It helps – to put your CULTURE in perspective – when trying to understand the Danish one

Coming to Denmark as an expat means having to deal with a culture that is not your own, and that can be a puzzling experience – to say the least.

By Inger Stokkink     Pictures: PR

Many Danes and other expats are more than willing to help newcomers adjust, with explanations, how-to’s and personal experiences. But sometimes it helps to take a step back and look at ‘culture’ from a broader perspective.

Geert Hofstede offers such a perspective. He is a Dutch sociologist who has made it his work to explore and compare different cultures. What started as a work satisfaction survey at IBM developed into a huge scientific research project comparing cultures with each other by asking people about their values.

His milestone scientific work, Culture’s Consequences (1980, 2001), also has a little sister aimed at a broader audience: Cultures and Organizations: the Software of the Mind (1991, 2010 – the last edition with his son Gert-Jan and colleague Michael Minkov).

The interesting thing is that now, more than 40 years later, it is still under construction: researchers who want to apply the survey to a country, organisation or group, are invited to do so, and they are invited to share their findings with Hofstede’s organisation, who shares it with the rest of the world.

Understanding cultural differences

In Hofstede’s eyes, culture is the set of values people grow up with and, most importantly, is being taught in schools and organisations. These values determine a person’s way of thinking, feeling and acting – and interacting with other people.

Typically, misunderstandings arise when people with different value backgrounds interact. The first step in clearing up the misunderstanding and finding a solution is to realise that the cause may be cultural differences and finding out more about them.

Since culture is about values, people feel strongly about it. Everybody has an opinion about these topics, is his or her own ‘expert’, so to speak, and has been brought up with what is ‘right’. This is precisely what culture is about in Hofstede’s eyes.

In some countries, for example, it is ‘normal’ that hierarchy defines the way people treat each other. In others, like Denmark, hierarchy is of little significance. Likewise, individualism takes a front seat in Denmark, whereas in other countries collectivism is normal.


An ongoing process

Awareness of cultural differences and awareness of how your own values can bias your view is, in Hofstede’s eyes, the first and most important step. Knowledge about the other culture is next. Finally, skills, such as awareness, knowledge and practice combined, to navigate through it are essential.

All in all, Hofstede’s approach is very much based on human curiosity, the willingness to learn, the willingness to communicate, and the willingness to step back and look at your own values critically. His dimensions are tools in doing so. Most importantly perhaps, it is an ongoing process – both for Hofstede and his scientific work, and for expats right in the middle of cultural differences.

Hofstede discovered that values, the building stones of cultures, can be clustered around five topics: power distance (PDI), individualism (IND), uncertainty avoidance (UAD), masculinity (MAS), and long-term orientation (LTO) – see the dimensions below.

Seeing cultural differences as more or less of ‘the same’, instead of something alien, can be an eye-opener.

Cultural differences


PDI – Power distance: high or low

  This dimension measures equality – or inequality. In Hofstede’s words: “the extent to which less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally”. Denmark scores low: very egalitarian, informal, keen on equal rights.

IDV – Individualism versus collectivism

This dimension measures the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. Do you imagine yourself in terms of an individual or as part of a larger group? Denmark scores high: Danes treasure personal autonomy, they also communicate very directly.  

MAS – Masculinity versus femininity

This dimension measures values about motivation: task-oriented or interaction-oriented, wanting to be the best, or liking what you do. This dimension also received a fair share of criticism because at first sight it reinforces the stereotypes about men and women – and superiority of men over women. But that was not what Hofstede was looking for. He is not interested in what men and women do, he is interested in social gender roles and their underlying values. Denmark scores low: making sure everyone is included, negotiation instead of confrontation, and insisting on consensus are all expressions of a ‘feminine’ society.


UAI – Uncertainty avoidance: high or low

This dimension measures how much members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations, and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these. It also covers how people look at the future, which by definition is unpredictable. Technology, law and religion are very different ways of coping with different sorts of unpredictability: that of natural forces, that of other people and of all other things that cannot be explained immediately. Denmark scores low: plans can change overnight, but it also shows in the social acceptance of saying ‘I don’t know’.

LTO – Long-term or short-term orientation

This dimension originally emerged from research on Chinese values. It measures how a society maintains links with its own past while dealing with challenges of the present and the future. Societies that score low here are those with more respect for traditions, more averse to change, less inclined to feel shame, and less inclined to save money. Societies that score high are more pragmatic, more responsive to change, more inclined to feel shame, and more inclined to thrift and saving money. Denmark scores low: Danish culture is normative, with great respect for traditions.  

IVR – Indulgence versus Restraint

This relatively new dimension measures to what extent people try to control their desires and impulses. It involves values on how children should be brought up. Denmark scores high: Danish culture treasures having fun, enjoying life, and having leisure time in which you can do as you please.
You can take a culture test to understand more about your own value set here