Nature Vs. Nurture & Cultural Evolution

Language is culture. Food is culture. Customs are culture.

They are all taught. They are all shaped and communicated across generations through group orientation and primary socialization.

In the book, Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd explain that some scientists argue that culture and human behavior cannot be tied to evolutionary theory and biology, quoting the concept of nature versus nurture.

Culture is something created via nurture, while biology is formed by nature.

An individual’s concept of time, her values and customs, her language – all of this is formed by the environment in which she grows up.

It is nurtured.

An individual’s eye color, his height, any genetic disease he may have – all of this is formed by genes.

It is the result of nature. 

Considering this, many argue that evolutionary theory does not come into play in regards to learned behaviors that are shaped by the environment.

As we’ve discussed in many blog posts, cultural behaviors – and most other human behavior – is learned; therefore, the argument is that biology has little to do with creating it.

But Richerson and Boyd suggest that this is not the case, due to the symbiotic nature of genes and their environment.

Genes & the Environment Interact

Genes are not blueprints specifying an organism’s final draft.

Instead, the genetic information stored in an organism interacts with the environment around it while the organism is developing.

As Richerson and Boyd describe it:

“Genes are like a recipe, but one in which the ingredients, cooking temperature, and so on are set by the environment.”

And like any recipe, the traits of the organism will vary based on the differences in the environment.

Some traits are more affected by environment than others.

For instance, most humans develop two ears, despite the environment they’ve grown in, but depending on their nutritional environment during youth, they can develop different growth and health outcomes into adulthood.

Environmental differences can also cause differing behaviors in organisms that are genetically the same.

In such circumstances, the environment is the direct cause of different traits and behaviors.

And because culture is both a part of the environment and a reaction to it, while genes are the evolutionary response to past environments, neither can be removed from the equation.

They are symbiotic.

We’ll take a closer look at the degree to which genes and culture influence human behavior next week.

3, 2, 1….New Year’s Traditions From Around the World

As we bid farewell to 2021 and greet the new year, let’s count down these New Year’s traditions from around the world.

You might just want to adopt some to give yourself a leg up in 2022.

Scotland: First Footing

In Scottish culture, New Year’s Eve is such an important holiday that it has a special name: Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is believed to come from the French, “hoginane,” which means “gala day.”

One of the most interesting Hogmanay traditions is called “first footing.”

If you hope to have good luck in the new year, then you want the first person to cross your home’s threshold after midnight to be a dark-haired man. 

This concept originates from the Viking era when an ax-wielding light-haired man appearing on your doorstep generally meant pillaging.

Thus, the opposing dark-haired man means good fortune – especially if they come bearing symbolic gifts of salt, shortbread, coal, and, of course, Scottish whisky.

Spain: Twelve Lucky Grapes

If you happen to be in Spain (or various Latin American countries) on New Year’s Eve, you’ll likely participate in “las doce uvas de la suerte” (“the twelve lucky grapes”).

This holiday tradition involves eating a dozen grapes, one for each month of the year, at the stroke of midnight. 

The tradition dates back to the 19th century and is based in commercialism.

With the aim to sell more grapes at the year’s end, Alicante vineyards created and promoted the ritual.

The tradition has since acquired rules: you must eat a grape at each toll of the clock, allowing you about a second to consume each of them. 

Those who finish all twelve grapes by the time the tolls end (no cheating!) will have good luck in the new year…if they don’t choke.

Japan: Year-Crossing Noodles

As 2021 turns to 2022, get your slurp on in Japan with toshikoshi soba.

Meaning “year-crossing noodles,” the custom involves eating a bowl of this special soba noodle in the new year in the hopes to enjoy a long and healthy life.

The length of the noodle and the resilient buckwheat plant used to make it represent these ideals.

The softer noodle is also easier to break, symbolizing “breaking off the old year” and parting with its troubles.

The tradition dates back centuries to the Kamakura period, where a Buddhist temple gave out soba to the poor on New Year’s, a concept that later turned into a ritual all over Japan.

Whatever traditions you choose to celebrate on New Year’s, I wish you good fortune and health in 2022!

Happy New Year!

Christmas Around the World: Interesting Cultural Christmas Characters & Traditions

In honor of the holiday, let’s take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to visit different cultural Christmas characters and traditions from around the world.

We’ll stop off in Italy to sweep up with La Belfana, in the Netherlands to try on shoes with Sinterklaas and, of course, in Austria, to whip through the snowy streets with Krampus.

Hop on Sinterklaas’ trusty steed, Amerigo, and let’s admire the world of Christmas culture!

Belfana in Italy

Image Credit: Naturpuur

The folkloric La Befana is a Christmas witch that is said to have been invited by the Three Wise Men to deliver gifts to the Christ child.

After refusing the invitation, she had a change of heart and tried to follow the Magi in their journey but, unfortunately, couldn’t catch up.

She never did meet Jesus, but she gave all the gifts intended for him to other children, and her kindhearted nature is still celebrated in Italy today.

Instead of leaving out cookies for Santa, some leave out a glass of wine or panettone for La Befana to kick back after she fills their stockings.

The good witch even sweeps up the home before flying off on her broomstick.

Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas may be the nearest on this list to most cultures’ traditional idea of Santa Claus. 

He is the Dutch depiction of Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop on whom Santa Claus is based.

But unlike the American version, the Dutch Sinterklaas rides not a sleigh with reindeer but a white horse named Amerigo. And all his helpers are not called elves but rather “the Peters.”

Sinterklaas wears a red cape and miter and delivers gifts and treats to children’s shoes, which they place near the chimney or back door. 

Most of Sinterklaas’ gifts are of the sweet variety, including marzipan, spiced biscuits, and gingerbread men.

Krampus in Austria

What would a Christmas character list be without a cameo from Krampus?

While most of the world has Father Christmas or jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, Austria went another way.

Each year, the country scares the life out of children with St. Nick’s evil counterpart and accomplice, the ghoul that is Krampus.

The son of Norse goddess, Hel, Krampus is derived from the word for “claw” (krampen) in German.

Santa may have a list of children who are “naughty” or “nice,” offering only coal to the former, but Krampus acts on punishing bad behavior. 

Krampus is said to haunt the streets of Austria in search of bad children – and many actually don his fanged and horned mask, carrying birch tree branches to “whip” the naughty into shape.

The worst of these children, he carries back to his lair in the underworld.

So, “you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,” because Krampus is coming to town.

Cultural Bodyclock: How to Adjust to Polychronic or Monochronic Time Perception

Research by Harvard Business Review found that

“between 10% and 20% of all U.S. managers sent abroad returned early because of job dissatisfaction or difficulties in adjusting to a foreign country.”

One of the primary adjustments to make as a manager in a foreign country is adjusting one’s bodyclock to the culture’s time perception.

As we’ve learned these past few weeks, polychronic and monochronic cultures operate according to clocks that have been set very differently – not just in two different time zones, but more like in two different space-time continuums.

Polychronic cultures have a more fluid view of time, while in monochronic cultures, time is linear.

If you’re sent to manage a company in another country, you might need to acquire – or at least adjust to – their view of time.

But you can’t just reset your watch, so how do you make these adjustments actionable?

Being a Monochron

For those coming from a polychronic culture into a monochronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception:

  • Punctuality and organization – both the manager and the staff know their schedule in advance and are expected to be prompt at meetings. Punctuality is key to keeping everything else on track, like a well-oiled machine.
  • Time management tools – many countries in monochronic cultures use time management tools to keep joint calendars as a team and stay on task. Tools like Scoro, Asana, and Trello come to mind.
  • Linear activities – monochronic time systems move one step at a time. Once one task is completed and accounted for, an employee can move onto the next, ensuring focus and efficiency.
  • Individual drive and achievement – individual successes are celebrated, both personally and by the company (think “employee of the month”). This motivates personal drive and performance.
  • Meeting deadlines – deadlines in monochronic cultures are hard stops. Work is expected to be completed promptly by deadline in a task-oriented fashion.

If you, as a polychron, can tune into these time- and motivation-related aims, you will be a more successful manager in a monochronic culture.

Being a Polychron

For those coming from a monochronic culture into a polychronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception.

  • Interactionrelationships and personal connections are a normal part of the workday. While tasks are set, personal interaction with colleagues and clients is expected and often prioritized.
  • Integrated activities – multitasking is common, and tasks are completed in an integrated and often leisurely fashion, with those who have finished their tasks pulling in to help others.
  • Group effort – as mentioned above, tasks are more often a group effort, as polychronic businesses often have a flat management structure where peer support is encouraged. Thus, individual recognition isn’t so important as group recognition.
  • Flexibility – there is a more flexible agenda in polychronic cultures, with employees not worrying too much about a hard deadline.
  • High context communication – all crucial information is shared, along with background information, and often in a manner where tone and visual cues are emphasized and interpreted.

When stepping into another culture’s time perception, making pointed actionable adjustments will help you adjust your bodyclock in a concrete way to a foreign culture.

“Time is Money”: Monochrons and Time Perception

A German manager was sent to Honduras to monitor a factory for his company.

Every single day, the factory workers showed up a half-hour late.

He held a meeting with the workers and brought this issue up, expecting to see some changes.

Nothing.

He created an incentive for being on time, offering a raise at year’s end to those who were punctual.

Nothing.

He implemented a sliding scale of punishment for tardiness, with a three-strike rule.

Nothing.

He laid down the law and fired a worker who was exceptionally late on a regular basis.

Still, the next day, workers did not punch in on time.

No matter how often he insisted that they be punctual, nothing changed.

He complained to his Honduran co-manager about this issue, and she shrugged, saying, “They may be late, but at least they show up. That, in and of itself, is rare.”

This is where monochrons and polychrons butt heads, and the frustration is very real.

Last week, we touched on the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures.

This post will go into deeper detail about what to expect from monochronic employees or managers.

What to Expect from a Monochron

As the above example shows, monochrons – whose cultures are prominently found in Northern Europe, North America, and parts of Asia – are time-sensitive.

Time is strictly divided: there is a time for fun and a time for work.

As Project Management Institute describes it, monochrons treat time as:

“a commodity of high value, as necessary as or perhaps even more important than satisfaction, good work, and relationships.”

Time is as tangible as any other commodity, as the phrase, “Time is money,” suggests.

Time can be wasted. It can be saved. It can be killed. It can be lost. It can won.

This perspective of time results in monochrons having a stricter and more stressful relationship with the clock and, as such, they try to use their time effectively, often focusing on completing one task at a time.

As studies show, doing so is actually a more productive use of time than multitasking.

Studies indicate that multitasking is less efficient because we are less focused, resulting in shallower learning and lower achievement and productivity. 

In fact, one study showed that only 2.5 percent of people are effective multitaskers.

The fact that monochronic cultures eschew multitasking for a more focused approach indicates that they are instinctively making the most effective use of time.

A monochron’s linear thinking and proclivity to strict schedules, with a focus on one event following another (think a timetable or meeting agenda, etc.), exemplifies this.

Get It Done

Monochrons emphasize getting things done.

Punctuality. Precision. Productivity.

These are the keys to success in a monochronic culture.

Managing time to use it more efficiently results in greater productivity and, thus, greater success.

So, here’s a pro tip if you are attending a meeting with an international colleague: understand their time perspective and meet their expectations.

If they are from a monochronic culture, arrive early, be prepared, and adhere to the agenda.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Timeline-Oriented Cultures View Time

Do you have the time to talk about time?

You should, because understanding cultural concepts of time matters a great deal to cross-cultural relations.

Time-orientation researchers Alexander Gonzalez and Phillip Zimbardo wrote:

“Every child learns a time perspective that is appropriate to the values and needs of his society.”

Time is directly linked to a society’s values and needs. It is of the utmost importance to cultural understanding.

As we’ve discussed these past few weeks, the way a society views time can explain a lot about their cultural baobab.

For instance, those who are past-oriented value tradition; those who are present-oriented value instant gratification; and those who are future-oriented value goals and long-term benefits.

One last type of time orientation is timeline cognitivity.

Let’s take a look at how timeline-oriented cultures view and value time.

Timeline-Oriented Values

“Time is a wave or a black hole could not bend it; humanity rides the crest of an infinite number of waves that are perceived as linear in their limited frame of reference.” ― Ken Poirot

Timelines are linear, as are timeline-oriented cultures.

They view everything in linear terms with a linear frame of reference.

Individuals in such societies tend to be very detail-oriented but struggle to absorb and understand multiple events simultaneously.

Timeline-oriented cultures also tend to be monochronic, completing one task at a time.

Individuals from such cultures are generally not prone to multitasking.

Monochronic, timeline-oriented cultures value schedules and demonstrate strict time management.

The Devil is in the Details

Differing views on time influence global communications and affairs, necessitating some cross-cultural understanding and diplomacy on the matter.

When it comes to managing or negotiating across cultures, some knowledge of and practice in dealing with these differences in time perspectives and communication styles is key to succeeding in business.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Future-Oriented Cultures View Time

Say, you’re headed to a job interview in the U.S.

You’ve probably prepared for this common question: “Where do you see yourself in 5/10 years?”

This is a perfect example of how Americans – and other future-oriented cultures – view time.

Their focus is on future goals.

What can they accomplish in the present to meet these goals?

How can they benefit in the future from their actions today?

We’ve talked about past-oriented cultures and present-oriented cultures.

If you find yourself most often viewing life in terms of what is to come, you might be from a future-oriented culture.

Future-Oriented Values

“The future depends on what we do in the present.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Future-oriented cultures view life and priorities in terms of long-term goals.

Their values are based on goal-setting and achieving.

In a large-scale study of culture and leadership, the GLOBE project defined future-oriented cultures as those that value “the sacrifice of short-term pleasures and satisfactions in favor of long-term success and prosperity.” 

As you can imagine, such goal-oriented cultures are often competitive and confident, as they have an idea of what they want.

Think, “the American Dream.” 

Sacrificing today means a more promising tomorrow.

Such cultures are grounded in optimism, seeking a better future for themselves and working toward that “dream.”

They value planning and investing.

The study also found that future-oriented cultures – like the U.S., Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Malaysia – often have a higher GDP per capita, as their forward-thinking values help them see the big-picture.

The Future is Ours

“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.” – Nikola Tesla

To differentiate between past, present, and future orientation, consider a pipeline potentially being constructed over sacred land.

A past-oriented culture might view the grounds as sacrosanct.

From their perspective, the land should be respected, and the people’s historical use and ownership of these grounds, honored.

A present-oriented culture might primarily value the jobs that this pipeline will provide today – jobs in a region that desperately needs them.

A future-oriented culture might look at the long-term effects of this pipeline. 

What would the benefits of its construction be? The drawbacks and the costs? To what extent would the pipeline impact the environment and the bottom line?

The point is, a culture’s time perception dictates its values.

Cultural time orientation will influence thinking, rationale, and the choices one will make in business and personal matters.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Present-Oriented Cultures View Time

Be present.

Exist in the now.

You only live once.

When it comes to time orientation, present-oriented cultures view the current moment in time as the only moment that matters.

Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo spoke of individual time orientation, saying:

“There are two ways to be present-oriented, the most obvious is to be hedonistic, that you live for pleasure and you avoid pain. You seek knowledge, you seek sensation. There are other people who are present-oriented because they say, ‘It doesn’t pay to plan. My life is fated – fated by my religion, my poverty, the conditions that I’m living under.’”

While personal present-oriented values may not be exactly the same as those who are culturally present-oriented, the belief in fate does play into the perspective of time in many cultures.

Unlike past-oriented cultures, present time orientation results in a short-term thinking style with little focus on the future or the past.

Let’s dive in to the present.

Present-Oriented Values

Present-oriented cultures view the past as a closed book.

It is done, it is finished, it is something that cannot be changed.

Similarly, they view the future as something that has yet to be written, and they don’t have the power or tools to write it.

The past is gone, and the future is uncertain.

The only timeline that truly matters – and to which they have any influence – is the present.

Thus, the focus is on today, for tomorrow may not arrive.

They look to ways in which they can influence the present moment or changes they can make to yield short-term, immediate results.

You might find present-oriented cultures in Latin America and Africa. 

France, too, is said to have a more present-oriented culture, compared to the UK (past) and the US (future).

The Present is a Gift

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” – Henry David Thoreau

Because their lives are not grounded in the future or the past, present-oriented cultures view the present as a gift.

They live life for today, not tomorrow.

Next week, we’ll talk about how this differs from future-oriented cultures.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Past-Oriented Cultures View Time

How do you make life decisions?

Do you anchor your reasoning in the past, basing logic on tradition and precedence?

Or do you look toward the future, anchoring decisions on what could be?

In the same vein, think about your culture.

Does your culture go back millennia or a mere few centuries?

Or maybe it was born yesterday?

The answers to these questions can tell us about our culture’s concept of time orientation.

We’ve talked a bit about time orientation and perception in a past blog.

But let’s dig a little deeper into each of the 4 Types of Cultural Time Orientation and Time Perception.

Past-Oriented Values

“The past is the beginning of the beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.” – H.G. Wells

In past-oriented cultures, the past is honored and revered and heavily nostalgic, and it plays a large part in how present society is run and how decisions are made.

Past-oriented societies include China, Japan, Britain, and many Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

They often follow formalities when it comes to working relationships and tend toward conservatism, meaning they are not often progressive in business matters.

Work culture is thoroughly grounded in ways of management that are tied to the past.

They also hold traditional values because feeding a collective memory is key to their cultural identity.

Due to the importance of tradition in these countries, their societies are slow to change. 

If you try to intervene in tradition, you are not to be trusted.

As individuals, too, ancestral worship and family traditions are highly valued.

The Past Guides Us

Past-oriented societies don’t just make decisions based on past experience; they see their hope and inspiration in what has already been.

History, tradition, and precedence inspire them and direct their future.

They invest in businesses and other organizations that already exist.

All resources and efforts are put toward what has been established, and the past is used to evaluate the present.

Past-oriented cultures also tend to be risk-averse, and hiring is done with loyalty of company in mind.

Staff is expected to adhere to policies and procedures, as well as established norms.

Moreover, when planning for important changes that might also require a change in mentality, long time frames accommodate for resistance to said changes.

Change for change’s sake is not appreciated, and the past is led into the future, remaining very much alive in the present.

Visionary leaders of such cultures are able to balance their concept of time enough to ensure change is not too jarring and that the past is not left behind. 

Finding Your Cultural Zookeeper: How Your Assistant Can Assist You in Learning Culture

We’ve been talking the past few weeks about what types of people make the best zookeepers in a foreign culture.

Zookeepers are the intermediaries between you and the new culture. They can help you understand the nuances of the culture’s values, norms, and behaviors and provide you with metaphors or analogies to serve as mental models for better understanding.

While we’ve said that Third Culture Kids are amongst the best zookeepers due to their experience with multiple cultures from a young age, you unfortunately might not have any TCK connections.

So, who else might be a good zookeeper?

Assistants Assisting Cultural Learning

Don’t overlook your assistant as a teacher.

Executives often work closely with their assistants and, in a foreign culture, these assistants have the benefit of understanding their own society and having had previous experience working with foreign managers.

Upon arrival to Spain, I sought help in adapting to the local culture from my assistant.

She offered me daily cultural advice during a particularly difficult time for the company.

For instance, when my third female employee started crying in my office, I grew worried about my approach and wondered if there was something I could do differently.

When I asked my assistant if she had some insight, she told me, “That’s how it works in Madrid. Just keep Kleenex on your desk, so you can offer it to your employee if she starts crying. But keep talking to her rationally.”

I followed her advice and was able to continue making tough decisions without worrying about cultural missteps.

Advice & Explanations

Not only did my assistant offer advice, she offered an explanation for various aspects of her culture that did not gel with mine.

Regarding the tears, my assistant told me Spanish culture is more emotive and tolerant of crying at work than Swiss culture.

As exemplified by their expressive language, the Spanish are an emotive people.

My assistant/zookeeper also gave me insight into:

  • How to greet business clients
  • How and when to celebrate births/birthdays
  • How to/how not to dress
  • And, most importantly, that I should NEVER use the copy machine myself, as this is not a good look for a boss in Spain

The power distance index developed by Geert Hofstede puts Spain in the middle, while Switzerland is on the lower end. 

This means that Spain prefers a stronger power dynamic amongst its leaders, while Switzerland prefers a flatter hierarchy.

By suggesting changes in my behavior, my assistant/zookeeper provided me with concrete measures that would help me adapt to abstract cultural dimensions like power distance.

Zookeepers are International

The best zookeepers are not easy to find. 

And the monkey – YOU – must also be malleable to training. You must be open to criticism, both passive and active.

Friendship and trust are key to the relationship, as is some type of international background in regards to the zookeeper – whether they’ve simply worked with many a foreigner before or have themselves lived in different cultures.

Whatever the case, once you find yourself a good zookeeper, you’ll be good as gold.