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Culture and Context: A Summary of Geert Hofstede's and Edward Hall's Theories of Cross-Cultural Communication for Web Usability

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As the World Wide Web spreads across national borders, it has become increasingly important for users to respect and understand cultural differences in how people communicate and use the Internet. This knowledge is particularly crucial for people in international business, technology professions, and other work areas that require people from different cultures to interact online.

What is culture?

The roots of the word culture come from the Latin word colere (to inhabit, cultivate). The original meaning was used in the biological sciences (for example, a bacterial culture). In the mid-to-late 19th century, the term came to be applied to the social development of humans.

Today, the most commonly accepted meaning of the word comes from Ernest Gellner, who calls culture "the socially transmitted and sometimes transformed bank of acquired traits (1997 3)." Although culture is a social phenomenon, biological characteristics are often connected to it. For example, we see people of a particular gender, age, skin color, or body type (height, weight, etc) and we assume they must belong to a particular culture. All cultures have a system of communication (linguistic and non-verbal), comprise the basis of self-identity and community, and exhibit behaviors and practices that are visible.

Varieties of Culture

We can speak of varieties of cultures such as subcultures or micro-cultures. For example: religious cultures (Catholic, Islamic); social cultures (hockey players, snowboarders); occupational or work cultures (military, business, actors/actresses) and so forth. The boundaries among these different groups overlap, are permeable, change, and evolve over time. Cultures are organic entities. The most historically successful cultures adapt to outside forces, manage their environmental resources equitably and sustainably, make friends with their neighbors, and have relatively egalitarian social and economic structures (Diamond 2005).

Universal Dimensions of Cultures

In the 1960s and 1970s, two theorists, Geert Hofstede (1980) and Edward Hall (1976), independently developed paradigms for the organization and identification of cultures. The central motives of this research were to see if there exist universal categories of culture that span social communities and nations. This research produced five dimensions that are applicable to cultures all over the world: High/Low Context; Power-Distance; Collectivist-Individualistic; Feminine-Masculine; and Uncertainty Avoidance

High/Low Context

Context is best defined as the array of stimuli surrounding a communication event including: body gestures; tone of voice; physical distance between interlocutors; time of day; weather; situation (for example, during a war commemoration ceremony); societal norms; geographic place of communication; and other external factors.

There are two types of context dimensions: high-context and low-context. The essential difference between the two is the importance that each culture places on the context versus the actual message itself. High-context cultures assign primary importance to the stimuli surrounding a message and secondary importance to the message itself. In a high-context culture, you will hear communication norms like what matters isn't what is said but who said it, no talking in church, and it's not what you say but how you say it. High-context cultures need more time to make decisions and perform transactions than low-context cultures. There are a lot of "read-between-the-lines" scenarios.

According to Nitish Singh, "high context cultures have close connections among group members, and everybody knows what every other person knows. Most information is intrinsically known (implicit) rather than explicit (2005 55)." A good example of high-context communication: a husband and wife see each other across a crowded room at a party and wink affectionately. Outside observers will never know the explicit message that is communicated, or observers may misinterpret the message (they are saying they love each other - oh, how nice!). In fact, the couple may simply be indicating that it is time to leave the party, go home, let the dog out, and put the kids to bed. According to Singh, "in general, high-context cultures use more symbols and non-verbal cues in communication. Meaning is embedded in a situational context (2005 55)." High context cultures tend to have legal systems rooted in testimonial, rank (for example: what is the societal class or official rank of the person who is charged with theft in this case?), and assign credibility to informal networks of family, friends and associates over institutions, bureaucracies and governments.

Low-Context cultures assign primary meaning to the objective communication message and secondary meaning to the context. In a low-context culture, you will hear communication norms like just the facts please, give me the bottom line and tell it to me in plain English / like it is. Low-context cultures emphasize speed, accuracy, and efficiency in communication (a "lean" message is preferred). According to Singh, "low-context cultures are logical, linear, action-oriented, and the mass of information is explicit and formalized. Communication is expected to proceed in a rational, verbal, and explicit way (2005 55)." Concrete, not abstract, meaning is expected. Low-context cultures place great emphasis on the written word and tend to have legal systems rooted in writing such as a constitution and other governing documents. In some situations, legal bureaucracies supplant the role of informal networks of friends, family, and associates.

Within the frame of context one finds a subset of cultural categories based on time. All cultures either have a monochromatic or polychromatic sense of time. In monochromatic culture, time is perceived in a linear fashion. Hence the expressions "time marches on" and "time is like a river flowing to the sea." Monochromatic cultures organize themselves around a calendar and emphasize punctuality. Low-context cultures tend to be monochromatic. In polychromatic cultures, there are many things going on at once. In some polychromatic societies, the past is not something to be forgotten but rather past events continue to evolve and develop in the present time. Polychromatic cultures tend to be high-context.

Power-Distance

Power-distance is the extent to which people accept unequal power distribution in a society. A high power-distance society believes in strict authority and hierarchy and has low egalitarianism. Less powerful citizens of such societies tend to accept this unequal power distribution. A low power-distance society emphasizes egalitarianism and shared power. The leader in such a society is a "first-among equals." There may be a moral and cognitive aspect to the power-distance dimension (see Lakoff 2002).

Collectivist-Individualist

This dimension refers to the extent to which people prioritize or weigh their individuality against their willingness to submit to the goals of the group. In individualistic cultures, the needs of individuals over groups is emphasized. Individual achievement and success are emphasized as are making one's mark in the world, standing out, and being unique. The opposite situation holds in collectivist cultures, where group success is more important than individual achievement. Willingness to support the group and larger societal goals and one's allegiance to group goals is more important than individual pursuits.

Feminine-Masculine

This dimension encompasses the extent to which a culture exhibits traditionally masculine attributes (assertiveness, competitiveness, toughness, ambition, achievement, material possessions, success) or feminine (family, cooperation, tenderness, nurturing, caring for others, preserving the environment, quality of life) and the extent to which gender distinctions are maintained.

Uncertainty Avoidance

This dimension reflects the extent to which a society willingly embraces or avoids the unknown. A culture with high uncertainty avoidance values predictability, structure, and order. A culture with low uncertainty avoidance values risk taking, ambiguity, and limited structure. People from high uncertainty avoidance cultures tend to have low tolerance for conflict and value security over risk. Societies that have a history of military conflict and political instability or repression tend to have populations with low uncertainty avoidance.

Inter-Dimensional Relationships and Cognitive Processes

Studies show that some dimensions correlate positively with others. For example, masculinity correlates positively with power distance (that is, cultures with high masculinity also tend to have higher power distance). Cognitive habits may also coincide with cultural dimensions. For example, locus of control (the degree to which a person believes events result from internal or external forces, such as a computer hard disk running after clicking a mouse) correlates with at least two dimensions. In places where uncertainty avoidance and power distance are low, people tend to have an internal perception of locus of control; conversely, regions with high levels of the two dimensions have a correspondingly external perception of locus of control (deMooij 2005).

Conclusion

The dimensions of cultures include:

A solid knowledge and application of cultural dimensions as partially discussed here will aid classification of web site usability.

References

deMooij, M. (2005). Global Marketing and Advertising. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage.

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin.

Gellner, E. (1997). Nationalism. New York: University Press.

Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Marcus, A. and Gould, E. (Jul-Aug 2000). Crosscurrents: Cultural Dimensions and Global Web User-Interface Design. interactions 7(4), 32-46.

Singh, N. and Pereira, A. (2005). The Culturally Customized Web Site. Burlington MA: Elsevier.