Three levels of mental programming
• The middle level—culture—is based on common experiences that we share with a particular group: values, attitudes, and assumptions about proper behavior that we have in common with the group, but not with those outside the group. The group may be large, such as a national population, for example Japanese culture; or small, for example the culture of the committee of a local PTA. In recent years, many business, government, and not-for-profit organizations have recognized the power of culture to shape individual values and actions and have worked hard to establish “organization cultures” that will bond the activities of diverse members to common values and themes such as customer service or conservation.4 In this book, we are concerned mostly with national or ethnic cultures.
But the notion of smaller cultures—sometimes referred to as subcultures— and the idea of individual personality remind us that huge variation exists within any given culture and that one of the biggest barriers to effective intercultural interaction is basing our behavior on stereotypes, which assume that all members of a given cultural group are identical.
Characteristics of Culture
Culture has some basic characteristics that are worth keeping in mind.
CULTURE IS SHARED
By definition, culture is something that a group has in common that is not normally available to people outside the group. It is mental programming held in common that enables insiders to interact with each other with a special intimacy denied to outsiders.
For example, Scottish people all over the world share an understanding of history that is rooted in conflict with, and oppression by, the English. Even though the two groups nowadays coexist relatively harmoniously, this simple fact creates a bond among Scots and an attitude toward the English that is hard to put into words but is immediately recognized by Scottish people when they meet anywhere in the world.
CULTURE IS LEARNED AND IS ENDURING
The example of the Scots and the English tells us that culture does not arise by accident but builds up systematically over time based on sequences of historical events. The mental programming of a group is learned by its members over long periods as they interact with their environment and with each other. Some aspects of culture, such as religious beliefs, systems of land ownership, and forms of marriage, are built into institutions. Other aspects are passed on through the stories that parents tell their children and through the role models they provide.
CULTURE IS A POWERFUL INFLUENCE ON BEHAVIOR
We have a hard time escaping our culture, even when we want to. The mental programming involved is strong. Even when we question the rationality of some aspects of our culture or seek to adopt cultural flexibility by doing things in line with a different culture, we have a natural tendency to revert to our cultural roots.
For example, one young man was brought up in a strict Christian culture that taught him that the theater is the house of the devil. When he went to university and mixed with more liberal people, he decided that from a rational point of view there was nothing wrong with going to the theater. But on his first visit, he became nauseous and had to leave to be sick. His culture had programmed him extremely powerfully. To some extent this book, in encouraging cultural flexibility in cross-cultural situations, is asking readers to try to do something that may not come naturally.
Nevertheless, the experience of migrants, who deliberately and often
successfully move from one cultural setting to another, suggests that individuals can learn, and even identify with, aspects of a new culture. In some cases, the requirements of a dominant culture may even cause them to suppress aspects of their original culture. These changes take place through a process known as acculturation.5 Being embedded in an unfamiliar setting causes some to learn actively about the new culture, while others attempt to avoid it, often by trying to re-create their old culture in the new situation.6 The best adaptation is done by those who learn the new culture while still retaining valuable elements of their original culture. By so doing, they cultivate cultural intelligence.7
CULTURE IS SYSTEMATIC AND ORGANIZED
Culture is not random. It is an organized system of values, attitudes, beliefs, and meanings that are related to each other and to the context. When Chan Yuk Fai says, “I think the food is not the very best in this restaurant,” understanding that Chinese people often deprecate themselves is not enough. We need to understand that such deprecation is but one tiny expression of a complex system of values and ideas. It is a surface representation of Mr. Chan’s deepest values and understanding of the world—a mental program based on centuries of survival and cooperation by Mr. Chan’s Chinese ancestors in their largely agricultural economy and culture. As another example, the practice of polygamy, which is frowned on in most cultures, makes good historical sense in some African cultures where it is still practiced. Acceptance of polygamy depends on such factors as family status, economic security, and religious commitment, all of which are based on having more children, and particularly more sons, per family.
Because of the mental programming imposed by our own culture, the cultures of other people often seem strange and illogical. Deeper scrutiny can reveal that each culture has its own, often exquisite, logic and coherence.
CULTURE IS LARGELY INVISIBLE
What we see of culture is expressed in living artifacts, which include communicated messages such as that of Mr. Chan concerning the food. But they also include human activities such as language, customs, and dress, as well as physical artifacts such as architecture, art, and decoration.
Because much of culture is hidden, these obvious and visible elements of culture may be likened to the tip of an iceberg.8 Icebergs have as much
as 90 percent of their mass below the surface of the water, leaving only a small percentage visible. The important part of the iceberg that is culture is not the obvious physical symbols that are above the surface but the deep underlying values and assumptions that they express. So understanding cultures involves a lot more than just understanding immediate surface behavior such as bows, handshakes, invitations, ceremonies, and body language. The invisible elements of culture—the underlying values, social structures, and ways of thinking—are the most important.
CULTURE MAY BE “TIGHT” OR “LOOSE”
Cultures differ from each other not just in their details but also in their pervasiveness.9 Some societies are characterized by almost 100 percent agreement as to the form of correct behavior; other societies may have greater diversity and tolerance of difference. “Tight” cultures have uniformity and agreement and are often based on homogeneous populations or the dominance of particular religious beliefs. Japan is a good example. Countries such as Canada with diverse populations have relatively “loose” cultures, which in some cases are made even looser by the encouragement of freedom of thought and action.
National and Global Culture As we have mentioned, nation and culture are not identical. Many ethnic cultures, organization cultures, minority cultures, and subcultures may influence different people within the same country. For example, the indigenous peoples of North America have cultural characteristics very different from those of the majority of Canadians and Americans, and both the United States and Canada have many distinctive cultural groupings within their populations. The main focus of this book, however, is on national culture.
Nations are often formed because of cultural similarities among different population groups, and over time they reinforce their adherence to a national culture by means of shared institutions, legal and educational systems, and, of course, nowadays, the mass media. National cultures are particularly important in international business because of the concept of national sovereignty and the need to conduct business affairs within a nation’s legal and political frameworks.
Another issue relating to national culture concerns the apparent growth of “global culture.” Some people argue that as travel, business, and the media become more international, all countries converge toward a single
culture, ironing out all the special differences that make each national culture unique. Because of the economic dominance of Western countries, particularly the United States and the larger European democracies, some people think that these countries’ cultural forms will gradually submerge other cultures around the world. Thus, the international proliferation of organizations such as McDonald’s and Starbucks is often welcomed as a sign of economic success, while also being criticized as an intrusion of American culture.
If the convergence theory were correct, it might be a reason to downplay the notion of cultural intelligence. If this were the case, it could be best to work with people from all nations to help them to get away from their own cultural habits and instead to understand and practice values and customs that are becoming standard around the world.
We think that this is a bad strategy for several reasons: 1. While some evidence supports the convergence theory, other evidence
opposes it.10 Many cultures may be becoming “modern,” but they are doing so in different ways. Cultures tend to accept some aspects of other societies and reject others. In Hong Kong, for example, people have retained their traditional Chinese respect for authority while rejecting its fatalism, and have adopted modern competitiveness but rejected modern attitudes toward sexual freedom. Across the world, probably the only real convergence that is taking place is in surface matters such as basic business structures and consumer preferences, rather than in fundamental ways of thinking and behaving.
2. A society may also appear to accept change, but in fact the change is often recontextualized to fit preexisting cultural patterns.11 For example, even though a McDonald’s restaurant may look very much the same in any part of the world, the experience of visiting a McDonald’s is very different for Japanese or Chinese or French or U.S. people. For example, people from many Western countries see McDonald’s as the place one goes to for fast food, but many Chinese people visit McDonald’s to have an “American experience.”
3. Even if convergence is taking place, the pace of change is very slow. The evolution of culture in any society is not easily predicted.12 Traditional cultural patterns tend to be deeply embedded. Those who intend to sit back and wait for the rest of the world to catch up with the West in terms of culture will have to wait for a very long time.
4. Societies worldwide are recognizing the value of diversity in human affairs. Just as biodiversity has a value in allowing ecosystems to deal
with major change, so too does cultural diversity offer us a wider range of viewpoints and ways of doing things. Many societies nowadays go out of their way to ensure that cultures under threat are protected from submergence by majority cultures.
Key Cultural Values In Chapter 1, we rejected the laundry-list approach to understanding cultures—learning everything one needs to know about every culture one is likely to deal with—on the basis that cultures are so diverse and so complex that the task is impossible.
Nevertheless, we can “unpackage” cultures by describing their essential features to aid understanding. It is a bit like the language we use to describe people. Sally may be a unique individual with specific qualities and quirks of character that would take a long time to describe. But if we say Sally is intelligent, extroverted, emotionally stable, and unassertive, we have in a few words conveyed a lot of information that might differentiate Sally from other people.
Just as we can summarize people’s individual characteristics, we can summarize the characteristics of a culture. An important way to describe both the similarities and differences among cultures is by their underlying values. These cultural values are fundamental shared beliefs about how things should be or how one should behave.
Consider the following case.
HOW ARE YOUR JOB INTERVIEWS GOING? Barry and Miguel, students approaching graduation at the University of Nevada, are close friends. On graduation, each seeks a position in a major company, Barry in the United States and Miguel in his native Mexico. But their strategies for finding jobs are quite different.
While at university, Barry has tried to develop himself as a unique individual, consciously improving his skills, his initiative, his personal goals, and his identity. He has read books that tell him: “You are unique, you are a brand, develop yourself as a product and market yourself to get the highest price and best prospects you can.” In corporate interviews, Barry aims to shine. Also, he does not expect to have any particular loyalty to the company that hires him. In a dog-eat-dog world, Barry will always go for the best deal he can get.
Miguel attends no corporate interviews, not even with companies that have big operations in Mexico. As far as he is concerned, it is not for him to find himself a job; it is for his family, particularly his father and his uncles, who own a small business in Mexico City and have business contacts they will use to secure him openings. Miguel knows that if he arranges interviews personally without his family’s blessing, this will be an unforgivable offense against his family. He is confident that on his return to Mexico he will have job opportunities arranged through family members and friends. He will be expected to take the job his family favors, and to give long-term loyalty both to the family and to his new employers. He wants to give that loyalty: it’s the way things should be.
One night, Barry and Miguel discuss their rapidly approaching careers. They have difficulty in understanding each other. “How can you let yourself be so dependent on others?” says Barry. “Some people would see it as nepotistic and corrupt.” “How can you live your life as a man apart?” says Miguel. “Don’t you care about the people who help you? Some people would see you as selfish and ungrateful.”
The explanation for the cross-cultural misunderstanding in the case of Barry and Miguel is based on an important dimension of variation between cultures. Latin Americans have a much more group-oriented culture than Americans. Many activities, ranging from the kind of job seeking referred to above to methods of decision making, are based on groups—extended families, organization departments, volunteer groups. This results because of differentiating factors called individualism and collectivism.
• In individualist cultures people are most concerned about the consequences of action for themselves, not others. They prefer activities conducted on one’s own or in relatively private interactions with friends. Decisions are made by the individual according to his or her own judgment as to what is appropriate and on the individual rewards that will accrue.
• In collectivist cultures, people primarily view themselves as members of groups and collectives rather than as autonomous individuals. They are concerned about the effects of actions on these groups and the approval of other people in their groups. Their activities are more likely to be undertaken in groups on a more public basis. Decisions are made
on a consensual or consultative basis, and the effects of the decision on everyone in the social group are taken into account.
Individualism and collectivism are not either/or. They are values dimensions along which different cultures can be understood. Of all measures of cultural variation, individualism and collectivism may be the most useful and powerful.13 However, it is important not to simplify these dimensions by, for example, equating individualism with selfishness or introversion, or collectivism with socialism. Both individualists and collectivists have relationships and groups, but the type of relationship is different: collectivists actually tend to have fewer groups with which they identify, but these are wide, diverse groups, such as tribes or extended families, and the bonds of loyalty are strong. Individualists often identify with many different groups, but the bonds are superficial. Individualism is most common in developed Western countries.
A strong relationship exists between a country’s individualism and its wealth (Gross National Product, or GNP).14 The recent political fashion of free markets and the encouragement of entrepreneurship play to individualism, and developed countries have seen a marked international trend in this direction, leading, for example, to a general decline in individuals’ loyalty to their employing organizations, and, indeed, their organizations’ loyalty to them. Individualism and collectivism provide a basis for describing national culture in terms of the country’s position on these dimensions and for comparing any two national cultures on the same basis. When other dimensions or aspects of culture are added to the picture, more detailed assessments and comparisons can be made.