Cultural Ambiguity & Uncertainty: Following the Line of Logic to Understanding

One of the most difficult parts of managing across cultures is a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty when it comes to rules.

Those from rule-based cultures, thrust into relationship-based environments, likely find the rules ambiguous, and vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, the rule-based US culture professes a fundamentally rule-based management theory, decidedly offering straightforward advice regarding successful management.

Take “ad res” versus “ad personam,” for example.

Ad Res vs. Ad Personam

hierarchychartAmerican universities teach an “ad res” organizational theory, in which organizations are structured in a chart adapted to the business. The names can be altered in the chart, as the organizations are indifferent to the people who fill the roles.

However, this differs from how relationship-based cultures view organizational structures. In these cultures, organizations consider “ad personam” to be correct, which is quite the opposite of “ad res.”

With “ad personam” organization, the individual people come first.

Vagueness Leads to Misunderstanding

This is just one example of the way a culture’s values shape their management theory and structures. Just one more reason to clarify any cultural ambiguity or uncertainty in order to better manage within another culture.

Uncertainty stems from vague values, norms, and behaviors, which lend themselves to wrong assumptions.

When things are uncertain or ambiguous, the first step is always to seek understanding.

As we talked about early in this blog, finding the rationale behind the values, norms, and behaviors of your cross-cultural counterparts is essential to clarifying uncertainty and ambiguity.

And the first steps in seeking understanding are to:

  1. Identify the conflicting issue – pinpoint whatever it is that’s rubbing your own values and beliefs the wrong way.
  2. Look at the issue from the other culture’s baobab tree – keeping in mind what you’ve learned about the culture, try to see the issue from their perspective, their standpoint, their worldview.
  3. Seek out the advantages in their perspective – when you approach the issue from your own baobab, you’ll probably see the other’s perspective in a negative light; but from their baobab, a spotlight is shone on their train of thought, allowing you to see more clearly.
  4. Find the line of logic – while seeking understanding may not bring you in line with the other’s ideas of personal and social responsibility, finding their line of logic will lead you to a place of clarity. And with clarity comes understanding.

What Are Their Advantages?

When faced with conflicting cultural behaviors, values, norms, and management methods, ask yourself these questions:

What are their baobab’s benefits?

Why and how are their methods successful in their culture?

When you seek understanding instead of discriminating; when you start looking at another culture through their own lens, you may just discover significant advantages to their methods and values.

In doing so, you may also see the disadvantages and limitations of your own culture and ways you can improve your own culture. In fact, you may adopt certain behaviors, values, or norms that you appreciate.

Next week, we’ll take a look at one of the limitations that the individualistic West has started to improve on: corporate social responsibility.

Rule of Law in Culture: Are Laws More Important Than Relationships?

A hypothetical scenario:

Your best friend is picking you up to head out on the town. As you head into the city center, you notice your friend is driving quite fast; 40 mph in a 20 mph zone down a crowded street.

You see a pedestrian take a step off the sidewalk ahead of your friend’s car. “Look out!” you shout. But it’s too late. Your friend accidentally hits the pedestrian.

An ambulance is called, paramedics try to save the victim, but he doesn’t make it. He dies on the way to the hospital.

Weeks later, you are called to court as a witness to the fatal accident. You know your friend was driving well over the speed limit, but if you tell the truth, he’ll go to prison. If you lie for your friend, he’ll walk away.

Would you lie? Or would you tell the truth?

Survey: Venezuela vs. USA

This was the exact scenario given in a survey sent to 46,000 managers in 40 different countries in a study by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner.

As a preface, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions define the US is a rule-based society; Venezuela is a relationship-based society.

Knowing this, which society do you think would choose to be truthful in this matter? And which do you think might lie to protect a friend?

As you can see below, the results were exactly as you’d expect.

additional_charts_CMYK-02

96% of American citizens surveyed said that, when confronted with this situation, they would tell the truth and abide by the law. Only 34% of Venezuelans agreed.

The majority of those from the relationship-based society of Venezuela would protect their friend above the law, while the overwhelming majority of Americans would put their societal responsibility before their friend’s fate.

Everyone is Equal in the Eyes of the Law

Western cultures are largely rule-based or “universalist.” Generally, they believe that, in order to be just, established rules and laws should be applied universally.

According to the purest form of justice, all people – friend or stranger, rich or poor, black or white – should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. And, with that perspective, most people in a law-based society would strive toward the rule.

Rules and laws are also seen, more or less, as a black and white matter.

A red light at a pedestrian crossing illustrates the seriousness of law in a rule-based culture.

In Germany or Switzerland – both strict rule-based cultures – place a foot out of line when the pedestrian crossing light is red, and you will see the reaction. Those around you will make it clear – albeit, likely with only a frown – that they’re not happy with your disobedience, albeit likely just with a frown. Even if it’s 2 in the morning.

Laws in a rule-based society are also considered essentially permanent.

For instance, a law that is a law today is unchangeable; it will be the same tomorrow (unless, of course, it’s changed through an often lengthy democratic process that involves party votes and public opinion).

Not even the highest office in the country has the right to change the law in an instant; neither is this highest office immune to the laws.

Beyond the Individual

While rule-based cultures often align with a high degree of individualism, relationship-based cultures walk hand-in-hand with collectivism. This results in a different prioritization of social norms in individualist vs. collectivist cultures.

One Confucian ideal puts this in perspective: care for one’s parents/grandparents comes first; then comes care for one’s children; then, for oneself.

Collectivists see human existence as reaching beyond the individual; rather an individual’s existence is a symbiotic relationship with extended family, the tribe, the village, society. One’s connection to others is part of his/her existence. Existing apart from this is a form of death.

As such, relationships are highly important; oftentimes, more important than rules. The alternative is ostracism which is, again, death.

Imprisonment is a form of ostracism. Should you confess that your friend broke the law, thereby sending him to prison, you are virtually putting him to death.

In this way, you can see the stark and dramatic difference the truth would make in this matter.

In this way, you can see the difference in perspective between relationship-based and rule-based cultures.

In this way, you might begin to understand motivations across cultures.

Understanding Cultural Values: With What “Group” Does Your Culture Identify?

Some cultures most identify with their nationality. Others their church. And still others, their family, tribe, or even workplace.

We’ve discussed collectivism in this blog and the mentality of society over self or group over individual.

But of what “group” are we speaking?

In order to better understand the values and norms of a culture, identifying the group with which a culture most closely identifies is essential.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Who is Your Group?

  • The Irish culture strongly identifies with religion, the Roman Catholic Church.
  • The former Eastern Bloc identifies with Slavic ideals and the party.
  • The French identify with their country, which they call “la grand nation.”
  • The Japanese identify with their company and workplace.

While these are all generalizations (after all, not everyone falls in line with societal values and norms), these broad strokes do highlight the roots of the cultural baobab.

Group identity is flexible. And this is not to say that other groups in said societies are not important.

Family, after all, is important in nearly every culture, and there are other in-groups – like subcultures and company cultures – to which individuals of any society might feel strong ties.

But when trying to understand a culture as a whole and what makes that culture tick, identifying the group that most often defines or impacts the mechanics of society as a whole is essential.

Collectivist vs. Individualist

Group identity, social responsibility, and interdependence are values emphasized in collectivist cultures.

Individuality, self-fulfillment, and independence are those emphasized in individualist cultures.

One wants to fit in.

The other strives to stand out.

One sees conformity as negative.

The other sees singularity as deviant.

As one of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, the scale between collectivist and individualist cultures is just that – a scale. No culture is at the polar extreme, one way or the other.

There are elements of collectivism and individualism in every culture.

And sometimes, these elements are surprising.

We’ll talk about that more next week.

Society Over Self: Collectivist Cultural Management

The core group in collectivist cultures is family.

And the definition of family differs across cultures, as we’ve previously discussed.

The West often considers the two-generational core to be “family,” while other cultures include extended relations – or even an entire village – under the umbrella.

Other “groups” in collectivist cultures include in-groups, like the company one works for, or society as a whole.

A group’s success and survival – whether the group is family, the village, the company, or society – ensures individual success and survival.

Because of this, harmony is valued in collectivist cultures, as is interdependence of individual members.

Children are socialized in groups early on in order to become interdependent.

Everyone depends on everyone else, because the group only survives as one.

Being recognized for individual achievement is almost unheard of; rather, collectivists work in tandem and share with group members – both their successes and their failures.

Group Loyalty = Self-Loyalty

In a collectivist culture, group loyalty is self-loyalty.

Think of it this way: society, a company, or a family is like a human body. Each member is a limb or an organ; each member is vital to the body’s function.

So, if one organ fails, the body fails.

If one limb is neglected, then the body isn’t functioning at its most optimal.

It’s with this mentality that collectivist cultures place a higher value on the group than the individual.

An individual’s personal goals and ambitions come second to the group’s overall success and well-being.

To return to our analogy, if a body’s personal goal or ambition was to win an arm-wrestling contest, so it pumped iron every day, focusing only on building up the biceps, but forgot about its legs or its core, then the arms might be able to succeed in meeting their ambition, but the rest of the body would suffer.

This is how collectivist societies view personal goals and ambitions.

Your arm (you, the individual) does not work alone.

A collectivist would sacrifice his own career goals for the sake of the group’s.

Society, First

When society comes first, self comes second.

This is one of the main reasons that in collectivist societies, management differs from individualist cultures.

Last week, we talked about how these differences clash through workplace incentives. “Employee of the Month” is one way in which management in individualist societies incentivize hard work.

But would this work in collectivist cultures? Not so much.

What would then?

We’ll talk about that more next week.

Individualist vs. Collectivist: How Important Am I?

Say, you were given a group project, involving teamwork and cooperation.

Your team includes you (of course), Paul, Lisa, and John.

Some of the tasks are more intensive and time-consuming than others. Some are tedious, some are simple, some require no brainwork at all.

As with most team projects, not all members invest the same amount of time and effort into the group project.

You complete 50% of the work on your own.

Lisa and Paul knock out about 22.5% of the work, each.

And John, who was a complete deadweight, contributes about 5%.

With the successful completion of the project, your group is awarded $20,000.

How should this award be distributed?

Individualists vs. Collectivists

“Distribute the money based on individual contribution. Those who did more work should be awarded more, while those who did less work should be awarded less.”

If this is how you answered, then you are likely from an individualist culture.

“The project was completed together, and a team is only strong as a unit. The fairest distribution would be an even split, in order to benefit everyone in the group equally.”

If this is how you answered, then you are likely from a collectivist culture.

“From each according to his ability…”

Craig Storti asks readers to complete the above exercise in his book, Figuring Foreigners Out.

He argues that each mentality – whether the distribution of the award should be even or based on contribution to the project – is based on what your culture teaches you is fair.

Individualist cultures believe fair distribution means being awarded according to one’s effort.

Collectivist cultures believe that fairness lies in the well-being of the whole group, no matter who contributed what.

Of all of Hofstede’s dimensions, some believe the differences between collectivist and individualist societies are the most important.

Social psychologist, Harry Triandis, is one of them. He stated:

“Perhaps the most important dimension of cultural difference in social behavior, across the diverse cultures of the world, is the relative emphasis on individualism versus collectivism.”

Individualist versus collectivist ideals do not apply only to the distribution of wealth, of course. The deep level thinking of an individualist versus a collectivist fundamentally impacts the way each lives their social life: whether one thinks as an individual or as a member of a group.

Hofstede wrote:

“Some animals, such as wolves, are gregarious; others, such as tigers, are solitary. The human species should no doubt be classified with the gregarious animals, but different human societies show gregariousness to different degrees. Here again then, we have a fundamental dimension on which societies differ: the relationship between the individual and the collectivity.”

Hofstede differentiates the two cultures by defining individualistic ties as “loose,” with each individual expected to look after only himself and those in his inner circle, while collectivist ties are integrated from birth, requiring individuals to be cohesive within a group, exchanging unquestioning loyalty for protection.

We’ll talk more about the differences between individualist versus collectivist cultures next week.

Hofstede and IBM: the Beginning of Significant Cross-Cultural Research

If you looked at Geert Hofstede‘s life, there was nothing particularly remarkable that might make you imagine he’d one day be at the forefront of cross-cultural research.

The Dutch researcher called the Netherlands home. He lived and studied there, after which he entered the military.

He became a management trainer at IBM, as well as the manager of staff research. It was in the latter role that he became entrenched in systematic research which would later hone in on the field of cross-cultural studies.

International Employee Opinion Research Program

In his role as manager of staff research, IBM’s International Employee Opinion Research Program became Hofstede’s brainchild.

Hofstede and his colleagues gathered and analyzed over 116,000 survey questionnaires over six years. The questionnaires were collected from 72 countries and involved 183 questions about the work environment, completed by IBM employees.

Providing a number of options, questionnaires asked employees to choose which option was the most important to them.

An example:

Which is most important to you?

  1. A job that allows personal/family time
  2. Challenging work that provides a sense of accomplishment
  3. Freedom to adapt your approach to work

Employees could choose their preference and, although the word “culture” wasn’t used in any context by IBM staff, and they weren’t charged with researching cross-cultural differences, nevertheless, the data revealed various patterns of cultural opinion and behavior.

Still, no cultural opinions were drawn from the data at the time.

Hofstede’s Findings

Taking a sabbatical from IBM, Hofstede taught at the IMD in Switzerland. It was there that he was allowed the time and academic engagement to analyze the IBM research.

He found that nationality could account for the behavioral differences resultant in the survey.

In order to test his theory, he questioned folks from various countries who didn’t work for IBM.

It became clear that cultural differences were there. 

The value of Hofstede’s research was lost on many for a while…it was lost even on him.

He had no idea what a significant gold mine he’d come across, from the standpoint of international business.

At the time, economic success was not dependent on cultural sensitivities. The United States was the number one unchallenged economic power.

As to the matter, Hofstede said:

“In the 1970s I was living in Brussels when I started developing my ideas of culture and I approached the European Commission about this, but found myself initially directed to an official who was responsible for museums! Such was their idea of culture!”

But all this changed in the ‘80s and beyond – a period which we’ll talk more about next week.

China and the Marriage Buyer’s Market

You might think there are universal norms regarding love and marriage, but that is certainly not the case.

Last week, we discussed Japan and the norm of marrying for economic advantage over love. In neighboring China, this idea is also ingrained.

And parents considering marriage prospects take the matter so seriously that, in Shanghai, Beijing, and other Chinese cities, “Marriage Buyer’s Markets” exist.

People’s Park Marriage Market

In the Marriage Buyer’s Market in Shanghai’s People’s Park, a summary outline of daughters and sons, alike, are presented by their parents on cardboard signs.

Similar to a job fair, other parents in search of proper partners for their children are invited to walk around, perusing the signs, which enumerate the pros of marrying the daughter/son in question and attempting to matchmake the best prospects.

Some selling points you might see on signs:

  • Born in the year of the dog/171cm/12.000 Yuan salary
  • Own apartment/76sqm/188cm

Chinese marriages are still dowry-based, like in India; but unlike India, the dowry is paid not by the bride’s parents, but by the groom’s, and is termed “bride prices.”

As detailed in The Economist:

“Most of China is patrilocal: in theory, at least, a married woman moves into her husband’s home and looks after his parents…The groom’s parents…are expected to pay for the wedding and give money and property to the couple. These bride prices have shot up, bending the country’s society and economy out of shape.”

This makes shopping for the right partner all the more difficult. If the groom’s family is unable to afford the bride prices, then he is not considered a good match. Moreover, with the male-to-female ratio being 105:100 according to a 2017 census, the gender imbalance in China makes the chances of finding a mate even slimmer.

The bride may also have difficulty. In fact, those women of high income and education who haven’t married before the age of 30 are christened with the derogatory term, “leftover women.”

What this all boils down to is that love is not the currency for successful marriages in China; horoscope, property, and income are.

As one Chinese mother summed up the culture’s values and norms regarding marriage:

“First you build your life, and only then also your love.”

Love Happiness vs. Team Happiness

In this way, the West’s focus on love equating a happy life differs from the Chinese focus on economic teamwork equating the same.

The perfect Chinese mate is someone to help you stay afloat financially, raise a family, and succeed mutually in the balancing act of life…and, perhaps most importantly, not be considered “leftover.”

And searching out this perfect mate is not a private concern; it’s a familial affair.

As Wlada Kolosowa, a journalist for the German magazine, Spiegel, sums up:

“In the Western world, love is a matter between two individuals; in China, it is a union between two families.”

Next week, we’ll talk about two-generation families versus extended-generation families. Stay tuned.

Modern Family: Evolving Family Structures in the West

We’re all too familiar with the ideal family structure in the West.

The more traditional structure is a nuclear family: a man and woman (preferably married) with kids.

The nuclear family all living under one roof.

In most traditional relationships, the parents are expected to be sexually loyal to each other. That means exclusivity.

Pretty straight forward, right?

Nothing is that simple…

Evolving Family Structures

The above is the most accepted form of family structure in many a Western mind; however, in reality, family structures are changing.

Marriage between same-sex couples is now legally recognized in many Western countries and, in some cases, those couples may have their own children and/or adopt.

In such family structures, it’s still a pretty straightforward nuclear household, aside from the man and woman at the top being replaced by a same-sex couple.

However, in cases of divorce, structures become more complex. 

PsychologyToday estimates that, in the US, the chances that a marriage will end in divorce are around 42 to 45% (although the divorce rate has dropped 18% from 2008 to 2016).

And in Europe, 2015 divorce rates range from 12.4% in Malta to a whopping 72.2% in Portugal.

Divorce results in a multilayered family structure, with the emergence of what some call “patchwork families” becoming more and more common.

Patchwork families are those of divorced parents with kids.

In such cases, children do not live under the same roof as both biological parents, perhaps alternating households or, in circumstances where sole custody has been granted to one parent, living in a single-parent household.

When this happens, the child may have to integrate into another way of life every other weekend or whatever the custody agreement entails. Moreover, they may be introduced to a stepmom or stepdad, who might also have children of their own.

Modern Family

One pop culture example of the evolution of Western family structures is depicted in the US television series, Modern Family.

modernfamilychart
Adapted from Wikipedia

The above chart was adapted from Wikipedia. It illustrates the layered nature of a multi-generational family in all its complexities:

  • Clair and Phil: the more traditional “nuclear family”
  • Mitch and Cam: the married same-sex couple with an adopted daughter
  • Jay and Gloria: the father and stepmother with children from different marriages

The show is successful for a reason. Not only is it funny, but it’s a modern reflection on our ever-changing family structures.

…But Is This New?

The really funny thing is these so-called “modern” families are not modern at all.

Traditional societies have long accepted patchwork families, as well as families with same-sex parents.

Moreover, the idea of sexual exclusivity in a nuclear family is not as universal a concept as you think.

Tune in over the next couple weeks, where we’ll explore both of these themes.

Family, Sex & Love: A Look at Humankind’s Social Fabric

From linguistics to archaeology, anthropology is the study of humankind, past and present, and the origin of all cross cultural studies.

Family, sexuality, and love are topics of much interest to anthropologists.

Each of these themes is at the core of humanity.

We’ll cover them in detail over the upcoming weeks.

Why These Topics Matter to Cross-Cultural Management

If you’re coming to this blog for corporate success across cultures, you might think that family and sexual mores don’t apply here.

However, I’d argue that they do for two reasons:

  1. A culture’s social fabric is woven by family structures. By better understanding family-related values and norms, you’ll integrate much more smoothly into a society than if you have no clue about the important roles that family members play.
  2. Sexual mores often evoke the strongest emotional reactions, as these norms are amongst the earliest socialized norms in a culture and are often enforced by religious and social taboos. Awareness of unfamiliar social mores will help you avoid crossing boundaries and keep you clear and well away from those dratted taboos.

In effect, any information about a culture’s values and norms will fortify understanding and help you view a culture through their own lens. Only when you can see from the culture’s perspective can you truly identify with their mentality and integrate cross-culturally.

Family, Sex & Love in Culture

Of these three topics, family structures is one of the more thoroughly researched of all anthropological studies.

The study, Family: Variations and Changes Across Cultures, explains why:

“In order to study psychological phenomena cross-culturally, it is necessary to understand the different types of family in cultures throughout the world and also how family types are related to cultural features of societies.”

Family structures are the blueprint for societal structures. This is why some knowledge of family values and norms will gain you significant headway when managing across cultures.

Sex is also on the mind of many an anthropologist. Although, according to The Cross-Cultural Study of Human Sexuality, “Anthropology has long had a love-hate relationship [with it].”

This is largely due to the own sexual mores of those anthropologists in question. Across many cultures, the topic is seen as taboo or controversial, so sexuality remains a “rarely studied” topic of human experience.

Moreover, love and romance is mixed in with family and sexuality and has been since the dawn of time.

According to Love Across Cultures:

“Although love needs to be framed within a cultural context, many scholars believe that romantic love is transcultural. Elaine Hatfield and Richard L. Rapson (1996) viewed passionate love as common to virtually all cultures, and indeed, romantic love has been found in most countries of the world.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll dissect research on all three topics in more detail, taking a look at remote and predominant cultures, alike, to discover both shared and divergent values and norms in these themes.

German vs. Japanese Nose: Scent Preferences = Food Preferences

Whether you like the smell of wintergreen or marzipan, cheese or fresh cut grass, lemon or borscht, your scent preferences are likely impacted by your culture.

Last week, we talked about how that which surrounds us often influences our favored scents.

It may be onions prompting attraction, cow manure implying success, or body odor indicating the spirit.

Whatever the case, our noses seem to know our culture.

First-World Cultures

Many of the scent preferences and concepts we discussed last week surrounded second- or third-world cultures, so we might expect the norms and preferences to differ more from those of first-world cultures than two first-world cultures would from each other.

But what happens when we compare the scent preferences of the first-world? Are they similar? Do first-world cultures like the same scents?

The short answer is no.

Of course, these are general claims; scent preferences differ depending on personal tastes.

But, generally…

Americans like the smell of wintergreen; the British don’t.

Germans like the smell of marzipan; the Japanese don’t.

The intrigue regarding these cultural differences in scent preferences led to a study that dove right into these comparisons. This is what it found.

Japan vs. Germany

Japanese researcher, Saho Ayabe-Kanamura, explored Japan and Germany’s differences in scent preferences and perception of everyday odors.

germanjapanesechart.jpg

As you can see in the chart, the study found that participants preferred fragrances of food odors that they thought most edible. They tended to rate these edible odors higher.

This is not unusual. We are what we eat. And the food we consume is often a deeply acquired part of primary socialization.

Slimy Snails

One example of this: I had dinner with an American senior manager at a French restaurant.

We decided to dive into French dining culture headfirst, and we ordered escargot as an appetizer.

I asked my American colleague: “So how does it taste?”

He answered: “For you, these are escargot. For me, they will stay what they have always been: slimy snails.”

Americans will probably always taste slimy snails when chewing on escargot, and this is due to their primary socialization.

The same goes with scent. Once a preference is set, it’s not very adaptable.