The concept of culture was first found useful by social anthropologists in studies of tribal societies. More recently, it has also been used to analyze differences between industrialized societies. A culture can be said to exist when a number of persons interpret the events around them in relatively similar ways. These shared interpretations typically include the meanings of both the behaviors of other persons and the physical entities that are present in a particular setting. Thus, attributes of a culture might include agreement that a certain building is to be thought of as a school and perceptions that certain students are more able, attractive, or industrious than others. Culture is a concept that can be applied to marriages, teams, tribes, organizations, and nations. There is obviously less consensus between the members of a nation than there is between members of smaller groupings, but cross-cultural psychologists have found value in studying nations as cultures.
By comparing survey responses of business employees from over 50 nations, Hofstede (2001) identified five dimensions describing cultural differences between nations. He named these as Individualism–Collectivism, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity/Femininity, and Long-Term Orientation. First identified in the 1960s, these dimensions can still predict how many aspects of behavior relevant to communication vary between nations. In particular, the contrast between individualism and collectivism has been confirmed by later studies. Within the (mostly western) nations categorized as relatively individualistic, most persons define their identity in terms of personal attributes and see their linkages with others as based on individual choice. Thus, although relationships, marriages, and jobs can be long-lasting, they can also be terminated if they do not meet one’s goals in life. Within nations categorized as more collectivistic, most persons define their identity in terms of long-term commitment to groups such as family, tribe, or organization. An individual leaving such groups would find it difficult to locate new sources of identity, because alternative groups would not be open to new members.
Nations cannot be categorized simply as individualistic or collectivistic, but can be arrayed along a spectrum from one extreme to the other. Individuals also vary in their orientation toward individualism and collectivism, so that one may find some individualists within a predominantly collectivist culture and some collectivists within a predominantly individualistic culture. This has been particularly true recently, due to extensive migration from collectivistic to individualistic nations.
The types of communication that are most prevalent in different cultures reflect the priorities of those living within them. In individualistic settings, it is important to establish one’s credentials as someone who is attractive, coherent, competent, and trustworthy. In collectivistic settings, a stronger priority is to preserve harmony within one’s group and to maintain the integrity of its boundaries. Even the languages spoken in different cultures reflect these priorities: those spoken within collectivistic nations mostly permit the omission of the personal pronoun “I” from a sentence, while those (such as English) spoken in individualistic nations do not (Kashima & Kashima 1998).
For members of a collectivist culture, preferred communication styles will depend upon whom one is communicating with more than for those in an individualistic culture. Among one’s in-group, concerns with face and harmony will predominate. In dealing with those outside one’s group, communication may be as direct and as confronting as is favored by members of individualist cultures, in order that the integrity and honor of one’s group may be upheld. Research studies (Smith et al. 2006) now show that individuals’ orientation toward individualism or collectivism predicts directness of communication, nonverbal aspects of communication, expression of emotions, politeness strategies, concern with one’s own face rather than with others’ face, embarrassability, receptiveness to individualor group-focused feedback, styles of negotiation, and response to different types of advertisements. Communication style even affects how individuals respond to research surveys: members of collectivist nations show a stronger tendency to agree with positively worded questions, so that cross-national comparisons can be invalid if no correction is made for this (Smith 2004).
The other dimensions of cultural variation identified by Hofstede have been less intensively investigated. Power distance, defined as relative acceptance of hierarchy, affects styles of address in different nations. Preference for high or low levels of uncertainty avoidance is associated with variation in the types of emotion most frequently reported. More recent studies have shown that nations can be distinguished in terms of distinctive profiles of beliefs, in addition to the values upon which Hofstede focused (Bond 2004).
Conceptualizations of culture are important because communication can only be fully understood as an interaction between individuals’ dispositions and the broader context within which they are located. To become effective, individuals must learn to express themselves in ways that convey desired meanings within the interpretive system in which they are located. While cultural transmission occurs normally in the family and at school, it becomes problematic for the increasing number of those who move from one cultural context to another, whether as students, tourists, business persons, refugees, or migrants. Learning another culture entails more than learning a new language: it requires a grasp of the ways in which that language is used to interpret local meanings.
- Bond, M. H. (2004). Culture-level dimensions of social axioms and their correlates across 41 cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35, 548–570.
- Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Kashima, Y., & Kashima, E. (1998). Culture and language: The case of cultural dimensions and personal pronoun use. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29, 461–486.
- Smith, P. B. (2004). Acquiescent response bias as an aspect of cultural communication style. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35, 50–61.
- Smith, P. B., Bond, M. H., & Kagitcibasi, C. (2006). Understanding social psychology across cultures: Living and working in a changing world. London: Sage.