Learning a Culture: From Scholastic Learning to Experiential Learning

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how important learning the language, religion, and history of your host culture is.

This conscious, and often scholastic, learning process requires time, energy, and discipline in ways that may make you feel like you’re back at school.

It can oftentimes be a tough process, requiring many studious hours logged. After all, you’re investing in educating yourself about an entire culture.

But don’t worry, not all cultural learning will require you to dust off the books. Some of it – and some might say the most important part of it – is experiential.

Learning Through Sharing

You are not going to learn the power and emotion of Spanish flamenco watching it on YouTube.

You are not going to learn the colloquial idioms of Portuguese by memorizing by rote.

You are not going to learn how to make Italian pasta by hand without getting your hands dirty (or flour-y).

Learning culture is an experiential process and, without learning by sharing, you’ll be missing out on all the warmth of learning culture.

Cultures are not two-dimensional. They are living and breathing; they must be experienced in-the-round.

Immersion for Integration

“Instead of having 100 rubles, it’s better to have 100 friends.”

That’s what a Russian proverb says.

And foreign friends will be so much more valuable to you than rubles, as they will be able to show you their cultural behaviors, tell you their history, and teach you their traditions better than any book can.

Making friends is an investment in your cultural integration, as it allows immersion learning.

This type of learning involves sharing time and food and language with local friends.

Whether you’re an expatriate living in your host country or an international manager traveling abroad often, local friends will make learning fun rather than book work.

Not only will local friends make you culturally savvy, but they’re likely to expose you to local entertainment and opportunities that you wouldn’t have been privy to on your own.

And, even better, you’ll build life-long relationships in the process.

9/11 Interpreted: Discovering Culture Through History’s Depiction in World Textbooks

From the North and South’s view of the Civil War to those of China versus Japan of WWII, interpretations of history differ wildly across the world.

When you enter your host country, knowing their historical perspective can help you better understand myriad aspects of their culture.

It can also help you avoid stepping on any landmines that might lead to a Monkey Moment.

History is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

So, what “truth” do we choose to believe?

And what does it say about us?

Recent History in Textbooks

While distant history can still smart a bit, recent history often stings more.

9/11 is but one of those events.

The case of how 9/11 is presented in various textbooks across the globe shows how history isn’t necessarily skewed with time; it’s biased even in the moment, as originally reported by historical textbooks.

Graduate student, Elizabeth Herman, returned to her old high school about a decade after the tragic event had unfolded and discovered the school’s new history textbooks already detailed 9/11 and its aftermath.

She was curious how these events appeared in other school history textbooks around the world.

Interpreting 9/11

For her university thesis project, and later for research under a Fulbright scholarship, Herman analyzed textbooks from thirteen different countries to examine the differences in how this attack was being taught.

What she found:

  • American textbooks highlight the tragedy using volatile language and emphasize how the country came together after the attack
  • Pakistani textbooks call the assailants “unidentified terrorists,” omitting their identity
  • Turkish textbooks omit their extremist Islamic faith
  • Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian textbooks emphasize the “reckless” actions taken by the U.S. post-9/11 in their illegal war in Iraq
  • Chinese textbooks also interpret 9/11 as a sign of the decline of American authority on the world stage

So, considering all these selective details and interpretations of history, what exactly is “the truth”?

The Truth

As we’ve previously discussed, from a cultural context, there is no One Truth – at least none that we’ll ever know, as bias will always exist, in the writing of history and in the reading of it.

But what these interpretations can teach us is how different cultures view the world, how they view themselves, and how they hope to shape future readers’ perceptions of it all.

You might say, “If no one’s telling The Truth, then history is useless.”

But that’s not the case. A country’s interpretation of history allows us to understand their rationale, to seek the “why,” and that’s the whole point when you’re trying to accept and adapt to a foreign culture.

As Herman said on the results of her thesis:

“If you hand a student thirteen different ways of looking at 9/11 from thirteen different countries and ask them, […] Why do you think it’s different? Why do you think that Pakistan tells this story one way and Brazil speaks about it a different way? I think that that’s the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event.”

History is in the Eye of the Beholder: Why There Is No “One Truth” When It Comes to Culture

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – or so the saying goes.

And so is history.

History may be “written by the victors,” but in most cases, the “victors” don’t permanently wipe out all other perspectives (thankfully).

Opposing views of history co-exist and, if you’re doing business in a new culture – or living in it – an awareness of that culture’s perspective of history, particularly its own, will help you succeed…and avoid some serious cultural faux pas.

How?

UPS in Germany

Consider this: when UPS tried to introduce new business in West Germany in 1976, the company didn’t consider the historical roots of brown uniforms there.

UPS’s recognizable “brown shirts” were reminiscent of Hitler Youth uniforms to locals.

Tensions arose due to this serious oversight, and UPS was forced to introduce green employee uniforms instead. 

But cultural insensitivity was their first impression.

This could have all been avoided with a little bit of historical knowledge and common sense.

Moreover, another important thing to remember about history is that, when it comes to cultural understanding, it’s open to interpretation.

Interpreting History

Although there may be one truth, no one will ever know it.

Historical events can be perceived differently by opposing cultures and are subject to interpretation.

Knowing that, when introduced to your host culture, look at their history not only through the lens of your own culture, but through their own.

If you look at another’s history only through the framework of your culture’s historical perspective of it, that singular interpretation of the facts likely won’t provide the same view.

In the sense that you’re trying to understand the perspective of another culture, that interpretation is pretty useless to you.

While we hope for objectivity in history-telling, the reality is that subjectivity colors history writing a great deal.

Historians often write within the biased framework of their culture’s own national and political interests.

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize, particularly coming from academics or historians, whom we’d like to believe are “above” bias.

But nationalist tradition often enters into historical interpretation, and cultural preconceptions and stereotypes are extremely resistant to facts.

Only when faced with foreign opposition of said facts may any sort of bias be detected.

We’ll illustrate this contrast of opposing historical views next week.

When Religion Meets History: Confucian & Communism in Chinese Culture

“If you can revive the ancient and use it to understand the modern, then you are worthy to be a teacher.” – Confucius

History. Religion. Language.

We’ve been talking about these cornerstones of culture the past few weeks, taking them one at a time.

But what happens when they meet?

And how can you, as Confucius says, understand the modern by reviving the ancient?

Welcome to the Beijing Olympics

It was 2008. Beijing, China. Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“Friends have come from afar, how happy we are.”

A quote by the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was presented at the fore.

Later, the Bird’s Nest was invaded by 3,000 Confucian disciples. The performers held bamboo slips, upon which some read the ancient Chinese character, “He,” which means harmony.

The religious philosophy of Confucianism was present at the international ceremony, as the great philosopher represents the Chinese mind.

Alive from 552 to 479 BC, “The Uncrowned King” remains today, 1,500 years later, Chinese history’s most influential person.

He is so influential that his traditional ideas and teachings remain a part of modern Chinese thought.

A Culture Influenced By Religion and History

Although Confucius was once deemed “The Number One Hooligan Old Kong” by Mao’s Red Guards, the Communist Party realized that the great philosopher might be useful for their agenda.

Only, instead of true harmony in the way Confucian taught, the Communist Party Confucius emphasizes obedience and loyalty. He bucks Western ideals and pushes for authoritarian rule.

“Harmony” – a Confucian concept – is used a lot by Communists; harmony, meaning no dissent.

The true Confucian take on harmony, however, is one in which each person in a society works together toward prosperity. 

A research paper entitled, “The Relevance of Confucian Philosophy to Modern Concepts of Leadership and Followership,” explains Confucius’ views as follows:

“Confucius observed that because society is a weave of relationships between individuals, a healthy community depends upon an attitude of human caring among its members.”

By cherry-picking and restructuring Confucian values, the party is able to create a version of a modern political system that it can say is based on the traditional past.

In this way, Chinese history and religion tell us why a nationalistic central government, guided by moral individuals who have the people’s best interests at heart, is the way China chooses to be led – and to become a major world power.

History and religion tell us why a democratic Western political system does not sit well culturally in China.

This demonstrates that, in the end, to truly understand the ways and mentalities of your host country and its people, you must study its history and religion – and also the ways in which that history and religion might be politicized in the modern world.

Why Learning History is Important to Cultural Integration

History can tell you a lot about the present reality of a culture’s values and norms.

Understanding the rationale in a culture’s roots – the “why” – is often traced to history’s distant past.

Traditions, customs, and behaviors, as we saw last week, have their roots in language, religion, and, lastly, history.

For instance, due to largely voluntary European immigration and forced African immigration, American culture, for instance, became a “melting pot.”

On the other side of the pond, European history has been shaped by multiple major wars.

Languages were spread worldwide through colonization, with English becoming the primary language of Australia and the U.S., while Spanish and Portuguese were spread through Latin America.

China, Japan, Russia – their societies have all been shaped by influential dynasties.

While this common knowledge is useful to have, it barely scratches the surface in regards to learning and understanding a foreign culture.

Respect and Genuine Interest

A deeper knowledge of your host culture’s history demonstrates your regard and respect for that culture.

National pride is an element of every culture; it is part of a group – and an individual’s – identity.

When I moved to the U.S. in early 2000, I viewed the American Civil War like I did that of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, in that it was remote and distant, left in the deep realms of the past.

Due to the volume of European wars, that’s how many Europeans view battles and wartime periods that took place prior to the first and second world wars.

From this perspective, I didn’t think it necessary to study up on U.S. history beyond the broad culture and recent past. 

I knew the basics about the American Civil War – that it was fought between the North and South over the abolition of slavery – but beyond that, I knew not much else, nor did I consider the war to carry much direct relevance (beyond racism and prejudice) in present-day America.

When I relocated to Richmond, Virginia, I realized I was mistaken.

Richmond was the southern secessionists’ capital, and the Civil War is still very much a part of the “recent past” there.

Some view Abraham Lincoln – widely considered one of the United States’ greatest presidents – in a negative light and the Civil War, in general, as “when the North attacked America.”

In 2003, when a Lincoln statue was unveiled in the center of Richmond, it was received with protests by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

You can see why knowledge of the past – and the different perspectives of this shared history by various regions of the United States – would be pertinent to your cultural integration.

Cultural sensitivity about topics that are considered controversial in some areas is necessary to developing and maintaining positive business and personal relationships wherever you set down roots.

Religion & Culture: Individual Vs. Cultural Behavior

During the 1994 World Cup, Heineken took center stage…and not in a good way.

In a bid of inclusion, Heineken printed the flag of every country participating in the Cup on its beer bottle.

Unfortunately, this included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which holds a holy creed, “There is no god but the God; Muhammad is the Messenger of the God.”

Islam, of course, forbids alcohol, so the blunder led to major hostilities in the Muslim world.

Heineken was forced to recall and discontinue this promotion, leading to loss of revenue and a bruised public image.

This is one example of what can happen when a business does not account for religious cultural norms.

Personal Faith Versus Cultural Behaviors

Religion influences both individuals and entire cultures.

Individual behavior is impacted by personal belief, while cultural behavior is often impacted by religious practices and norms.

A Christian attends mass every Sunday.

A Muslim prays in the direction of Mecca five times a day.

A Jew dons a Kipa.

All of these are religious behaviors based on individual convictions. That is, they may not impact an entire society or culture.

So, what types of behaviors do influence entire cultures?

One might differentiate between a cultural behavior and a personal one by identifying whether or not religious norms and values impact even non-believers..

Christmas & Easter

One glaring example of this is religious holidays.

Christmas and Easter are holidays that have become ingrained in Western culture; even those who are not of Christian faith celebrate said holidays.

In such cultures, holiday rituals – like decorating a Christmas tree, exchanging gifts, or even attending church – are often observed by those who do not practice religion.

Despite embracing these holiday rituals which are grounded in religion, those same celebrants may not necessarily routinely attend mass or celebrate any other elements of Christianity.

Particularly in Europe, attending church is often a personal conviction, rather than a cultural one.

The South

Visit the South in the U.S., and you might view mass attendance differently.

In some states or regions, going to church is a cultural expectation. It can improve both your social life, your professional life, and even your political life.

In this way, religious behavior is a cultural element in the South, meaning it is conditioned by the culture rather than by religion itself.

Why Must You Know This Distinction

When living and working in a foreign culture, this distinction between religious individual behavior and religious cultural behavior is an important one.

Behaviors based in personal belief can be disregarded without major repercussions; but those based in cultural belief simply cannot.

Preparing to accept, adapt, and adopt pervasive religious cultural beliefs is an important step in cultural integration.

Religion & Accounting: The Intersection of Business & Culture

“Religion is more than a belief; it constitutes a way of life, involving unique practices and perspectives in accounting.” – Meredith Young

This, Young concludes in her thesis that examines cultural impacts on accounting.

From Egyptian papyrus to Incan knots, accounting has taken shape in different forms across cultures and time.

Let’s look at how religion influences accounting systems, styles, and mediums.

The Sacred and the Profane

In the early Church of England, acts and behaviors were identified as either sacred or profane, holy or sinful.

Handling money – and money, in general – were of the profane variety.

Matthew 6:24 reads:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Upon this verse, the Church’s belief is based. Accounting was viewed as profane and should not commingle with religious laws and principles

Of course, modern Christians are unlikely to hold this view, but it still exists in the Church of England.

Islam

The Islamic perspective does not divide acts into two parties. 

Rather, a person’s acts ready him or her for higher religious acts, which should be done according to those Allah set forth in the Quran.

A primary tenet of the Islamic faith is accountability.

Not only should one be accountable for his debts, but he will ultimately have to account to Allah for his deeds on Judgement Day.

There, a Muslim will receive a book of deeds – a record of all good acts done in one’s life.

Rewards or punishments are awaiting all in response to this record.

And what constitutes a “good deed”?

Abiding by Islamic law, to the letter, for one.

Some of these laws revolve around accounting.

In Albaqarah, Verse 282, the Quran states:

“O you who believe! When you contract a debt for a fixed period, write it down. Let scribe write it down in justice between you. Let not the scribe refuse to write as Allah has taught him, so let him write…”

Financial transactions are regulated according to Islamic practice. Muslim accountants must uphold these laws.

One example is interest. According to Islamic law, charging interest is prohibited.

Moreover, a tax called “zakat” is imposed on certain property types and is intended to be charitably redistributed.

Islamic companies must comply to the standards published by the Islamic Financial Accounting Standard Board (IFASB). 

As one might expect, there is often a conflict between Western accounting standards and practices and Islamic accounting, which can pose cross-cultural issues where business is involved.

Religion’s Influence on Cultural Drinking Behaviors

Culture and religion are inevitably intertwined.

Today, we’ll discuss some studies that demonstrate this exchange.

Our first study comes out of America and Canada, in which researchers analyzed whether culture or religion more greatly influenced drinking behaviors.

Canadian Versus American Drinking Behaviors

Past studies had shown that drinking patterns amongst college students differed across countries. 

The difference in behaviors suggests that anything from a country’s public policies to their politics, values, or economy influences alcohol consumption levels and produces different alcohol-related problems within each country.

For example, one study showed that while more Canadian students drink alcohol than American students, heavy alcohol use (5+ drinks in a row for men / 4+ for women) was much more prevalent amongst Americans than Canadians in both past-year and past-week stats. 

41% of American students had drunk heavily within the past year versus 35% of Canadian students, and 54% of American students had drunk heavily within the past week compared to 42% of their Canadian counterparts.

One reason for this may be the drinking age disparity. In Canada, 18 (in some provinces) and 19 are legal drinking ages, while in the U.S., drinking is legal at 21. 

The study concluded that a student’s place of residence may also influence the difference in drinking behaviors:

“In our sample, 52% of Canadian college respondents lived off-campus with parents while only 15% of the US college respondents did so. Our study suggests that students who live off-campus with their parents are less likely to use alcohol and to be heavy alcohol drinkers in both countries.”

While this study identified different cultural drinking habits, researchers in the ‘90s wanted to delve into religious influence on those same habits.

Religious Influence on Drinking Habits

The drinking behaviors of non-abstinent Catholics, moderately abstinent Protestants, and abstinent Jews in both America and Canada were put under the microscope.

Researchers discovered that the absence or presence of conflicting values between the country’s culture and the religion’s drinking norms predicted the drinking habits of each group. 

For instance, the drinking habits of non-abstinent Catholics generally aligned with those of the country’s culture; however, the drinking habits between abstinent Canadian Jews and American Jews were the same, as most follow the religion’s strict law in lieu of the broader cultural drinking norms.

The study concludes:

“Among this sample it was concluded that religious norms have a greater influence in cohesive religious groups while cultural norms are more influential among less cohesive groups. The results also support the Canadian ‘Mosaic’ and American ‘Melting Pot’ assumption.”

This indicates that the norms of religious-based sub-cultures are more adherent to the group norms than national ones.

When Religious Norms Become National Culture

Religious norms regarding alcohol consumption can, at times, even imbed into the national culture.

It’s not unusual to see a glass of wine or pint of beer drank with lunch in a Catholic country, while abstinence from such habits would be the norm in a Protestant country. 

In fact, in the “Bible Belt” of America, which is predominantly Protestant, you may even see alcohol norms written into law. A number of counties in this region are “dry.”

In some parts of the world, drinking norms are legally bound, nationwide. For instance, some Islamic countries follow strict drinking norms (abstaining from alcohol) and expect outsiders to, as well. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, there are laws enforcing such norms.

In such cases, adapting or adopting as an outsider is required, in order to avoid legal issues or imprisonment.

All of this is to say that a country’s dominant religion(s) influence the culture’s norms and values, whether an individual is a believer or not.

In order to understand the culture of a country, therefore, you must get to know the ideology and rules/laws of its religion(s). 

We’ll discuss how religion may imprint on business next week.

A Spirit Alive: Learning a Culture Through Religion Continued…

The Vatican in Rome. The Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Golden Temple in India.

Everywhere you travel, you’re likely to find a religious site or house of worship.

Moreover, you’re likely to encounter the values and norms of that predominant religion, demonstrated in various ways.

Whether it’s the closure of shops on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays, or the style of clothing worn, religion influences both the visual landscape and the society at large.

Despite the best efforts from some atheistic governments to destroy religion, belief has remained alive and well in the hearts and minds of many.

One example of this is in Albania.

Albania Cracks Down

Albanian Dictator Envers Hoxa tried to forcefully remove religion, forbidding rituals, destroying churches, and banning religious symbols.

I, myself, visited Albania as a journalist after Hoxa’s regime fell.

While there, I happened upon a church that the regime had converted into a “house of culture” in the mountains bordering Yugoslavia.

Someone had gone through and overturned the tombstones, but you could still see crosses littered in the stone.

But what really astounded me were the professions of faith written inside the church.

Culture and religion are so inextricably intertwined that not even a ruthless dictator could kill their spirit.

Religion is something acquired during primary socialization; it is as intimately part of us as language or diet.

Whether or not a person has faith or considers themselves religious, some of their behaviors, norms, and values are inevitably still grounded in the predominant religion of their society, regardless of secularism. Even secular societies may still celebrate Easter and Christmas.

In effect, religion influences everything, from art and history to government and education.

Clash of Civilizations

Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used religion as a major criterion when identifying the civilizations in his landmark book, Clash of Civilizations.

He looked at Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Orthodox, and Sinic civilizations (the East Asian cultural sphere).

Although GLOBE research divided 59 countries into cultural dimensions, none of which were religious, they received similar results to Huntington, which demonstrates how the behaviors, values, and norms of a culture are defined by religion.

8 in 10 people identify with a religious group, according to PEW forum.

Our societal personalities, traditions, lifestyles, and perspectives are deeply rooted in religion. 

In this way, throughout history, societal rules and regulations have been dependent upon religion to help keep society in line. With religion as a driving factor, these rules are not simply being imposed by Man, but rather by the divine.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some research analyzing the interaction between culture and religion.

Descended from a Sun Goddess: Japan and the Shinto Religion

At the beginning of the world, only the sea existed.

Using a long stick, a god and goddess – Izanagi and Izanami – began to stir up this sea which surfaced mounds of mud. 

These mounds became the more than 6,800 Japanese islands spotting the Pacific Ocean.

Next, the godly couple birthed three children: the god of the moon, the god of the storm, and the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu.

Amaterasu and all the gods are called kami – aka, sacred spirits that appear in the form of nature, such as trees, rain, wind, and mountains.

Similar to the Biblical passage, “From dust you have come, And to dust you shall return,” the Shinto religion teaches that humans become nature after they die; they become kami.

The sun goddess birthed her own children. When these children had children, the first Emperor of Japan was born.

This emperor, being the direct descendent of the sun goddess, holds great power.

After hearing this creation story, you might understand how the Japanese have historically viewed their emperor and the world at large.

Japanese is the World

The Shinto religion is as old as the country itself.

Notice that in its creation story, as the sea was stirred up, only Japan was created, not the world at large.

This differs from Christianity, where Genesis indicates that all the world and the universe were created by God.

The Japanese gods not only created the country; they lived there.

Again, unlike Christianity – or other religions or mythologies – where the gods often reside in otherworldly places and only visit Earth, the island nation of Japan is heaven and Earth to its people.

The nationalism felt by the Japanese can be explained by this religious belief…which can also explain some of the nation’s history.

Shinto & Nationalism

“Shinto can’t be separated from Japan and the Japanese, but in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Shinto became an established state religion, inextricably linked to the cause of Japanese nationalism.” – BBC

Being that the Imperial family of Japan was believed to be so descended from the gods, this leaves little room for questioning the authority of the Emperor and his relationship to his people, particularly after the Meiji Restoration and State Shinto was established.

Bringing the Imperial legend back into the light after it had been shunted to the side by the popularity of Buddhism for centuries, the mid-19th century saw the Emperor gain new power and the “divine right” to rule the world.

Moreover, the Japanese people, themselves, were descended from the gods and, thus, a superior ilk.

This gave rise to nationalism in Japan which crescendoed to its climax in WWII.

In 1946, in a transcript called the “declaration of humanity,” Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine repute, after which the country’s Constitution was rewritten toward a more secular separation of church and state.

David McNeill of The Japan Times writes that today, Shinto has “two faces.” 

“Spokesman for the religion’s International Section, Katsuji Iwahashi, stresses Shinto’s essentially peaceful roots and its overwhelmingly benign role in the lives of millions of Japanese as well as its modern, internationalist outlook. Organized beliefs can be used in any nation, he explains, for good and bad.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss how religion has been used across different cultures and nations, for good and bad, and what the beliefs and values of religions can teach you about culture.