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Trompenaars’s Cultural Dimensions

The Hofstede cultural dimensions and country clusters are widely recognized and accepted in the study of international management. A more recent description of how cultures differ, by another Dutch researcher, Fons Trompenaars, is receiving increasing attention as well. Trompenaars’s research was conducted over a 10-year period and pub- lished in 1994.29 He administered research questionnaires to over 15,000 managers from 28 countries and received usable responses from at least 500 in each nation; the 23 coun- tries in his research are presented in Table 4–4. Building heavily on value orientations and the relational orientations of well-known sociologist Talcott Parsons,30 Trompenaars derived five relationship orientations that address the ways in which people deal with each other; these can be considered to be cultural dimensions that are analogous to Hofstede’s dimensions. Trompenaars also looked at attitudes toward both time and the environment, and the result of his research is a wealth of information helping explain how cultures differ and offering practical ways in which MNCs can do business in various countries. The following discussion examines each of the five relationship ori- entations as well as attitudes toward time and the environment.

Universalism vs. Particularism

Universalism is the belief that ideas and practices can be applied everywhere without modification. Particularism is the belief that circumstances dictate how ideas and practices should be applied. In cultures with high universalism, the focus is more on formal rules than on relationships, business contracts are adhered to very closely, and people believe that “a deal is a deal.” In cultures with high particularism, the focus is more on relationships and trust than on formal rules. In a particularist culture, legal contracts often are modified, and as people get to know each other better, they often change the way in which deals are executed. In his early research, Trompenaars found that in coun- tries such as the United States, Australia, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, there was high universalism, while countries such as Venezuela, the former Soviet Union, Indone- sia, and China were high on particularism. Figure 4–8 shows the continuum. In follow-up research, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner uncovered additional insights regarding national orientations on this universalism-particularism continuum. They did this by presenting the respondents with a dilemma and asking them to make a decision. Here is one of these dilemmas along with the national scores of the respondents.

Based on these types of findings, Trompenaars recommends that when individuals from particularist cultures do business in a universalistic culture, they should be prepared for rational, professional arguments and a “let’s get down to business” attitude. Conversely, when individuals from universalist cultures do business in a particularist environment, they should be prepared for personal meandering or irrelevancies that seem to go nowhere and should not regard personal, get-to-know-you attitudes as mere small talk.

Individualism vs. Communitarianism

Individualism and communitarianism are key dimensions in Hofstede’s earlier research. Although Trompenaars derived these two rela- tionships differently than Hofstede does, they still have the same basic meaning, although in his more recent work Trompenaars has used the word communitarianism rather than col- lectivism. For him, individualism refers to people regarding themselves as individuals, while communitarianism refers to people regarding themselves as part of a group, similar to the political groupings discussed in Chapter 2. As shown in Figure 4–8, the United States, for- mer Czechoslovakia, Argentina, the former Soviet Union (CIS), and Mexico have high indi- vidualism. These findings of Trompenaars are particularly interesting, because they differ somewhat from those of Hofstede, as reported in Figure 4–5. Although the definitions are not exactly the same, the fact that there are differences (e.g., Mexico and Argentina are mod- erately collectivistic in Hofstede’s findings but individualistic in Trompenaars’s research) points out that cultural values may be changing (i.e., even though Hofstede has added some countries and updated his findings, they still may be dated). For example, with Mexico now part of NAFTA and the global economy, this country may have moved from dominant col- lectivistic or communitarianistic cultural values to more individualist values. Trompenaars also found that the former communist countries of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union now appear to be quite individualistic, which of course is contrary to assumptions and con- ventional wisdom about the former communist bloc. In other words, Trompenaars points out the complex, dynamic nature of culture and the danger of overgeneralization.

Neutral vs. Emotional

A neutral culture is one in which emotions are held in check. As seen in Figure 4–8, both Japan and the United Kingdom are high-neutral cultures. Peo- ple in these countries try not to show their feelings; they act stoically and maintain their composure. An emotional culture is one in which emotions are openly and naturally ex- pressed. People in emotional cultures often smile a great deal, talk loudly when they are excited, and greet each other with a great deal of enthusiasm. Mexico, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are examples of high emotional cultures.

Trompenaars recommends that when individuals from emotional cultures do business in neutral cultures, they should put as much as they can on paper and submit it to the other side. They should realize that lack of emotion does not mean a lack of interest or boredom, but rather that people from neutral cultures do not like to show their hand. Conversely, when those from neutral cultures do business in emotional cultures, they should not be put off stride when the other side creates scenes or grows animated and boisterous, and they should try to respond warmly to the emotional affections of the other group.

Specific vs. Diffuse

A specific culture is one in which individuals have a large public space they readily let others enter and share and a small private space they guard closely and share with only close friends and associates. A diffuse culture is one in which public space and private space are similar in size and individuals guard their public space carefully, be- cause entry into public space affords entry into private space as well. As shown in Figure 4–8, Austria, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Switzerland all are specific cultures, while Venezuela, China, and Spain are diffuse cultures. In specific cultures, people often are invited into a person’s open, public space; individuals in these cultures often are open and extroverted; and there is a strong separation of work and private life. In diffuse cultures, people are not quickly invited into a person’s open, public space, because once they are in, there is easy entry into the private space as well. Individuals in these cultures often appear to be indirect and introverted, and work and private life often are closely linked.

Achievement vs. Ascription

An achievement culture is one in which people are ac- corded status based on how well they perform their functions. An ascription culture is one in which status is attributed based on who or what a person is. Achievement cultures give high status to high achievers, such as the company’s number-one salesperson or the medical researcher who has found a cure for a rare form of bone cancer. Ascription cultures accord status based on age, gender, or social connections. For example, in an ascription culture, a person who has been with the company for 40 years may be listened to carefully because of the respect that others have for the individual’s age and longevity with the firm, and an indi- vidual who has friends in high places may be afforded status because of whom she knows. As shown in Figure 4–8, Austria, the United States, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom are achievement cultures, while Venezuela, Indonesia, and China are ascription cultures. Trompenaars recommends that when individuals from achievement cultures do business in ascription cultures, they should make sure that their group has older, senior, and formal position holders who can impress the other side, and they should respect the status and influence of their counterparts in the other group. Conversely, he recommends that when individuals from ascription cultures do business in achievement cultures, they should make sure that their group has sufficient data, technical advisers, and knowledge- able people to convince the other group that they are proficient, and they should respect the knowledge and information of their counterparts on the other team.


Aside from the five relationship orientations, another major cultural difference is the way in which people deal with the concept of time. Trompenaars has identified two dif- ferent approaches: sequential and synchronous. In cultures where sequential approaches are prevalent, people tend to do only one activity at a time, keep appointments strictly, and show a strong preference for following plans as they are laid out and not deviating from them. In cultures where synchronous approaches are common, people tend to do more than one activ- ity at a time, appointments are approximate and may be changed at a moment’s notice, and schedules generally are subordinate to relationships. People in synchronous-time cultures often will stop what they are doing to meet and greet individuals coming into their office. A good contrast is provided by the United States, Mexico, and France. In the United States, people tend to be guided by sequential-time orientation and thus set a schedule and stick to it. Mexicans operate under more of a synchronous-time orientation and thus tend to be much more flexible, often building slack into their schedules to allow for interrup- tions. The French are similar to the Mexicans and, when making plans, often determine the objectives they want to accomplish but leave open the timing and other factors that are beyond their control; this way, they can adjust and modify their approach as they go along. As Trompenaars noted, “For the French and Mexicans, what was important was that they get to the end, not the particular path or sequence by which that end was reached.”

The Environment

Trompenaars also examined the ways in which people deal with their environment. Specific attention should be given to whether they believe in controlling out- comes (inner-directed) or letting things take their own course (outer-directed). One of the things he asked managers to do was choose between the following statements:

  1. What happens to me is my own doing.
    1. Sometimes I feel that I do not have enough control over the directions my life is taking.

Managers who believe in controlling their own environment would opt for the first choice; those who believe that they are controlled by their environment and cannot do much about it would opt for the second.

Trompenaars recommends that when dealing with those from cultures that believe in dominating the environment, it is important to play hardball, test the resilience of the opponent, win some objectives, and always lose from time to time. For example, repre- sentatives of the U.S. government have repeatedly urged Japanese automobile companies to purchase more component parts from U.S. suppliers to partially offset the large volume of U.S. imports of finished autos from Japan. Instead of enacting trade barriers, the United States was asking for a quid pro quo. When dealing with those from cultures that believe in letting things take their natural course, it is important to be persistent and polite, main- tain good relationships with the other party, and try to win together and lose apart.

Cultural Patterns or Clusters

Like Hofstede’s work, Trompenaars’s research lends itself to cultural patterns or clusters. Table 4–5 relates his findings to the five relational ori- entations. It is useful to compare Hofstede and Trompenaars, because of the overlapping information. For example, Hofstede’s country assessments included India but not China.

Trompenaars, conversely, shows results for China but not India. Today, international manag- ers must become familiar with beliefs and traditions in both areas, since they play a signifi- cant role in the new world economy (see Chapter 1). Further examination of Table 4–5 shows that while general clusters can be formed, there still exist inherent, significant differ- ences within. For example, Brazil is considered to be a part of the Latin American cluster, though some of the unique findings suggest that Brazil is more independent than strictly “Latin American.” The Latin European grouping mirrors similar results, with Italy showing some preferences that are different from both France and Belgium, and with Spain display- ing distinguishing characteristics as compared to the other three in the cluster.

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