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.

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.