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.”

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.

3 Mechanisms That Bias Our Decision-Making: REVIEW

Why do we make the decisions that we do? How do we rationalize these decisions?

Research is constantly evaluating how and why business managers make the choices we make, which we’ve outlined over the last few weeks.

To sum up, the three main biases discussed:

  • Availability bias – involves making a decision not based on an outcome’s true frequency/probability, but rather on how frequent an event enters the forefront of one’s mind.
  • Representativeness bias – involves judging the likelihood of an event based on how closely it relates to another event – i.e., on a mental model that does not exist in reality.
  • Anchoring bias – involves reaching a decision from an initial set point, often grounded in your culturally-influenced values and norms.

However, these are only a few ways in which culture creeps in to bias our decision-making.

Even our confidence in our decision-making ability is often influenced by culture.

Confidence in the Veracity of Decision-Making Ability

Research shows that, compared to their U.S. counterparts, Mexican managers are exceedingly confident in the veracity of their decision-making.

In a study by Christine Uber Grosse, entitled, “Global Managers’ Perceptions of Cultural Competence,” one Mexican manager explained the differences between leaders in Mexico and America, saying:

“We in Mexico are more colloquial or informal and are not so inclined to statistics. The Americans are very ‘manual-oriented’ and organized and we are more relaxed and ingenious.”

So, while before committing to a decision, U.S. managers expect to hear a complete plan laid out, including costs, a schedule, and the target results, Mexican managers rely more heavily on their gut instinct.

Moreover, when Mexican managers commit and something fails, they are more likely to double-down on that commitment, throwing good money after bad (as U.S. managers might put it).

According to research conducted by J. Frank Yates and Stephanie de Oliveira (“Culture and Decision-making“):

“A high degree of overconfidence has been found among Mexicans relative to Americans (Lechuga & Wiebe, 2011)…Overconfidence was widespread but differed in degree according to region.”

This overconfidence was attributed by the authors not so much to a manager’s judgment in confidence, but rather to differences in ability, as the latter varied substantially across countries.

Simplified Mental Models

Tying this all together with cross-cultural business, knowledge of the biases that influence decision-making – and another’s confidence in their decision-making – will help you navigate another culture’s rationale while also redirecting yours accordingly.

With various worldviews and cultural backgrounds, subjective realities exist, resulting in different mental decision models.

But one thing is universal: managers use their simplified and biased mental models to make their decisions.

Although likely different than your own, their simplified mental model is not irrational; it is based upon their subjective cultural perception and reality, just as yours is.

Oftentimes, no matter how illogical a decision may seem to you, the other is acting rationally within their own cultural framework, their baobab.

So, before concluding that a foreign manager’s decision makes no logical sense, familiarize yourself with the culture, its perception, and its reality.

You may then understand how a manager’s availability, representativeness, and anchoring biases – or any other culturally-influenced bias – enter into their decision-making.

Uncertainty Avoidance and Ambiguity Tolerance: Accepting Uncertainty in a Foreign Culture

For more than half a century, ambiguity tolerance has been a subject of research in various branches of psychology.

One of the premiere studies on the topic analyzed ethnic prejudices in California.

Personality, company culture, and national culture have since been measured by this variable.

One such expression of ambiguity tolerance was identified by social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s research under the umbrella of “uncertainty avoidance.”

Uncertainty avoidance

We’ve discussed Hofstede’s work in this area before.

The four cultural dimensions Hofstede first identified were:

For all intents and purposes, we’ll only be discussing the dimension of uncertainty avoidance in this post.

Hofstede describes this dimension as the idea that:

“What is different is dangerous.”

He anecdotally illustrates an example of this.

An elderly American couple finds themselves babysitting their grandchildren in a small town in Italy, while the parents are temporarily located there. The grandchildren are friends with local Italian children, who all enjoy playing in the central piazza.

So, there the American grandparents are, allowing their grandchildren to run free with little restriction. Accustomed to “free play,” they don’t stand in the way of their grandchildren messing about, even if they fall down and lightly hurt themselves.

The Italian grandparents, on the other hand, are on it. Not only are their grandkids not allowed for a moment out of their sight, but any hurts that befall them are conscientiously dealt with. The child is picked up and brushed off in an instant.

This illustrates the differences in ambiguity tolerance between Americans and Italians.

In general, Americans have higher ambiguity tolerance.

Safe versus dangerous and clean versus dirty are two distinctions that an Italian child learns first during primary socialization.

The American grandparents see nothing to worry about with the dirt and danger in the piazza. In fact, they see no dirt or danger there, whatsoever.

Ambiguity Tolerance Research Evolves

Ambiguity tolerance is directly related to Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance.

Furnham and Ribchester define it in their research:

“Ambiguity tolerance refers to the way and degree to which an individual or group perceives and processes information about ambiguous situations or stimuli when confronted by an array of unfamiliar, complex, or incongruent clues.”

Ambiguous stimuli cause a person with low ambiguity tolerance to avoid, feel stress, and react hastily.

Someone with high ambiguity tolerance may seek out ambiguous stimuli, as they desire to engage with such interesting and challenging environments. 

As you might assume, entering into a foreign culture is an ambiguous enterprise. You are hit with unknown stimuli, so a high ambiguity tolerance – or your ability to develop it – is an essential attribute for a foreign manager.

We’ll talk more about how to do just that next week.

The Hospitality Index: A Hypothetical Example of Ethnocentricity

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’91, I traveled as a journalist to a region near the former Yugoslavian border of Albania. In many of the remote, mountainous villages to which I traveled, I was the first foreigner seen by locals since the Germans of WWII.

As I explored the region, one of the impressions I had about the people was that they were unconditionally hospitable. They treated this stranger, this foreigner, as an esteemed guest, preparing generous meals for me, despite not having a lot themselves.

One village had only three sheep, and they killed one of them to serve me, though I attempted to discourage such a sacrifice on my account.

Hospitality exceeding no bounds was their cultural norm.

Not only did this manifest in the meals they served, but also in the accommodation. In each house, there was a guest room, fitted with a bed to welcome visitors at any time.

While this region isn’t alone in this cultural norm, as I’ve been so graciously treated with such hospitality in other parts of the world as well, one conclusion that I’ve come to in my travels is this:

Hospitality is best wherever there is no telephone.

Lack of Connection Improves Quality of Connection

People often arrive unannounced to places with no telephone. This may be one reason cultural norms require those who live in remote places to be prepared to accommodate at any time.

The pop-in is inevitable (Seinfeld would hate to be a member of these cultures). Hosts must provide guests a place to stay and a bite to eat last-minute because they have nowhere else to go. And these hosts are more than happy to.

In such open-door cultures, active hospitality – and lavish hospitality, at that – is adopted and valued.

Ethnocentricity’s Bias in the Reverse

Last week, we talked about ethnocentricity: the innate bias we have about our culture being “right” and another being “wrong” and evaluating cultures according to our own values.

My personal example is one case in which ethnocentricity’s bias might work in the reverse.

Sometimes, we see other’s values and norms as more “right” than our own. This may be one of those cases.

Most Westerners would never think to invite themselves over to a neighbor’s home, nor would they expect to accommodate a stranger. Even showing up on an acquaintance’s doorstep without a moment’s notice would be questionable.

Some Westerners might even choose to stay at a hotel rather than with family or friends when they’re visiting. Not only because they don’t want to impose on another’s space, but likely because they’d prefer their own space and privacy.

But most Westerners would surely see the value in such open-door hospitality. It’s universally a beautiful thing.

In Albania – and in other world regions that are less connected – there is no imposition and space is not valued as it is in the West. It would be a dishonor to the people if you rejected their hospitality.

Ethnocentricity in Albania

As I’ve highlighted, hospitality is a deeply entrenched value in these regions.

With that bit of background in mind, imagine Albanian researchers studying cross-cultural differences.

The researchers, no doubt, would consider the hospitality-index as an important cultural categorization.

Generosity and accommodation are the glue that holds society together in their minds, allowing communal ties and free travel.

Should they research other country’s hospitality norms and values, they would find other’s hospitality doesn’t meet the same standard as theirs.

They might see that in some countries unconditional hospitality is restricted to those one knows well. Strangers can find somewhere else to eat and sleep.

In other countries, only family members are provided with hospitality.

And in some, forget it. You have to find your own accommodation.

During their research, the Albanians might then conclude that their own country is on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to the hospitality index. And they would view this as a positive thing, as their values are validated.

This is just one example of how ethnocentrism might influence research. It comes naturally to most. Even professional researchers and experts in the field, no matter how objective they attempt to be, will inevitably reveal their own values when evaluating other cultures.

Conformity in Culture: The Colored Pens Study

Say, you’re given a bin of pens.

Most of them are black and a few are blue. Your favorite color to write with is blue.

Which pen would you choose?

This study was conducted by Japanese researcher Toshio Yamagishi and his research team with participants from Japan and the US.

The study involved a default scenario, an initial scenario, a final scenario, and a purchase scenario.

  • Default scenario – participants simply told to choose a pen
  • Initial scenario – participants told they were the first person to choose a pen
  • Final scenario – participants told they were the last person to choose a pen
  • Purchase scenario – participants told they were buying a pen

Considering previous research on the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures, one might think the Japanese would always choose the majority color, due to their preference for conformity, while the American would always choose the minority color, due to their preference to stand out.

The results, however, were a bit more complex.

Preference for Uniqueness

Although the Japanese did choose the majority color and the Americans the minority color in the default scenario, the results between the two cultures were similar in the other three scenarios: the Americans and the Japanese were just as likely to choose either the majority or minority color.

These last three results indicate that both cultures prefer uniqueness in equal measure.

The results also show that each culture, in being the first to choose, is cognizant of other peoples’ desire for uniqueness and, therefore, may be reluctant to offend those who have yet to choose their colored pen.

But when the social situation becomes ambiguous, as in the default scenario, why do the Japanese assume the majority pen, when the results show that they prefer the unique pen just as much as their American counterparts?

This is where the preference for harmony comes in.

Do Not Offend

The default scenario reveals that the Japanese don’t necessarily prefer to conform; after all, they were just as likely to choose unique over conformity in the other three scenarios.

Rather, the Japanese prefer harmony over disharmony.

Yamagishi and his team concluded that the disparity was in the ambiguity: the desire not to offend is stronger in the Japanese than in the Americans, particularly in ambiguous social situations.

And why not offend?

One theory posed by Yamagishi is centered around interpersonal relationships.

Japan is a “closed society” regarding groups and relationships. By this, we mean that it’s considerably more closed to outsiders; if you’re not part of the in-group, you’re not welcome. In this way, it’s harder to replace lost relationships when you’ve offended someone.

The US, on the other hand, is an “open society.” It’s much easier to replace a lost relationship if one has caused offense.

This is why the Japanese avoid offending in ambiguous situations, which may come at the cost of their preferences on occasion. Group loyalty over self-loyalty, as we talked about last week.

The ambiguity of whether your choice of a unique pen may or may not offend someone is balanced against the cost of social rejection.

The result is this strategic and nuanced adaptation under differing scenarios.

How does this apply to the type of management style a culture prefers?

We’ll talk more about that next week.