Indulgence vs. Restraint – the 6th Dimension

Anyone who has studied or is working in the field of intercultural communication or management will be familiar with Geert Hofstede’s dimensional model of culture.

Indulgence vs. Restraint – the 6th Dimension

Based on empirical research with IBM employees in over 50 countries, the model illustrates how the dominant cultural preferences differ across national societies and gives insights into the consequences of bringing groups of people with different preferences together.  Hofstede’s work has always been controversial.  It has been widely applied to international management and is still a mainstay of many corporate intercultural training programmes.  However, the model is also increasingly criticised for its limitations such as old data, one company approach and too few dimensions.  There is no doubt that Hofstede’s model remains one of the most valuable pieces of work in the field of intercultural communication helping organisations to understand how they can collaborate more effectively across cultures – and if nothing else causing thought-provoking discussion and further developments in the field.

Hofstede’s dimensions

The four core dimensions are power distance, individualism versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity and uncertainty avoidance.  Partly in response to the criticisms mentioned above, a fifth dimension focused on long and short term time orientation based initially on a survey developed with Chinese employees was later added.  In 2010 a sixth dimension was added to the model, Indulgence versus Restraint.  This was based on Bulgarian sociologist Minkov’s label and also drew on the extensive World Values Survey.  Indulgence societies tend to allow relatively free gratification of natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun whereas Restraint societies are more likely to believe that such gratification needs to be curbed and regulated by strict norms.  Indulgent cultures will tend to focus more on individual happiness and well being, leisure time is more important and there is greater freedom and personal control.  This is in contrast with restrained cultures where positive emotions are less freely expressed and happiness, freedom and leisure are not given the same importance.  The map below broadly reflects where indulgence and restraint tend to prevail.

Indulgence vs. Restraint – the 6th Dimension

Ambiguous dimension

This sixth dimension has not as yet been widely adopted within the intercultural training and management field and this may simply be because it is still relatively new.  There is also less data and fewer countries than the previous dimensions.  And perhaps it is also due to the ambiguities of focusing on happiness research.  Happiness is viewed very differently across cultures and it is represented and discussed quite differently.  This might call in to doubt the validity of using data originating from questions asking respondents to describe how happy they are.

 However, there may well be some interesting application of the sixth dimension to the international work place.  For example, indulgent cultures place more importance on freedom of speech and personal control while in restrained cultures there is a greater sense of helplessness about personal destiny.  In workplace this is likely to have an impact on how willing employees are to voice opinions and give feedback.  In cultures that are perceived as placing a greater importance on personal happiness and freedom, employees may be more likely to leave an organisation when they are not happy in their role.

 Another interesting facet to this dimension is around attitudes to customer service.  In indulgent cultures such as in the USA the expectation is that customer service representatives visibly demonstrate their ‘happiness’ with a smile and friendly demeanour. However, in more restrained cultures such as Russia or eastern European countries this would be considered inappropriate an unnatural.

 Indulgence versus Restraint would also seem to have an impact on generational differences.  The impact of technology on younger generations would suggest that the need for instant gratification is more prevalent but more research is still needed.

  • diversophy

    Again oversimplification of reality will feed stereotypes.

  • AnneEgros

    I don’t think this is a valid dimension and would really like to see the study behind it.

    For example :

    I don’t think United States is a more indulgent culture than France. In the USA there is no law that oblige employers to give paid holidays while in France by law people work only 35 hours/week but also have more than 5 weeks of paid holidays per year compared to 25 % of American workers that don’t take their vacation.

    Paid maternity leave is also much more in France than in the US : six weeks before birth and up to 8 weeks after birth.

    People don’t work on Sundays in France and you cannot do your shopping 24/7 as you do in USA, Japan or Russia.These are FACTS not from empirical studies.

    While I like to use the 5th dimensions not as absolute truth but to stimulate thoughts about what are the different perceptions of culture and intercultural communication but frankly this 6th dimension doesn’t seems to have been well studied and to backed up by sound research.

  • Matthew MacLachlan

    To me, dimensions are always a starting point for discussion. I think there is no doubt whatsoever that the first four dimensions are the most solidly researched and grounded. Masculine vs feminine and Indulgence are the more controversial additions, much later, and are an attempt, I think to react to a world that is evolving in cultural references.

    It is easy to find exceptions to each of them: the US is exceptionally high in Individuality, yet is one of the highest per capita donators to charity; Japan is renowned for being a collective society, yet their game shows are all centred on standing out from the crowd; Britain is known for being polite, yet possibly the people who can frighten others most easily with a well-phrased “Thank you”.

    The point you make is one I agree with – dimensions start the conversation and allow us to frame discussions about cultural difference – and when you are using a single measurement for a national group, there are bound to be one or two differences of opinion….

  • Marina Sofia

    I’m not sure most of Continental Europe would agree that the US is an example of an indulgent culture, especially in the case of placing more value on happiness, freedom and leisure time. US corporate culture and lifestyle must be one of the most time-poor and rushed there is! And I’m sure the Germans and Greeks (both classed as mid-position cultures) probably see themselves as being at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

    I can see some merit in the ‘instant gratification’ versus long-term restraint and planning, but that seems to me to refer more to the time dimension.

    So I am a bit unsure whether these make even good starting points for discussion – unless we don’t mind the discussions turning rather acrid and antagonistic.

  • Matthew MacLachlan

    Any discussion based on bi-polar scale comparisons has the potential for disagreement, and any disagreement can become antagonistic, so I don’t necessarily agree that we should avoid introducing the topic on that basis.

    I do agree that, methodologically, this new dimension (and the four or five others added by Minkov) are significantly, less rigorously researched than the initial four – not to say they have no basis, but that the original four has a much more solid foundation comparatively speaking.

    I think that we can become distracted by looking for holes in the methodology and miss the point that cultural groups can be distinguished by their attitudes to Indulgence vs Restraint, among other categories. More modern approaches to culture will focus much more on the dynamic measurements that account for circumstance and immediate context, and as such, this new dimension is more reliable – no one is going to accuse Russian customer service of being overly indulgent, and would happily agree that in that context, the US is much lower on the Restraint scale. I have no experience of Greek customer service, and little of German, but I would expect them, based of my other knowledge of those countries to score midway between US and Russia, when talking about that particular context.

    Does that refinement invalidate the research? I don’t know, but for me, in a training context, it gives me a basis upon which I can spark a discussion and draw people’s attentions to a specific area in which we can predict differences of opinion/behaviour that can be attributed to culture

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