What is your cultural style?

Five scales to define your cultural style

Each one of us, consciously or otherwise, has her own cultural style, as a result of the basic values of the national culture, a style that could gradually be tweaked as you come into contact with other peoples and cultures, particularly when exposure to cultures different to ours continues over time.

In my previous article – "What is cultural intelligence?" – I described the theories of Brooks Peterson, according to which cultural intelligence is the result of four different types of intelligence: linguistic, spatial, intrapersonal and interpersonal. Speaking of intrapersonal intelligence, he introduced the concept of cultural style as an essential element for being able to develop one´s own cultural intelligence. As the ancient Greeks used to exhort with the notable phrase "know yourself", awareness of one`s own preferences and cultural attitudes is the first essential step in that direction.

Based on the theories of the most important researchers in the intercultural field, from G. Hofsteede to F. Trompenaars, from E.T. Hall to R Luis, Brooks Peterson explains five different sets of five different "cultural scales" which, by positioning oneself in each, allow each individual to become aware of the cultural values that exert an influence on one’s own behaviour.

Each of these scales refers to matters that can be manifested both at individual, organizational or national level. It is important to bear in mind that the examples mentioned below refer to national averages, which naturally cannot be considered as regional or religious differences or concerning different entrepreneurial cultures that can be found within a given country.

  • Equality vs. hierarchy

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A cultural style that is based on equality leads people to prefer to decide for themselves, to have flexibility of roles, to enjoy the freedom to stand up to the opinion of the powerful, as well as coming up with exceptions and thinking that men and women have the right to be treated in the same way.
Conversely, a cultural style based on hierarchy leads people to prefer following the instructions of their superiors, to have clearly defined roles, to respect the opinion of the powerful, to observe rules and very clear guidelines apart from conceiving that men and women behave and are treated differently.
A Swiss director expatriated to Russia or to China, for example, would have to apply more patience in these countries than her collaborators who are waiting to receive precise, detailed indications on how to proceed, not through being incapable, but because they are culturally accustomed to carrying out instructions rather than acting proactively. This is because Switzerland, on the cultural equality/hierarchical scale lies towards the left, while Russia and China are clearly positioned towards the right.

  • Direct vs. Indirect

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A direct cultural style entails a direct, frank communication, where the way of expressing oneself is less important than the content. Problems, difficulties or concerns are openly communicated, possible conflicts are dealt with, things are expressed in an explicit manner, without leaving room for interpretation.
On the contrary, an indirect cultural style focuses more on how it is communicated rather than what is communicated. Talk of problems or difficulties is avoided, efforts are made to avoid conflicts, concerns are expressed with tact and opinions with diplomacy. The contact person’s ability to know how to "read between the lines" is very important.

In a work conversation between an Italian and a German, for example, the Italian will often feel that she is being treated with indifference and will think that the contact person is not polite, while the German will feel that he is wasting time in useless chat and will think that his contact person is "beating about the bush", without ever clearly expressing what she means. This is because, as a general rule, the Italian has an indirect cultural style and the German a far more direct style.

  • Individual vs. Group

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An individualistic cultural style leads people to act based on individual initiative, focusing on themselves, having the idea of being non-conformist when needed, accessing or leaving certain groups driven by their needs and personal wishes.
Conversely, a cultural style focused on the group implies that the individual’s identity is defined based on belonging to a certain group, be it the family, friends or work companions, where the objectives and decisions are established at group level, where people tend to adapt themselves to the social norms and that belonging to a certain group of reference is for life.
As a general rule, Europeans and South Americans are prone to spend longer in accepting new people into their own circle, contrary to the North Americans, who are used to changing jobs often, as well as to moving geographically, with the subsequent tendency to access and leave different social groups with a greater flexibility. Needless to say, there are also differences among the various European cultures: in terms of averages, Spaniards and Germans are positioned more towards the right side of the scale, whereas the Italians and French are more towards the left.

  • Task vs. Relationship

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A task orientated cultural style implies that people are defined basing themselves on what they do and that in the work environment, they immediately focus on business affairs, leaving aside the relation-orientated aspects. Relationships with work companions and collaborators are more impersonal and superficial.
A relationship orientated cultural style, on the other hand, implies that people are defined basing themselves on who they are, rather than on what they do. Establishing trust-based relationships will be vital to be able to go beyond dealing with business affairs. Relationships with work companions and collaborators are fairly personal due to the fact that they gradually get to know each other better.
A North American scheduling a four-day business trip to China, convinced of being able to secure trade during her brief stay, will go back to her country extremely frustrated due to the large number of lunches, events, welcoming rituals and gifts of all shapes and sizes, which she perceives as a "waste of time". For their part, the Chinese will feel overwhelmed by the North American who tried to speed up events and deal with business matters all at once which, from their point of view, should be essentially devoted to building up the relationship.
Something very similar, although to a lesser extent, will happen to a German traveling to Paris to close a deal.
This is because a North American and a German are positioned more on the "task" side in this cultural scale, whereas a Chinese and a French person are positioned more towards the "relationship" side.

  • Risk vs. Caution

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A risk orientated cultural style leads people to tend towards taking decisions based on little information, focusing on the present and future, to being favourable to change and innovation, to feeling comfortable with few rules and with changes at the last minute.
A caution orientated cultural style, on the other hand, leads people to feel the need to gather sufficient information to be able to take a decision, focusing on the past, adapting to change at a slower pace, wanting more rules and guidelines, with a greater resistance to changes in the programme at the last minute.
Propensity or aversion to risk in itself is neither positive nor negative since, as always, there are pros and contras on each side of the scale. In this context, we can state that the countries most prone to risk tend to be more innovative, whereas the more cautious countries have a greater capacity for planning and looking after the details, which often leads to developing incomparable qualitative signs of distinction. To illustrate this point: the North Americans can boast of having a considerable number of inventions, while the Germans and Japanese are undoubtedly known for their high qualitative standards in the field of the precision machinery industry.
This is justified by the fact that the North Americans are positioned more towards "risk" on the scale, while the Germans and the Japanese more towards "caution".


How to identify one’s own cultural style? It is essential to analyse the five scales described above and reflect on which is one’s own predominating attitude in each. Becoming aware of its very workings and of the underlying dynamics to our behaviour is the first step towards increasing our cultural intelligence, above all developing intrapersonal intelligence. The second step will be to attempt to position the contact person on the same scale, adapting one’s own behaviour to the cultural preferences of the other or, at least, be able to choose the correct interpretational key to behaviour patterns apparently "mistaken" in terms of them being different from our own (interpersonal intelligence).

Read the articles on Expats and the world of Intercultural Mind

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