Understanding Different Cultures By Understand Them

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Written by: pTranslate Contributors


In order to thrive in the diverse and uncertain environment of today’s international business landscape, it is important that global managers familiarize themselves with learning models and frameworks that enable them to understand and navigate through all of the complexities and uncertainties of working across borders.

These uncertainties arose due to the vast differences in management practices, business processes, and cultural values around the world.

These differences aren’t one-dimensional. They are a product of history, psychology, language, and even geography. People in different countries behave in the way they do because they grow in a culture that condition them to do so.

When working with foreign clients or growing your business in an entirely new country whose culture differs from your, it is crucial that you have a framework to develop your cultural understanding. We can’t understand a culture by aimlessly asking people around us questions. We must have a system to base our understanding on.

Researchers have developed cultural models to analyze these cultural differences and similarities. pTranslate has written a detailed post on this, which you definitely should read HERE.

understanding other cultures

For a quick summary, this model analyzes cultures from 5 angles by answering 5 important questions:

1) Power Distribution: How are power and authority distributed in a society? Is it based on a hierarchy or egalitarianism?

2) Social Relationships: Do people have a tendency to base their identity on the communities they are in or on their inner values?

3) Environmental Relationship: Do people wish to master their surroundings or live in harmony with it?

4) Attitudes Towards Time: Do people approach time in a linear (one thing at a time) or non-linear (everything at once) manner? Those who work in a linear fashion is monochronic, while those who pursue the non-linear approach is polychronic.

5) Uncertainty: How do societies reduce uncertainty? Do they control the members through rules, policies, laws, social norms, or through personal relationships and in-group values? Those who value rules highly belong to rule-based cultures, while the other group belongs to relationship-based cultures.

You can also have a look at the image below for a better understanding of the model. Each dimension is displayed as a spectrum, with their sides being 2 extremes.

understanding other cultures: 5 dimensions of culture

Of course, it is not realistic to throw a country into one extreme or another. Most countries fall somewhere in-between. One country can be strongly collectivistic, and strongly relationship-based, while other is moderately collectivistic and rule-based, for instance.

In this article, we will attempt to grade the culture of different regions of the world based on the model laid out above.

  • The Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, New Zealand): The Anglo countries are English-speaking nations that share common ancestral, historical, and cultural ties with England, or the UK. Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, and New Zealand are the most developed countries of this group, so they are also called the “core Anglo countries”. 

The distinct feature of this country is strong individualism. The American culture has always been known for its high value of freedom and equality. There is a less defined hierarchy in these countries. People are treated as an equal, and employees aren’t too afraid to question the decisions of those in authority.

  • The Arab countries (e.g. Dubai, Egypt, Saudi Arabia): Arab culture is highly diverse. These countries have contributed tremendously to the world culture in the earlier centuries

Arab countries are highly hierarchical. There are clearly defined rules as what one should and should not do, according to their positions in society. As one of the cradle of humanity, religion and philosophy is extremely developed here, and people generally value a more harmonious lifestyle. Similar to other collectivist societies, Arab countries pursue a relationship-based approach to dealing with uncertainty, which means that sometimes rules and strict regulations can be bypassed if the people involved have personal connections. 

  • Eastern European countries (e.g. Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland): these countries are located in the Eastern region of Europe, close to Russia, which makes their cultures share certain similarities with Russia.

East European culture is influenced by Russian culture. Although they are well-known for the collectivist mindset ever since the later part of the 20th century, they have grown to adopt a more individualist culture, yet, at its core, these countries are still more group-oriented. 

  • East/Southeast Asian countries (e.g. China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam): China was the country with the biggest influence in the region. However, throughout history, each countries have grown separated from China and developed their own culture.

East Asian and Southeast Asian countries are among the most collectivist countries, especially Japan, China, and Korea. Collectivist mindsets are heavily embedded in every single daily activity, every single word they speak, and of course, their traditions. There exists a strong hierarchy, and people are expected to conform to their social rankings. Any deviations from these predetermined positions are seen as disrespectful. They are also strongly relationship-based. If you do business with East Asian countries, you should realize that business deals are signed outside of the offices, once you have developed a relationship with your clients and showed them that they can trust in future deals.

  • Latin American (e.g. Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico): these countries were heavily influenced by Spanish cultures

Spain is itself a collectivist countries, reflected through their many festivals and traditions that promote community bonding and family connections. Like many other collectivist countries, Latin American societies are founded on a hierarchy, although not as rigid as that of East Asian countries. They approach life with a harmony-oriented and relationship-based mindset.

  • Latin European (e.g. France, Italy, Spain): each of these countries have their own unique features that distinguish them from the other.

As mentioned earlier, Spain is highly collectivist, as well as France and Italy. Family connections are highly valued there. There are many traditions and festivals that encourage family members to bond and develop strong relationships with each other.

  • Germanic countries (Germany and Austria): these countries are characterized by their respect for rules and punctuality.

It is a signature of Germany and Austria. They are strong, resilient, and sometimes can be a little bit too rigid. Rules are universal, and everyone subject to the subject of the rule must obey, with no exception. Being late is usually unacceptable. Therefore, there is a fairly high sense of individualism in the country, as people are encouraged to thrive and perform the best in all settings.

  • Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden): they are also known as Scandinavian countries.

Cooperative, egalitarian, and practical – there is a sense of balance in the culture of these countries. They assume the image of our world’s utopia. If you walk into an IKEA meeting room, you might see the senior leaders and the interns sitting at the same table discussing ideas to grow the company. Despite this individualistic tendency, Nordic people still live in harmony with nature, mainly thanks to the vastly untapped natural resources and fascinating scenery of the region.

  • Sub-Saharan African countries (e.g. Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria)

African countries generally follow a collectivistic culture. Cooperation with the group is essential if you want to live in a region with not so favorable climate conditions. Rules and regulations are not well-established, and it is easy to bypass the rules if you have good networking and connections.

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It is easy to categorize countries into different groups based on the different aspects of their culture. Taken together, those 5 cultural dimensions might provide us with invaluable insights into how a culture and its people work, and consequently, how a business and organization in that culture is conducted. One should, however, take note that this is still an oversimplified version of the concept of “culture”.

There are a lot of other cultural aspects that are too specific to be formalized into a one-size-fits-all model. The model above is merely a quick introduction into how culture can be understood, yet it is still very useful for global managers who want to investigate into the differences between countries.

Feel free to share your thoughts on how we can better understand the nature of a country’s culture in the comment section below. We are excited to hear inputs from experts and people with experience!

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