to clump all developed Western nations together under the label ‘Individualistic’. Although West Europe is Individualistic in the sense that autonomy is emphasised, it differs from the Anglo cluster with its emphasis on Egalitarianism and Being Orientation (fitting into the social and natural world), and a relative de-emphasis on Doing (attempting to control and change the environment). The West Europe cluster involves a selfless concern for the welfare of others and fitting into the natural and social world without striving to change it. The Anglo cultures, however, are exploitative of the natural and social environment. Also, the United States is higher on Power Distance (that is, less egalitarian).

Germanic Europe

As a subset of the West Europe cluster, the Germanic Europe cluster consists of societies that continue to use the German language, and includes the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, former West Germany, and former East Germany. Even though East Germany was under communist rule for 40 years, traditional German values remained an integral part of the society. East German culture is closer to West German culture than it is to Eastern European culture, reflecting shared language, history, and traditions not destroyed by communist rule. The Germanic Europe cluster shows high scores for Doing Orientation, Individualism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Future Orientation, and Assertiveness, but low scores for Humane Orientation and Power Distance.

Latin Europe

Another subset of the West Europe cluster, the Latin Europe cluster consists of the regions influenced by Roman culture, which rejected Protestant reforms. It includes Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland (French speaking), and Israel. Israel, although not Catholic, is included in this region because it was founded by Jews who migrated from Latin Europe to Eastern Europe to escape religious repression, but Israeli Jews retained their social and business ties to Latin Europe. The Latin Europe culture has high scores for Collectivism and low scores for Humane Orientation.

Nordic Europe

Nordic Europe groups the Scandinavian nations of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. This cluster is similar to Germanic Europe, showing strong scores for Uncertainty Avoidance, Future Orientation, Individualism, and Gender Egalitarianism, and weak scores for Power Distance and Assertiveness. Nordic societies emphasise certainty, social unity, and cooperation. They underplay assertive and masculine authority. The highest scores for Gender Egalitarianism are from Nordic countries.

East Europe

East Europe refers to nations dominated by Soviet communism (but where shared cultural influences pre-date communist rule). Nations included in the East European cluster include Hungary, Russia, Kazakhstan, Albania, Poland, Greece, Slovenia and Georgia. East Europe has higher scores for Being Orientation, Gender Egalitarianism, Collectivism, Future Orientation, and Restraint, and lower scores for Uncertainty Avoidance. The cluster is low on Collectivism and Power Distance compared with Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but higher in comparison with West Europe. This cultural value profile describes an adaptive orientation to a totalitarian communist regime—avoiding trouble and refraining from taking initiative. Within the region, East Central European and Baltic cultures (Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia) are higher in Being Orientation and Individualism, and lower in Power Distance than Balkan and more Eastern cultures (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Georgia, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine). The Baltic and East Central states have a cultural profile closer to West Europe. This reflects stronger historical and trade links to West Europe, lower penetration and a shortened period of totalitarian communist rule, and a dominant Roman Catholic or Protestant religion. In contrast, the countries in the East European and Balkan regions had historical links to the Ottoman Empire, and weaker ties to the West. These countries were deeply penetrated by communism, and they practice more conservative and in-group orientated orthodox religions.

Latin America

The Latin America cluster has nations that share a distinct Latin culture (Catholicism, Roman law heritage, Iberian colonial past, Spanish or Portuguese languages) and includes Chile, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, El Salvador, Columbia, Guatemala, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina. Latin America has high scores for Collectivism and Power Distance compared with West Europe and Anglo clusters, but not when compared to Africa, South Asia, and Confucian clusters. It has low scores for Doing Orientation, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Future Orientation. Latin American societies take life as it comes, accept its unpredictability as a fact of life, and do not over-worry. There is less concern with institutional goals than with family bonds. Within Latin America, Bolivia, and Peru are much higher in Power Distance and Collectivism than their neighbours, possibly reflecting their relatively low relative exposure to European culture and their poor economic development. Nations with high Indulgence scores include Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Colombia, and Trinidad.

Africa and Middle East

The Africa and Middle East cluster includes the nations of Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Ghana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Iran, Jordan, Cameroon, Egypt and Yemen. This cluster emphasises Doing Orientation, Collectivism, and Short-Term Orientation. This cultural value profile describes societies in which the struggle to overcome poverty legitimises active change and exploitation of the environment, and reinforces group solidarity over individual uniqueness. There is great variation within this cultural region on all values but Collectivism.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Within the Africa and Middle East cluster, the Sub-Saharan African cluster includes societies with a history of slavery, Christian missionary efforts, and a distinctive shared philosophy of humaneness. Nations in the Sub-Saharan African cluster include Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and South Africa (Black). Sub-Saharan Africa societies report stronger scores for Humane Orientation. This attribute highlights the humanistic model of these societies, which live a difficult and rural life. South Africa is the only African nation with a dominant Individualist orientation (part of the Anglo cluster).

Middle East

The Middle East cluster reflects Arabic Muslim culture and includes Qatar, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and Kuwait. Middle Eastern societies report lower scores in Uncertainty Avoidance, Future Orientation, and Gender Egalitarianism than other clusters, but higher scores in Collectivism and Restraint. The Middle East cluster represents societies that believe the future unfolds according to the will of Allah and must not be approached using instrumental means. Instead, the family forms the basis for insurance against future contingencies, and males give primary protection and support. Turkey is higher in Individualism but lower in Power Distance compared with its Middle East neighbours. This reflects a secular democratic political system, historical influences from Eastern Europe, and its struggle to join the West. The Israeli Jewish culture is closer in values to the Anglo cluster than to its Middle East Muslim neighbors.

Southern Asia

The Southern Asia cluster includes Iran, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, and Fiji. The nations in this cluster, despite a diversity of external influences, share an inclination to assimilate external and modern influences into their indigenous cultures. They have displayed throughout history a peaceful and interactive coexistence of diversity (for example, in religious beliefs). Southern Asian societies report significantly higher scores for Collectivism, Power Distance, and Humane Orientation. This cultural value profile describes societies that emphasise the fulfilling of obligations in a hierarchical system with a deep community orientation. Within the cluster, India is high on Doing Orientation; India and Bangladesh report high Restraint scores.

Confucian Asia

The Confucian Asia cluster is defined by a strong historical influence of Confucian ideology. It includes Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, China, Japan, and Thailand. The Confucian Asia cluster emphasises Doing Orientation, Collectivism, Future Orientation, and Power Distance. The goals are collective and family orientated. Rewards are significant for the achievement of collective goals. This cultural value profile describes societies with a pragmatic, entrepreneurial orientation, and with a heavy emphasis on hierarchy and relationships. Within the Confucian cluster, Japan is higher on Being and Individualism, and lower on Collectivism and Power Distance. Nations scoring high for Future Orientation include China; East Asian nations of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; and South East Asian nations, including Singapore and Hong Kong. China, South Korea, and Hong Kong report high Restraint scores.

Mapping cultural distance

Cultural distance refers to the difference between nations or groups of nations on their cultural value emphases. Researchers represent the cultural distance between cultural clusters in a useful diagram.

Source: House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. (2004). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Clusters similar to each other are adjacent. Clusters that are culturally distant are farther away from each other. The vertical north-south axis separates the five Western clusters from the five Eastern clusters. Four quadrants are identifiable. Quadrant I consists of Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Europe clusters. Quadrant II consists of Latin America and Latin Europe Clusters. Quadrant IIII consists of Anglo, Germanic Europe, and Nordic Europe clusters. Quadrant IV consists of Confucian Asia and Southern Asia clusters. The Anglo and Sub-Saharan Africa clusters appear in the centre of the configuration. These clusters have mid-level scores on most of the cultural value dimensions.

Cultural distance is useful for highlighting areas where the most problems are likely to arise in intercultural interactions. The greatest cultural distance is between the Meta Western region (Nordic Europe, Germanic Europe, Latin Europe, Anglo, and Latin America clusters) and the Meta Eastern region (East Europe, Confucian Asia, Southern Asia, Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa). In particular, the major contrast is between the countries of West Europe and the Middle East.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.