Imagine living in a culture where the village and the individual are one and the same.

That’s how the Bantu cultures of sub-Saharan Africa see things: an individual’s welfare is dependent on the village’s and vice versa.

One example of the way this manifests in the culture’s social norms is in their greeting.

The Shona people greet others with Maswere sei (“How is your day?”).

The response is Ndiswera maswerawo (“My day is OK if yours is.”).

Relationships are a fundamental part of the culture, so social control is exercised through relationships.

Last week, we talked about how cultures differ in their views of rules and relationships.

In the Shona society, certain relative figureheads are in authoritarian roles over subordinates in the family. Wives are subordinate to husbands, children to parents, younger siblings to older siblings, and all to the village elders.

The culture sees this subordination as natural. Subordinates don’t buck against the hierarchy, because it is the way of life, and the society’s baobab roots are formed and interconnected by relationships.

In contrast, rule-based cultures don’t see rules and relationships this way.

Human Beings as Autonomous Individuals

Rule-based societies view human beings as autonomous (i.e. having no natural authority over others).

As we saw in last week’s post, the authority in such cultures is rather embodied in the rules – rules that are applied to everyone.

This Western cultural concept can be traced back to God and the Ten Commandments.

God is seen as a lawmaker. He governs using universal rule of law.

The Greeks also influenced the West’s rule-based values, as they saw individuals as generally rational and rules as generally logical.

This idea is the basis of “homo economicus,” a principle in which a prosperous society is based on a logical and rational people.

It follows then that, in rule-based cultures, management and behavior is based upon the culture’s respect for rules.

Both cultural types have rules, but they differ in their relation to these rules in two ways:

  • In relationship-based cultures, the authority of rules is directly related to the authority of the person who lays down the law, while in rule-based cultures, rules are respected for their sake.
  • Moreover, in relationship-based cultures, supervision and shame ensure compliance with rules, while in rule-based cultures, fear of punishment and guilt are used for the same.

How This Difference Affects Business Relations

These complex differences can sew distrust between business partners.

Each culture views their own perspective on rules and relationships as just and right. In turn, they view the other’s perspective as corrupt.

Imagine this scenario, adapted from Riding the Waves of Culture:

A manager in a relationship-based culture offers his nephew a lofty position in the company, despite the fact that this nephew is unqualified.

A rule-based colleague of this manager tells his counterparts:

“They’ll always help their friends and family over more qualified candidates. It’s nepotism. They cannot be trusted.”

On the opposite side, the relationship-based manager sees his rule-based colleague pass up a friend for a position in lieu of a more qualified candidate.

He tells his team:

“He will not even help a friend? How can we trust him?”

In this way, cross-cultural business relations can be easily damaged or decimated, when the motives of other cultures are not understood.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to avoid this misunderstanding.

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