Module 2: Expanding Your Intercultural Knowledge

Cultural Orientations

Cultural orientations or dimensions refer to generalizations or archetypes that allow us to study the general tendencies of a cultural group. This is helpful when we are trying to understand how most people in a cultural group tend to act or tend to think. By approaching generalizations in this way, we avoid creating stereotypes.

Studying cultural orientations will help you expand your knowledge and make more sense of how other people may think and others’ potential reasons for acting in a certain way. Remember that it is not about identifying what is the right or wrong way of behaving; it is about how we understand each other across cultures.

The following cultural orientations are informed by the work of Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner (orientations 1-5 and 7), and Edward T. Hall (orientations 6 and 8). These orientations combine values, behaviours, and attitudes to create dimensions that help us explain and understand generalizations across cultural groups.

  1. Individualism vs communitarianism
  2. Universalism vs particularism
  3. Task (specific) vs relationship (diffuse)
  4. Achievement (egalitarian) vs ascription (hierarchy)
  5. Affective vs neutral
  6. Sequential time (monochronic) vs synchronous time (polychronic)
  7. Internal direction vs external direction
  8. Low context vs high context

As you explore these cultural orientations, keep in mind that:

  • These explain cultural tendencies and not inflexible descriptions or overgeneralizations (stereotypes).
  • There will always be exceptions because our complete outlook is shaped by our background, experiences, and interactions.
  • These dimensions do not favour one orientation style over another; it is not about a right way or wrong way of doing things.
  • The dimensions are about understanding the ways people move along different value spectrums.

Individualism vs communitarianism

What is this about?

How do we see ourselves in relation to others?




  • People value personal freedom and achievement
  • Quick decision making, one person, on the spot
  • Place great importance on being able to care for oneself
  • Vacations often in pairs or on your own

Communitarianism / Collectivism


  • People value consensus when making a decision
  • The group comes before individual needs
  • The group provides help and safety in exchange for loyalty
  • Vacations often in groups or with extended family

How does this look in context?

Activity: Individualism vs Communitarianism

Can you identify the value orientations in these statements?  [Statements adapted from Lantz-Deaton & Golubeva, 2020, p. 39]

Print out the worksheet How I Understand Myself Based on Cultural Orientations [a link to a Word document]  or on a piece of paper draw a horizontal line and mark the middle with an X or a vertical line. On each side, write “individualism” and “communitarianism” as shown below. Based on what you have learned, with what orientation do you feel more affinity? Do you feel your outlook and way of being and behaving are closer to one more than the other? Does it have elements of both? Where do you find yourself most of the time?

Mark with an “X” or a dot where you see yourself in relation to these orientations and, on the margins, write one or two examples of influences you had that moved you towards that orientation: for example, your background, family, education, type of work, organization, life experience, and so on.

Individualism __________________|__________________ Communitarianism

Save the sheet, you will use it later.

Universalism vs Particularism

What is this about?

How do we define what is fair?




  • People place high importance on laws, rules, values and obligations
  • Focus on dealing fairly with people based on these rules
  • Rules come before relationships



  • People believe that circumstances and relationships dictate the rules we follow
  • How people respond to a situation may be based on the context, what is happening, and the people involved

How does this look in context?

Activity: Universalism vs Particularism

Read each situation carefully and then reflect on the questions that follow. Focus on which position you would take and how this may look from another person’s perspective, then write a short explanation of your position based on the questions asked.

Situation 1

An international student from India at a university in Switzerland approaches his professor to ask if it would be possible to submit an assignment a bit later since he just started working on it. The professor politely explains that it is not possible to offer an extension because that would be unfair to the rest of the students. The student highlights how well he is doing in the class, how much he participates, and the good relationship he has with the professor. As a reply, the professor explains that although he is a brilliant student and they have a good relationship, this does not mean the rules can be bent in the student’s favour.
[Examples adapted from Moser, 2021]

Situation 2

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend when he hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 60 km/h where the maximum allowed speed is 30 km/h. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 30 km/h, it may save him from serious consequences.
[Examples adapted from Moser, 2021]

Studies have shown that when presented with similar cultural dilemmas, people from Switzerland, Canada, the USA, and Scandinavian countries generally lean on the importance to follow and abide by rules to create consistency and fairness. People in countries such as Venezuela, South Korea, Russia, and China generally pause to think about how fairness could be interpreted depending on the situation presented. These differences do not mean that certain people may or may not follow rules based on their culture, it means that we consider different things when defining what is fair.

Indicate on the worksheet where you see yourself in relation to these orientations. Write one or two examples of influences you have had that helped you move you towards that orientation.

Universalism __________________|__________________ Particularism

Task (specific) vs Relationship (diffuse)

What is this about?

How do we get things done? How far do we get involved?


Task (specific)

circle division

  • Work and personal life are separate so that relationships do not impact objectives
  • People can work together even if they do not have a good, close relationship
  • Focus is on the destination

Relationship (diffuse)

circle division

  • There is overlap between work and personal life, as good relationships are vital to achieving objectives
  • People tend to spend time outside work hours with peers; private and public flow into each other
  • Focus is on the journey

How does this look in context?

Activity: Task vs Relationship

Which of the following are examples of task or relationship orientations?

Remember that when it comes to cultural orientations you do not “belong” to either one or the other. You may have general leanings towards one when you consider everything you do. However, you may still have elements of the other orientation based on what works best within your culture, your organization, and your personal life. As an example, if you work on a project with peers from Germany and Peru, it is very likely that the German nationals will emphasize the need for clear roles, instructions, and processes before spending time learning more about other people in the team. Conversely, your Peruvian peers may be more comfortable focusing on building a relationship, taking time to talk about each other, before you focus on project work. In this case, the key is to find a balance that works for everyone.

Indicate on the worksheet where you see yourself in relation to these orientations. Write one or two examples of influences you have had that helped you move you towards that orientation.

Task (specific) __________________|__________________ Relationship (diffuse)

Achievement (egalitarian) vs Ascription (hierarchical)

What is this about?

How do we view status and hierarchy? Do we have to prove ourselves to receive status or is it given to us?


Achievement (egalitarian)


  • Status is not as important, what matters is your performance, no matter who you are
  • You are what you do and what you have achieved

Ascription (hierarchy)


  • Status is important, and you should be valued for who you are
  • Power, title, and position are recognized and often define behaviours and relationships
  • Roles define behaviour

How does this look in context?

Activity: Achievement vs Ascription

Consider the following situations carefully and then reflect on the questions that follow. Focus on how you feel within the context of each situation and reflect on how you would react to or deal with the different ways of engaging in each meeting.

Situation 1 – Achievement (egalitarian)

You obtain your degree and are then offered a job in Denmark that corresponds with your qualifications and competence. When invited to discuss issues in a meeting, you notice that anyone, from the student intern to the VP, can participate or challenge decisions because everyone has the competence and/or capacity to do so.

Think about this

  • How comfortable do you feel engaging in this way?
  • Would you prefer to have the person with a higher-ranked position or more seniority lead the decision-making?
  • How comfortable would you be challenging something that you disagree with?

Situation 2 – Ascription (hierarchy)

Examples adapted from Moser, 2021

You obtain your degree and are offered a job in Dubai that clearly reflects your qualifications and experience. During meetings, you notice you are encouraged to speak out, but only if you correspond with your peer in terms of seniority, gender, or social status.

Think about this

  • How comfortable do you feel engaging in this way?
  • Would you prefer to be able to voice your thoughts regardless of who the other people in the meeting might be?
  • How comfortable would you be challenging something that you disagree with?

It may be useful to think about the way you were raised—what your parents and professors expected from you. For example, if you were expected to always obey your parents without question, to refrain from interrupting professors in class, and to use titles when referring to your teachers (e.g., Dr. Lee or Prof Johnson), it is likely you are more comfortable with what constitutes an ascription orientation (often observed in people from India, China, and Japan). Conversely, if you are encouraged to voice your ideas, regardless of your gender or background, even if they seem to be against what your parents or professors think, and are comfortable calling your teachers by their first names (e.g., Allina or George), you may be leaning towards an achievement orientation (commonly seen in Canada and the United States).

Indicate on the worksheet where you see yourself in relation to these orientations. Write one or two examples of influences you have had that helped you move you towards that orientation.

Achievement (egalitarian) __________________|__________________ Ascription (hierarchy)

Affective vs Neutral

What is this about?

How do we express emotions? How do we manage them?


Affective (emotional)


  • Express emotions freely, spontaneously in public and private, at work, in the classroom, or in social situations
  • Reveal thoughts and feelings verbally and nonverbally (it shows on the face)
  • Showing emotion is accepted and even expected
  • Behaviour and engagement are expressive
  • Hiding emotions may be considered dishonest



  • Discourage revealing emotions too quickly to people with whom we are not close
  • Being neutral is considered professional
  • Lack of emotional tone is preferred
  • Reason influences actions more than feelings
  • People may not reveal what they are thinking or how they are feeling

How does this look in context?

Activity: Affective vs Neutral

Think about this

  • How comfortable do you feel expressing your emotions when you are with family? Is it the same when you are at university or at work?
  • How do you perceive people that seem to keep emotions to themselves? What about people who have no problem displaying them?
  • What stereotypes do you think you created based on this? How can you reinterpret that?

Research identifies people from Scandinavia, Russia, and South Korea as having the tendency to control their emotions when in public contexts. In contrast, many people from Latin America, Southern Italy, and most Middle Eastern countries seem to have a tendency to express their emotions more freely.

In addition to cultural orientations, personalities and the context of the situation also affect how people react, whether we are comfortable showing our feelings or trying to maintain a neutral exterior. Furthermore, cultures cannot be one or the other. The amount of visible emoting (the ease with which we display our feelings) differs greatly across cultures and, just as it happens with any other orientation, all actions, reactions, and interactions will be influenced by factors other than cultural tendencies.

Indicate on the worksheet where you see yourself in relation to these orientations. Write one or two examples of influences you have had that helped you move you towards that orientation.

Affective __________________|__________________ Neutral

Sequential time (monochronic) vs synchronous time (polychronic)

What is this about?

How do we define and approach time?


Sequential time (monochronic)


  • High value on punctuality, sticking to the plan, and planning
  • Being late is considered disrespectful
  • People like events to happen in order
  • Preference for focusing on one thing at a time, focusing on the big picture

Synchronous time (polychronic)


  • Plans and commitments are flexible
  • Being late is not a sign of disrespect
  • People see past, present, and future as interrelated
  • People may work on several projects at once

How does this look in context?

Activity: Monochronic vs Polychronic

Can you decide what time orientation is illustrated in the following situations?

The sequential time/monochronic orientation has often been observed in countries like Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and England. While the synchronous time/polychronic orientation seems to be common in countries like India, Colombia, French Polynesia, and Nigeria. It is important to remember that in addition to the overall tendencies towards one or another way to construct time, there will be variations across countries.

An important note about past-present-future orientations:

How we orient ourselves with regards to time goes beyond what is considered being punctual and our preference for focusing on one or several projects at the same time. How we regard time affects our outlook, where we look to identify goals, what is important for us to preserve or change, and what we consider when planning for the future. For example:

  • Métis, Inuit, and First Nations people of Canada tend to place high importance on oral history, origin of the family, traditional values, and respect shown for ancestors and older people. This is understood as a time orientation towards the past. In varying degrees, this tendency is also found among people from China, England, Japan, and most Latin American countries.
  • Considering the past as passed and the future as uncertain allows people to place greater importance on the “here and now,” focusing on short-term benefits and immediate results, allowing things to flow. This tendency is described as a present orientation and has been observed in some African countries.
  • Cultural groups that centre their efforts on future planning, constantly strategizing, making changes that will provide benefits in the long term, and focus on the bigger picture and ways to achieve those goals are considered as oriented toward the future. This tendency is often seen in people from Germany and mainstream US nationals.

Indicate on the worksheet where you see yourself in relation to these orientations. Write one or two examples of influences you have had that helped you move you towards that orientation.

Sequential time(monochronic) _______________|_______________ Synchronous time (polychronic)

Internal direction vs external direction

What is this about?

How do we relate to our environment?


Internal direction


  • People believe they can control nature or their environment (where they work or study) to reach their goals
  • Focus on self, own group, own organization
  • The attitude is, “I master my own destiny”
  • Playing tough is legitimate
  • The most important thing is to achieve the objective

External direction


  • People believe that nature, or their environment (where they work or study), controls them
  • Focus actions on others (peers, colleagues, partner, customer), and avoid conflict
  • The attitude is, “God willing,” “Whatever will be will be”
  • Must work with their environment to achieve goals
  • The most important thing is to maintain the relationship

How does this look in context?

Activity: Internal vs external

Can you identify the orientations these statements refer to? [Some examples adapted from Moser, 2021]

People in countries with a tendency for an internal orientation include Israel, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. People who often lean towards an external orientation include China, Saudi Arabia, and Spain. As with other orientations, remember that internal and external dimensions are influenced by other orientations, the situation, background, and personal experience. For example, a person may still wish another one “good luck” even if people from that culture have a strong internal orientation. Similarly, a person from a country mostly oriented towards an external orientation will still find value in some competition and will focus on achieving their goals. People do not belong to one or another, elements of both can be found in a group or community.

Indicate on the worksheet where you see yourself in relation to these orientations. Write one or two examples of influences you have had that helped you move you towards that orientation.

Internal direction __________________|__________________ External direction

Low context vs high context

What is this about?

How important is the context in communication? How much do we rely on context for communication?


Low context


  • Communication is more explicit: The message is clearly put into words
  • Clear descriptions, highly specific, no ambiguous communication
  • “Say what you mean and say it clearly”
  • Example: Legal contracts—all the details are clearly laid out

High context


  • Communication is more implicit: Not everything needs to be put into words
  • Part of the message may be shared through nonverbal cues and silences
  • “Read between the lines”
  • Example: Chinese opera—symbols and movements may have a hidden meaning

How does this look in context?

Activity: Low vs. High Context

Read the following situation and then reflect on the questions that follow. Position yourself behind both perspectives and then write a couple of sentences reflecting on the questions.

(adapted from Lantz-Deaton & Golubeva, 2020, p. 36)

At a small university in Turkey, students are given a somewhat vague verbal assignment by a lecturer to write a 10-page paper on international development that will be due sometime before the end of the term. After class, an exchange student from Canada who has recently arrived approaches the lecturer and begins asking a lot of detailed questions: what the font size should be, if there is a word count, how many references to include, when the exact deadline is, which specific topics should be addressed, and so on. The lecturer becomes tired of all the questions and excuses themselves.

People from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have been thought to be more high-context cultures, where there are unwritten rules and messages that cannot always be understood without background knowledge. People from countries with a low-context orientation tend to convey messages explicitly, very little is taken for granted, and the focus is on the words—the verbal message—more than on implicit messages. Countries with a low-context orientation include Canada, the United States, and most of Western Europe.

Indicate on the worksheet where you see yourself in relation to these orientations. Write one or two examples of influences you have had that helped you move you towards that orientation.

Low context __________________|__________________ High context

Think about this

Take a look at the worksheet you completed and reflect on your orientations as a whole.

  • Are your orientations based on your cultural background, values, things that you learned as you were growing up?
  • Do they reflect cultural values, organizational values, or personal values?
  • How do you think you may be perceived based on this?
  • What can you do to communicate your orientations?
  • How does learning about cultural orientations may help you as you interact with people from other cultural groups?

Takeaway points:

  • Cultural orientations help us understand different perspectives, inform our interpretation of behaviours, and can help us avoid misunderstandings. Having more extensive knowledge of values and orientations can also help us find ways to establish trust, engage with people interculturally, and make better decisions that are fair to all.
  • Remember that these orientations express tendencies and help us understand how values may contrast across cultures; one must be mindful when interpreting them to avoid turning an observation of a tendency into a stereotype or an inflexible description of cultures.

Try This Strategy

  • Talk to a peer or relative from your cultural group about your findings in this section. Ask them about their own orientations based on what you shared. Are there commonalities? Do you differ in any way?
  • Try to do the same with a peer from a different cultural group and use this opportunity to learn about their orientations. Remember, they could be associated with cultural tendencies or express personal preferences. Take the initiative to interact with more than a couple of people from that same group, so you continue to identify tendencies while deconstructing stereotypes and learning more about them and their experiences.

Media Attributions


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