Small Wars Journal

Leveraging Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory to Improve the Quality of Information Operations

Wed, 03/13/2013 - 4:25am

Hypothetical Scenario

A new company commander has just taken ownership of battle space in a Middle Eastern country during an operation to enforce a peace treaty after a civil war. One of his first tasks is to explain his company’s presence and mission to the local population through local leaders. They are skeptical of the mass media messages they have received about the operation since the previous regime used the media only for propaganda. Furthermore, since the regime restricted the population’s access to basic information, they are ignorant about the world outside of their communities.  Given the commanders penchant for direct talk and honesty, he sticks to talking about the facts relevant to the situation.  He explains his troops are in the country to enforce a peace treaty in compliance with a U.N. Resolution and they know little about. He also states he has a  mission to apprehend war criminals wanted under the auspices of international law.

The commander notices the local leaders appear dumbfounded and anxious after he makes his initial case. “What is international law, and why is the U.N. in charge of our country?” they ask. The commander makes a common communications mistake by repeating what he said more slowly and with a raised voice.  In response the local influencers are more confused about the commanders intentions towards them and grow more irritated and anxious. The commander becomes more aggravated by their inability to understand him and displays this in his body language and facial expressions. The local leaders walk out of the meeting and secretly decide to resist the new occupiers since they must be a threat to their community. Could this situation have been handled more effectively?

Hofstede’s Theory

Successful information operations (IO) often require effective inter-cultural communications in order to inform and influence foreign audiences. However, effective inter-cultural communication is difficult because it requires a comprehensive understanding of the partner culture. There is a perennial risk of miscommunication, and, during a military operation, this can lead to conflict and violence. Miscommunication is often unintentional, stemming from a lack of cultural understanding and poor communication skills. Fortunately, there are empirically proven analytical tools to understand culture and prevent potentially dangerous miscommunication.

Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory is an analytical tool at the disposal of the IO practitioner. He developed his theory while researching international management practices for International Business Machines. Hofestede’s theory has been empirically tested by numerous independent researchers and has been proven valid. It provides a conceptual framework for analyzing a nation’s culture in order to construct an effective inter-cultural communications plan. His research identified five essential dimensions of national culture even though other less important ones exist. These five dimensions are uncertainty avoidance, power-distance, long vs. short-term orientation, masculinity vs. feminity, and collectivism vs. individualism.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Hofstede’s first dimension is uncertainty avoidance, which is the degree to which a culture tolerates uncertainty, ambiguity, and non-traditional behavior. Each national culture has a unique level of tolerance for uncertainty, and each copes with it differently. Uncertainty causes some level of anxiety in most people, and high levels of uncertainty generally cause high levels of anxiety. Since anxiety is psychologically uncomfortable, people will take some action to reduce it. A common anxiety reducing response is to engage in information seeking behavior, like asking questions.14 Each culture has different behavioral norms guiding the reduction of uncertainty and different thresholds to determine when action must be taken. Cultures that have a high tolerance for uncertainty cope with anxiety more effectively and tend to exhibit less extreme responses to reduce it. Other cultures have a low tolerance for uncertainty and will experience greater anxiety from it. In response, they will go to great lengths to avoid and reduce uncertainty. In some cases, this can translate into violence or hostility by members of a low tolerance culture who feel threatened by uncertainty.[1]

American culture has a high tolerance for uncertainty, and Americans experience less uncertainty caused anxiety when confronted with it. They will exhibit less extreme behavior in order to reduce uncertainty and may simply ignore situations presenting low levels of it. A problem arises when Americans transfer their high tolerance into their inter-cultural communications with low-tolerance cultures like Iraq. Ambiguous messages or behaviors that seem harmless to an American can introduce dangerous levels of uncertainty into a relationship with Iraqis. Uncertainty is not delivered just through verbal communications, but also through nonverbal behavior. Inconsistent practices amongst different units conducting checkpoints can confuse Iraqis as to what actions he is expected to take. This may cause unnecessary fear and resentment since they is in danger every time encounters a checkpoint. This might unnecessarily provoke them into active or passive resistance.[2]

A common example of how uncertainty, avoidance plays out in relationships between Westerners and Arabs is with cross-gender interactions. Low tolerance cultures will commonly develop complex codes of conduct to reduce uncertainty by controlling the behavior of in-group members. Following these rules will reduce or eliminate non-traditional behavior and help to maintain harmony within that culture.[3] In Iraq, rules controlling interaction between women and unrelated men help to prevent creating perceptions of shameful behaviors like aggressive flirting. An American male may stop an Iraqi woman to ask for directions, which is acceptable behavior in his culture. However, Iraqis might interpret this behavior as improper or threatening, since it is nontraditional in their culture. The Iraqi woman who doesn’t understand why the American approached her may interpret this as an unwanted sexual advance.

The IO practioner must to understand how their audience tolerates uncertainty, and how they will behave when they are presented with it. Unfortunately, there is no standard formula for deciphering what is considered to be uncertain messages or behaviors in a particular culture. The practitioner must extensively study the norms, values, laws, myths, and other factors of their communication partner’s culture to establish some boundaries of conduct. Beyond this, one should try to understand and emulate how people within that culture communicate with each other. Furthermore, messages and behaviors should be pre-tested with a segment of the audience before they are implemented. Members of a partner culture will often be glad to tell what messages and behaviors are ambiguous or nontraditional and recommend better ones.

Masculinity vs. Feminity

Hofstede’s second cultural dimension is masculinity vs. femininity, which is broadly concerned about the role of aggression, achievement, and gender roles in a culture. Masculine societies are more aggressive and achievement oriented, which are traits associated with men in general. A feminine society values relationship building, human welfare, and the maintenance of harmony in society, which are qualities associated with women. In a masculine society, assertive behavior is expected and rewarded, while it is sanctioned in feminine societies. In a masculine society, gender roles are clearly defined in a traditional manner. In a feminine society, gender roles are less specific or important.[4]

America is a masculine-oriented culture with a strong bias for action, and this is even more pronounced in military culture.  Problems can arise when American’s fail to accommodate their inter-cultural communication styles when interacting with partners from both feminine and masculine cultures.  Interactions with other masculine cultures are prone to unwarranted conflict if both sides are too assertive and try to dominate each other. To much assertiveness during interactions with feminine cultures can offend them and lead to a termination of the relationship. Masculine cultures may misinterpret lack of assertiveness amongst feminine cultures as weakness or laziness. Thus, adjusting messages and actions to account for this dimension can lead to more effective inter-cultural communications.[5]

The most feminine cultures are Scandavian countries and Holland, which are also NATO allies of the U.S. Individual military service members from these countries, may be very masculine, but they are still bound by the norms of their cultures. These countries generally tend to place excessive restrictions on what actions their militaries can take since aggressiveness is not valued. This factor can strain an alliance when masculine countries demand more aggressiveness than their allies are willing to exhibit. The best solution is to assign roles to these partners that are suitable for their cultural orientation. Allies from feminine cultures may be superior at certain roles, such as conflict resolution and militia disarmament, than those from masculine cultures.

IO practioners must adjust their messages and methods to account for masculine or feminine cultural orientations of their partners. Restraining assertiveness during interactions with other masculine cultures is the best method of preventing an escalation of tensions. Overmatching the aggressiveness of a masculine partner must only be done when you are prepared to fight in case they don’t back down. Interactions with feminine cultures should seek to build relationships and maintain harmony by building consensus through compromise and negotiation. Unless the intention is to dominate the partner and accept their inevitable resistance, restraint of aggressive tendencies is usually the best option.

Long or Short Term Orientation

The third dimension, long vs. short-term orientation, deals with whether a culture favors the search for truth or adherence to values. The important point is that a Long-Term Orientation (LTO) values persistence, thrift, and contextual thinking. LTO cultures will sacrifice short-term gain for long-term benefits and can often command greater sacrifice from their members. LTO cultures are very flexible in their thinking and will easily adjust their actions as circumstances dictate. The Short-Term Orientation (STO) dimension values rationality, immediate results, and preservation of current financial and social stability. They are more rigid in their thinking and will generally not adapt to the context of the situation as readily. STO cultures focus on short-term gain at the expense of long-term benefits and can command fewer sacrifices from their members. Most importantly, LTO and STO cultures are on different wavelength in their conceptions about time and how they use time.[6]

America is an STO culture with a strong emphasis on immediate gains and personal stability. This orientation is strongly reflected in corporate behavior where decisions are made to gain short term profits even if it is detrimental to long-term financial strength. For instance, laying off American workers and outsourcing overseas will increase corporate profits even though it drains resources from their homeland. Americans can often project their STO attitudes onto communication with LTO members, which will potentially cause miscommunication. LTO cultures are often high-context cultures, which rely heavily upon nonverbal environmental cues to communicate a message. Thus, messages or actions emphasizing short-term gains that are inconsistent with long-term goals will likely be rejected. STO failure to properly address the context of the situation in their action and messages can also lead to rejection.[7]

STO cultures can be at a disadvantage and vulnerable to manipulation when dealing with LTO cultures. Members of LTO cultures can lure members of STO cultures into making bad long-term decisions in exchange for short-term benefits. During military operations, LTO cultures have more perseverance and can simply wait out operations of STO cultures. LTO cultures are willing to accept greater casualties and tactical disadvantages in the short-term as a necessary sacrifice for a long-term goal. The best example of this is the Vietnam War, where the communists absorbed appalling casualties year after year and persisted. The communists’ often-disastrous tactical decisions like attacking strongly fortified American positions to inflict casualties were often made because they were important for long-term objectives.[8]

The STO IO practitioner must tread with caution when dealing with LTO cultures like China. Actions and messages must be developed to resonate with the long-term objectives and viewpoints of LTO cultures. Analysis of LTO behavior must seek to determine what the long-term objectives might be even if the short-term reason seems obvious. Because LTO members think contextually, you may need to change or reframe the message or contextual cues about the situation to influence them. For instance, imagine a situation where Iraqi and Kurdish military units are facing off in potentially hostile situation. Their posturing might be a result of a need to avoid shame and maintain their honor. Since the Peshmergra are acting tough, the Iraqi Army commander may feel compelled to engage in equal demonstrations of force. Messages and contextual cues must be changed or reframed as a situation as where extremists groups are exploiting their tensions at the expense of both their interests. By creating a superordinate goal and framing the situation as insurgents challenging the honor of both parties, one might redirect their aggression.

Individualism and Collectivism

The fourth dimension is individualism vs. collectivism, which relates to how people indentify themselves and relate to others. In individualistic societies, the focus of a person’s identity is primarily on themselves. Cultural norms, values, and laws within an individualistic society protect the rights and status of the individual. In a collectivistic society, the focus of a person’s identity is group membership. The norms and values within a collectivist society protect and expand the welfare of the group at the expense of the individual. However, people in collectivist societies still have individual identities, and people in individualistic societies still have collective identities. Individualism tends to predominate in wealthy societies, whereas collectivism is strongly correlated to poverty.[9]

More than two-thirds of the world’s cultures are collectivist, while individualistic cultures, found in North America and Europe, are minorities. This reality dictates that individualists must learn to adapt their inter-cultural communications to accommodate collectivist. Messages and actions designed for collectivists must account for the fact they will probably subordinate their own personal needs and desires to those of the group. Furthermore, languages in collectivist societies tend to discourage the use of the “I” pronoun, which compels members to think in terms of “we”. Their sense of personal identity is conceived of by how a person relates to others in the group. Strengthening and expanding connections with in-group members enhances personal identity.[10]

The Anbar Awakening is a prime example about how to employ engagement to leverage the power of the group in a collectivist society. When Al-Qaeda attacked tribal leaders, they attacked entire networks extended families, who were then honor bound to defend their community. The Coalition earned the support of the community by supporting the best interests of the tribes at that time. 15 By supporting the legitimate tribal leaders we earned the allegiance of the collectivist against a common enemy. By appealing to the welfare of the collective, the coalition was able to achieve influence. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples early in the Iraq conflict where Coalition Soldiers engaged in offensive behavior that threatened the collective. Iraqis faced with an assault on the honor or interests their tribes and families no doubt caused some violent resistance. 

IO practitioners engaging members of collectivist cultures must appeal to a person’s sense of group identity. Appeals to a person’s individual identity are still relevant, especially when their survival is threatened; they are just less important in general. In the face of any type of conflict, collectivists will almost always subordinate their interests to defend the group. In an embarrassing situation, it is common for a collectivist to accept sole responsibility for the event in order to preserve the group’s face.  Thus, one should avoid placing a person in a situation where they have to chose between themselves and their clan or tribe. Furthermore, the group’s position often predetermines the publicly stated opinions and attitudes of a collectivist. Even if one can influence a collectivists private attitude, it is not likely they will express this publicly if it is strongly counter to the group’s attitude.

Power Distance

Hoffstede’s final dimension is power distance, which is the extent to which a culture accepts and expects the unequal distribution of power. High power distance cultures embrace a hierarchical organizational structure. They prefer a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities between team members. They have less tolerance for challenging authority figures. Group members who do challenge authority without compelling circumstances are sanctioned. Low power distance cultures prefer more flexible organizational structures and change them frequently. Low power organizations prefer delegation of responsibility and expect initiative from leaders. These cultures tolerate or even encourage challenging authority figures. In the United States and Great Britain, dethroning the powerful and popular is often a sport for the media and private citizens.[11]

English speaking countries are low power distance cultures, and this is strongly reflected in democratic political structures and a strong respect for the rule of law. Iraq and Afghanistan are high power distance cultures, which is reflected in the tendency to choose autocratic leaders and more conformist political behavior. Problems arise when low power cultures attempt to project their structures and behaviors upon high power cultures. This is evident with bribery and corruption, which low power cultures view as wrong, but high power cultures accept and expect it. High power leaders do not accept the premise that  collection of bribes is wrong, and their culture re-enforces this belief. Unpowerful members of high power cultures will seek to enter into patron-client relationships with powerful members. In exchange for some social or material benefits, the client will owe the patron their loyalty and be obliged to fight on his behalf in a conflict.[12]

Removing or undermining an established leader in a high power culture is a serious affair, as the situation in Libya and Syria demonstrates. In the West, a single minor sex scandal can be enough to topple or blackmail a leader. In high power cultures you need a comprehensive approach with multiple axes of attack to ruin a leader. One must identify a leader’s sources of legitimacy and render them uncredible in the eyes of their followers. If the leader uses money to maintain the patronage over their followers, they must deplete his financial resources. If their credibility relies on some claim to expertise, they must prove that he is not an expert. Finding an alternative leader with a different vision to compete with the incumbent is simply not enough.  

IO practitioners must accept the reality of high power distance and adjust their messages and actions accordingly. Challenges to leaders in high power cultures will probably incur greater resistance than challenges to leaders in low power cultures. Influencing people to challenge their leaders will require a greater amount of effort and may even cause significant psychological discomfort. Furthermore, people in high power cultures do not readily believe in economic or social upward mobility. Persuasive appeals stressing opportunity for upward mobility must be backed up by specific actions that prove it is a real possibility. The Palestinian proverb “the eye cannot rise above the eyebrow” sums up high power distance effectively.[13]


Information Operations practitioners must understand effective inter-cultural communications practices in order to inform and influence target audiences. However, this is dependent upon a thorough grasp of the audience’s culture, which Hofstede’s theory provides an excellent tool to analyze. How a national culture copes with uncertainty, treats people in power, and deals with aggression matter in how to develop communications with them. There are other valuable analytical tools available to study national culture beyond Hofstede’s, but his theory is a good fundamental starting point.

Now, what could the company commander have done differently in his engagement with the local leaders? He introduced several concepts that were unfamiliar and too complex for his audience. While his honesty and directness were admirable, he failed to structure his message and style in a manner appropriate for his audience. Some basic research would have informed him that his audience had a low tolerance for uncertainty and were denied access to truthful news and information about the world for several decades. He could have engaged some interpreters, culture-experts, or trusted locals about appropriate ways to explain his mission. In the end, foreign concepts like international law were ambiguous to the audience and caused much uncertainty. This in turn caused anxiety, which unnecessarily led to active resistance.  

[1] Geert Hofstede. Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), 199-230.

[2] Wunderle, William D. Through the Lens of Cultural Awareness: A Primer for US Armed Forces Deploying to Arab and Middle Eastern Countries. (Leavenworth: Combat Institute Press, 2006), 44-48.

[3] Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, 217-221.

[4] Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, 137-150.

[5] Paul B. Pedersen., and Gert Jan Hofstede. Exploring Culture. (Boston: Intercultural City Press, 2002), 37.

[6] Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, 236-251.

[7] Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, 247-250.

[8] Larry Berman. No Peace, No Honor. (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 247.

[9] Larry Berman. No Peace, No Honor. (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 247.

[10] Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, 91.

[11] Itim International. “Gert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions”, (Accessed on 23 May, 2011).

[12] Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, 60-81.

[13] Brigham Young University. “Intercultural Outreach: Culture Guide Palestine”, (Accessed on 31 May, 2011).



About the Author(s)

Major Douglas S. Wilbur USA (RET) is a former Information Operations Officer, with three deployments to Iraq and one to Kosovo. He is currently teaches public speaking and is a graduate student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 



Sat, 03/16/2013 - 8:48am

Cultural psychology is a relatively young science. Hofstede's work was one of the first but there are also Inglehart and Welzel whose work you can find at the and Shalom Schwartz who works specifically with values. This is a much more powerful tool than is thought. I have found that the Individualism-Collectivism dimension is very closely related to stable democratic governance. The problem is the idea of there being real cultural difference runs afoul of the idea of universal human rights.

These idea's need to be taught to the people in the field instead of the feel good cultural understanding stuff they get before deployment. It would probably foster a greater depth of understanding than what they currently get.

This idea is similar to Michael Conley's article "Psy-Ops: Appreciating the Target in The RUSI Journal Volume 119, Issue 2, 1974 pages 32-39