At the end of chapter 1, I posed certain questions regarding possible cultural trends during the twenty-first century. Are human values and modes of behavior standardizing or coalescing? Are cultures aligning themselves? Will national prejudices and feuds disappear? Are we approaching the end, not of history, but of irrelevant cultural diversity?
I remain firm in my belief that most cultural groups, and the sovereign states to which they adhere, will enjoy continued and diverse longevity throughout the century. Although it may continue to foster disagreement, cultural diversity is far from irrelevant. Culture is dynamic, not static. It is a process of change over time, but it is a cautious process that clings to vestiges and memories of past experience, however faintly perceived they may be. Change occurs only if the cultural group acquires a new vision of the future (one which is best inspired by and derived from a new vision of the past). Such changes are beneficial only when they spring from a culture’s roots, not if they are the result of the uprooting of an indigenous culture by others—misfortunes that have befallen the Aztecs, Incas, Sioux, and, more recently, Inuit, Lapp, and Aboriginal communities.
The recorded history of even the oldest known cultural communities is merely the tip of an iceberg reaching back through the millennia. We cannot understand the aspirations or direction of a culture without taking into account its earliest known history and placing this against the backdrop of prehistorical findings. These trace the progression: hunter-gatherer-fisher, nomad, agriculturalist, migratory man, sedentary man, scholar, inventor. Only in very recent times have cultural groups in the Arctic, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the Amazon emerged from the first category. Fortunately, China, India, Japan, the Middle East, and latterly Europe afford us a richesse of historical clues. Clearly, the more we understand the past, the more accurately we can forecast the future.
What can we do to responsibly manage cultural diversity? Twenty-first century people seem disposed to tackle this question (perhaps for commercial gain). Whatever the motive, it is a worthy aim. The catastrophic events in Russia, the Middle East, and the Balkans at the end of the last millennium have given us stern warning that national and regional squabbles (sadly allied to cultural and religious differences) are not yet a thing of the past. One important factor is culture shock. Whether we are talking of negotiating international business deals, managing an intercultural conference, or sending an international peace-keeping force to a war-torn country, culture shock will almost certainly make its presence felt.
When crossing borders, people of all countries experience culture shock. The more experienced or well traveled the individual, the less traumatic the shock, and vice versa. One is in the main fully conscious of its impact—exhaustion, confusion, frustration, a feeling of spinning one’s wheels—though its effect on the subconscious may also be considerable. It is naturally a two-way process in which shock is experienced in equal measures on both sides.
Culture shock interferes seriously with the smooth running of international meetings, diplomacy, negotiation, and management. Not infrequently, it is very disruptive. Let’s take business as an example. With rapid globalization of trade and ubiquitous mergers and acquisitions, businesspeople are having to make, daily around the globe, on-the-spot cultural decisions and assume hasty cultural stances for which they are neither prepared nor trained.
The biggest gaffes and greatest frustrations are usually witnessed early on, after a brief honeymoon. Mergers and international expansions, undertaken with hardly any or no concept of the cultural minefield entered into, often have disastrous and quickly deteriorating results in terms of reduced profit, huge job losses and layoffs, and tumbling share prices. DaimlerChrysler is a recent example.
This need not be. For every aspect of culture shock, there is an antidote which might be called a culture shock absorber. What do we mean by this? Again using business as an example, culture shock absorbers must be prepared and held at the ready by a trained team of key executives whose job it is to meet and inter- act, at an appropriate cultural and authoritative level, with a counterpart team from the merging or acquired partner. These teams need not be large in number (perhaps six to twelve), but they must be sufficiently influential and part of the decision-making process vis--vis the marriage of the two parties.
How can one absorb (or help another absorb) culture shock? This is facilitated by knowing and entering into the cultural habitat of the other. What is a cultural habitat? It is a kind of “room” or “house” put together by a cultural group, inside which one holds a plethora of beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions. Within those walls one behaves in a prescribed manner. By entering into that habitat, by following the “house rules” and sharing its assumptions during one’s stay there, the “visitor” can eliminate the phenomenon of culture shock.
Why do the people in the “house” behave as they do? To begin with, they are not free agents. They are restrained by attitudes inherited from origins long forgotten. The mind is a refuge for ideas dating from many centuries ago. One pays attention not only to the guidance of one’s family and peers but also to the experiences of previous, more distant generations as passed on by culture. One should not underestimate the influence of that part of the past that is still alive in people’s minds today. The momentum of two thousand years is not easily stopped.
The “visiting” team should enter the host’s cultural habitat with ease, without fear, and with shock absorbers at the ready. Strategies are numerous and available and only need to be known. To give one or two brief examples, there are mindset alliances. Often the quickest way to establish empathy with a different mindset is to find a third mindset you can both laugh at or criticize. This strategy is less nave than it sounds and is utilized in all corners of international business. It is well known in Northern Europe that the quickest way to get a Finn on your side is to make fun of Swedish pomposity, whatever your business objectives may be. There are many other Finnish house rules, but there is nothing like getting off to a good start. Large countries with vigorous, influential cultures or economies are tempting targets (especially neighbors), so Italians and Spaniards are quick to find a shared aversion to (alleged) French “arrogance,” Southeast Asians line up against the Japanese, Latin Americans together scorn U.S. insensitivities, savvy Europeans bash the insular Brits, while the poor, honest Germans catch it from any number of alignments from less successful colleagues.
Shared mindset bashing is only one strategy for creating empathy and is only appropriate when a dominant player risks being accused of cultural imperialism. A surer entre is gained by having a sound knowledge of the house rules and—even more important—by not misreading them. Returning to the Swedes, we must be aware of expectations inside a Swedish cultural habitat. These include an ambience of absolute correctness and properness, calm principled discussion, no surprises, persistent pursuit of consensus, and steady avoidance of confrontation. Observe these tenets in the Swedish house and the Swedes will soon trust and even begin to like you. You may be bored out of your mind, but you will not run into trouble. This sober behavior is neither required nor particularly advisable inside an Italian cultural habitat. Such controlled rectitude would not only bore Italians but would make them uneasy. An entirely different approach is required. What might be seen as the fragility of certain items of Italian cultural baggage—poor timekeeping and payment schedules, low legal consciousness, clannishness, inadequate degree of commitment, backroom influence, and so on—must be dispensed with at the very outset. These characteristics are background, a kind of Mediterranean scenery. More importantly, other attractions are on offer. These include immediate warmth, praise, accommodation, physical and mental closeness, a sharing of emotions, mutual help in difficulty, willingness to share conspiracy and to use the influence of friends, and free interpretation of the rule book if need be. For your part, you should value acquaintances that are introduced to you, expose at least one personal weakness for the Italian side to protect, be unafraid to seek advice—all this in an implied context that only Italians really understand what makes the world go round.
Your cultural stance will have to change rapidly and drastically when you leave such a house and enter a German or Japanese one. Chameleon-like behavior will be required. There is nothing immoral about this. You will retain your core beliefs and values. You are simply in someone else’s house and you are obeying the rules, which you have taken the trouble to learn. Thereby you gain not only their respect, but their liking. To make people like you should be one of the primary objectives of your approach to international business. It may well be that the Americans will do business with anyone who buys and sells good products, but Asians, Latins, Arabs, and Africans do business with people they like. Four-fifths of humanity put relationship before product. Linear-active cultures often have difficulty remembering this.
If we see the possibility of the West integrating with the rest (particularly the East) rather than the other way round, some reconciliation of worldviews might come on stream. There are increasing indications from the reactive and multi-active communities (five billion people) that age-old traits will not readily disappear. These are—among others—family closeness; group cooperation; coordinated, collective action; “group pursuit” tendencies; interdependence; and general personal respect in a hierarchical framework.
The linear-active West has shown some signs of departing from many of these values. This is evident in the dysfunctional family, the early separation of children, the discontinuance of personal care of aging parents, abandonment of religion, the lack of traditional rituals, the litigious nature of society, the decline in morals (porn on the Internet), the loss of the sense of unity with nature (still existing in Japanese, Thai, Aborigine, and most nonlinear societies), the creeping impersonalization of human contact (voice mail, the Internet, faceless corporations, etc.), and the single- minded pursuit of individual aims at the expense of others.
A reversal of many of these tendencies would facilitate integration into a global village where the headmen (and -women) would be relationship oriented, reactive, or multi-active people. If the benefits of Western education could enable us to see things from a broader perspective, a measure of cultural integration is not impossible. What we make of other people depends on what we know of them and the world, what we believe to be possible, what our memories are, and what loyalties we have to the past, present, and future. Nothing influences our ability to deal with the challenges of life as much as the context in which we view them. The more contexts we can choose from, the more options we have. An open mind would consider not only a national, European, or American context but one benefiting from a wide variety of past precedents (taken from all cultures and all humanity).
Is it too much to expect that we can shed our American or Northern European model and meet Asians, Latins, and others with a more all-embracing approach? Can we acquire an orientation toward Asian thinking? Are we willing to accept certain ambiguities or indirectness? Can we incorporate more feminine values into our activities and think of the place of the organization (or leader) inside society? Can we learn to use forceful tactics (if we have to) like Asians and Latins do, by applying gentle, persistent pressure? Can we reconcile hierarchy with egalitarianism and democracy? Are we willing to refrain from attacking head-on such Asian anomalies as lack of human rights, snail’space decision making, and an overconcern with face?
In the last analysis, the linear-active Westerners may ask themselves, “Is it worth the trouble? Do we need to integrate?” The fifteen most linear-active countries in the world are the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Flemish Belgium. Their citizens are well aware that their linear, disciplined, largely Protestant-influenced way of life differs sharply from that of multi-active and reactive populations. They are also very aware that their fifteen economies account for 50 percent of world production and that in the GDP-per-capita league, all of them except New Zealand are in the top twenty countries. (Two of the others—Singapore and Hong Kong—have strong linear-active influences.)
Judged on the scale of the Human Development Index (published by the United Nations), which estimates quality of life, linear-active countries—this time including New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong—do even better, occupying seventeen of the first twenty places. Only Japan (reactive) and France and Italy (multi-active) creep in for qualification. It is not surprising that the “Linear Fifteen” see themselves as the advanced economies and from time to time, when referring to others, use such terms as emerging or developing economies or Third-World countries.
But other indices may erode Western complacency. In the last decade of the second millennium, China was by far the fastest-growing economy (over 11 percent per annum), and only one Western nation, Ireland, appeared in the top twenty! Ireland has a basically linear-active lifestyle diluted by marked multi-active tendencies (also supported heartily during the decade by generous EU subsidies).
The writing is on the wall, and it is largely pictographic. In two, three, or four decades at the most, China’s economy will surpass that of the United States. At the beginning of this century, the world’s ten biggest economies are, in order of size, the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, China, Brazil, Canada, and Spain. By midcentury the ranking is more likely to be, again by size, China, the United States, Japan, India, Brazil, Mexico, Germany, France, Korea (North and South), and Canada. Linear-active champions in the top ten will have been cut down to the United States and Germany, with multicultural Canada squeezing in. Britain may not make it.
We are, of course, only talking economics. If we look at population size, the only linear-active country in the top ten is the United States (third). By midcentury the U.S. population may have been overtaken by those of Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and probably Mexico. The total linear-active population will probably be approximately 3 to 4 percent of the world’s total. Even now it is no higher than 8 percent and is decreasing daily.
We cannot consider these statistics (of economic growth and burgeoning populations) without drawing certain breathtaking conclusions. Since the fall of Arab civilization in Andaluca in 1492, Europeans and their North American descendants have dominated world affairs politically, commercially, militarily, and culturally for five centuries—half a millennium. This was largely thanks to mammoth China looking inward and letting the rest of us get on with it. Even now, it is unlikely that China will try to dominate the rest of the world in this coming century. They have a very good record of noninterference.
However, we are approaching a watershed. Whatever Chinese intentions may or may not be, the twenty-first century will be the one in which the balance tilts. During the century, the economic growth of Asian and Latin American countries will enable them to call the tune in international commerce and politics. Not only will most of the mightiest engines of industrial production be located in China, India, Japan, and Korea (as well, of course, as the United States), but the world’s hungriest markets cannot fail to be the burgeoning populations of India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria. Their needs, requirements, tastes, and appetites will transform not only the world economy but also the way the world works and lives.
In other words, we come back to culture. Whatever is churned out by the engines of revolution, war, economics, trade, supply and demand, technology, science, environmental development, and progress in health and medicine, it is culture that will count in the end. It has accounted for the incredible durability of the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese civilizations; it has in its fascinating variety engendered and nursed along such incredible European achievements as the Renaissance, philosophical brilliance, the opening up of the Western hemisphere, the Industrial Revolution, and the development of electronic and space technology. It has preserved for all of us the age-old traits of family, group belonging, cooperation, kindness, generosity, aesthetic inclination, and a curiosity that fosters invention. We should take the best from this wonderful heritage, in whatever part of the world we find it.