Indulgence vs. Restraint – the 6th Dimension

Matthew MacLachlan

1 Nov 2013

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.

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.