A Conflict of Conscience: Acting Rationally Within Another’s Cultural Baobab

Most people act rationally within their cultural baobab. But it’s much harder to do so when you’re the monkey in another’s tree.

What do I mean by this?

Last week, we discussed Canadian social norms and how they reflect the nation’s cultural values. Politeness is one of these norms. It’s tied to the values of courtesy and non-confrontation, possibly imparted by the British Tories who settled there.

So what if a dude from a not-so-vocally-polite culture immigrated to Canada and was brazenly “impolite” by Canadian standards?

He would be acting rationally within his own cultural baobab, but not within theirs.

This type of social norm is easy enough to correct: if you want to adapt and integrate into Canadian culture, just throw in a few “please and thank you”s and try to be more courteous to people.

But what if a foreign culture’s values touch a nerve in your own and lead to a conflict of conscience?

Revisiting Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann

Do you remember our friends Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann?

When Ahmed helped Khalid cheat on an exam, Ann was upset, as this didn’t fit into the rationale of her culture.

But it did fit into the rationale of Ahmed and Khalid’s culture.

Absent of strong familial support, individual members might not cope on their own in a third world country. So, Ahmed was only helping his cousin succeed, which is harmonious with the roots and branches of his cultural baobab.

Ann, as well, was acting rationally according to her own baobab. Her culture teaches that an individual should succeed of his own volition; cheating isn’t tolerated and reflects poorly on the individual. Not only that, but the results don’t accurately reflect his abilities.

One problem, however: she didn’t consider that she was viewing the incident from her tree’s perspective, rather than that of the culture she was integrating into.

In pushing Ahmed (and Ahmed’s parents) to conform to her own cultural baobab, she was attempting to make them grow a new branch in a day.

Impossible. And probably unnecessary.

In the end, cheating wouldn’t help Khalid succeed in an individualist society…but he was living in a collectivist one, where knowledge is shared, not exclusive to those smart enough to obtain it.

Do Values Ever Change?

Values are deeply rooted. They’re very difficult to pull up and regrow in any cultural baobab.

Cultures only change through introducing and cultivating values below the surface that eventually sprout new branches and new leaves – the social norms that are watered by society.

In the end, Ann hurt both Ahmed and Khalid. In accusing them of cheating, she publicly stated that Khalid was not smart enough or capable of succeeding, while also accusing Ahmed of being dishonest.

Ahmed felt the sting of losing face, so much so, that he asked to be transferred to a different school near his grandparents’, where no one would look at him negatively.

He lost out on a strong education at a better school, while Ann lost the trust and respect of the parents. No one in this conflict of conscience was better off. And neither the individual’s values, nor the culture’s changed because of it.

Cultural Norms: What are They? And How Do They Relate to Values?

Conformity.

Last week, we talked about conforming to cultural norms. But what types of norms are we conforming to? And why and how are we conforming?

Well, to understand norms, first we must talk about values.

Values are what define a culture’s goals and ideals, and cultural norms are, in a way, these values, personified.

Values & Norms

Study.com defines norms relative to culture, thusly: “The term ‘culture’ refers to attitudes and patterns of behavior in a given group. ‘Norm’ refers to attitudes and behaviors that are considered normal, typical or average within that group.”

So, norms are more closely related to our behaviors, while values are more closely related to our attitudes, ideals, and beliefs. Both our values and norms are ingrained in us and in our society through its existing systems, such as family, the education system, and government.

The government and other higher institutions define a nation’s values, while the norms and values are implemented and taught by families and schools. Some degree of conformity in these two areas is expected in every culture. The degree of conformity is often based on survival vs. self-expression values, but conformity always defines cultural norms.

And we are often completely oblivious to the influences of both values and norms in the way we live our lives.

Different Norm Types

There are four different types of norms, which we will detail over the coming weeks.

These are:

norms

The majority culture in any nation invokes these expectations and rules, which are primarily based on their values. Behavior – such as habits, customs, traditions, and rule of law – is guided by the most prominent culture; they create the yardstick of what is considered “right” and “wrong” on the whole.

Swimming With/Against the Current

Do you follow your own culture’s norms? Do you swim with the school of fish? Or do you make a point of standing out from the crowd?

Whether you swim with or against the current, you’re making choices in defiance of your society’s values and norms, or you’re making choices in favor of them. Either way, your individuality is defined by the cultural norms of your society.

Remember, if you want to “fit in” to a foreign culture, you can look at norms as a sort of etiquette guidebook for the culture in which you choose to integrate.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.

What Makes a ‘Face’: Losing Face, East vs. West

When you hear the term “losing face,” more often than not, you associate it with Eastern cultures. But people of every culture have “face” that they can either lose or save.

Basically, “face” is pride, esteem, and reputation, which is interpreted and determined in different ways, depending on the culture in which you live. Face is, in short, the idea that you must behave or achieve in a certain manner to preserve your image. What makes up your “face” and how to “save” it depends on what your culture values.

Face: East

Tradition is greatly emphasized in Eastern cultures, and face can be had by birth (i.e. if you were born into a family of status or wealth).

Last week, we talked about how collectivist societies tend to value group harmony over individualism. Personal ambition or success is much less important than improving the whole.

This prevents individualist characteristics from being fostered from youth. For instance, I’ve been told by Chinese students that they receive lower marks or fails on essays or exams if they contradict the teacher’s opinion or the culturally accepted sentiment on any given topic, no matter how well argued. For this reason and for similar standards set during primary socialization, you find fewer who will “rock the boat,” so to speak, in collectivist countries than you might in their capitalist counterparts.

Individualism is considered much more radical in places like China. It is not embraced, and those who are unconventional and break the mold are thought to be aggressive. Due to the fact that harmony is of the utmost importance to collectivist cultures, anyone considered disharmonious would lose face under this set of cultural values.

Face: West

Western cultural values lie in individualism and independence. They’re also geared toward innovation and so embrace change more readily over tradition.

And in the West, you must earn your face. It isn’t given to you. Even if you’re born into a wealthy family or a family of status, more often than not, you must prove yourself to establish a face.

To make your face, you must make yourself. And to do so in an individualist culture, you must stand out from the crowd. You can do this through professional/personal success or achievement, status, wealth, etc. And once you obtain a certain level of recognition, whether in your town or nationwide, whether in your company or your industry, you must reassert your voice regularly to maintain face.

What can make a Western person of stature lose face?

Disgrace can. Disgrace paramount to much of what is going on in America right now, with sexual assault and harassment scandals knocking down titans of entertainment, politics, and industry. This is just one of the things that can make a Westerner lose face.

Can Face Be Restored?

Face can be restored only through drastic measures in collectivist cultures. In the East, once one’s reputation has been damaged, it’s nearly impossible to recover. As put by sociologist Marcel Mauss, in such cultures, “to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit.” It’s better to avoid such face-destroying conflict, altogether.

In Western cultures, if face is lost, it can be more readily restored. In fact, many cheer comebacks, and the restoration of a good reputation might even be considered inspirational by some.

Whether face is restored or not, the loss of it cuts deep in any culture.

Next week, we’ll continue contrasting Eastern and the Western values by discussing the differences in social power structures and business culture. Stay tuned.

How Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.