Chrysler & the PT Cruiser: A Cross-Cultural Case Study

A French office is like a royal court; a German office is a well-oiled machine.

As we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, analogies are simple mental models that can aid cross-cultural understanding.

While behavioral changes are inevitable when working a new culture, it can be impractical to completely alter your cultural identity. Analogies provide a rough blueprint so you can play by the rules.

They show you how another system works by transposing that system onto a concept that’s relatable to you.

Analogies aren’t perfect, but they do enable you to better comply with behavior in another culture which will make you more effective as a colleague or manager.

Instead of making decisions from the bias of your own cultural anchor, by understanding the structure of the workplace, you better understand its mechanics and are able to intuit decisions that more appropriately align.

If you don’t have a zookeeper to come up with an analogy for you – like an expat or local who’s worked in a similar cross-cultural capacity – observe the nuances of the culture and create your own simple but clear analogy to use as a mental model.

Here’s one example of how author and professor, Clotaire Rapaille, did just that.

The Culture Code

Having been exposed to numerous cultures in childhood, it was natural for Rapaille to dedicate his life to researching the differences of cultures around the world.

In doing so, he became a personal advisor for CEOs of top global companies and is on retainer for many Fortune 100 companies.

By applying basic analogies in his book, The Culture Code, his concise observations of other cultures make cross-cultural understanding more efficient.

Chrysler Case Study

One case study Rapaille presented in The Culture Code involved the development of Chrysler’s PT Cruiser.

Data from focus groups helped Chrysler analyze and understand the “code” of American car consumers.

What did they find?

  • A car means family: For Americans, the family car is made important during primary socialization. Therefore, the nostalgia of childhood and family are aspects entering into this code.
  • A car means freedom: As with most things American, owning a car in one’s youth means owning freedom in more ways than one. It was found that 80 percent of Americans have their first sexual experience in the backseat of a car.
  • A car means identity: There is a strong correlation between a person’s car and their identity in the U.S. In some ways, you are what you drive.

Considering this data, it’s clear that there’s a powerful emotional relationship between Americans and their cars.

As production planning for the PT Cruiser went into effect, German car manufacturer Daimler-Benz (Mercedes) took over Chrysler.

The German culture’s relationship with their vehicles is much different.

The legal driving age in Germany is 18, so the correlation between youthful freedom (and the nostalgia of a first sexual experience in a car) isn’t as common.

Moreover, German cars are ubiquitous with quality engineering. The focus is on advanced technology rather than on the powerful emotional relationship a consumer might have with their car.

Due to these differences in culture, the PT Cruiser project was not as successful as it could have been.

While the retro and individualistic design of the Cruiser pushed the right buttons for the American consumer, the German executives ignored this, instead focusing on the vehicle’s modest quality engineering.

They assumed the PT Cruiser would be a marketing disaster and consigned its production to a small plant in Mexico.

Because of this decision, supply couldn’t keep up with demand, when the car became a big hit with Americans.

The company could have sold much more in the first year had Daimler-Benz better understood and catered to the culture of the American car market.

This is one example where exploiting a cultural analogy (one shaped by family, freedom, and identity) could have guided decision-making and led a company to greater commercial success.

Active Tolerance: How to Be Tolerant Without Abandoning Your Values

“Business owners with a high tolerance for ambiguity can normally handle new and uncertain situations with relative ease, while business owners with a low tolerance for ambiguity would handle the same situations with more angst and unease.”

Bruce Barringer

In a nutshell, this is the reason to develop your ambiguity tolerance.

As we discussed in last week’s blog post, ambiguity tolerance will save you lots of headaches when navigating the differences and uncertainties of other cultures and events – in business and in personal relationships.

Being able to approach ambiguity in a calm and thoughtful manner prevents unnecessary angst, misunderstandings, and emotional conflict.

However, as with most things in life, tolerance is often easier said than done and when it conflicts with fundamental human values, in some cases tolerating such behaviors can make you complicit in them.

Which leads us to the question…

Is Cultural Tolerance Dangerous?

Objective tolerance of certain aspects of another culture can sometimes walk a thin line between morality and injustice.

There are two dangers:

  1. Accepting values/norms that are inhumane or immoral means accepting injustice.
  2. You may lose your own values and cultural identity when becoming too tolerant.

It may seem impossible then to be both simultaneously too tolerant and immoveable in your own beliefs.

But there’s a middle ground: you might avoid both by promoting active tolerance.

As part of the first strategy for cultural integration – acceptance – active tolerance allows you to preserve your own values/identity, refusing to accept said injustices, while also learning about attitudes and behaviors and seeking to understand why they historically exist instead of dismissing them outright.

Active Tolerance = Respect

Some might consider tolerance as a weakness, a failure to stand up for one’s own convictions.

However, active tolerance is a strength.

It doesn’t mean you must accept things that are fundamentally and morally at odds with your own foundational beliefs.

Active tolerance enables a person to demonstrate all possible respect and understanding for conflicting opinions/beliefs, while also defending one’s own.

Respect and restraint are the essence of active tolerance.

What ignites a wildfire of unconstructive conflict when two people of differing values meet?

It’s not the differences, themselves, but the disrespect and refusal to acknowledge other perspectives and life experiences as valid.

When you “accept” something or someone, their experience or culture, that doesn’t mean you share their experience or agree with their point of view necessarily; it means you are actively making an effort to understand their perspective and not to invalidate their own values, beliefs, and experiences.

You accept that they have theirs, and you respect that they don’t share yours.

When performed correctly, active tolerance doesn’t equate to agreement, but rather to digging to the roots of the many cultural baobabs in this world and attempting to understand them, as well as the personal experiences of the individual.

It’s a willingness to see the world from the branches of another’s tree, even for a moment. Climbing there might not change your own perspective or your baobab’s roots, but it certainly will produce more understanding and growth in your own.

Next week, we’ll lay out an anecdotal example of active tolerance in action.