“Oh I’m sorry for offending you. It’s just that my culture makes me a d**k”
Culture is quite a fuzzy concept, a word we see bandied about very loosely these days. Everywhere we go we are forcibly accosted by one of its distorted forms be it nationalist culture, religious culture, organizational culture, consumer culture, XL culture, DU culture, or some random 2-month old B-school culture. It’s also deemed to be under threat by its guardians the museum and art gallery curators, politically charged activists, congregations of the faith and college administrators who’re all fretfully and zealously trying to uphold it and shield it from anything that they perceive to be a threat to its integrity (all the curfews, vandalism and torching of public and private property, mass religious protest rallies, bringing back archaic laws on campus are manifestations of that).
But all this hullaballoo begets questions in the vein of “Is culture even a real thing? If yes, what is it exactly? How did it begin? How do we know where to find it? Why is it only remembered come Valentine’s Day?” all of which are complex questions and would require an anthropologist or two who have dedicated years of their lives researching the subject. But since those resources aren’t available to us, we’ll settle for a second year MBA student who’s halfway through a course in Cross-Cultural Management.
So let’s start with the most basic question. Is culture even a real thing? The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. Yes it is an actual thing but often not in the narrow and restricted way we have come to understand (outpourings of national unity during an India-Pakistan cricket match anyone). The fact is, a culture is built over the course of many centuries, maybe even millennia and cannot always be divided strictly on geopolitical boundaries, many of which are very new. For example, people in Punjab share many more cultural similarities with neighbouring Pakistan than their fellow countrymen in Tamil Nadu or Orissa. Even religion is not a homogenizing factor as seen by the contrast between Muslims in Iraq to those in Bosnia or Christians in Africa to the ones in North America. Because that’s just how culture rolls, it is shaped by the terrain, natural resources, wars, conquests and what not and shapes language, occupation, dress, eating habits, attitude to time, art, religious practice, concept of personal space and the psychological make of the individual (also how you play football).
Even parenting is drastically different across different cultures. Take India where children have traditionally been kept with family and compare it with Norway where kids are put in state-sponsored daycare at the age of 1 or Japan when parents let young children run errands alone and compare it with the United States where such behaviour would engender a call to Child Services. There are differences in how cultures like Norway and Japan promote independence in a child with emphasis on a democratic relationship between children and parents while places like India focus more on a hierarchy. There is also a marked difference in parental leave granted to people in different countries as can be seen here.
Culture needn’t be based on geography alone. There is indeed such a thing called organizational culture but it interacts and is modified by the culture of a region. In fact, one of the largest and most comprehensive studies on culture, conducted by Geert Hofstede was on the employees of IBM between 1967-73 covering 50 countries, 3 regions and over 100,000 employees and which ended up creating Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory (something everyone in a B-school has to go through). And like most great inventions this too was accidental. The objective of the survey was to confirm that employees of the same organization, doing the same job, trained through the same procedures, working in different locations would behave in a similar fashion. However, the survey ended up proving the opposite – that there were systematic differences in the attitudes of people based on national cultures. (Try out The Hofstede Centre website here for some really fun and intriguing comparisons between cultural parameters of different countries).
Although there have been many more such surveys conducted and many more frameworks formed, the Hofstede model continues to be an easy and convenient system to understand the way people of different cultures behave the way they do, often in truly perplexing ways for somebody unaccustomed to that culture. And this in turn can be held responsible for the plethora of cultural stereotypes in existence today- Germans are always punctual, the Swiss are good with money, the French are real connoisseurs of art, Asians are great with math. But the negative connotations attached can’t be far behind, take blanket statements like Bengalis are stingy, Punjabis are loud and ostentatious, Asians are bad drivers, African Americans are burglars and delinquents, Muslims hate non-Muslims and so many more.
Cultural differences can play a big role in business too, especially if you need to travel a lot and/or work with people hailing from diverse cultures when even the most commonplace gestures can carry drastically different meanings (try giving the thumbs up to an Arab next time you’re feeling adventurous in Saudi Arabia). And they also often rub people the wrong way with Indians considering Germans brusque and impersonal for getting straight to business in a meeting (something which is a virtue in Germany) or why Germans would find Indians or Arabs disrespectful for being 47 seconds late to a meeting or taking calls and talking to other people while in the middle of it (which is totally fine in those cultures).
Another area of business when such cultural differences can create hugely divergent situations is when people give feedback. The Dutch for example, are very direct in giving feedback to an individual even in front of a group of people whereas the Chinese manager would never criticise a colleague openly or in front of others. The Germans like the Dutch are very direct whereas the British and the Americans are famous for conveying negative feedback couched in a lot of positive sounding words. So if a Briton says “That’s a rather original point of view”, he means to say “Your idea is crap” while the Dutch would understand it as “They like my ideas. Let me go splurge on expensive stuff because I’ve totally got this contract.” Needless to say it can lead to some future unpleasantness. (You can see some more of the things that the British say and what they actually mean in this HBR article). The Indians avoid confrontation and would never say a straight ‘no’ to a boss or superior, preferring instead to say “We’ll do our best”, a soft no which the Germans will likely misunderstand.
There are some rather amusing instances of cultural impact in business, not least of which is this report in the Economic Times in the recession of 2008 where the traders of the Bombay Stock Exchange consulted Vaastu experts about changing the direction a Bull at the building’s entrance faced in order to reverse the fortunes of plummeting stock markets. What’s not such an amusing example is what happened to America’s Corning Glass and Mexico’s Vitro which entered into a joint venture after due diligence and having ascertained very similar organizational cultures. The venture lasted 2 years and had to be dissolved because the Corning and Vitro managers couldn’t work with each other. The Mexican managers did business the Mexican way, at a slower pace and in a consensual, ‘genteel’ fashion. The Americans found them lazy and laid back and the Mexicans found the Americans aggressive, rude and always in a hurry.
All said and done, culture isn’t static. It too evolves. It has evolved (albeit at a much slower pace) over the past and is evolving now. Access and exposure to different cultures through electronic and social media, increased global travel, more transnational employment etc. have changed a lot of the old cultural manifestations. But the centuries old cultural fabric still remains ingrained in us. For example, even though the number of nuclear families in India is on the rise we still strive to recreate the traditional familial structure in these changed societies (ever called your friends’ parents ‘uncle’ or ‘aunty’ instead of ‘Mr or Mrs So-and-so’ like the American kids would?).
So at the end of it all, it’s difficult to grasp culture fully not least because it’s always changing. The moment you think you get it, it morphs into something different. What can be said for certain though is that it’s important to have an understanding of how culturally different people behave differently and what they really mean to avoid some awkward or even highly unpleasant situations. If nothing else, it surely makes for some fascinating reading.
Nadeem is still trying to make sense of Life, the Universe and Everything having just started his second year and planning to have a great time while he tries to figure all that stuff out. You can follow him at nadeemraj.insideiim.com
He’s an amateur storyteller at 42shadesoctarine.wordpress.com