The Core of Our Differences: Eight National Cultural Values to Understand When Working in Diverse Settings

The Core of Our Differences: Eight National Cultural Values to Understand When Working in Diverse Settings

by Felicity Menzies

Without knowledge of how culture affects your own and others’ behaviour, you interpret the world through your own cultural lens, failing to attribute differences in actions and beliefs to cultural influences. Knowledge of cultural differences helps you to overcome cultural blind spots. You can better explain and predict the responses of others. This prevents confusion and anxiety in diverse settings. Also, by increasing your understanding of the intentions, behaviours, and viewpoints of diverse others, knowledge of cultural differences tempers the activation of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ social categorisations and negative stereotypes and prejudices.

Understanding Cultural Differences

In an earlier post, I explained culture using an iceberg analogy. The small tip of the iceberg that can be seen above the water level represents visible cultural elements. Visible cultural elements include artefacts, symbols, and practices such as art and architecture; language, colour, and dress; social etiquette and traditions. Although they are the most obvious, visible cultural differences comprise only ten percent of our cultural identities. The 90% of the iceberg that remains unseen below the surface represents the hidden cultural differences. Hidden differences include cultural values, assumptions, and beliefs.

We might also explain culture using an onion analogy. In this model, culture is a deep inner core of abstract ideas that manifest as increasingly tangible outer layers. The inner core of the onion equates to the submerged base of the iceberg: values and assumptions. Those fundamental building blocks are encircled by specific beliefs, attitudes, and conventions that drive cultural systems and institutions. The outer layer corresponds to the tip of the iceberg. It comprises all those visible features that characterise a particular culture; symbols, man-made artefacts and products, and heroes.

Both the iceberg and onion analogies highlight the relative importance of the hidden elements of culture. Cultural problems cannot be resolved at the surface. Focusing on the visible features of culture alone will not prevent misunderstanding and conflict. Tangible cultural features, such as differences in language or dress, might present barriers but the less obvious characteristics of culture cause the most problems.

Values are the central feature of a culture. They shape tangible cultural differences. A cultural emphasis on success is reflected in achievement-orientated characteristics like competitive economic systems— for example, capitalism—, child-rearing practices that encourage and reward achievement, a high prevalence of status symbols such as luxury goods, heroes who have accumulated great wealth or fame, and the acceptance and promotion of assertive and ambitious behaviour.

Focusing on a tangible culture feature captures only a narrow aspect of a culture. Certain cultural values are emphasised in some elements, different cultural values in others. Collectively, the entire cultural system encourages, legitimises, and rewards a set of core cultural values. Comparing differences in cultural values is the most efficient method of understanding cultural differences.

National Cultural Values

National cultural values are shared ideas of what is good, right, and desirable in a society. They are a national society’s preferences for managing external adaptation and internal integration challenges that threaten its survival. Groups of people develop distinct patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours as they respond to the survival challenges of their shared environment. Survival challenges include external environmental stresses caused by climate or resource scarcity and threats to internal social integration.

National values sit on a continuum between two contrasting approaches to a societal problem. A societal emphasis at one pole is accompanied by a de-emphasis on the alternative pole. Every nation sits somewhere between the opposing alternatives.

Each national cultural value dimension is described using examples of attributes that typify the extreme poles. In practice, no nation corresponds fully to either polar extreme of a dimension; rather every nation is a hybrid and sits somewhere between these two approaches. The extreme cases are presented as a means of understanding the concept. The more closely a nation resembles a polar extreme, the closer towards that extreme the nation sits on the continuum.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Individualism vs. Collectivism is concerned with the relationship of the individual to the group.

In Individualistic societies, members consider themselves independent from others. People define themselves in terms of ‘I’ and their unique attributes. Autonomy and independent thought are valued and the interests and goals of the individual prevail over group welfare. Personal attitudes and needs are important determinants of behaviour. In cultures that emphasise the individual, ties between members are loose. Nuclear families are more common than extended families. Love carries greater weight in marriage decisions, and divorce rates are higher. Members of Individualistic cultures are likely to engage in activities alone, and social interactions are shorter and less intimate, although they are more frequent.

In Collectivistic societies, people have an interdependent self-construal and define themselves in terms of ‘we’ and their group memberships. Members are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups. Social interdependence and collective harmony are valued. Relational ties and obligations are important determinants of behaviour. Group goals and welfare take precedence over individual goals and needs.  In societies that emphasise interdependence with others, shared living is emphasised.  Extended families (with uncles, aunts, and grandparents) provide protection in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. There are lower divorce rates, yet love carries less weight in marriage decisions. Members of those cultures are likely to prefer group activities. Social interactions are longer and more intimate.

To what extent do you prefer working individually and having autonomy in decision-making (Individualism), or working in groups and consensus decision-making (Collectivism)?

Power Distance

Power Distance is concerned with the extent to which a community accepts and endorses authority, power differences, and status privileges.

In low Power Distance societies, members believe that inequalities should be minimised. Power is seen as a source of corruption, coercion, and dominance. People recognise one another as moral equals with shared basic human interests. Members care about the welfare of others and cooperate with one another. Low Power Distance societies have large middle classes. They have transient and shareable power bases (for example, skill, knowledge). There is high upward social mobility and a mass availability of resources and capabilities. Different social groups enjoy equal involvement in governance.

In high Power Distance societies, hierarchical systems of assigned roles organise behaviour. Power Distance is defined from below rather than above. In high Power Distance cultures, the less powerful members expect and accept inequalities. Power is perceived to provide social order, relational harmony, and role stability. The social hierarchy needs no further justification. High Power Distance societies are differentiated into classes. They have stable and scarce power bases (for example, land ownership). Upward social mobility is limited. Only a few people have access to resources, knowledge, and skills. Different social groups have differential involvement in governance.

Are you comfortable challenging authority (Low Power Distance), or unquestionably accept the views and decisions of superiors (High Power Distance)?

Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty Avoidance is concerned with the extent to which uncertainty is tolerated and the preference for rules and order.

In weak Uncertainty Avoidance societies, members are comfortable with ambiguous and unknown situations. They are tolerant of change. Members hold multiple ideas as valid and accept different viewpoints. They are contemplative, emotionally stable, and relaxed. Members of low Uncertainty Avoidance societies prefer fewer rules. Rule-breaking is allowed. Exchanges are informal. Members prefer to rely on the word of others they trust rather than enter into contractual relationships. They are not concerned with orderliness and keeping written records.

In strong Uncertainty Avoidance societies, members are threatened by uncertainty, have an emotional need for predictability, and exhibit a high resistance to change. This resistance is expressed through nervousness, stress, and attempts to control the environment. Members formalise their interactions with others, verify communications in writing, and take more relatively more moderate and calculated risks. In strong Uncertainty Avoidance societies, members hold rigid beliefs. There are strict behavioural norms, formal rules and law, and an intolerance of rule-breaking or unorthodox ideas or behaviours.

Do ambiguous and unpredictable situations make you feel anxious (Strong Uncertainty Avoidance), or do you accept them in your stride (Weak Uncertainty Avoidance)?

Gender Egalitarianism

Gender Egalitarianism is concerned with the extent to which a society differentiates gender roles.

Biological constraints in childbearing have long dictated societal norms about the roles of men and women in many societies. But outside childbearing, sex-role distinctions are purely social constructions. Societies differ with respect to the extent to which they define different social and emotional roles for males and females.

In high Gender Egalitarianism cultures, male social and emotional roles are similar to female roles. Both men and women are modest, cooperative, tender, and concerned with quality of life and caring for the weak. Compared to low Gender Egalitarianism societies, there are more women in positions of authority, a higher percentage of women participating in the labour force, and less occupational sex segregation. In addition, in high Gender Egalitarian cultures, females and males have similar levels of education and literacy. Women hold higher status and play a greater role in community decision-making compared with low Gender Egalitarianism cultures.

In low Gender Egalitarianism cultures, male social and emotional roles are different from females. Men are assertive, tough, competitive, and focused on material success. Women are modest, tender, and concerned with quality of life. Low Gender Egalitarianism societies have few women in positions of authority, a low percentage of women in the labour force, and occupational sex segregation. In these societies, females have lower levels of education and literacy relative to males. In addition, women hold a lower status in society and play a smaller role in community decision-making compared with men.

Do you believe males and females perform different roles in society (Low Gender Egalitarianism) or that gender roles are overlapping (High Gender Egalitarianism)?

Assertiveness (Cooperative vs. Competitive)

Assertiveness is concerned with the extent to which people are assertive, confrontational, and aggressive in social relationships.

Low Assertiveness / Cooperative societies view assertiveness as socially unacceptable. Members of low Assertiveness cultures emphasise modesty and tenderness. They associate competition with defeat and punishment. They stress equality and social solidarity. Low Assertiveness cultures value people, warm relationships, and cooperation. Relationships come before business. Members care more about who you are than what you do. In these societies, integrity, loyalty, and cooperation are stressed. People think of others as inherently worthy of trust. Members from low Assertiveness cultures speak indirectly; they prefer ‘face-saving’ and subtlety, and value detached and self-possessed conduct.

In contrast, high Assertiveness / Competitive societies value assertive, dominant, and ‘tough’ behaviour in both genders. Strength is admired. Aggression is viewed positively (for example, aggression is associated with winning). Members of high Assertiveness societies value competition and success. They expect demanding and challenging targets. Performance is rewarded and results are stressed over relationships. Business comes before relationships. Members of high Assertiveness societies value what you do more than who you are. Members think of others as opportunistic. In communication, members of high Assertiveness cultures are direct and value expressing true thoughts and feelings.

Do you value competition, individual achievement, and constructive workplace debate (High Assertiveness / Competitive) more than cooperation, consensus, and harmony (Low Assertiveness vs. Cooperative)?

Orientation to Time

Orientation to Time is concerned with how a society approaches and manages time.

Members of Short-Term Orientated societies are more focused on the present and past than on the future. They value instant satisfaction. Members spend now rather than save for the future. They live in the moment and are not concerned with past or future anxieties. On the flip side, members of Short-Term Orientated societies may engage in risky, pleasure-seeking pursuits and fail to recognise the negative longer-term implications of their indulgences.

Cultures with a Future Orientation have a strong tendency and willingness to imagine future possibilities. Members set long-term goals, develop plans, and work hard and persevere to achieve their ambitions. They delay gratification and display a strong propensity to save and invest. Members of Future Orientated societies are psychologically healthy and socially well adjusted because they feel in control of their lives, but they may neglect current social relationships and obligations, and can fail to ‘stop and smell the roses’.

Do you emphasise tradition and the status quo (Short-Term Orientation) or the future and continuous change (Future Orientation)?

Being vs. Doing

Being vs. Doing is concerned with the extent to which individuals fit into their natural and social world, or try to master and change it.

A Being Orientation stresses fitting into the world as it is; focusing on appreciating and understanding the world rather than trying to change, direct, or exploit it. Important values include world peace, unity with nature, and protecting the environment. Members of Being Orientated societies have a high regard for quality of life and feel that being motivated by money is inappropriate. These societies have a low sense of urgency.

High Doing Orientated societies believe that people have control over their destiny—anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. A Doing Orientation encourages self-assertion to master, direct, and change the natural and social environment to achieve group or individual goals. High Doing Orientated societies value initiative; members display a ‘can-do’ attitude. High Doing Orientated societies believe that schooling and education are critical for success. They value training and development. Societies with a Doing Orientation stress performance and encourage and reward innovation and excellence. These societies have a high sense of urgency.

Are you happy to ride life’s twists and turns (Being Orientation) or do you like to set and strive for the achievement of life-changing goals? (Doing Orientation)?

Indulgence vs. Restraint

Indulgence vs. restraint is concerned with the extent to which social norms encourage the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure.

Indulgence orientated societies encourage pleasure-seeking. Members pursue fun activities for the sake of personal enjoyment. In contrast, Restraint societies believe that hedonistic pleasure needs to be curbed and regulated by strict social norms.

Do you regularly seek to have fun (Indulgence) or do you feel that activity for the sake of personal pleasure is indulgent and somewhat shameful and selfish (Restraint)? 


Several national cultural value frameworks are cited in the cross-cultural literature. Frameworks by Hofstede and colleagues, Schwartz, and the GLOBE project are perceived to be the most empirically robust and practically useful. Despite differences in theoretical approaches and measurement, the Hofstede, Schwartz, and GLOBE models overlap in the value dimensions that distinguish between nations, and the mapping of nations and groups of nations. Because societies are complex, connecting the various frameworks creates a richer picture of the differences and similarities among different cultural groups.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (Vol. 3). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schwartz, S. H. (1999). A theory of cultural values and some implications for work. Applied psychology, 48(1), 23-47.

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.

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.