In a previous blot post, I mentioned how I thought writers should familiarize themselves with behavioral sciences as this can lead to more realistic characters. There’s a particular theory that stands out to me as a “thing I wish writers knew.” That would be Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions.
The theory is often taught to people studying international business or communication, as it’s a tool for defining what makes one culture different from another culture. I’ll link a more thorough piece on that here but below is my summary and how it relates to screenwriting.
The reason why this tool is so helpful is because as writers, we have to build worlds. This is especially true in sci-fi or fantasy works, but it’s actually a needed skill across the board. If we’re telling a story of a different time period or a different part of the world, we need to build that world and make sure our audience is aware of relevant cultural norms. Hell, even New York City has a culture separate from that of say, Iowa, but because the city is portrayed in mass media so often, stories set here don’t necessarily need to invest as much time in defining the world.
The cultural dimensions help you figure out what kind of a world you’re building. And oftentimes, a protagonist is going to be out-of-the-norm in some way. It can clarify a lot to know that your protagonist is an individualist while your society is collectivist, or that your protagonist is future-oriented while your society is present-oriented. So what are those dimensions?
1. Power Distance Index
Power is ALWAYS going to be distributed unequally, but different societies have different levels of accepting this fact. In the U.S., we have a low-ish power distance. Most Americans buy into the idea that all members of a society should have some kind of a say in the society, and that leadership should be held accountable to its people. Regardless of how exactly this is carried out in practice, the cultural ideal is there.
This is radically different from a society where there is a king and the peasants simply accept that they are not king and that is the way the world works. A LOT of great movies play with the power distance index. Any time you have a tyrannical villain and a small band of misfits who refuses to accept it, that’s the power distance index. These types of stories don’t work unless we first establish that MOST people in the society are content to accept the tyranny, or at least they have been until recent events. That’s what makes our heroes the heroes that they are.
2. Individualism v. Collectivism
To what extent do individuals have an obligation to make sacrifices for the common good? As you can probably guess, the United States is pretty damn individualist, even though this is an issue that different political factions within the U.S. will disagree on. Overall, we still reject the idea that individuals owe society blind loyalty. We like the idea of individuals being able to forge their own path in life and as long as they are able to support themselves, we don’t necessarily think they have to go above and beyond to support the rest of society too.
In other cultures, and perhaps even in the one you’re writing, individuals are expected to shove their own wants, needs, dreams, ambitions, and emotions to the back burner in order to look after the society. Think about Mulan. The story starts by establishing how important family honor was within that culture. Not even honor for Mulan specifically, but for her family. Mulan was expected to prioritize family honor over her own ambitions because her role as a member of a group (both her family and society at large) was more important than her role as an individual.
3. Masculinity v. Femininity
In this context, the words “masculine” and “feminine” have nothing to do with whether you like pink or blue, or prefer football to ballet. Instead, it has to do with what a society values. “Masculine” societies value assertiveness and material success, and are highly competitive. “Feminine” societies value collaboration and modesty. One might think that this is the same as individualism v. collectivism, but that’s not the case.
If you’re writing a war movie, odds are you’re looking at a culture that’s highly collectivist but also highly masculine. Individuals are expected to put the needs of their side over their individual needs, but victory and assertiveness are still top priority. That’s different from a say, a small business where assertiveness and victory within the marketplace is still a priority but individuals might not be expected to make the same level of sacrifice.
Knowing if you’re writing within a masculine or feminine culture can help you figure out what kinds of obstacles your character is going to face. In a masculine society, you might have an assertive antagonist actively trying to destroy your protagonist (Oddly enough, some “chick flicks” such as The Devil Wears Prada or Legally Blonde provide some great examples of this). In a feminine culture, it’s less likely that you’re going to have a traditional “villain” but you might have a protagonist who wants to reach high levels of success and those cultural ideals of modesty will create conflict.
4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index
Different societies (and people for that matter) have different risk tolerance levels. That’s what Uncertainty Avoidance is all about. Cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance are more likely to pass different laws and regulations to try to control the future. The people in such a society are scared of ambiguity.
Think of the difference between a dystopian story like The Giver, and say an old John Wayne western. One culture strives for predictability while the other attracts people who aren’t afraid of the unknown. In a movie script, we always need a certain degree of uncertainty so it’s important to understand how the world you create will react to that. If your society has high Uncertainty Avoidance, it might only take a relatively small, simple change to set your story into motion. In a society where people are more comfortable with chaos, you might need something much bigger to cause drama.
5. Long-term v. Short-term Orientation
To what extent does a society care about preserving the traditions of the past? To what extent are they willing to change in order to have a brighter future? This is long-term v. short-term orientation.
Traditions oftentimes cause conflict in movies. “Young rebel wants to go against tradition” will continue to inspire stories from now until the end of time. Crazy Rich Asians does a great job of explaining why certain characters value tradition as much as they do while also giving the younger generation compelling reasons to break from tradition. Is your protagonist on a quest to preserve traditions or break them? Have you provided enough context for the audience to understand why it matters?
6. Indulgence v. Restraint
A newer dimension added in 2010, indulgence v. restraint is kind of self explanatory. While it does bear SOME similarities to individualism v. collectivism, this has more to do selfish pleasures and vices than long term ambitions. How socially acceptable are things like sex, drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc.? Are individuals free to engage in whatever brings them joy or do cultural norms shame them? If so, what specific cultural norms are keeping people unhappy? A romance in Victorian England has to be told differently than a romance in modern times and the writer has to provide context so things make sense.
Boiling down “culture” into six different dimensions is surprisingly helpful when trying to figure out what sort of world your story takes place in. It can also enlighten which aspects of a culture really need to hit home because they’re relevant to your story and your character arcs, and which ones don’t really need that much screentime.