10 Cultural Universals: Technology

Technology.

It accelerates and informs our culture.

Sometimes, it evolves slowly.

Sometimes, it evolves at the speed of light.

Sometimes, it is light.

When we talk about technological development, we’re not talking only about technology as we know it today. And by that, I mean computers, the Internet, and everything associated with the word “tech”.

We’re talking about the evolution of aspects of daily life across time, which can manifest in many technological forms.

What forms?

Technological Development

Technology involves the evolution of the way we, as humans, live and interact with the world.

How we make ends meet.

How we get from here to there.

How we share our lives and record history.

Some examples of technological evolution:

  • Transportation: the wheel->carts->roads->road networks->bicycles->trains->automobiles->planes.
  • Communication: oral tradition->written word->telegrams->telephones->email->text->instant message->social media->videocalling.
  • Industry: the invention of steam power->the use of steel and iron->development in coal industry->advances in engineering->development in chemical industry.

These are just three areas of our technological evolution that have changed cultures all over the world.

How Do Technologies Change Culture?

As Charlie Gilkey put so eloquently in his article, “Technology and Culture Influence Each Other”:

“As much as technology is created from the fabric of our culture, technology also creates the fabric of our culture.”

Let’s take one of our examples from above to illustrate this.

Communication

Just imagine how different life was way back when the only means of communication was oral tradition.

Instead of instantly sharing one’s thoughts with all the world, Bob had to travel to George’s house in order to deliver a message.

Communication, therefore, took much longer, the audience was limited, it relied on memory, and it likely relied on more forethought too, because, due to these limitations, it was infinitely more important that Bob conveyed his message correctly the first time.

Then, there was written word. It could be conveyed and delivered to the recipient with more directness and accuracy.

Next, telegrams. Then, telephones.

When telephones were invented, you could call up your mom and ask her when you had to be home. And now, you can even see her face when you do so.

Communication has taken on new, more instant forms – from emails to texts to IMs to Tweets. These more instant means of communication can rapidly impact culture. In fact, they’ve created tsunami waves in the form of social media movements.

For instance, as described in “Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements,” a social media movement in Iran has and is changing the status quo when it comes to women wearing hijab in public.

Such movements are so impactful that they are altering the tides of history.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.

How Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.