3 Cultural Characteristics

Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you will be able to

  • identify the five categories of human concerns that form Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s value orientation theory
  • define context, proxemics, and time-orientation in relation to Edward T. Hall’s theories
  • discuss the five value dimensions that are the foundation of Hofstede’s theories on national cultures

Information in all three sections of this chapter (excepting the text boxes) has been adapted from Chapter 1.3: Cultural Characteristics and the Roots of Culture in Intercultural Communication for the Community College by Karen Krumrey-Fulks (Lane Community College)[1], which is made available by LibreTexts under a CC BY-NC-SA license except where otherwise noted.

Kluckhohn-Strodtbeck’s Theories

The Kluckhohn-Strodtbeck Value Orientations theory from the early 1960s represents one of the earliest efforts to develop a cross-cultural theory of values. According to Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961), every culture faces the same basic survival needs and must answer the same universal questions. It is out of this need that cultural values arise. The basic questions faced by people everywhere fall into five categories and reflect concerns about: 1) human nature, 2) the relationship between human beings and the natural world, 3) time, 4) human activity, and 5) social relations. Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck hypothesized three possible responses or orientations to each of the concerns.

What is the inherent nature of human beings?

According to Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, this is a question that all societies ask, and there are generally three different responses. The people in some societies are inclined to believe that people are inherently evil and that the society must exercise strong measures to keep the evil impulses of people in check. On the other hand, other societies are more likely to see human beings as basically good and possessing an inherent tendency towards goodness. Between these two poles are societies that see human beings as possessing the potential to be either good or evil depending upon the influences that surround them. Societies also differ on whether human nature is immutable (unchangeable) or mutable (changeable).

What is the relationship between human beings and the natural world?

Some societies believe nature is a powerful force in the face of which human beings are essentially helpless. We could describe this as “nature over humans.” Other societies are more likely to believe that through intelligence and the application of knowledge, humans can control nature. In other words, they embrace a “humans over nature” position. Between these two extremes are the societies who believe humans are wise to strive to live in “harmony with nature.”

What is the best way to think about time?

Some societies are rooted in the past, believing that people should learn from history and strive to preserve the traditions of the past. Other societies place more value on the here and now, believing people should live fully in the present. Then there are societies that place the greatest value on the future, believing people should always delay immediate satisfactions while they plan and work hard to make a better future.

What is the proper mode of human activity?

In some societies, “being” is the most valued orientation. Striving for great things is not necessary or important. In other societies, “becoming” is what is most valued. Life is regarded as a process of continual unfolding. Our purpose on earth, the people might say, is to become fully human. Finally, there are societies that are primarily oriented to “doing.” In such societies, people are likely to think of the inactive life as a wasted life. People are more likely to express the view that we are here to work hard and that human worth is measured by the sum of accomplishments.

What is the ideal relationship between the individual and society?

Expressed another way, we can say the concern is about how a society is best organized. People in some societies think it most natural that a society be organized [by groups or collectives]. They hold to the view that some people should lead and others should follow. Leaders, they feel, should make all the important decisions [for the group]. Other societies are best described as valuing collateral relationships. In such societies, everyone has an important role to play in society; therefore, important decisions should be made by consensus. In still other societies, the individual is the primary unit of society. In societies that place great value on individualism, people are likely to believe that each person should have control over his/her own destiny. When groups convene to make decisions, they should follow the principle of “one person, one vote.”

As Hill (2002) has observed, Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck did not consider the theory to be complete. In fact, they originally proposed a sixth value orientation, space, but they didn’t complete their investigation of how it affects societal dynamics. Today, the Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck framework is just one among many attempts to study universal human values.

Edward T. Hall’s Theories

Edward T. Hall was a respected anthropologist who applied his field to the understanding of cultures and intercultural communications. In the mid 1960s, Hall noted three principal categories that analyze and interpret how communications and interactions between cultures differ: context, space, and time.

High-Context and Low-Context Cultures

High and low context refers to how a message is communicated.

In high-context cultures, such as those found in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the physical context of the message carries a great deal of importance. People tend to be more indirect and to expect the person they are communicating with to decode the implicit part of their message. While the person sending the message takes painstaking care in crafting the message, the person receiving the message is expected to read it within context. The message may lack verbal directness. In high-context cultures, body language is as important and sometimes more important than the actual words spoken.

In contrast, in low-context cultures such as the United States and most Northern European countries, people tend to be explicit and direct in their communication. Satisfying individual needs is important. You might be familiar with some well-known low-context mottos: “Say what you mean” and “Don’t beat around the bush.” The guiding principle is to minimize the margins of misunderstanding or doubt. Low-context communication aspires to get straight to the point.

Figure 2 : A graph showing the level of context in various world cultures 

Cross-cultural communication between people from high-context and low-context cultures can be confusing. In business interactions, people from low-context cultures tend to listen primarily to the words spoken; they tend not to be as cognizant of nonverbal aspects. As a result, people often miss important clues that could tell them more about the specific issue. In contrast, people from high-context cultures may find the direct communication style of low-context associates to be rude, abrupt, and lacking finesse.


Space refers to the study of physical space and people. Hall called this the study of proxemics, which focuses on space and distance between people as they interact. Space refers to everything from how close people stand to one another to how people might mark their territory or boundaries in the workplace and in other settings.

Stand too close to someone from the United States, which prefers a “safe” physical distance, and you are apt to make them uncomfortable. How close is too close depends on where you are from. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all establish a comfort zone when interacting with others. Standing distances shrink and expand across cultures. In cultures that have a low need for territory, people not only tend to stand closer together but also are more willing to share their space—whether it be a workplace, an office, a seat on a train, or even ownership of a business project. People from Latin American countries, for example, typically stand much closer together in business encounters than would be comfortable for many people from northern European countries like Finland.

Attitudes toward Time: Polychronic versus Monochronic Cultures

Hall identified that time is another important concept greatly influenced by culture.

In monochronic cultures, or “one-time” cultures, people tend to do one task at a time. People in monochronic cultures, such as Northern Europe and North America, tend to schedule one event at a time. For them, an appointment that starts at 8 a.m. is an appointment that starts at 8 a.m.—or 8:05 at the latest. People are expected to arrive on time, whether for a board meeting or a family picnic. Time is a means of imposing order. Often the meeting has a firm end time as well, and even if the agenda is not finished, it’s not unusual to end the meeting and finish the agenda at another scheduled meeting.

Polychronic literally means “many times”—people can do several things at the same time. People might attend to three things at once and think nothing of it. If you’ve ever been to Latin America, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East, you know all about living with relaxed timetables. In polychronic cultures, it’s not considered an insult to walk into a meeting or a party well past the appointed hour. Relationships are more important than timetables, and there is a more relaxed view of deadlines as there is an understanding that the flow of the work cannot be controlled rigidly. In polychronic cultures, people regard work as part of a larger interaction with a community. If an agenda is not complete, people in polychronic cultures are less likely to simply end the meeting and are more likely to continue to finish the business at hand. Also, people from polychronic cultures may cluster informally, rather than arrange themselves in a queue.

Those who prefer monochronic order may find polychronic order frustrating and hard to manage effectively. Those raised with a polychronic sensibility, on the other hand, might resent the “tyranny of the clock” and prefer to be focused on completing the tasks at hand.

Watch this video[2] to see an example of how a difference in cultural attitudes toward time can affect business relationships:


Do you think Hall would have categorized your culture as “high-context” or “low-context”? What “evidence” do you have from your personal experiences and observations to support your point of view?

In your culture, how much space is enough space? How much space do you like to have when you are conversing with someone you know well? What about with someone you’ve just met?

Do you come from a polychronic or a monochronic culture? Why do you think so?

In terms of context, proxemics, and time, do you think your cultures is similar to or different from Canadian culture? Consider what kinds of misunderstandings could occur if there are cultural differences in any of these three areas.

Hofstede’s Theories

Geert Hofstede, sometimes called the father of modern cross-cultural science and thinking, is a social psychologist who focused on comparing and contrasting national cultures using a statistical analysis of two unique databases. The first and largest database was composed of answers that matched employee samples from forty different countries to survey questions focused on attitudes and beliefs; the second consisted of answers to some of the same questions by Hofstede’s executive students who came from fifteen countries and from a variety of companies and industries. In the 1980s, Hofstede used these survey responses to develop a framework for understanding the systematic differences between nations represented in these two databases. This framework focused on value dimensions.

Most of us understand that values are our own culture’s or society’s ideas about what is good, bad, acceptable, or unacceptable. Values, in Hofstede’s case, are broad and mostly unconscious preferences for one state of affairs over others. Hofstede’s framework focused on understanding how these values underlie organizational behavior. Through his database research, he identified five key value dimensions (power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and time) that inform the behaviors, values, and attitudes of a national culture (Hofstede, 1980).

Power Distance

Power distance refers to how openly a society or culture accepts or does not accept differences between people. Power distance can be seen in hierarchies in the workplace, in politics, and so on. High power distance cultures openly accept that a boss is superior and as such deserves a more formal respect and authority. Examples of these cultures include Southern Europe, Latin America, and much of Asia. In these types of cultures, power is an integral part of the social equation. The senior person is almost a father figure and is automatically given respect and usually loyalty without questions. People tend to accept relationships of servitude. An individual’s status, age, and seniority command respect—they’re what make it all right for the lower-ranked person to take orders. Subordinates expect to be told what to do and won’t take initiative or speak their minds unless a manager explicitly asks for their opinion.

At the other end of the spectrum are low power distance cultures in which superiors and subordinates are more likely to see each other as equals. Cultures found at this end of the spectrum include those in western Europe, like Austria, Denmark, and the UK, as well as in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In these types of cultures, subordinates are more willing to speak their minds even if that means challenging or contradicting a manager or supervisor.

Interestingly enough, research indicates that although the United States is considered to be a low power distance culture, business is typically run with top-down control. In other words, while subordinates are encouraged to show initiative and participate actively in discussions, the final decisions are made by those in managerial roles. In the United States, and in Canada, people tend to be relatively laid-back about status and social standing, but there’s a firm understanding of who has the power.

If you are from a low power distance culture and are working with someone from a high power distance culture, you may need to take extra care to elicit feedback and involve them in the discussion because their cultural framework may preclude their participation. They may have learned that less powerful people must accept decisions without comment, even if they have a concern or know there is a significant problem.

Figure 1: A map showing the relative power distance of nations around the world

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Individualism vs. collectivism anchor opposite ends of a continuum that describes how people define themselves and their relationships with others.

Individualism refers to people’s tendency to prioritize taking care of themselves and their immediate circle of family and friends, perhaps at the expense of the overall society. In individualistic cultures, what counts most is self-realization. Initiating alone, sweating alone, achieving alone— not necessarily collective efforts—are what win applause. In individualistic cultures, competition is the fuel of success.

The United States and Northern European societies are often labeled as individualistic. In the United States, individualism is valued and promoted—from its political structure (individual rights and democracy) to entrepreneurial zeal (capitalism). Even in business and academics, awards are given to specific high-performing individuals rather than to the entire group.

Collectivism refers to people’s tendency to prioritize the group’s interests over their individual needs and desires. In collectivistic cultures, importance is placed on the welfare of the group as a whole. Individual achievements are not celebrated as they are in individualistic cultures; if a business in a collectivistic culture has seen success, it is more likely that an entire department will be praised.

Communication style also differs between these cultures. Communication is more direct and to the point in individualistic societies; in collectivistic societies, where a primary goal is often to ensure group harmony, communication is less direct and meaning is often implied rather than stated outright.  For example, an American worker might be comfortable saying “no” directly to to a request from a superior, while a worker from Mexico might prefer to say “maybe” instead of “no” for fear of offending the boss. As long as the boss is from the same culture, there will be no misunderstanding that the Mexican worker’s “maybe” is actually a refusal, but differences in levels of directness can cause great misunderstanding in cross-cultural communication.

Masculine and Feminine

When we talk about masculine or feminine cultures, we’re not talking about diversity issues. It’s about how a society views traits that are considered masculine or feminine. Each carries with it a set of cultural expectations and norms for gender behavior and gender roles across life.

Traditionally perceived “masculine” values are assertiveness, materialism, and less concern for others. In masculine-oriented cultures, gender roles are usually crisply defined. Men tend to be more focused on performance, ambition, and material success. They cut tough and independent personas, while women cultivate modesty and quality of life. Cultures in Japan and Latin American are examples of masculine-oriented cultures.

In contrast, feminine cultures are thought to emphasize “feminine” values: concern for all, an emphasis on the quality of life, and an emphasis on relationships. In feminine-oriented cultures, both genders swap roles, with the focus on quality of life, service, and independence. The Scandinavian cultures rank as feminine cultures, as do cultures in Switzerland and New Zealand. The United States is actually more moderate, and its score is ranked in the middle between masculine and feminine classifications. For all these factors, it’s important to remember that cultures don’t necessarily fall neatly into one camp or the other.

Uncertainty Avoidance

When we meet each other for the first time, we often use what we have previously learned to understand our current context. We also do this to reduce our uncertainty.

People who have high uncertainty avoidance generally prefer to steer clear of conflict and competition. They tend to appreciate very clear instructions. They dislike ambiguity. At the office, sharply defined rules and rituals are used to get tasks completed. Cultures in the Arab world, for example, are high in uncertainty avoidance; they tend to be resistant to change and reluctant to take risks. Stability and what is known are preferred to instability and the unknown.

Some cultures, such as the U.S. and Britain, have low uncertainty avoidance and so are highly tolerant of uncertainty. For example, a U.S. business negotiator might enthusiastically agree to try a new procedure, but an Egyptian counterpart with higher uncertainty avoidance would likely refuse to get involved until all the details are worked out. In educational settings, people from countries high in uncertainty avoidance expect their teachers to be experts with all of the answers, but people from countries low in uncertainty avoidance are comfortable when a teacher or professional expert admits to not knowing the answer.

Long-term vs. Short-term Orientation

This dimension refers to whether a culture has a long-term or short-term orientation.

Long-term orientation cultures value persistence, perseverance, thriftiness, and having a sense of shame. These are evident in traditional Eastern cultures. Long-term orientation is often marked by persistence, thrift and frugality, and respecting a hierarchy of relationships based on age and status. A sense of shame, both personal and for the family and community, is also observed across generations. What an individual does reflects on the family, and is carried by immediate and extended family members.

Short-term orientation cultures value tradition only to the extent of fulfilling social obligations or providing gifts or favors. While there may be a respect for tradition, there is also an emphasis on personal representation and honor, a reflection of identity and integrity. Personal stability and consistency are also valued in a short-term oriented culture, contributing to an overall sense of predictability and familiarity. These cultures are more likely to be focused on the immediate or short-term impact of an issue. Not surprisingly, the United Kingdom and the United States rank low on the long-term orientation.

Critique of Hofstede’s Theory

Among the various attempts by social scientists to study human values from a cultural perspective, Hofstede’s is certainly popular. In fact, it would be a rare culture text that did not pay special attention to Hofstede’s theory. Value dimensions are all evolving as many people gain experience outside their home cultures and countries; therefore, in practice, these five dimensions do not occur as single values but are really woven together and interdependent, creating very complex cultural interactions. Even though these five values are constantly shifting and not static, they help us begin to understand how and why people from different cultures may think and act as they do.

However, Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions is not without critics. It has been faulted for promoting a largely static view of culture (Hamden-Turner & Trompenaars, 1997) and as Orr and Hauser (2008) have suggested, the world has changed in dramatic ways since Hofstede’s research began.


Use Hofstede’s online “country comparison” tool to see his analysis of your culture and of Canadian culture: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison-tool

Do you agree with his assessment? Why or why not?


Additional Resources

As cited by Krumrey-Fulks:

Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some Explorations In Initial Interaction And Beyond: Toward A Developmental Theory Of Interpersonal Communication. Human Communication Research1(2), 99–112. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1975.tb00258.x

Clark, M. E. (2005). In search of human nature. London: Routledge.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of cultures. London: Hutchinson.

Hall, E. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Hampden-Turner, C., & Trompenaars, F. (1997). Response to Geert Hofstede. International Journal of Intercultural Relations21(1), 149–159. doi: 10.1016/s0147-1767(96)00042-9

Hills, M. D. (2002). Kluckhohn and Strodtbecks Values Orientation Theory. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture4(4). doi: 10.9707/2307-0919.1040

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture and Organizations. International Studies of Management & Organization10(4), 15–41. doi: 10.1080/00208825.1980.11656300

Kluckhohn, F. R., & Strodtbeck, dF. L. (1961). Variations in Value Orientations. Evanston, IL: Row Peterson.

Orr, L. M., & Hauser, W. J. (2008). A Re-Inquiry of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: A Call for 21st Century Cross-Cultural Research. Marketing Management Journal18(2), 1–19.

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: Sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores and morals. 1959 reprint. Boston, MA: Ginn and Company.


  1. Krumrey-Fulks, K. (n.d.). Cultural characteristics and the roots of culture. In Intercultural communication for the community college. LibreTexts. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Communication/Intercultural_Communication/Book%3A_Intercultural_Communication_for_the_Community_College_(Karen_Krumrey-Fulks)/01%3A_Chapters/1.03%3A_Cultural_Characteristics_and_the_Roots_of_Culture
  2. TEDxTalks. (2012, May 15). What time is it?: Guillaume Gevrey at TEDxBMS [video] . YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IovSk4cLCd0


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