QUERY: “How can the law have any place in a society that is not rule-based?”

Rules or relationships.

Where is the emphasis placed in your culture? Which is valued more?

Identifying where your values lie will tell you whether you’ve grown up in a relationship-based culture or a rule-based culture.

Once you discover what grounds you, you may wonder how these values impact the mechanics of your culture and your own decision-making and moral perspective.

Let’s take a look.

A Query in Context

I recently received an email query about rule-based versus relationship-based cultures.

The anonymous author wrote:

“I’m a lawyer in the USA, and I tend to be more black/white and rule-based. I’ve encountered attorneys and judges that don’t seem to care about the rules (aka the law) and it can be frustrating…

When I think about it, how can the law have any place in a society that is not rule-based? Your example of lying to protect your friend from criminal prosecution for killing someone in a school zone by speeding in a relationship-based society flaunts the law. It supports the whims of men, which may change from time to time much faster than the law. It destroys expectations…

How can I plan for the future when some bureaucrat may decide the law doesn’t apply to my adversary, contract counterparty, tortfeasor, etc? It supports dishonesty and bribery, as is common, at least more overtly, in the rest of the world.

What about judicial and lawyer ethics codes? How can those matter if you live in a non-rule-based society? It’s OK that I lied to the court to protect my client/brother? Really? That can’t be ‘right.’ Moral relativism must have a stopping point…”

Let’s see if we can clear a few of these questions up.

Rule of Law in Culture

The post anonymous is referring to is Rule of Law in Culture: Are Laws More Important Than Relationships?

It describes a study in which U.S. and Venezuelan managers were surveyed about the hypothetical scenario described.

U.S. participants more heavily leaned toward testifying against their friend who broke the law, while two thirds of Venezuelan managers said they would lie in their testimony to cover for the friend.

The scenario illustrates where each cultures values lie.

But just because a culture prioritizes relationships over rules does not mean the rules don’t exist or apply.

All societies have rules. Sometimes those rules are relationship-based, as described in my post, Relationship- vs. Rule-Based Cultures: Socially-Based Control vs. Individual Autonomy.

The post illustrates how the Shona society is ruled by a hierarchy based on familial relationships. It’s a fundamental part of their culture.

Unlike some cultures, where laws strive to be objective, the laws of the Shona society are shaped by relationships. Still, the rules exist.

This is just one example, but perhaps the misunderstanding is in what these two terms mean.

What “Rule-based” and “Relationship-based” Truly Means

Do the terms “rule-based” and “relationship-based” imply there are no rules (and no application of these rules) in the latter and no relationships in the former?

No.

It’s a matter of priority – i.e. do you break rules because of relations, or do you stick to rules, despite harming your relationships?

In rule-based cultures, an individual’s priority is, more often than not, on the law, while in relationship-based cultures, relationships take priority.

This does not mean there is no place for rule of law in relationship-based cultures. In regard to the study example, it wasn’t that the law or the legal system, the lawyer or the judge, was prioritizing relationships; it was the witness – an individual in the relationship-based society – prioritizing them.

The example about lying to protect your friend from criminal prosecution was not to indicate whether doing so is “right” or “wrong.” As we’ve also discussed in this blog, one culture’s “right” is always another one’s “wrong,” and such ideologies are shaped by primary socialization.

Anonymous questions this, writing, “Moral relativism must have a stopping point.” 

In other posts, we’ve described this stopping point. We’ve outlined what active tolerance is, how to accept conflicting cultural values, and when to personally arrive at this “stopping point” when working cross-culturally.

You might choose to draw the line of moral relativism at harm, as described in our post: “tolerance ends where harm begins.”

In this instance, your stopping point might be that your friend should be in prison. Or it might be that your friend’s life and your shared relationship is more important.

Whether or not valuing relationships over rules “flaunts the law” or is unethical is both for the society to decide and for you – on a personal level – to decide.

Prioritizing Relationships Over Rules

In a cross-cultural sense, understanding the rationale behind another culture’s priorities is the best you can do to make that decision for yourself and know where you draw the line.

To see the logic, you must empathize and understand the mechanics of the culture, which are based on the values it upholds.

Once you achieve that understanding, it’s easy to see why those who value relationships might wish to support the relationship over the law. 

Cultural Differences in Business Communication,” by John Hooker, describes exactly why one’s priority might lie with the relationship:

“In relationship-based cultures, the unit of human existence is larger than the individual, perhaps encompassing the extended family or the village. Ostracism from the group is almost a form of death, because one does not exist apart from one’s relatedness to others.”

If you’re part of a clock, do you remove the minute hand?

No.

Just as every part in a clock has a relationship to the other parts, so do the people in a relationship-based society.

When destroying that relationship means death, you’d agree that even the law is less important.

As with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable, the concept of flaunting the law – stealing bread rather than letting your family starve to death – brings that idea to the fore.

What would you do? Is what you’d do “right” or “wrong”? And how does your choice reflect your values?

Prioritizing Rules Over Relationships

And, in the other vein, you can understand why those cultures who value rules might stand by the law instead of the relationship.

Rule-based cultures are usually individualist and don’t have the same level of relationship connectedness as collectivist, relationship-based cultures.

Because of this, the mechanics of the society don’t work the same.

You might remove and replace the minute hand of the clock, because it kept getting stuck.

Just as you might testify as a witness against your speeding friend, as you believe him to be a danger to society.

More importantly, your rule-based society won’t ostracize you for telling the truth, because most view justice in the same way as you do; in fact, you’ll likely even be praised for putting the rule of law over your relationship, as this is a difficult decision to face.

In both societies, rules exist. But the individual chooses where to place their loyalty, which is all based on cultural conditioning and the reciprocal relationships between individuals in a culture.

Whether or not anonymous (or anyone in a rule-based society) believes putting relationships over rules is unjustified or unethical, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing so is “wrong” or there isn’t logic and reason in such societies.

What is the Point of Law?

Anonymous ends with the question,

“So what is the point of law and lawyers in non-rule-based societies? How does it work? Is it more about manipulation, sales, and gamesmanship than seeking objective truth?”

There are benefits and costs to both types of governance.

John Shuhe Li’s article, entitled “The Benefits and Costs of Relation-based Governance: An Explanation of the East Asian Miracle and Crisis,” provides some examples of these costs/benefits.

Li first emphasizes that agreements can only be enforced through rules or relationships. If neither exist, governance resorts to violence.

Li then outlines the benefits of relationship-based governance compared to rule-based governance, writing:

“When relation-based governance works, given two transaction partners, it can enforce all mutually observable agreements (by the two parties). When one party deviates from a mutually observable agreement, the other party can punish the deviator by playing (for example) tit-for-tat strategies. In contrast, given two transaction partners, rule-based governance can only enforce a subset of the mutually observable agreements that can also be observed by third parties. Thus, perhaps a large part of monitored-activities, which are mutually observable by the monitor and the monitee but are not verifiable by a third party can be enforced by relation-based governance, but not by rule-based governance.”

He also describes how a small relationship-based market can lower transaction costs over the larger fixed cost in a rule-based market. There are some limitations in this, however, including the small number of partners one can force relations agreements with. 

Rule-based governance has its benefits, as well.

Li writes,

“In contrast, there exist economies of scale in rule-based governance; thus a firm can resort to rule-based governance to enforce contracts (impersonal agreements) with an unlimited number of partners, including strangers.”

The activity coordination of the transaction parties can result in the sharing of more technical information (information not directly related to enforcement) in relation-based governance, which is another advantage. Moreover, without all the bureaucracy, renegotiations in relation-based governance can be less costly.

Lastly, when it comes to business, the fact remains that some economies are catching-up economies and can’t rely on rule-based governance.

Li writes,

“In catching-up economies…relation-based governance is the only available mechanism to enforce agreements. Thus, investing in relations can be profitable and rational, especially in developing countries.”

While this refers to business rather than criminal law, you can see that there is a point of law and lawyers in relationship-based societies; the rules simply lean more heavily into relying on relationships to enforce the rules of an agreement and keeping relationships on good terms.

And across cultures, those terms vary.

Ethnocentrism and the Workplace: How Our Biases Enter Into Business Relations

We’ve talked about ethnocentrism the past couple weeks and the ways in which it might crop up in cross-cultural research.

But ethnocentrism isn’t just a vague concept that infiltrates research; it often shows up in your average everyday workplace.

Let’s take a look at how and why.

Ethnocentrism in Business Communication

International business ventures require that individuals communicate cross-culturally.

This can either turn into a promising business partnership and even a delightful way to share cultures or into a complete devolution of business relations.

Let’s take a look at one example:

Ted (from the U.S.) sets up a video conference with Saanvi (from India).

“Let’s talk tomorrow at 8 AM, sharp,” he writes.

The next day, Ted logs into the video conference room at 7:45. 8 AM rolls around, and there’s no sign of Saanvi. Ted shoots Saanvi a quick message to let him know he’s there. By 8:10, Saanvi still hasn’t shown up. Ted is growing impatient. At 8:30, Ted sends Saanvi a curt message about rescheduling and then signs off.

Saanvi later responds to Ted, indicating that he did eventually show up to the online conference room. He video calls Ted, and when Ted asks if Saanvi can talk the next day at the same time, Saanvi nods.

The following day, the same thing happens. Ted is livid. Saanvi had confirmed with his nod, after all.

There are a few things going on cross-culturally here, and both Ted and Saanvi would do better to understanding these cross-cultural issues.

Punctuality & Visual Cues

Ted and Saanvi come from two different backgrounds, two different traditions. They possess different values and likely have different approaches to business and methods of communication.

They likely process things from their own cultural conditioning.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. With basic cross-cultural understanding, one might be able to acknowledge and accept this gap. And with an even more specific mastery of the cross-cultural differences between your culture and the other, one might be able to bridge that gap effectively.

With nothing but ethnocentrism, the gap widens and business relations potentially implode.

Why?

Because when the individuals involved do not have a basic understanding of cross-cultural issues, they don’t know that the differences in communication aren’t intentional rudeness or unprofessionalism; they may simply be cultural differences.

For instance, whereas in America, time is money, punctuality is generally taken lightly in India. Even VIPs may show up late to business meetings.

Moreover, when Indians nod their heads, the movement doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes.’ Rather, the nod can be employed simply to show they’re being attentive to what you’re saying.

Instead of understanding the other culture, both Ted and Saanvi refused to acknowledge and adapt at all to their counterparts and instead forced their own ethnocentric business standards upon the other.

In this case, they both look like monkeys in each other’s eyes.

Without understanding and compromising to some degree, ethnocentrism can become a toxic trait, creating chasms in business relations and in cross-cultural workplaces where there should be bridges.

Cultural Conditioning: How Does Our Culture Influence the Way We See the World?

figure1

Look at this figure. Study it. Memorize it.

Now, take out a blank sheet of paper, turn your screen away, and draw the figure from memory.

Return to your screen.

Did you draw it accurately?

For more than a decade, I’ve given my classes this test, and I’ve yet to have a single student be replicate this picture from memory.

Why does this simple figure baffle us so?

Three-dimensional Conditioning

In Western culture, we are taught to recognize three-dimensional projections on paper as real object replicas.

In all actuality, this drawing when taken in two-dimensional pieces is only three circles, six horizontal lines, three diagonals and one vertical line.

But when we see this figure through our Western lens, our brains start doing mental gymnastics, trying to interpret a two-dimensional figure as a three-dimensional one.

This happens with other like-figures. M. C. Escher’s infinite staircase based on Penrose Stairs, for instance.

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Or the triangle of Penrose.

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Because we have been trained and socialized to see three-dimensionality on paper, we have a much harder time replicating these impossible figures.

Absence of Three-dimensional Conditioning

Zambian children with no academic education were presented with the same exercise by J. B. Deregowski, author of Illusions, Patterns, and Pictures.

How did they do?

You probably guessed that they were much more successful at reproducing the figure above.

However, if you asked the same students to give you directions using a two-dimensional map, more than likely, they’d be unable to transpose the map against reality’s three-dimensional surroundings.

Why?

Because they weren’t taught to see three-dimensional figures on paper. Three-dimensionality is not important to their culture, thus, to them, there is no optical illusion.

It’s that simple.

90°

Right angles are another example of differing cultural perceptions.

People who live in traditional societies with arched doorways, arched ceilings, round huts are known to have a “circular culture.”

They are not able to perceive 90° angles, because right angles don’t appear in nature. They don’t exist there, so they don’t exist in the architecture or elsewhere in these cultures.

Conditioning

The color research we’ve talked about over the past couple weeks demonstrates that our perception of the world through our senses is influenced by cultural conditioning.

For instance, we mentioned that Russian culture differentiates between dark blue and light blue with language, defining them as totally different colors.

The British, on the other hand, don’t define them as two colors, but as two shades of one color.

Brit and Russian optics have the same functionality.

But, for some cultural reason, the distinction between light and dark blue isn’t of great importance to the Brits, while it is to Russians, according to their language.

Why is that?

Next week, we’ll talk more about how our visual framework influences our interpretation of reality.

10 Cultural Universals: How North Korean Politics Shape Culture

Imagine you live in a culture whose politics are totalitarian, whose leader has a cult of personality.

Imagine you have to triple-lock a door and put a blanket over windows so that no one catches you watching the latest Stephen Seagall movie.

Imagine you have a buddy system at school to ensure that you’re never alone.

Or that a cellphone is considered a luxury, but it only grants you access to the state-run media, not to the world wide web.

Imagine how you would be forced to live, if a toe out of line meant a stint at a “re-education center” for you and your family. You’d certainly follow the rules, enthusiastically praise your gracious leader and, with enough political and cultural conditioning, you may even believe the propaganda fed to you.

This is North Korea.

Cult of Personality

Last week, in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how collapsing events might lead to a change in cultural values.

For North Korea, a series of collapsing events culminated in the Korean War and the armistice signed in July of 1953.

The result is today’s North Korea, where totalitarianism and “the Great Leader’s” cult of personality reigns supreme.

This personality cult is rooted in the past, beginning in 1948, when Kim Il-sung took power, and growing with each and every Kim

While democratic leadership has its own brand of the “cult,” the Kim family takes their “right to lead” leaps and bounds beyond normalcy.

Kim Jong Un, for instance, is believed to be the grandson of a god-king. He is called the “father of the people” – that title, accompanied by a song by an all-girl rock band, entitled “We Call Him Father.”

And what happens when a citizen doesn’t praise him as such?

Penalties exist for those who do not respect the regime properly.

And for those who outright criticize them?

Well, there really are re-education centers and much worse to silence dissent.

The Results?

Mina Yoon, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that the totalitarian system in the country limits individual pastimes.

“The idea of ‘free time’ is not really common. Then, even if you do have free time, there aren’t many things to enjoy anyway.” – Mina Yoon

American journalist Suki Kim who taught English at an all-boys school in North Korea said  that the terror is palpable there.

“The level of fear is unimaginable. It’s possible to be both happy and terrified all at once, and I think that’s the case for many North Koreans.” – American journalist Suki Kim

This is how politics can shape culture to the extreme. Next week, we’ll talk about how technology comes into play.