Unraveling the Mysteries of Culture

Professor Geert Hofstede, one of the Netherlands’ most widely cited and translated scholars, passed away in February 2020, at the age of 91. Hofstede is known for his pioneering research on cross-cultural groups and organizations and has been a great source of inspiration to those who have tried to unravel the mysteries of culture. At the heart of Professor Hofstede’s work is the question: what are the mutual role expectations between the archetypical role pair of teacher and students in different cultures? The way these roles are played is guided by deeply-rooted values which lead to feelings about good and evil, right and wrong, rational and irrational, proper and improper. These feelings burden cross-cultural learning with premature judgments that can come from teachers, students and parents.

More egalitarian and individualistic cultures have developed a more conceptual learning style, requiring students to apply their knowledge in different situations

Social Dilemmas

Through his research, Geert Hofstede extracted four fundamental social dilemmas: the relationship to power (hierarchical or egalitarian), the relationship to the group (collectivistic or individualistic), the relationship to motivation and, finally, the relationship to uncertainty, culminating in his four cultural dimensions: the Hofstede Model. These dimensions have helped many people better understand the perplexities of cross-cultural education, most of which I have experienced and witnessed myself as an expat child, expat parent and intercultural trainer.

Educational Track

Consider the power dilemma and the different social positions teachers have in different cultures. In cultures that are more sensitive to hierarchy, as I witnessed as a child in Colombia, students from privileged families will often have access to a privileged educational track – private schools, private tutors and a wealth of learning resources – but not so in more egalitarian cultures. In the Netherlands, a teacher is nothing more or less than anybody else. The same applies to the students – one is not better than the other. The Dutch school system is anti-elitist and there are relatively few private schools in the country. Kids attending a private school are often seen as rich kids who do not have the intellectual capacity to successfully complete ‘normal’ schools. This egalitarian approach often baffles parents from cultures in which different school systems cater to the different needs of the various social groups in society.

Teaching Style

Adding the dimension of individualism to the equation, the differences become even larger. Contemplate the way knowledge is managed. In the Chinese Confucian tradition, the ‘teacher’ is the most respected profession. The Chinese and many other hierarchical and collectivistic cultures have developed a reverence for the tutor, the guru. These societies are more likely to have established a rote learning pattern, which, simply put, is the storage of the data in the brain, without necessarily understanding the concept. The teaching style is one-directional, and students become good at copy-pasting. It often involves a focus on the creation of tacit knowledge, knowing what to do or say rather than why.

Other, more egalitarian and individualistic cultures have developed a more conceptual learning style, requiring students to apply their knowledge in different situations. There is more focus on explicit knowledge – knowing how. Having switched from these different styles myself, from rote learning in Latin America to conceptual learning after returning to the Netherlands, I remember having been frustrated with the apparent disorder in my new Dutch classroom. I saw little respect for the teachers and could hardly develop respect myself for these teachers, who let us, children, find our own ways – creating what seemed to me a mess.


Hofstede has also described how societies have different inclinations to avoid uncertainty – this is demonstrated in how one society will focus on the relevance of the curriculum, while another will find a more flexible learning path acceptable. In the former, especially if these are more hierarchical and centralized, it is normal for the curriculum to be dictated ‘from above’. Methodology and content are closely monitored by the government. A teacher is expected to be the expert and have all the answers; deference and obedience are virtues. In other – individualistic and decentralized – cultures, such as the Netherlands, schools and their faculty have more freedom to develop their own curriculum and learning method. The learning outcomes are measured against a standard set by the Ministry of Education. Also, teachers in these cultures welcome and stimulate intellectual challenge by students. Critical thinking is seen as a skill that is important to develop and a great asset later in life, in the workplace.


We have discussed how the differences in hierarchy, individualism and uncertainty affect cross- cultural education. The final difference in the Hofstede framework is in what motivates students. The Netherlands, often to the astonishment of expat parents, has what we call the zesjes culture: the culture of the sixes. A six, on a scale of ten, is a good enough score to pass their courses and gives the children spare time to enjoy other aspects of life. I attended university in the United States with a group of 18 Dutch students. Rather than trying to be the best in the class, we helped each other achieve our goal to earn our master’s degree, all the while allowing us to enjoy the pleasures of local Arizona life which included rafting, hiking, skiing and hot tubbing – pleasures we did not have back home. Later in life and back in the United States, my wife and I were put off by the high level of competition our son was subjected to in elementary school.

We cannot expect local schools to adapt their style and methods to the needs of all their expat students. We canexpect tutors, adolescent students and parents, however, to develop an awareness of the different roles and learning expectations that exist in cross-cultural education. “Thank you for helping me take off my cultural glasses,” said one expat parent after one of my workshops. “I am more confident now that my 11-year-old daughter will get the education we want her to have. And, I guess, she’d better become a more outspoken and a critical thinker in order to defend herself here in the Netherlands.” I was not sure her wink was one of relief or mockery.

Geert Hofstede has provided us with a unique and valuable systematic framework for assessing and differentiating national cultures and organizational cultures, even in education. We will honor Hofstede’s legacy by accepting his guidance and helping each other to recognize, understand, accept and reconciliate cultural differences. It will help us remove our prejudices and see that we have more in common than not.