10 Cultural Universals: Politics

Politics in Culture

Democracy, communism, socialism, totalitarianism.

The politics of a nation shape its values and are shaped by them.

The cycle is continuous and feeds itself: culture feeds politics, and politics feed culture. This cycle is only disrupted by some huge collapsing event.

What do I mean by “collapsing event”?

I’ll give you an example.

Germany & WWII

One obvious example of this is WWII.

When Hitler and the Nazis gained control, so did their political values: anti-semitism, the concept of an Aryan “master race,” and the formation of a “New Order.”

“There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it…there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew.”

Adolf Hitler, Munich (April 12, 1922)

This was the first of the collapsing events: the Nazi takeover.

In 1945, another collapsing event would occur: their defeat.

And 44 years later, in 1989, would occur another collapsing event in Germany – this one almost a literal one – the fall of the Berlin wall, which separated East Germany from West Germany.

It was this collapsing event that eventually led to the Germany we know today: a federal parliamentary republic, an influential leader in Europe and the world, and the fourth largest economy.

This example demonstrates that politics can momentarily distort a culture’s values, can lead to evil acts. But, ultimately, if the majority’s values are good and strong, politics cannot destroy the true nature of a culture.

As long as that majority does not remain silent.

Collapsing Event

You can probably determine from the above example what a collapsing event is.

It’s a moment in history that almost entirely collapses the status quo, keeps the good or the bad (depending upon the values of the dominant group), attempts to eliminate the “other,” and starts building the status quo again from the ground, up, under newly installed values.

This is politics in culture.

Oftentimes, a collapsing event occurs through war and violence. In fact, one might look at politics as a war for cultural values.

Political Movements

A few more examples of collapsing events across history:

  • American Civil War – Abraham Lincoln led the North in defeating the confederates to preserve the union and abolish slavery.
  • Cultural Revolution – Chairman Mao Zedong’s attempt to preserve Communist ideology by destroying some of China’s capitalist past and tradition and silencing (and often publicly humiliating) community intellectuals and thought leaders.
  • Execution of the Romanov Family – The Bolsheviks murdered the family members of the last living tsar dynasty to end imperialism in Russia.

The list is endless, and the bodycount is often devastating. These events create a turning point in history, where the established values are disrupted or altered, altogether.

And as we all know, values are the fundamental roots of culture. They define us.

Next week, we’ll talk about how politics, values, and culture collide in North Korea.

10 Cultural Universals: Economy

When the economist, Adam Smith, wrote in his 1776 book, Wealth of the Nations, that each of us contributes to a self-regulating system by pursuing our own personal interests, his idea of “personal interests” was not exclusively financial or material.

He understood that cultural values were involved in economics.  

German social scientist, Max Weber, defined this more clearly during the early 20th century. He examined how certain cultural values influenced economic output.

One example he gave was the Protestant culture.

Reformation teachings in the religion called for congregants to gain wealth, and in doing so, the Protestant work ethic and teachings produced a stronger economy than did, for instance, the Catholic counterpart.

At that point in time, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain – all Catholic countries – had weaker economies than Great Britain and Germany – countries with a larger Protestant population.

Culture Impacts Economy

The plain fact is some economies fail while others succeed. And the success or failure of an economy is largely dependent on culture.

For any given culture to prosper, economists look at a checklist of necessities for economic development. These include:

  • Good governance
  • Stable political system
  • Straightforward laws, enforced honorably
  • Efficient and uncorrupt government officials
  • Available land for businesses
  • Less bureaucracy when it comes to applying for business permits
  • Foreign investment

For an economy to develop fruitfully, these requirements must be fulfilled.

Values, Tastes & Desires

As Francis X. Hezel, SJ, writes in his article, “The Role of Culture in Economic Development”:

“Modern technology alone will never be able to turn around an economy and to boost the standard of living among a population. The development of a mindset, with accompanying values and habits, is a big part of the equation.”

The study of cultural economics examines all this.

Cultural economics differs from traditional economics in the examination of how and why individuals make decisions.

Traditional economics sees decision-making as producing explicit and implicit consequences.

Cultural economics sees decision-making as something arrived at through trajectories involving regularities accrued over the years that direct the individual in decision-making.

Our tastes, our desires are informed by our culture. This begins during primary socialization and continues to be enhanced by the environment we grow in. We internalize these tastes and desires and they inform our future wants.

Individuals and societies have culture-driven wants, needs, desires, and values, all of which drive the economy and the culture, thereby producing economic evolution – or stagnation.

Learn more about the 10 Cultural Universals.

10 Cultural Universals: Rituals

Bhutan is known as the happiest country on Earth.

And yet, the peaceful Buddhist nation, sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas, is preoccupied with death.

People of Bhutanese culture think about death five times a day. And, surprisingly, this doesn’t provoke negativity or darkness; it provokes happiness and joy.

The Bhutanese understand that death and life walk hand-in-hand. And their quasi-celebration of death is best represented in Bhutanese rituals.

Rituals, Values, Beliefs

Rituals, tied in with values and beliefs, are part of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Rituals are shared events, often traditional, that are distinctive to a given group or community.

As UNESCO puts it:

“They are significant because they reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society and, whether performed in public or private, are closely linked to important events…to a community’s worldview and perception of its own history and memory.”

How do Bhutanese rituals demonstrate their perception of death?

Death Ritual

Death rituals in Bhutan are so enriching, because Buddhists believe not in death, but in reincarnation. Therefore, the focus is on the rebirth of the soul into a new life; not on the death and ultimate termination of the departed’s life here on Earth.

According to Eric Weiner’s BBC article, “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness”:

“Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals.”

The rituals during this 49-day period are performed to help ensure that the departed soul improves its state in rebirth. Although praying happens every day of these 49 days, the more elaborate rituals occur on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th after the departed’s passing.

Rituals include 108 prayer flags being erected in the deceased’s honor. The local astrologer is also asked for their recommendation on a favorable cremation day prior to the 7th day ritual.

The gewa, or “feast of giving,” occurs on the 21st day. One person from each household in the village attends the feast.

In a wonderful article, written by Kunzang Choden, Choden explains how Buddhist beliefs inform these rituals:

“Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness has to be separated from the dead body. This is done by a religious practitioner through a powerful ritual: phowa. All the rituals and rites that follow are not so much for the body, but for the consciousness, which may hover around the family because of attachments.”

These acts are also a sort of a grief cleanse for the living, with one man calling the 49-day process “better than any antidepressant.”

And the death rituals do not end at the 49th day. Every year for three years following a death, prayer flags are erected in the departed’s honor, with rice, alcohol, and other items offered up by family, friends, and other attendees.

This is how values, beliefs, and rituals can blend into a culturally-rich experience that caters to the soul.

10 Cultural Universals: You Are What You Eat, How Values Become Culture

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what we value is who we are.

We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab.

They define our culture, and they direct our social norms.

This grouping of the 10 Cultural Universals also includes beliefs and rituals, which tie in with values in ways we’ll discuss in upcoming posts.

You Are What You Eat

What we are fed as children – in the forms of both formal and informal education – is, more often than not, what we accept and value as adults.

As Kilroy J. Oldster wrote in Dead Toad Scrolls:

“A great deal of the global stimuli that we view comes to us without major effort. Daily a person scans and screens a wide barrage of solicited and unsolicited material. What information a society pays attention to creates the standards and principles governing citizens’ life. A nation’s discourse translates its economic, social, and cultural values to impressionable children.” 

Our national discourse, what we project and adulate as a society, the meaning and importance we place on certain beliefs, ideals, and attitudes – these are the things our children consume.

We are what we eat. Our children will become what we feed them.

Education vs. Ignorance

“The right to a quality education is, I believe, the perfect path to bridge the gap between different cultures and to reconcile various civilizations…Ignorance is by far the biggest danger and threat to humankind.” – Moza bint Nasser

If we feed children quality food, in the form of education, they will value knowledge, critical thinking, and the ethics and moral teachings therein.

If we feed them garbage, in the form of false narratives, baseless “facts”, and unwarranted prejudice, they will value conspiracies, groupthink, and stereotypes.

A culture creates its own values and also consumes them.

So, remember, whatever values you cultivate within your culture should be cultivated with care. Values are meant to keep society healthy. They’re meant to show what integrity means to you as a people and to show others what you stand for.

What We Eat

Like social norms, the beliefs and rituals of your culture are what actualize our underlying values.

Beliefs are what we eat; rituals are how we eat.

Rituals, especially, are values in action.

We’ll talk about both in the coming weeks.

10 Cultural Universals: Transportation Culture & Social Movements

Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.

Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.

People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.

Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.

Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.

This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

Practicality and Culture

Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:

1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area

2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices

The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).

The Bicycling Capital

Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.

‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’

Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.

While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.

With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.

‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement

This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.

The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.

Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.

Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.

In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).

Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.

The 10 Cultural Universals

The word, “culture,” covers a broad spectrum. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what falls under the umbrella of culture by drawing more definitive lines.

When you talk about culture, what topics can you expect the discussion to encompass?

These 10 cultural universals are a start.

10 Cultural Universals

  1. Geography – Location, location, location. Location defines so many aspects of a culture – from the clothing worn to the food prepared and eaten – that it would be remiss not to consider geography when discussing culture. The landscape of the region, the natural resources it offers, and of course the rich history generated from the region all impacts a culture’s evolution.
  2. Language – Language is significantly important to culture and can afford those studying any social group some insight into what’s important to them (think: polite language, masculine/feminine use, slang, etc.). When discussing language, you should also consider the group’s written language, body language, sign language, and numbers systems.
  3. Family – Family dynamics are a key part of cultural studies, from the roles of each family member, child to grandparent, to the rites of passage that members undergo. Labor division across genders is also part of this cultural universal.
  4. FCTS (food, clothing, transport, shelter) – The basics of survival form the skeletal structure of culture. Think architectural styles, building materials, modes of transport, traditional and everyday cuisine and clothing, etc.
  5. VBR (values, beliefs, rituals) – We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab. This category also includes the rituals, beliefs, and religious practices of a culture, such as myths and legends, ceremonial rituals and holidays, and stances on contemporary science versus traditional beliefs.
  6. Economics – Jobs, the market, finance, goods and services, production, consumption, and distribution are paramount to societal development and quality of life, making a group’s economy a cultural universal.
  7. Education – This category includes not only formal education, but societal education – i.e. passing cultural values, survival skills, and various types of training onto youth.
  8. Politics – The type of government and the organization of a society, from rule of law to the enforcement of these laws, form the group’s hierarchies, structures, and most important institutions. The politics of a nation can also determine whether that nation is prone to war or peace.
  9. Technology – Technology available to a culture – tools, weapons, digital technology, etc. – contributes to all aspects of everyday life, as well as to the bigger picture, the way the culture operates.
  10. Cultural Expression – This is often the category that first springs to mind when the word, “culture,” is used. That’s because art, music, literature, sport, and every other form of cultural expression is the most bright and vivid rendering of the culture’s essence, its spirit. Creative expression brings culture to life.

Now that you know what constitutes “culture,” we’ll put each of these universals under the microscope in the coming weeks.

Cultural Must-Adapts: When Is It Mandatory to Adapt to Cultural Norms?

Do you remember our four groupings of social norms – folkways, mores, taboos, and laws?

If not, then here’s our handy chart to recall how each of these norms applies to culture:

norms

As you can imagine, failing to queue up in Britain would not be looked upon as severely as, say, going topless at a beach in America. And this is due to the severity of the norm groupings to which each of these actions belong.

Folkways<Mores<Taboos<Laws

How strict is each cultural norm group?

Folkways are the softest social norms. While you have a choice whether or not to adapt to folkways, failing to adapt won’t lead to ostracism; it will simply lead some in your new cultural environment to consider you a bit rude.

One example: wearing formal attire in a business environment is a European folkway. A suit and tie in Europe is the uniform of choice for men.

So, when an American male manager walks into a business meeting with his European counterparts wearing a casual polo shirt and wrinkled slacks, while this casual attire is, of course, not forbidden, it may result in a negative perception of said businessman as a cross-cultural business leader.

This is one example of a folkway that you can choose to adapt or not, but in making that choice, consider how it’s perceived.

Mores define right versus wrong within a culture, so there is more pressure to adapt to this type of social norm.

For instance, if a female manager travels to a conservative country, and she comes from one where feminine business attire is much more liberal, she may feel pressured – or even be asked – to alter her attire, as it may be considered inappropriate or revealing, based on the culture’s mores.

This is the difference between “right vs rude” and “right vs wrong”. Again, you can choose to adapt or not, but in the process, you may be considered “rude” or “wrong” by the cultural standards of your new colleagues.

Mandatory Adaptions

When it comes to the last two social norm groups – taboos and laws -, you must adapt.

Remember, taboos define what’s forbidden, while laws define what’s illegal. If these norms don’t align with your own, and you believe there’ll be some “wiggle-room”, simply because you’re a foreigner, then you’re very much mistaken.

“Sorry, I didn’t know; I’m foreign,” might work when breaking a queue, but it certainly won’t work when breaking a law.

You must accept that other cultures have values that you must observe if you choose to live there. And if you can’t accept these deeply entrenched values and norms, then stand by your principles and don’t move there.

Because one thing is certain in building cross-cultural relationships: you should not expect an entire culture to bend to your will.

Respect Culture: How to Respond to Norms that Make You Uncomfortable

What does respect mean to you?

In the face of disagreement, in the face of, perhaps, discomfort or even anger, what does it mean to respect someone with whom you do not share values or norms?

An example:

You’re Japanese, and you’ve moved to Spain. The Spanish are a warm, open and friendly culture. A kiss on both cheeks is a common greeting, whether you’re a friend or a stranger being met for the first time.

This social norm is not only one you’re not used to; it’s one that makes you incredibly uncomfortable.

What do you do?

Discomfort

I actually know a Japanese woman who struggled with this exact scenario.

She was the wife of a diplomat who had recently transferred to Spain. I met her at a language school.

Not only did she grow up in a culture that is as far removed from Spain as it possibly can be, she was also born to an aristocratic family, so her upbringing was even more disciplined than most. From childhood, she had been taught that public spaces and situations were not the place for physical human contact.

Remember: the Japanese greeting is a bow. A handshake is even too intimate. So, imagine then transitioning into a country in which men and women engage in this public display of affectionate greeting.

A kiss on both cheeks seemed too much for her to bear.

Tolerate, Comply and/or Explain

According to LQ Williams of Owlcation:

“Tolerance is the recognition of the universal human rights and freedoms of others… and the recognition of the value of differences without judgement.”

Tolerance, in essence, is respecting diversity, the world over. Despite feeling uncomfortable with certain cultural norms, you can still demonstrate your tolerance and respect for the culture by complying with other cultural behaviors.

In my Japanese friend’s case, she was taking this step: she was actively trying to learn the language.

Lastly, if you find yourself between a rock and a hard place – that is, between an attempt to integrate into the culture and your discomfort with some of this culture’s social norms and values – then explaining yourself goes a long way.

As Core Languages notes: “Often, just trying to be culturally sensitive is appreciated. Even if you don’t execute well, you’ve taken the time to learn about another and invested in a relationship.”

Who knows – maybe somewhere down the road, you’ll become comfortable with those norms that were initially a roadblock for you, just like my Japanese friend did.

Instead of only accepting the norm, she chose to overcome her deep level of physical discomfort and adapt.

These are some of the battles you may face when living and working in a foreign country. It’s up to you where you draw the line.

But know that in some cases, if you draw the line too close to your own cultural comfort, you may be impeding yourself from successful cross cultural integration.

Apples & Oranges: Understanding Adverse Reactions to Culture

Last week, we talked about how important it is to successful cross cultural management to accept the culture into which you are integrating.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you’ll dislike or disagree with certain aspects of the culture. But disagreement doesn’t have to mean disdain.

You can disagree and still respect that this society might see or do things differently than you. And that’s okay.

Why Do We React Adversely?

Any initial adverse reactions to a foreign culture can probably be credited to discomfort.

This new world into which you are entering isn’t familiar and may not offer all the amenities of home (and if they do, they’re likely not packaged the same, so may be hard to find).

Home is easy. It’s familiar. It’s unsurprising.

You might start feeling nostalgic for home, which is part of the natural stages of culture shock.

It’s understandable. You likely know no one in this new world. All your friends are back home. It’s disconcerting to transition into a completely different life without anyone to lean on. Especially when that life and the culture’s norms and values are so different than your own.

When moving to Spain, a Japanese person might dislike the loud restaurants and the encroachment on their personal space when greeting, and in Japan, a Spanish person might dislike the culture’s formal behavior and traditions.

But to move forward and conquer that initial adverse reaction, the foreigner must understand that just because something is different than what he or she knows does not mean it’s bad.

Apples & Oranges

I grew up in Africa. My dad worked there. As a child, the thing I missed most from back home in Switzerland was apples. The fruit on hand was monkey-bread from the baobab.

blog24-3

Despite missing apples, monkey-bread was still appetizing.

My point is that accepting another culture as it is does not mean you must disavow the things you like back home. But it does mean you shouldn’t categorize things in your host culture as “good” or “bad”; you should make an effort not to compare it with what you know.

Accepting means to refrain from judging the differences and look at them with a clear and open mind. They may be unfamiliar and strange to you, but the sun sets beautifully over the African savannah, just as it does back home.

Adapting

Accepting encompasses all aspects of a foreign culture. But accepting is just the first step of cross cultural integration.

As a manager in a foreign culture, you must also adapt to some of the culture’s behaviors and social norms if you want to integrate successfully. Adapting is specific to the visible parts of culture, the behavioral aspects.

I’m talking the dress code, the way the culture greets each other, what and when they eat. These are just a few examples of how you must adapt, which we’ll talk more about next week.

Open Hearts, Open Minds: How Much Should a Foreign Manager Expect to Accept & Adapt to the Culture?

Say, you’re a store manager at a retail company, and you’ve been sent abroad to work out the kinks at your sister store in Tokyo. You’re a fish out of water, a monkey out of his home tree, and your managerial style isn’t gelling too well with that of Japanese culture.

The big question: Do you expect your employees to adapt to you and your culture? Or do you expect to adapt to them?

The Cultural Baobab

If you work at an international company, the company culture is usually fairly uniform the world over…but not entirely.

When you’re sent to manage abroad, you’re still working and living in a foreign culture. Just because these employees work for your company doesn’t mean they’ve fully accepted, adapted, and adopted your culture’s practices or behaviors.

We’ve talked a lot about the cultural baobab and how, by identifying and understand its roots (values) and limbs (social norms), you’ll better understand the culture, as a whole.

The point is that living and working successfully in a foreign culture always starts with one thing:

Accept

Accept your host culture as it is.

Don’t fight it.

Don’t condemn it.

Don’t judge it.

This will make managing in the culture a whole lot easier.

Think about it: as the monkey in their baobab, instead of complaining about the branches as you swing from limb to limb, instead of criticizing the roots that grew this tree and spitting out the seeds from its fruits, you should be curious about it, you should admire it, and you should find a home in it.

Accept that your culture’s tree isn’t the only tree in the world. It’s not the superior baobab. It’s not the center of the universe. Accept that there is more than one type of beauty.

There’s a myriad of ways to live life, to organize a society, and to run a business.

Once you recognize this, you’ll see the beauty in this foreign baobab, from the roots to the canopy.

Integrate

In order to successfully manage in a foreign culture, you must integrate into that culture. If you don’t appreciate the beauty of your host nation’s baobab, your employees and colleagues will know it and integration will be null and void.

Accepting doesn’t mean you have to adapt or adopt everything in your host culture, nor must you idolize it.

Accepting does mean that you must make an effort to seek the good in everything with which you are unfamiliar, instead of immediately condemning it as “bad,” because it is foreign to your own values and way of life.

Now, that’s not to say everything about a foreign culture is easy to accept. We’ll talk about how to deal with adverse reactions to your host culture next week.