top of page
Image by SIMON LEE
  • Writer's pictureantoniodellomo

Cultural Constraints

Each culture has a set of allowable actions for social situations. Thus, in our own culture we know how to behave in a restaurant - even one we have never been to before. This is how we manage to cope when our host leaves us alone in a strange room, at a strange party, with strange people. And this is why we sometimes feel frustrated, so incapable of action, when we are confronted with a restaurant or group of people from an unfamiliar culture, where our normally accepted behavior is clearly inappropriate and frowned up.

Although culture is abstract and intangible, its influence is far from superficial. Cultural constraints serve as a kind of preventive medicine, protecting people from themselves. Cultural constraints affect not only the choices individuals make but even how the individual—the self—is constituted. The boundaries that separate the self from others are very much culture dependent. In cultures such as the United States, the self is construed as an independent entity. The boundaries between the self and others are clear and distinct. Independence, autonomy, and self-determination are prized, and the values and preferences of each individual are given a status that is independent of the values and preferences of others. However, in other, even industrial cultures such as Japan, the self is construed as an interdependent entity. Significant others form a part of the self, and their values and preferences are one’s own. Cultural constraints are likely to change with time.

Diversity can be a challenge or strategic force that influences communication and design. Cultural issues are at the root of many of the problems we have with new machines: there are as yet no universally accepted conventions or customs for dealing with them. Those of us who study these things believe that guidelines for cultural behavior are represented in the mind by schemas, knowledge structures that contain the general rules and information necessary for interpreting situations and for guiding behavior.

“Some constraints rely upon accepted cultural conventions, even if they do not affect the physical or semantic operation of the device” - Don Norman

In some stereotypical situation (for example, in a restaurant), the schemas may be very specialized. Cognitive scientists Roger Schank and Bob Abelson proposed that in these cases we follow "scripts" that can guide the sequence of behavior. The sociologist Erving Goffman calls the social constraints on acceptable behavior "frames", and he shows how they govern behavior even when a person is in a novel situation or novel culture. Danger awaits those who deliberately violate the frames of a culture. The next time you are in an elevator, try violating cultural norms and see how uncomfortable that makes you and the other people in the elevator. It doesn't take much: Stand facing the rear. Or look directly at some of the passengers. In a bus or streetcar, give your seat to the next athletic-looking person you see (the act is especially effective if you are elderly, pregnant or disabled).

Five national cultural value differences

National values are shared ideas of what is good, right, and desirable in a society. They are a national society’s preferences for managing external adaptation and internal integration challenges that threaten its survival. National values sit on a continuum between two contrasting approaches to a societal problem. Every nation sits somewhere between the opposing alternatives.

1. Individualism vs. Collectivism

In Individualistic societies, people define themselves in terms of ‘I’ and their unique attributes. Autonomy and independent thought are valued and the interests and goals of the individual prevail over group welfare. Personal attitudes and needs are important determinants of behavior. Ties between members are loose. Nuclear families are more common than extended families. Love carries greater weight in marriage decisions and divorce rates are higher. Members of Individualistic cultures are likely to engage in activities alone and social interactions are shorter and less intimate, although they are more frequent.

In Collectivistic societies, people define themselves in terms of ‘we’ and their group memberships. Members are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups. Social interdependence and collective harmony are valued. Relational ties and obligations are important determinants of behavior; group goals take precedence over individual goals. Shared living is emphasized. Extended families (with uncles, aunts, and grandparents) provide protection in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. There are lower divorce rates yet love carries less weight in marriage decisions. Members of Collectivistic cultures are likely to prefer group activities. Social interactions are longer and more intimate.

2. Orientation to Time

Cultures with a Future Orientation have a strong tendency and willingness to imagine future possibilities. Members set long-term goals, develop plans, and work hard and persevere to achieve their ambitions. They delay gratification and display a strong propensity to save and invest.

Members of Future Orientated societies are psychologically healthy and socially well adjusted because they feel in control of their lives, but they may neglect current social relationships and obligations, and can fail to ‘stop and smell the roses’.

Members of Short-Term Orientated societies are more focused on the present and past than on the future. They value instant satisfaction. Members spend now rather than save for the future. They live in the moment and are not concerned with past or future anxieties.

On the flip side, members of Short-Term Orientated societies may engage in risky, pleasure-seeking pursuits and fail to recognize the negative longer-term implications of their indulgences.

3. Gender Egalitarianism

Biological constraints in childbearing have long dictated societal norms about the roles of men and women in many societies. But outside childbearing, sex-role distinctions are purely social constructions. Societies differ with respect to the extent to which they define different social and emotional roles for males and females.

In Low Gender Egalitarianism cultures, male social and emotional roles are different from females. Men are assertive, tough, competitive, and focused on material success. Women are modest, tender, and concerned with quality of life.

Low Gender Egalitarianism societies have few women in positions of authority, a low percentage of women in the labor force, and occupational sex segregation. In these societies, females have lower levels of education and literacy relative to males. In addition, women hold a lower status in society and play a smaller role in community decision-making compared with men.

In high Gender Egalitarianism cultures, male social and emotional roles are similar to female roles. Both men and women are modest, cooperative, tender, and concerned with quality of life and caring for the weak.

Compared to low Gender Egalitarianism societies, there are more women in positions of authority, a higher percentage of women participating in the labor force, and less occupational sex segregation. In addition, in high Gender Egalitarian cultures, females and males have similar levels of education and literacy. Women hold higher status and play a greater role in community decision-making compared with low Gender Egalitarianism cultures.

4. Assertiveness

Societies with low Gender Egalitarianism typically display high Assertiveness. These societies value assertive, dominant, and ‘tough’ behavior in both genders. Strength is admired. Aggression is viewed positively (for example, aggression is associated with winning).

Members of high Assertiveness societies value competition and success. They expect demanding and challenging targets. Performance is rewarded and results are stressed over relationships. Members of high Assertiveness societies value what you do more than who you are. Members think of others as opportunistic. In communication, members of high Assertiveness cultures are direct and value expressing true thoughts and feelings.

In contrast, high Gender Egalitarianism overlaps with low Assertiveness. These societies view assertiveness as socially unacceptable. Members of low Assertiveness cultures emphasize modesty and tenderness. They associate competition with defeat and punishment. They stress equality and social solidarity. Low Assertiveness cultures value people, warm relationships, and cooperation. Members care more about who you are than what you do. In these societies, integrity, loyalty, and cooperation are stressed. People think of others as inherently worthy of trust.

In the workplace, low Assertiveness cultures emphasize seniority and experience. Merit pay is destructive to harmony.

Members from low Assertiveness cultures speak indirectly; they prefer ‘face-saving’ and subtlety, and value detached and self-possessed conduct.

5. Being vs. Doing

High Doing Orientated societies believe that people have control over their destiny—anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. A Doing Orientation encourages self-assertion to master, direct, and change the natural and social environment to achieve group or individual goals.

High Doing Orientated societies value initiative; members display a ‘can-do’ attitude. Societies with a Doing Orientation stress performance and encourage and reward innovation and excellence. These societies have a monochromatic (linear and limited) view of time and a high sense of urgency.

High Doing Orientated societies believe that schooling and education are critical for success. They value training and development.

A Being Orientation stresses fitting into the world as it is. Members focus on appreciating and understanding the world rather than trying to change, direct, or exploit it. Important values include world peace, unity with nature, and protecting the environment.

Members of Being Orientated societies have a high regard for quality of life and feel being motivated by money is inappropriate. These societies have a polychromic approach to time (unending and circular) and a low sense of urgency.

Embrace Design Constraints

Constraints are clues. They help designers triangulate between the problems, resources, and criteria inherent in every project and prevent precious time wasted on extraneous design ideas. When constraints are only seen as restraints, opportunities for innovation remain unearthed, often inches beneath the surface.

In a profession that encourages boundaries to be pushed, embracing constraints isn’t glamorous, but it does lead to relevant design solutions with long-term staying power.

The Importance of Communication

Considered a key UX design skill. While doing great design is one thing, communicating great design is equally as important, as even the best concepts will fail if they don’t accept by the team and stakeholders. That’s why the best UX designers are great communicators.


bottom of page