A year ago (April 11th 2020) the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant had an interview with Esther Sent, professor of economic theory and policy and social-democratic senator. She made a number of statements that still should be food for thought.
Indeed, in my mind reflection and rethinking are necessary but I only see it to a limited degree. In politics today, for instance in the Netherlands, clinging to power appears to be more important than serving the people, including the recognition of the consequences of this idea. Neoliberalism has not only reached the end of its usefulness but has also aggravated the corona crisis. The latter idea might need some explanation. Neoliberalism focuses on markets and only spends money when it either faces a return or a necessity; it does not recognise societal value. Simply because many public services (health care, education, police and so on) only cost money, neoliberalism tries to minimise the expenditures in question. As a result many preparations for a situation like the corona-crisis were cut away, even if we know that a pandemic strikes every so many years. Recognising societal value and a conditions setting government are two examples of the need to replace neoliberalism.
Recognising the need to replace neoliberalism with another approach is one thing but with what and how is quite another; leave alone societal support. I do think we should look at a sustainable future but once again, the statement is the easy part. A column in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, March 24th 2021, mentioned a report (Decoupling Debunked) by the European Environmental Bureau, stating that economic growth and sustainability do not go hand in hand. Neither a circular economy nor technological developments are a solution according this report.
History teaches us that the end of a technology does not result in the predicted economic disaster. People simply do not see beforehand the opportunities of the new technology in terms of jobs and incomes.In the same vein the report may be too pessimistic. Could we have for instance an economy that is not based on economic growth but on another principle, like sustainability (with the financial inclusion of all natural resources)? Indeed, if the economy serves the people, is a means to an end, profit does not need to be a leading principle.
Again, questions and statements are easy. If we recognise that we are at a round-about, we need to choose a direction. Many people are convinced that a continuation of pre-corona days is going to do more damage than solving anything, even if many politicians say that they do not see it (yet). All urgency notwithstanding we need a societal debate on these issues. Are people for instance willing to accept the idea that life is not always improving and some or even many people need to take a step back? We face the classical paradox, just as we saw it in the corona-crisis as well: in order to come to a different way of acting we need a different way of thinking; and a different way of thinking needs a lot of discussion. This is at the heart of culture and change and it does not have shortcuts. We do need the time that we do not have. We have to choose a direction but we cannot exclude that we need to return to the round-about. Another economy, another culture and vice versa.
This is the first out of three blogs on neoliberalism. Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: email@example.com. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture) or one the 10 specific e-books, or enrol in one the 23 online courses.
In line with my previous blog I’d like to focus on freedom of religion. The Dutch government granted churches some exceptions to the corona measures. As a result people visited with the hundreds churches, even if churches were strongly recommended not to. Journalists present at some of those churches were beaten by the church visitors. This raises questions about religion, its place in society, the culture that enables a special position and changes in that national culture.
Religious freedom is guaranteed in the Dutch constitution and has been an important topic for centuries. Up till 1983 the constitution even mentioned a state religion. However, the place of religion in society is shifting. Religion became less a public issue and more a private issue; it moved ‘behind the front door’. This development is the result of a complicated interplay, ranging from increasing secularisation and individualism through science and evolution to multicultural society. The latter (multicultural society) for instance raised the question whether all religions are equal. And if so, whether the Ducht government should also support Islam.
In line with other ‘western’ democracies the Netherlands has an official separation of church and state, implying that the government of the state is not based on religious motives. However, we do have christian-democratic parties in Parliament and religion does play in a role in their positions (e.g. medical ethical issues). The logical consequence of the principle of the separation of state and religion would be that Parliament does not recognise such political parties. However, for many people such a decision would be a bridge too far, even if their election results decrease.
A small example does show the consequences. In the recent elections in the Netherlands a christian-democratic party advocated extra support for families with four children. This is completely at odds with the idea of sustainability that stresses lesser impact of (wo)mankind on the environment. I am convinced that sustainability is the largest issue at play at the moment and a position like the one mentioned, is not helpful, to say the least.
Another hot potato is the related freedom of education (article 23 of the Dutch constitution). Every denomination is free to establish its own schools and these schools will be supported by the government if they comply with a set of conditions. Again, multicultural society brought this issue on the political table, because islamic schools were established and the compliance with the conditions became hotly debated. To what degree promote these schools islamic values or rather traditional Dutch ones?
A minority of people that wants to abolish article 23 of the Dutch constitution (a process that includes a national election) is growing, also because religion is considered more and more a private issue; your conviction should not impact your behaviour in the public sphere. A related issue is whether the government should prescribe the curriculum. At present the Dutch government only prescribes minimum standards and in view of decreasing capabilities (e.g. reading) these are insufficient, at least in their implementation.
Whether religion is a force for the good or the bad may be evaluated by each person individually. I am also not saying anything about the possible comfort of religion. However, I do think that the cultures in western societies are shifting towards less privileges, like finances and exceptions to national rules. Indeed, in my mind theocracy and democracy are not only different things but they also exclude one another. Even a democracy with only a drop of theocracy should be avoided to improve society as a whole. Clearly, I do not believe in religion.
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture) or follow one of the online courses.
The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of March 13th 2021 included an interview with Annelien de Dijn, professor modern political history. She worked for ten years on a book on the concept of freedom. Freedom is of course a value (in the sense of a fundamental orientation at the subconscious level) and values are at the core of culture. Hence, the interview provides a unique opportunity to get a better idea of what freedom is, in particular in times of corona.
The interview may be summarised as follows. For nearly 2,500 years freedom was a legal concept. You were either a free person who could decide over his own fate and body or you were enslaved. - I’m saying ‘his own fate’ because women are less free than men, although this point is not mentioned in the interview. - In Athens in ancient Greek the free men started to be involved in the government of society. This idea of collective decision-making existed till the Middle Ages when nobility got the final say. Democracy was re-introduced in the eighteenth century; for a while at least. Then the conservative elite got the upper hand and with it the idea that the idea that the state should not be involved in private property. Freedom implied that you could enjoy your own life; a shift from a collective to an individual concept
In the nineteenth century the liberals equalled freedom with non-interference by the state and the socialists tried to prevent that the strong persons suppressed the weaker ones. The Cold War reinforced the liberal concepts. Finally, both left and right accepted the idea of neoliberalism with the market in the driving seat. In the same vein the idea of freedom of expression has changed from enabling people to speak up to the powerful to a tool of insulting minority groups.
Regarding the corona crisis prof de Dijn warns that we should not draw the conclusion that the freedom based Western model has aggravated the crisis. Self-determination remains important but freedom also implies that an individual makes sacrifices for society as a whole. The question is how to maintain a community feeling as a condition for a functioning of democracy in freedom; the market alone is not enough.
Once again, I notice the tension between the individual and the collective; a tension we may bridge by the values pattern that the sociologist Ronald Inglehart called individual self-expression. In this concept a person does appreciate the security of the group but also feels free to express him or her self (without group pressure). A bigger issue is how we should deal with freedom in the near and long-term future. I am inclined to see freedom as a necessary condition for improvement - ‘improvement’ because ‘progress’ presupposes direction in evolution. Internally (within our communities) we should bridge the gap between the collective and the individual. Externally, in the relations between states and nations, I do think that we should promote freedom and use freedom as a yardstick. The study of values shows that this is a process of generations, requiring permanent attention.
I am free to write this blog and you are free to read it and comment on it. This expression of individual freedom contributes to society if you start thinking about it.
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: email@example.com. A series of 10 e-books on culture is now available on managementboek.nl for €4 each. Number 6, Individual and Values, also discusses the theory of Ronald Inglehart.
On March 17th the Dutch elected the members of the Second Chamber of Parliament. Both the campaigns and the results showed some surprises, even if the net effects may not differ that much (the Dutch always wait for months to seal a deal between political parties). From a wider perspective these elections are in line with the theories of sociologist Ronald Inglehart of 1997!
The theory of Inglehart is based on changing values patterns in ‘western’ countries, that may well result in the emergence of a fourth type of human society; a society that comes after the modern or industrial society. This emerging society (indicated with the confusing term post-modern) is characterised by the values patterns of individual self-expression and quality of existence; nothing new for the readers of this blog.
In line with some of the comments on the election results Dutch Parliament is now more characterised by interest groups, not by broad political parties. You may expect verbal fights in Parliament because the self-interest of groups may well block solutions of major problems for society as a whole. Such a development fits on the one hand with the disappearing importance of the traditional split between right and left and the idea of individual self-expression on the other. However, the quality of existence in terms of sustainability may become an even bigger bone of contention, because some parties scored with rejecting parts of intended or necessary sustainability measures (e.g. carbon-dioxide reduction).
One element of the campaign was about leadership. Political leadership differs of course from the management of a company but is not a well-defined concept. Being a prime-minister (we do not have a premier in the Netherlands) for a period of ten years does not make you a political leader, because none of the major issues were solved over the decade. Or is keeping all frogs in the wheelbarrow a sign of political leadership? The issue was of course also influenced by the corona-crisis and the rallying around the flag effect.
The leader of the progressive liberals (D66) showed political leadership during the campaign by addressing the major issues. At the same time she had to fight an amazing and enormous amount of sexism, ranging from clothing through behaviour to insults and threats on social media. She showed to be the stronger party, time and time again. I admired the way she dealt with the issue of manterrupting (men interrupting women more than vice versa) by the prime-minister in the council of ministers. I did not vote for her but that to do with the party she represents.
Asking for a strong leader in difficult times is a recurrent phenomenon. The question is whether it is possible when people and parties are defending their own interests and the common denominator is placed on the back-burner. The self-interest groups are convinced they are doing well in view of the election results and are not likely to compromise for something that might be of interest for society as a whole but not for them. How is a leader going to convince them, also in view that all major issues were not addressed for years? At the same a leader has to involve a very large group of people whose dissatisfaction with politics resulted in a choice of populist right.
We do not choose individuals in the Netherlands, only parties and we never know what the parties are going to do with our votes. We may want a leader but cannot agree on one, leave alone vote for one. We need to address issues from corona to climate but focus on self-interest. In the meantime values patterns are changing, we do need to moderate the process but nobody cares. Values are at the core of culture and impact the way we organise our societies. Times they are a-changing, just like societies but elections do not care. Do my children care, my grandchildren?
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. A series of 10 e-books on culture are now available on managementboek.nl for €4 each. Number 9, At Home shows the international and European context of our day-to-day life; the wider perspective.
The Economist of February 20th 2021 contains the article ‘You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling’ with the introductory sentence “Only when the pandemic deprived the world of human contact did people realise its importance”. It states that touch is the only sense necessary for survival; think of pressure, temperature and texture. “Our skin is the vehicle through which we navigate world.” It mentions the health benefits of touching one another and the health damage when deprived from touch, both starting as a new born baby. On the other hand you have the “hypersexualisation” of touch in America. The concluding sentence reads: “People need to touch people, not just screens.”
When I change my reading glasses to those of culture, I notice that touch is discussed in the domain of culture as part of non-verbal communication. One aspect is that you have more and less ‘touchy’ (national) cultures, the degree to which touch is important to communication between people.
Another aspect you may find in the relations between men and women. You may be inclined to think of men inappropriately touching women because such behaviour has been much in the news; not that it is anything new. You also have cultures in which women may easier touch men than vice versa and even cultures in which touching is considered feminine. On the other hand you have cultures in which men and women do not touch one another unless married.
Touching may also be related to hierarchy and domination. Here you may also think of parent and child or teacher and pupil. Fighting is another example …
Touch is frequently discussed in terms of ways and means of greeting one another across cultures. Waving, namaste, a bow (all with subsequent details in variation)? Handshake, box or elbow or none at all? Kisses? And if so, once, twice or thrice? Starting on the left or on the right cheek? A fleeting air-kiss or somewhat more real? And again different roles for men and women. For many people greeting another according to his/her culture is an exercise of getting out of your comfort zone.
I still recall my boarding school days when we were singing along with The Who on cassette tape with their 1969 song See me, Feel me. The human need for touch did not change much but touches a nerve during the corona-crisis, making us skin-hungry.
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: email@example.com. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture), watch the 29 animated videos on my YouTube channel, read the 10 specific e-books or watch the 8 Powerpoints with voice-over.
More than once my blogs paid attention to organisational culture because it remains a neglected topic. Even if one story after another stresses its importance and billions of euros are lost because of neglect of the topic, most organisation simply continue on the trodden path of ‘how we do things here’. In previous blogs I paid attention to the co-ordinating role of HRM, the lessons we may draw from the animal world, the culture patterns of High Reliability Organisations and the effects of online working and videoconferencing.
The Schumpeter column of The Economist (January 26th, 2021) gives yet another example. The column discusses the ‘cracked corporate culture’ of Boeing that contributed to the 737 MAX disasters. “After a merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, engineering excellence lost ground to meeting Wall Street targets.” In my eyes this key sentence reflects a failed process of cultural change. Professionals and technology as a basic motivator had to cede ground to management and profits. However, such a major shift in patterns of thinking requires an enormous amount of attention to implement. A single-minded focus on behaviour is doomed to fail. I have read quite a few stories that Boeing still suffers from an unbalance between product and result. If you agree with the ideas of failed change and its contribution to the crashes, the conclusion can only be that organisational culture may cost lives.
Just to avoid misunderstanding I stress once more that culture is neither right or wrong. A culture based on engineering served Boeing very well for many years. And a culture focused on profits fits very well with the American economic model with its focus on shareholders. The problem is that both were were intertwined over many years, an implicit conflict, creating confusion and lack of focus. The available research (rather limited in view of the importance of the topic) indeed stresses the need of unambiguity; no mixed signals. Many people may appear not to notice such a situation but it is working in the background and management has a responsibility to monitor and enhance organisational culture. Regrettably, most management think they can do without it and the educational programmes on human resources management do not pay much attention to the topic either.
The Schumpeter column mentions the role of government by for instance supporting companies like Boeing during the pandemic. This indicates the role of third parties in organisational culture, the stakeholders. Regarding organisational culture most attention goes to staff and management (internal) and sometimes to customers, not for instance external support (or punishment, also in the case of Boeing and the US government). This external aspect of organisational culture is stressed at the end of the column. Restoring cashflow for Boeing “will require regaining the trust of customers”. Trust is an even wider cultural aspect than organisational culture. The Boeing case is indeed a prime example of stakeholders influence; without stakeholders no shareholders!
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to know more about culture? See the website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture) or follow one of the online courses.
Some advanced economies have seen riots in the last few weeks, from storming the Capitol in Washington to thrashing and plundering against corona policies. I do think we need to understand why such rioting occurs in order to develop a more inclusive society that benefits all. For this reason I was amazed that the Dutch prime-minister said that he was not interested in sociological explanations and stories about a miserable youth. Leaving aside that he confuses sociology and psychology, he also appears to be confused about his own task. Politicians have to ‘read’ society and to promote general interests. In order to prevent rioting you need to know what causes them. While doing so you need to make a distinction between the short and the long term. Yes, you need the police to stop the rioting, to arrest people and so on (repression), but riots remain incidents, an expression of something else, e.g. feelings of dissatisfaction. Politicians need to move from the incidental to the structural level.
The Economist of January 16th 2021 contained the article Madison’s nightmare, political theorists ave been worrying about mob rule for 2,000 years. The article results from the riots in Washington DC. It discusses the tension between mobocracy and democracy and concludes that democratic institutions prevailed.
Of course the events in Washington DC have no direct relationship with the corona riots in European countries. However, some societal imbalances may be comparable, such as inequality and the need for a perspective. The corona measures have a strong impact on people, including their mental health. If a government only focuses on medical aspects and the capacity of health care services, it neglects more than people are willing to accept for more than a couple of weeks. The cynical explanation of the turn-around of the Dutch government in the last few days (from IC capacity to effect on people) is the upcoming national election on March 17th.
All this has (once again) much to do with culture. You may think of values like fairness, justice, equal opportunities, trust (in one another and in government), inclusivity and more but key are the institutions of society. Only with strong institutions democracy may function. The lesson from the transformation in Central and Eastern Europe from 1989 onwards is indeed that the strength of civil society determines the democratisation process and the strength of democracy. Indeed, political and economic transformation is nice to have but a well functioning civil society (third sector) is need to have. And as George Schöpflin indicated at the time, it starts as simple as a group of people having drinks once a week and saving the change for hard times for one of them. Here you see trust once again: who keeps the tin with coins?
If you turn this argument upside down you might say that the institutions did not function that well with riots as a consequence. Institutions do require maintenance (with a face-mask). The activities in question may not be delayed till quieter days but need to be done here and now, need to be visible in order to involve the different groups in society. It includes a serious communication - the flip side of culture - effort by government, much more and much wider than is done up till now (with a possible exception for the government of New-Zealand). Politicians need again to be inspired for serving the people, rather than creating a cozy feeling in a nice job. In many western countries the personal interests of politicians and the interests of political parties trump the general interest (pun intended, paradox).
Can anybody tell me for whom I should vote in the upcoming election?
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: email@example.com. Want to know more about culture? See the website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture), or follow one of the 23 online courses. E-books are coming up!
The Bartleby column of TheEconomist of January 30th 2021 is devoted to loneliness. a topic that deserves our interest. Due to corona related lockdowns many people are alone at home for weeks on end, but alone is not lonely; lonely is alone with a negative connotation. We do need to understand loneliness and find the ways and means to prevent it. This was not easy in pre-corona days but is really urgent at present.
The column starts with stressing the effects of loneliness, ranging from our social life through work to health. It then focuses on contemporary employment as one of its causes. Two out of five office workers feel lonely at work, a problem that is aggravated by working from home (difficulty in making and maintaining friends at work) and the gig economy (no companionship, no secure income). People may well feel lonely when they are surrounded by people. Open-plan offices did not promote camaraderie and neither did co-working spaces (communal facilities for young professionals). Social media may not help, amongst others because users are more involved with their phone than with one another. Even neoliberalism with its focus on the market may be one of the causes. For centuries people lived in small groups and that only changes with urbanisation and the industrial revolution.
In conclusion the column notices that recreating a communal society may be difficult. Technology enables people to get both entertainment and work at home.
Zooming out I wonder what the role of culture in loneliness may be. Yes, (wo)mankind has developed a culture with technology that decreases dependency on others. Indeed, human beings have interfered so much with nature and the environment that all natural processes may result in unpredictable outcomes; the anthropocene. (Wo)mankind has simply become too dominant on this Earth, not leaving enough space to nature and not recognising the human dependency on nature and environment.
I do agree with the idea that people in ‘Western’ countries have become more individualistic but that does not imply that we do not care about the others. The sociologist Ronald Inglehart mentioned already more that twenty years ago the emerging values pattern on individualism self-expression. This idea represents the best of two world, the protection by the group on one side and the freedom to give your own opinion on all and everything on the other. The latter idea is often suppressed by group pressure in collective societies.
Culture focuses on the relations between people and the perceptions of the supernatural and the environment. If the relations with other people are less than we are used to, we may miss them (depending circumstances and personality). Loneliness is then perceived as a shortcoming, people missing part of their culture. The craving for that missing part of culture is expressed as loneliness. If you would agree with that idea loneliness may be addressed by either reinstating the missing part or changing your individual culture into another complete whole. Why do you think I pay so much attention to LinkedIn after my retirement?
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture) or follow one of the 23 online courses on culture.
Twice before I discussed the mutual relation between culture in the wider sense (way of thinking and acting) and culture in a specific sense (the arts). Some people write about Culture and culture but that might suggest that the one is more important than the other.
I did mention that the arts are important for the quality of our existence. Many of us do not need a performance or exhibition a day for survival, not even a movie. However, the availability of the arts is somehow having its effects, even if you do not expose yourself to it.
The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of January 12th (the column What the arts do by Toine Heijmans) gave a nice specific example in the village of Pingjum in the Dutch province Friesland. It has only 600 inhabitants. The village does not have a bakery anymore or a supermarket and the three (!) churches do not have religious functions anymore. However, it does have two podiums and quite a few musicians, sculptors, writers and theatre makers.
The abundance of the arts and its consequences was part of a PhD research by Gwenda van der Vaart. The short answer is the resilience of the village, community feeling and sometimes pride. The provincial governor referred to this research and calls culture (in the specific sense) the humus layer of society; ‘the arts give oxygen to the mind’.
One of the inhabitants, Saskia Hiemstra gives more details. She showed the two mini libraries, the private auto museum and the attic theatre. She also tells how volunteers wind the clock of one of the churches to keep the bell tolling. One step removed from the arts she tells about the village co-operative and in particular the gardening, cooking and eating together and the resulting pleasure and empowerment; that is still culture!
The conclusion of the column is an expression of hope that post-corona days not only focus on money. I would concur and I do think that Pingjum is a good example of culture and culture. However, my critical mind raises at least two questions. Is this phenomenon transferable and scalable to other communities, e.g. a large city? And what do we do if it turns into social control and becomes stifling? In the latter case you have reached the opposite of what you aimed for. So, the balance is hard to reach but inspiration is easy. Go for it!
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: email@example.com. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture)or subscribe to one of the online courses.
Culture and sports are not clearly separated fields of interest but I did neglect to recognise the link between the two.
One visitor to my website noticed that sports were not included in the mind-map of culture. He drafted a contribution that will appear in the mind-map (under the label impact). His remark made me think: what is the link between culture and sports? And, recognising it, why was it not included? The easy answer would be that sports are hardly mentioned in the papers by students on which the mind-map is based. However that would apply to some other topics as well.
To make things worse, I come from a family that stressed the importance of sports in quite a variety. Although I tried in a series of sports, I failed in all of them. In secondary school the physical exercise teacher told me not to participate in soccer but to run around the field. I would be a disadvantage to any team. Later I learned that my physical co-ordination leaves something to be desired. Whatever cause and effect, I never liked sports.
Not liking it, is not saying that it is not important. Halfway the seventies I was sideways involved in establishing a MA programme in leisure management. The idea was that people were getting more and more leisure time that needed to be filled. The emerging discipline did not want to prescribe how to use the leisure time but to offer options, nudge governments and study the actual use of leisure time. The focus was not only on sports but also on museums, music, volunteering and more.
Sports may be considered as a specific way of thinking, acting and feeling and hence, a culture on its own. Sports are not always focused on being the best in performance. For instance, a country could participate with only one person in a specific discipline in the Olympic Games but have two world champions lined up. And if sports are about winning, then they are also about how to deal with loss. Even presidents could find that harder than winning.
Even winning itself may have a cultural connotation. A Dutch female participant to the Olympic Games won one more golden medal (not her first during those games). When she crossed the finish line she called out to the Dutch Chef de Mission that is was the number so much golden medal. However, she did not count her own number but the number of the Dutch participation as a whole. For her the team was more important than herself as an individual.
Sports are also part of national cultures and includes the cultures of larger and smaller groups. In terms of national culture waving the flag of your state may look to be more important than being the best. Larger groups may include for instance all people who participate in a specific sport within a given country. Smaller groups include the teams (in team-sports) and the dynamics within such small groups. In addition, sports are very much part and parcel of history and politics (e.g the 1936 Olympic Games in Munich!) and for that reason alone already a cultural aspect. In view of the behaviour of some people you may even wonder whether sports turn now and again into religion; or the other way around, e.g. the effect of religion on sports clothing.
In short, I have no difficulty in recognising the link between sports and culture and I should have recognised it some years ago. I am happy to see that some people do pay attention to it and I would welcome more research on the relationship. Go for it!
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture), follow the online courses or more (videos, e-books or Powerpoints with voice-over).
Fifteen years ago I learned about the conjunction analysis of fMRI brain-scans, a technique to trace the functions of parts of the brain. However, this does not indicate the most remarkable part of this organ, its plasticity. That is the capacity to take over some functions of another part of the brain when that other part is damaged. Several disciplines do study the brain along those lines but culture could contribute more.
In 1971 the Dutch psychiater Jan Foudraine published the book Wie is van hout? (Who is made of wood?) in which he rejects the idea that mental illness is always a physical thing (e.g. birth defect, brain damage). He focuses on schizophrenia. He perceived mental illness as a serious communication problem. The patient (a term he dislikes) is living more and more in his or her own world, making it more and more difficult for others to understand him or her.
This idea was neatly complemented by Hanna Green’s I never promised you a rose garden (1964), about her treatment as a schizophrenic patient. I recall in particular her first session with psychiater dr. Fried (alias). The psychiater had a completely empty desk, indicating by non-verbal language that nothing could distract her attention from the patient.
Nowadays the pendulum has swung back to biological aspects, in particular genetic predisposition. This indicates that your genes may have a degree of influence for one or more mental illnesses, depending circumstances. A similar idea was already expressed at the end of the sixties by a psychiatric sports therapist. Because nobody is perfect, he said, everybody has one or more mental problems. Normally they stay under a red line with a limited effect at best (at worst). Depending circumstances the sensitive spot may pop up above the red line, indicating the need for help. This therapist could more or less predict the diagnosis according to behaviour in sports.
This whole story is just another example of the nature / nurture debate. How much of a specific person is determined by biological factors and how much by upbringing and circumstances? I see nurture as culture (although on clement days I may admit that culture and nurture do not overlap one to one). Although nobody has a definite answer to how much each part contributes to a person, I do think that the debate contributes to dealing with mental illness. It implies that psychiatrists and the like would take culture into consideration in dealing with their patients. The examples of the effects of culture are easy to find, ranging from upbringing in deprived circumstances to living in a sect. The effects of culture are also getting more and more recognised in ‘normal’ illnesses (frequency of illnesses, diagnosis, treatment), so, why not? Helping people is a noble thing but please use everything at your disposal!
In a radio programme people could call in to air their opinion on whether the wolf should return in the Netherlands. Many people asked for protection, including the idea to construct a fence around the province of Friesland; from ‘don’t fence me in’ (Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters) to ‘do fence me in’; an emotional argument. Indeed, ‘the times are a-changing’ (Dylan).
Other arguments focus on the word ‘return’. Yes, we had the wolf in the wild in the Netherlands centuries ago. However, nowadays we do not have any ‘in the wild’ anymore. Every square meter of nature in the Netherlands has been subjected to human intervention and so, we only have unnatural nature.
The question relates to the wider discussion whether mankind is the boss of nature (internalism) or rather that mankind has to follow the rules of nature (externalism). I mentioned the different opinions as a key difference between (national) cultures already in earlier blogs. In the same vein many researchers stress that all natural processes have been influenced by mankind and that we are living in a geological period called anthropocene. Nobody knows the consequences, only that nature is seriously out of balance.
In the last few weeks I noticed a series of other applications of the same argument. Some people do say that the corona virus should run its course without too much interference. This is an argument, based on evolution theory and its principle of the survival of the fittest. The emotional reaction was that you then deliberately would end the lives of thousands of people. In view of all related uncertainties we should keep an open mind to find a way through the crisis, not being dictated by emotions.
The same applies to sustainability. Someone mentioned that the key issue is that the world population is way too large and that we should return to a maximum of one billion people. Immediately emotional arguments took the floor: liberal euthanasia policies? A global one child policy? Again, we should avoid all that but we also need to discuss how we might realise a sustainable world, e.g. through education, health, employment and retirement programmes (and much more global co-operation and less national interests).
These discussions brought back the Latin expression homo homini lupus: (wo)man is a wolf to the other. The question then is how we may tame the wolf, however unnatural taming of wildlife might be. I’ll ask my nephew, called Wolf!
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: email@example.com. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture), watch the 29 animated videos on my YouTube channel, read the 10 specific e-books or watch the 8 Powerpoints with voice-over.
In previous blogs I paid attention to role patterns and emancipation. The essay on girlhood in the Christmas edition of The Economist is reason to return to these topics. We do live in interesting times!
The essay focuses on how girlhood (11-16 years) nowadays is different than ever before. It focuses on girl-friendships, being daughters, bodies, activism and girls being tomorrow’s women. Girl-friendships are intense, full of trust, wide-ranging and long-lasting. The paragraph on girls as daughters mentions that their parents treat them differently than before. Regarding their bodies girls still feel to be judged by their body (or appearance?). Activism implies that girls do take position but not always turning out in numbers on the streets. And as tomorrow’s women girls focus more on careers, less on partners and even less on having children. Not all of it is fantastic, because girls still feel the pressure ‘to do good, look good and be good’.
The essay does not mention much about the cause of a changing experience of girlhood, only the remark that their parents treat them differently. This different treatment focuses on equal treatment as boys, not limiting their options.
The essay does not dare to say what the consequences of these changes might be. It does say that boyhood does not change (much), but I do think that boyhood must change as a result of changing girlhood. Changes like these ultimately imply different relations between men and women and different roles for both of them in society. Please not that I am saying ‘different’, not ‘better’, although I definitely hope for the latter; e.g. girls focusing more on sustainability.
Another question is what the effect might be of the former girlhood and related role patterns. In the past women did not get their way by being stronger but (often) by communication (up to manipulation), playing the game (apparently obeying) and appearances (up to seduction). They faced two dilemmas: looking good but being judged on appearance (rather than on person) and protection but becoming dependent. The former is still at play and on the latter the essay only refers to it implicitly. I was watching the last weeks some movies, depicting the early fifties and I may only conclude how much has already changed for the better (how such nice dresses could reflect such awful role patterns). The next round will definitely be different from the feminism of the seventies.
Again, the question is how developments like these will be affecting our survival as mankind. Regrettably, I will not see the world half a century from now.
Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture), watch the 29 animated videos on my YouTube channel, read the 10 specific e-books or watch the 8 Powerpoints with voice-over.
Geography has its impact on the whole range from individual to national culture. For the latter you may think of island states, the Swiss and their mountains or the Dutch and their water. This is more than scratching the surface. A Dutch author for instance has written a book on the ‘zero-line’, the imaginary diagonal across the Netherlands that divides the people who live below sea level (more than half the population) and those above. He argues that the lines also divides two mentalities. Those who live below sea-level experience open landscapes and have a more open mentality; those above sea-level experience the mysteries and legends of the woods,
An article in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reports on the disappearance of settlements in Central Asia in the 13th century. They did not disappear so much from the invasions by Dzjengis Khan but in particular by drought (ultimately a lack of rainfall). Normally settlements did move along with the water supply but in the end the dry spell was too much to recover from. The study is one more example of the impact of climate change.
One of the Christmas Specials of the Economist focuses on the impact of malaria on world history: slavery (African slaves being in more demand because of their near immunity), colonisation (e.g. indirect rule), the defence of the Roman empire, the election of Pope Urban VIII, the death of Cromwell, growing of and trading in cinchona (source of quinine), battles in World War II and more.
The influence of geography may also be recognised in clothing (a colder climate results in warmer clothing and vice versa), city life versus countryside, in being attuned to nature or rather focused on human beings, or in food preferences. Food is interesting because it ranges from necessary ingredients in accordance with the climate to status. People living in an archipelago may prefer to eat fish or attach a higher status to meat.
Next to the impact of geography on culture, you may look at the influence of culture on geography (witch in turn may become a determining geographical background). A relatively simple example is how the Dutch are shaping their environment; ‘God created Earth and the Dutch created land’. A much complex example refers to the discussion on the anthropocene (probably the present geological period in which mankind influences every process in nature).
These and other examples show the complex interrelationship of geography and culture. In a wider sense we might think of the environment in general and the related dilemma whether mankind rules nature or man has to obey the rules of nature. Mankind acknowledges more and more that control of the environment is impossible and that we may only build on what is given to us. Such a changing attitude is also reflected in the sustainability discussion.
The European Union as an organisation has more to do with culture than you would imagine at first glance. For years I have been teaching that the EU started with French institutions at its core. Back in 1952 (European Community of Coal and Steel) three of its members were too small to have an impact and to busy to recover from the war (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), two felt that they had to stay quiet (Germany and Italy), leaving France to transfer its system (e.g. the cabinets structure). Even if over time states did not always like to play the game by French rules and France did lose now and again, the system remained in place. French national culture does not only determine the organisation of its own state but also has a major impact on the EU.
The EU as a whole is also an expression of European culture, even if people deny the existence of such a phenomenon. Prof. Arts (if I recall the name properly) demonstrated that Europe is unique in its integral combination of the heritage of antiquity, Christianity, Enlightenment and the positive nationalism of the 19th century. These four reflect patterns of thinking with the related ways of behaviour. In the same vein you might say that Europe has learnt the lesson from history that violence does not bring a solution.
The Economist of December 19th 2020 (the Charlemagne column: Sprechen Sie Tory?) offers an additional argument, the EU as a Christian democratic invention. Its founding fathers and the six foreign ministers who signed the ECCS treaty were all Christian democrats to start with.
The column takes the argument one step further by contrasting Christian democracy with British conservatism. Although both have much in common (e.g. centre right, abhorring big thinkers, pragmatism) they differ in basic orientations. The Christian democrats want more integration, the Conservatives less. The Conservatives stress the individual, the Christian democrats society. Conservatives want to be decisive, Christian democrats prefer slow consensus building. Conservatives focus on their own state, Christian democrats are suspicious of it. Christian democrats wonder why Conservatives want to have their power back. Indeed, two different ways of thinking and related attitudes with their consequences for behaviour; a true culture clash at the heart of Brexit, leave alone the lack of trust.
I do not particularly love or admire France and I do think that political parties in ‘western’ democracies should not be based on religion (separation of church and state), but I am definitely in favour of the EU, following it in some detail for nearly 50 years. This paradox may be solved by Realpolitiek: stressing what is more important to the larger group of people. However, the EU is based on the rejection of that approach (that lesson of history mentioned above) and I do not like it either. I just need to live the paradox.
An article in a Dutch newspaper triggered some thinking about names and culture. Start with the family name. In most countries children get the name of the father’s family (the patrilineal system). You may see it as a subliminal message that men are more important than women (affecting role patterns). You often hear the argument that you need to register people but that system is only two centuries and would apply to a matrilineal system just as well.
The inequality is reinforced by using his family name as the name of a couple, Mr. and Mrs. [his name]. In Czech the married woman gets the name of her husband with -ova at the end; wife of. It sounds more possessive than it is (more ‘woman of’ than ‘man of’).
Some countries allow people to choose a marriage name, normally his or her family name; indicating in what family line you want to place your child. Sometimes the marriage name is a combination of the two and in a few cases the couple makes up their own marriage name. In the latter case the link to a family line disappears and you may wonder why to have both a given name and a ‘given family’ name. Theoretically one name would suffice, like in animal husbandry: cow anna952.
The given name has a series of meanings, the least of it that the parent simply like the name. Many names are chosen because they have been used in his or her family, like the given name of a grandmother. Some names put the parents on the spot, like Aimée (the loved one, female) or Désiré(e) (the desired one, male and female). Given names may also be like a message to the child in question, something s/he should keep in mind (e.g. religion, Christa, Mohammed) or achieve; Alexander for instance stands for invulnerability and untying knots.
Given names for girls often reinforce (unintentionally) the idea that women are less important. The may be diminutives (Jeanette, Gretchen), refer to a month (June, April), a flower (Margriet / Daisy) or a smell (Yasmin). They may indicate things like sweet, adorable and even sensual.
Emancipation (also a cultural phenomenon because it implies a rethinking of role patterns) led to a preference of the use of given names over family names. I still recall my mother in the eighties getting irritated over it: ‘The woman on the phone said I was talking to Eva. But I cannot call back to the company and ask for Eva, can I?’.
In the Netherlands we have an online database in which you find the meaning of any given name in the country, including its frequency and geographical spread. I would advocate that any ‘we are pregnant’ would use it because sometimes you really wonder. I am happy with Pieter; it refers to the city my mother came from.
This blog has mentioned culture related aspects of the corona-crisis time and again. In this blog the focus is on governmental communication. Communication in itself has already series of cultural connotations. In terms of dealing with culture, communication and culture are two sides of the same coin. Culture has no value unless it is expressed (communication). On the other hand, an analysis of communication models shows that every aspect of communication is influenced by culture.
When we look at governmental communication some more cultural aspects are at play, e.g. the role of government in society, the political system or trust in government. Focusing on corona the role of government in health care has its effects but also perceptions of the control of mankind of nature. In view of these and more arguments you would say that governmental corona communication would receive special attention with a focus on public health. Reality shows that the special attention focuses on staying in power and party politics.
In my blog of October 20th 2020, I mentioned already that a change in behaviour may only be realised by changing the pattern of thinking first (also the lesson of change management). In the Netherlands we see a government that stresses over and over again that people need to behave in another way but fails to explain and to convince. Indeed, in a newspaper column the prime-minister was described as a father who was disappointed by the behaviour of his children and could not think of anything but punishment. Jacinda Ardern of New-Zealand is the opposite (and not only in the geographical sense).
A professor in social psychology mentioned in a Dutch radio interview that the government should focus on motivation, enabling people to make the right decision for themselves. For me this is stressing the need for another pattern of thinking but in other words and from a different starting point. It does imply that the government explains its motivations in every small corner of society over and over again. Even today some people are mostly unaware of corona and the related measures (interview with hospital staff). But no, the Dutch government stresses behaviour, has an ever-bigger stick and an ever-smaller carrot. Because it does well in the polls with elections in March, it does the right thing; right? I wonder when party politics became more important than national interests.
Last week I discussed autocratic tendencies in three ‘western’ countries. They are in conflict with a key principle of pluralist democracy: government serves the people; not telling them what to do or not.
At first sight this principle may appear at odds with one of the three conditions that define a state in international law: population, territory and control. The latter refers to governmental control of population and territory. However, that does not imply that government is the boss but that government organises things in such a way that security is realised and that people can work on their development and prosperity.
Nevertheless, the temptation for government to tell people and business what to do is of all times and hard to resist. Government thinks that it knows best what happens in and to a country and how to define and serve the general interests. Time and time again such tendencies need to be checked and that is exactly what parliament ought to do.
I have been teaching on this principle and did not expect that its application would run into difficulties in my own country. Two parliamentary inquiries over the last few weeks opened my eyes. The first was into the malfunctioning of a range of semi-autonomous organisations that implement governmental policies. They focus on their system, the law and the additional assignments by government but they do not indicate when the system starts failing (e.g. conflicting assignments). The persons they are supposed to serve are of no consideration, their circumstances not taken into account and their only role is to obey the system. If that implies that you have to wait for a year to extend your driving license, too bad.
The second inquiry is more specific but more of the same. A couple of years the government tasked the Tax Office with providing parents with allowances for childcare. The Tax Office had an attitude of distrust and even the slightest mistake (a signature in the wrong place) resulted in an indication of fraud. As a consequence thousands of parents had to pay the Tax Office thousands and even tens of thousands euros ‘back’ while nothing was wrong and without fair trial. People lost their house, relations broke down and children were placed in custody as a result. The responsible cabinet ministers ‘did not notice’ and the prime minister did not feel the need to co-ordinate, even if that is his task according to the constitution.
These two inquiries are the tip of an iceberg, indicating disregard for citizens. At the same time the government why trust in government is decreasing and why people are getting less and less interested in politics. Small wonder that quite a few people move to the extremes on the left and right. You would expect that the ship of state runs into this iceberg but it keeps on sailing. Ultimately that might be better but I would love to see that the captain hearing the music being played on deck. It might not be a requiem of a Gotterdämmerung but definitely more than Water Music.
Again and again, trust in government and institutions are necessary conditions for pluralist democracy and any damage to them should be reason for immediate repair. Quod non.
The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of November 25th 2020 published an interview with Adam Bodnar, the Polish ombudsman. He mentions that Poland is no longer a real democracy. The characteristics of a democracy are only a facade. His preferred term is competitive autocracy. It implies that the government creates competitive advantage for itself by taking control over the independent institutions. Bodnar: it is hard to co-operate with a government that attacks the institutions you try to protect.
As mentioned in an earlier blog, culture and the organisation of society go hand in hand in pluralist democracies. However, in a competitive autocracy an elite takes over control and the majority is somehow unable to stop the process. You might say that the national culture is no longer a grassroots movement but a top-down process. And hopefully, because such a culture is not in the hearts and minds of the majority of people, the system will fail - in the end.
For decades western democracies thought they did not have autocracies in their midst; autocracies were like a foreign country. No longer. And Poland is not the only example. Although we should not forget Hungary, the most important is undoubtedly the USA. Although the origins of the process in the USA predate Trump (polarisation, inequality et cetera), Trump made it mainstream. We all could witness how the Republicans were looking away time and again for individual or political reasons. The elections are an important signal of dissatisfaction but I wonder whether it is enough, whether the process has already gained such a momentum that it overcomes this hick-up. Nevertheless, strong Biden statements may make a difference. If for instance Biden would comment on the situation in Poland, many Polish people (with their admiration for the USA) will hear him.
The autocratic inclinations in the three countries have different reasons. In Hungary and Poland the transformation from socialism with a planned economy towards pluralist democracy with a market-oriented economy does play a role. And in Poland religion plays a major role because the ruling party tries to implement a papal document, although the separation of church and state is a necessary condition for pluralist democracy. What the three have in common is that a small group of people with power think they know what is best for society, whatever the majority may think. Another way of looking at it is that the institutions have not been strong enough (or weakened to a certain degree) to stop the process from taking off.
If the virus of autocracy spreads - the temptation for government to be in control is next to irresistible, also in the Netherlands - and a vaccin is not readily available, we need to rethink how to preserve our freedom. We should not waste the efforts of the World Wars and the Cold War. Allons, enfants de la patrie!
The organisation of society and (national) culture mutually influence one another. The organisation of society may be determined by culture and in particular values but ‘how we do things here’ (John Mole) also determines culture. The relation may be loose in the beginning but gets stronger over time and takes centuries to reach maturity. According to the Economist of May 300th 2020 Mr. Alesina (an ‘economist of politics and culture’) concluded that the wide variation in women’s labour-force participation results from differences in agricultural technologies used hundreds of years ago. In Making Democracy Work political scientist Robert Putnam demonstrated the effect of values over centuries, even if those values have disappeared in the background. On the other hand many researchers estimate that the transformation in Central Europe from communism and planned economy towards pluralist democracy and market oriented economy will take up to a century; which would explain a lot! This period would be required to develop the necessary underlying values.
The question is what those values are and in particular if and how they may be developed. The Economist of November 7th 2020 outlines an answer in its discussion of the book The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich; WEIRD is the acronym for Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. The values underpinning WEIRDNESS include “a tough-minded belief in the rule of the law, even at the risk of personal disadvantage; an openness to experimentation in matters of scientific knowledge or social arrangements; and a willingness to trust strangers, from politicians offering new policies to potential business partner.” In addition he sees the extended family as obstacle, as well as religious norms as the determinant of family obligations. According to Putnam the development of values is based on a certain degree of socio-economic development but not everybody agrees on this point. In Central Europe only a few countries reached such a starting point at the beginning of this century, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The relation between organisation of society and culture may well go in another direction than WEIRD. Samuel Huntington has already indicated that that “Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western” (in: Foreign Affairs, 72:3, Summer 1993; final paragraph). “It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations.” Even the modest application of these ideas within the European Union already results in quite some problems. And we did not even start to answer the question about the long-term effects of the corona-crisis and possible values changes as a result; e.g. from touching and greeting to city lay-out.
From this cultural perspective I am once again amazed that governments and politicians do not take culture into account whenever they take decisions and measures. Again and again, you cannot have a new way of acting with an old way of thinking. Another question relates to the role of politics. As I child I learned that the ideology of a political party is the key indicator of what type of society that political party would like to develop. Nowadays many political parties look more like lobby groups (animal rights, senior citizens, religion, monocultural society and more). I cannot rest assured that the organisation of society is in good hands (interests of groups, not the interest of society as a whole) and I may express my concerns through blogs like these.
Last week I discussed the rule of law, fundamental rights (like religion and freedom of expression) and the tension between these rights. This week I turn to another aspect of the rule of law, the rules themselves, the institutions they represent and their implementation. In the USA the tension here is the subversion of the rule of law by the autocratic inclinations of Trump (and by extension the Republican Party). Is might right, are rules for losers?
Again, rules are based on values, developed over decades, if not generations. Rules and their implementation are embedded in institutions, enabling their implementation. Although many rules are linked to sanctions, they are ultimately based on trust and decency. If you do not act in good faith and misuse the rules, rules are turned inside out and lose their value. The question is whether people let that happen or not. Over the last four years Trump got away with a lot, demolishing both national and international institutions. Many people in the Republican Party supported him in doing so for their own good (?) reasons. And Trump continues by not accepting the result of the elections, by lawsuits (ironic: inside the law as long as it suits him) and by threats like appointing others than those elected in the electoral college.
In the past four years many people were disappointed in their confidence in the strength of the institutions in the USA. But I do think there is a limit to it. Yes, developments over the last few decades created resentment and inequality but many disgruntled people do realise that they somehow need these institutions (adapted or not) and that they cannot live from empty promises; reinforced by the mismanagement of the corona-crisis. Indeed, many people do not expect any real improvement in their living conditions in the next few years. However, a minimum level of provisions should be maintained and they will stand for it. In that sense I feel confident in Trump leaving the White House.
If Trump would stay, he would feel vindicated with all its negative consequences. Many leaders would find it difficult to cooperate with him, although they will not say in public (think for instance of US nuclear arms).
Trusting the American people and their institutions, is trusting their culture. That culture does have its problems and Biden (even if he wins the Senate) is not going to solve them. Trump widened the divisions and people got more entrenched in their positions. Awareness of the need to solve this together would already be a nice result of a Biden presidency. Cultural change starts with changing patterns of thinking and a focus on behaviour only has adverse effects. Whatever happens, the newspaper will remain interesting company during morning coffee.
Paris (the city) witnessed once again a clash between religion and freedom of expression; and not only Paris. In a wider perspective the clash stands for the primacy of either religion or the rule of law and you cannot have both. For some people religion is the framework of life and everything else is subjugated to it; the law of man is subjugated to the law of God. I try to imagine this position by thinking about my strict catholic upbringing. Even if the rule of law was not in doubt, as a child I saw religion as the ultimate determining factor. Other people stress the primacy of the rule of law.
The problem is that both sides claim universal truth but actually both are only truth for specific (albeit very large) groups of people. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not universal because the text means different things to populations and governments. The European Union may be based on the Rule of Law but its application is in doubt in some Member States.
If you do go for the rule of law, you face the problem that fundamental rights are relative and not absolute. Freedom of expression for instance is limited by prohibitions on for instance libel, threat, endangerment or sedition. You cannot say whatever you want and you do need to be careful in respecting the boundaries. In countries like France or the Netherlands religious cartoons in the mass media or on social media are part of the public discours on multicultural society and the boundaries are determined by the public at large and the judiciary in particular.
As a Western government and society you do have a problem if a considerable majority rejects the primacy of the rule of law. Over the years we have learned that punishment does not work. We need the carrot, not the stick, although the stick should aways be available. We also tend to forget that a different way of thinking is a necessary condition for a change in behaviour. Stressing the key role of education is an easy way out because education is only a small part of the solution. Like cultural change a much more wide-ranging debate is necessary, including a decrease of segregation and inequality. No government has started such a comprehensive approach and hence, carries part of the blame.
The rule of law is based on values, the fundamental orientations of our thinking at the subconscious level. Through values we make choices about the organisation of our societies, including the rule of law. Values do not change in the adult life of an individual but only gradually in society as a whole. As an example I mention the period required for the assimilation of immigrants, up to four generations or 100 years. In addition, such processes of change need guidance, an unrecognised problem. Changing norms (the application of values) is a step towards values change.
Even if justice is not always served by the judiciary, the rule of law is for me the fairest system mankind has developed. It expresses my value of the equality of human beings, both in society and towards God (although the latter and I parted ways in catholic boarding school). And do not forget that that RR not only stands for Rolls Royce but also for the combination of rule of law and respect.
In an earlier blog (March 12th 2019) I already discussed the arts as either an expression of the dominant culture or opposing that dominant culture; with some shades of grey in between. Culture and the arts form a complex relation but do influence one another. Culture in the sense of a way of thinking, acting and feeling may be a wider framework for the arts but also expressed or opposed by expressions of art.
Thanks to Sheila Sitalsing’s column in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant I was reminded of one of the functions of the arts, quality of existence. ’The theatre is like the constitutionally protected church a place of belief and doubt, where life is considered, moral frames are reassessed, where we meet ourselves in all our ugliness and where is thought without limits” (my translation). This metaphor points to a fundamental function of the theatre (even if the church of my experience does not meet the criteria) and by extension to the arts as a whole. In this way the arts are a source of inspiration and not necessarily a thing of beauty.
The function brings me back to half-way the seventies when I followed a series of lectures on ‘leisure time agogic’. The simple rationale for the new master programme was that people would get more leisure time, that ways and means to use that leisure time needed to be developed (without any direction by government or so), people should be supported and that the use of leisure time should be studied. Within that framework the availability of facilities within a short distance from home was stressed, from swimming pools through open air physical training facilities and libraries to theatres; I still recall with pleasure a study trip to leisure centres in the UK. Theatres were a necessary condition for what we call nowadays the quality of existence and should be established throughout the country, also in small cities (say over 30,000 inhabitants).
I have always supported these arguments, even if I do not make much use of them. For me these arguments are linked to equality in the sense that everyone benefits from prosperity, not only those in the large cities. And I still get annoyed with the arrogance of the arts in the major cities (particularly capitals), which much more play to the masses than they are willing to admit. Real innovation and inspiration is more often found in smaller venues, such as those in the smaller towns.
The quality of existence is a cultural factor in itself and also one of the two value patterns that the sociologist Ronald Inglehart recognises as characteristic for the type of society that at present is being developed to replace the industrial society.
Against this backdrop I really regret that social distancing due to corona results in major problems for minor theaters and adding insult to injury, that government support for the ‘cultural sector’ is mostly focused on the established, larger institutions. To me it feels like throwing out the gains of our history and civilisation.
Some people wonder about the long-term consequences of the corona-crisis. Economics might spring to mind and indeed, the consequences in this field may take years to deal with. Some people have pointed out the consequences in the field of architecture, in particular city planning. The history of architecture does show that major diseases had their effects in this field, e.g. sewerage (promoting hygiene and preventing outbreaks). In this field we may expect more buildings and public spaces that allow social distancing, also because we are not done yet with those types of viruses.
From a cultural point of view you may think of changes in behaviour and/or thinking and/or feelings. The Free Exchange column in The Economist of August 29th 2020 discusses some economic consequences in combination with changing beliefs, which in turn influences the policy response to the crisis. Taking things one step further, I wonder whether the corona crisis will have an effect on values. As values are the fundamental orientations of our thinking and thinking in turn drives behaviour, value change may be considered as the most fundamental type of change; behaviour becomes superficial.
Values are developed in pre-adult years and probably do not change in adulthood. What might change, are the norms, the day-to-day translation of our values in thinking and behaviour. As a consequence of this theory the corona-crisis may set a value change in motion. According to sociologist Ronald Inglehart (intergenerational) value change is the result of socio-economic circumstances but not all researchers in this field would agree. The present corona-crisis is probably not yet enough for setting a change in values in motion but might become so with further developments and negative consequences.
The possible value change might get a nudge or two from other developments. Many authors reckon that we have reached the end of unbridled neoliberalism and hence, we need another ideology for the organisation of society (another cultural factor). Over the last twenty or so years ‘western’ countries were also developing a new type of society, replacing the modern or industrial society. This development results from a value change from a focus on politics and hard work towards individual self-expression and quality of existence (Inglehart 1997). Thirdly, the need for sustainability cannot be denied any longer.
Maybe I value the pre-corona society too much and maybe I am too old to welcome a new reality but I do think that I do not really have a choice; the anxiety of change. In the meantime I may try to make the best of it by defining my own priorities and to be involved as much as possible. My consolation is Dvorák’s ninth symphony From the New World.
The Netherlands has been seriously hit by a second wave of corona, Many people at home and abroad have been wondering why the government did not intervene earlier and stricter. Another much debated question is why so many people are angry and unwilling to do what is required. Both questions may be answered from a cultural perspective (see also my blog of three weeks ago) in combination with a neo-liberal ideology.
The Dutch government focused again and again on adaptation of behaviour and stressed individual responsibility. The latter fits with neoliberalism. The former (behaviour) is part of culture in the sense of a way of thinking, acting and feeling. However, you cannot focus solely on behaviour. Indeed, the lessons of change management are clear. If management only focuses on different behaviour, you have more than 70% chance that the change process fails. You do need to pay attention to the thinking-part and you even need to start with it. In organisations you have to convince people why change is necessary and when people are convinced, they are mostly willing to take the necessary steps. This is no different in terms of national policy.
Governmental communication in the Netherlands has failed. Lessons from other countries, research and experience show that you need to explain, to be clear (one-dimensional) and relatively simple and to repeat things over and over again. That did not happen and as a result people coloured things their own way; worse, the messages by government did not alway coincide with those by its advisers. In addition, testing and tracing failed as well, the cabinet minister for health time and again did not realise what he promised; the government was ill prepared for crises and contingencies (even abolished some provisions in the last few years); and policy was more stick than carrot.
These failures were reinforced by a prime-minister (we do not have a premier in the Netherlands, implying limited powers) who stressed individual responsibility over and over again. This opened the door for individual interpretations of insufficiently clear rules. When the ‘limited lockdown’ was announced last week, many people felt a kind of betrayal. They did take their individual responsibility and now they are treated collectively again. The term ‘limited lockdown’ did not help. As a columnist wrote: how can a door be closed and open at the same time?
By neglecting the thinking-part of culture through miscommunication the prime-minister and his neoliberal ideology created quite a few of the present problems. The cultural finger points at him.
In my blogs you can see that I often take a topic from the mass-media to highlight the cultural dimension. Last week the mass-media really spoilt me and I mention two examples.
The first is The Economist of October 3rd 2020 with three articles in four consecutive pages.
The second was the programme on the news station of Dutch public radio on October 9th 2020 between 06:30 and 07:30h
The three items in The Economist together show the definition of culture: a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people at a given time and place. Four topics dealt with integration, a very difficult thing to do because of culture; assimilation even takes up to four generations. The six topics show again the importance of culture and hence, the need for a proper understanding of the concept. Who cares?
I discussed the relation between culture and foreign policy before; e.g. the blog of April 23rd 2019. When you pay attention you see more and more examples. One of them I found in the column by Chaguan (The Economist of September 26th 2020): Tit for futile tat, reciprocity is a buzzword in diplomacy between China and the West. It is not a cure all. The column notes that in the relations between China and the US the level playing field and non-discrimination are mentioned over and over again. However, “[t]his focus on fairness is not making either side any happier” and relations have soured.
The columnist concludes that "that trade law is a flawed template for designing China policies …. It loses its leverage when others have different priorities and interests.” What we see here is a difference in perceptions, based on other ways of thinking. On one side we see the Chinese Communist Party that tries to control all and everything. Trade relations are only a part of a bigger game (trade as an instrument of political power). On the other side you see geopolitical thinking (who is the boss of the world), fed by neoliberal thinking. In this neoliberal thinking the role of government is as limited as possible and market forces should be left on their own as much as possible. Both sides are thinking in terms of power but that concept has different meanings. Ultimately, this is China First versus American First; and you cannot have your rice and soybeans and eat them too.
Chaguan talks about American misjudgment. "Without liberal values behind, reciprocity means not much more than getting even. … That version of reciprocity amounts to telling the world: Stay open to China, or China will hurt you. As long as that is [the] tone [of China] with the West, warm words about fairness will not solve much.” With values we are touching the core of culture. The problem is that you cannot force values upon someone or a government as a whole. With a dedicated effort such values may be developed over four generations, a century. However, that road is on no Chinese map.
If indeed the focus on trade law and a level playing field is the wrong starting point, the question is what can be done. From a cultural point of view I see one of the hurdles in studying culture at play, stressing the differences and neglecting the commonalities. However, tilting the balance to commonalities is insufficient. We need to reconcile the commonalities and differences (transculturalism). This means an open discussion that explores the interests of both sides and how they may be aligned. Again, the difficulties are easy to spot: openness on the Chinese side, time, US willingness to take a wider view and more. Actually, exploring mutual interests is the game of foreign policy and diplomacy and yes, this takes years in view of the delayed maintenance. One more thing: both sides need to willing to make a serious effort through their foreign policy and diplomacy. But now I am asking too much.
On Wednesday, September 30th 2020 new national measures come into effect in the Netherlands to keep the second corona wave under control. The dire numbers of the last few weeks were a clear signal and further waiting would have irresponsible. The question is how the Dutch got into this situation. The answer may be found both in human nature and in Dutch national culture.
Human nature does fit well with social distancing, from hugging and kissing to a consoling hand on the shoulder. In the same vein most people like to work together. Online meetings, learning and so on have proven not to be the real thing. We need for instance more body language, more interaction. In a way this is disappointing in view of the progress made over the last few months.
This togetherness is reflected in our cultures, such as the organisation of work, schools, leisure time activities, shopping, pubs and so on. In all the discussions of individualistic societies we tend to overlook this social aspect of human nature, simply because it is so normal.
When I look at Dutch national culture I recognise the increasing individualisation. This results in attitude of deciding for oneself what to do or not to do. This attitude is reinforced by neoliberalism and its appeal on individual responsibility. On the other hand the Dutch have strong collective traits. Think for instance of the polder model with its collective decision-making. For the French researcher Philip d’Iribarne this effect of the polder was the key characteristic of Dutch organisational culture (comparison of daughter companies of a French aluminium melting company).
This specific form of collective decision also implies that we Dutch keep on talking and try keep all and everyone on board. The disadvantage is the time it requires, the advantage the wide support for the decision taken. The negative side of this cultural trait works against us in combination with quick developments (e.g. exponential growth of infections). Such a development also reinforces feelings that the government is too slow, not specific enough and did not prepare properly (in neoliberal thinking you hardly pay for contingencies, only when required).
I heard of a hospital that handled a peak of 28 corona patients during the first wave and now only has staff for 7 patients. Indeed, you cannot buy nurses in a can in the supermarket but you could have done something, knowing that something was going to happen. My happiness of being Dutch has an inverse relation with the number of patients.
In these blogs I have referred a few times to the research by the American sociologist Ronald Inglehart and in particular his 1997 publication Modernization and Post-Modernization. The reason for doing it now and in some more detail is the discussion of the book by James Suzman Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time in The Economist of September 5th 2020.
Mr. Suzman, an anthropologist, describes the development of human society from hunters and gatherers through farming and industrial revolution to the services sector. Along the way these changes brought mentality changes, in particular in relation to work.
These mentality changes have been discussed by others. In my blog on theocracy (July 14th 2020) I mentioned for instance The Good Book of Human Nature, An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible, interpreting the Bible as the report of the transition from a hunters-and-gatherers society to a agricultural society.
Dr. Inglehart also describes the development of human society in four phases and calls the last one post-modern society. The word ‘post-modern’ in his study does not refer to post-modern art but rather to an emerging type of society that comes after modern or industrial society. On the basis of the World Values Survey he describes the characteristic value patterns of the four types of societies; implicitly the mentalities. In industrial society the focus is on politics and hard work, in post-modern society on individual self-expression and quality of existence.
Although not everything of his research has been confirmed I still find this study an attractive framework for getting a grip on societal developments over the years. It explains for instance how politics is moving beyond the classic left-right divide, vested interests notwithstanding; how people may be part of a group and express their own opinion as well; how sustainability turned into a major theme; how the ‘clash of civilisations’ is also a clash of ways of organising society (with their way of thinking in the background); how values change only very slowly (intergenerational value change). For me the study is also an underpinning of the importance of culture because different ways of thinking and acting should be reconciled and the need for doing so goes hand in hand with the strength of societal change. From a somewhat more theoretical point the question is where the changes are coming from. Is that socio-economic change (Inglehart) or is more or something else at play (other research)?
Inglehart is not the final answer but I did not see much that could replace his study as a framework for getting some grip on societal developments. Some political perspectives are very interesting, as well as the descriptions of shifting powers (e.g. China as emerging world power and the USA refusing to accommodate it in the international order). But we need more of it, perspectives that help us to shape the future. The corona-crisis may have shown that the old system is not fit to meet new challenges but a comprehensive idea of what is coming, is not available. Who dares?
Over the least few months I discussed now and again the consequences of the corona crisis in cultural terms; and I will probably do so again. When I look at the mind-map of culture with its over 100 topics, I am time and again surprised how this virus has spread through the mind-map. Most topics have a corona connotation, or the other way around, the consequences of corona touch on that topic.
In earlier blogs I discussed the cultural aspects of illness (from diagnosis to treatment); behaviour and social circle (touching, social distancing); death (rituals, ceremonies); the environment (who is the boss, nature or mankind?); food and drinks (what we eat and its consequences); emergency preparedness (decreased due to neoliberalism); privacy (tracking apps, facial recognition, compulsory testing, face masks and so on); politics (e.g. in dealing with corona); solidarity; the contrast between financial and societal value (health care for instance is only costing money in neoliberal terms); the systems we created and their impact; globalisation; the relations between states; trust (between people, in institutions, in government); and confinement (also as a metaphor of culture). And I did not yet discuss a series of other topics, like the move to online services, religion, the organisation of society or national character. This latter group is only based on the articles that I have clipped for inspiration and does not exclude even more topics.
Looking at the list as a whole I see changes in our way of thinking, acting and feeling or culture for short. This change is not only the result of the corona crisis but also the end of neoliberalism, the need for a sustainable future, climate change and inequalities (within and between states). On the latter point a new book in the Netherlands indicates that the growth purchasing power of households over the last few decades does not match economic growth; business over people. That is again a choice, ideology as a cultural aspect.
A change in itself is one thing. Even more interesting is whether this change is temporary or lasting. And if this change has a more lasting effect, the question is what that effect might be and how we may influence it to the benefit of society as a whole (leave alone what that general interest might be and how we determine that). In between hope and expectation I would say the end of neoliberalism (less market oriented and more policy), recognition of societal value (in sectors like health care, education, police; including the financial consequences of such a recognition) and a dedicated effort to develop a sustainable world (from Green Deal to the Doughnut Economy). Just a minor detail: we need a much smaller world population …
In the meantime I could write a corona-based book on culture. I cannot shake off the impression that each topic of the mind-map of culture may be illustrated with elements of the corona crisis. Corona Culture, or corture for short, here we come. Anybody willing to write it with me?
The Economist of August 15th 2020 contained a briefing on China’s hybrid capitalism. I quote from the final paragraph. “It is getting harder to distinguish between the state and private sectors … between corporate and national interests … it is getting harder to claim that state capitalism will hobble China’s attempts to produce companies and master technologies that put it on the world economy’s leading edge.” A minimalist interpretation would be: just one more form of capitalism. However this state capitalism is also holding up a mirror to ‘western’ countries. Do they have any reason to be smug, to feel superior? The discussion of this question has a large cultural component because culture has a huge impact on how we organise our society.
The nature of capitalism and its consequences is at least as old as the work by Karl Marx. From Reagan and Thatcher onwards the dominant form in ‘western’ countries is neoliberalism; markets solve societal problems. In the last few years many people concluded that this is past its prime; e.g. inequalities, the increasing role of business and money, the decreasing role of politics and solidarity and the waste of natural resources and the environment. Sectors like (health) care, education and the police were getting less and less attention, because ‘they are only costing money’. During the corona crisis many people experienced that those sectors do create value but not of the financial kind. Although some people see this shift as a value change, I hesitate because the research indicates that people do not change their values in their adult life. We could at least call it a change in norms or paradigm shift, which might turn into a values change (taking one generation).
The interests of politicians and business prohibit for most of them to go along with such a change and indeed most like to equate the post-corona situation with the pre-corona situation. Only companies that can make money by being sustainable, making sustainable products or delivering sustainable services surf along on this wave of changes in perception. I did not hear politicians in power say that the corona crisis is an opportunity to do things a different way or that neoliberalism no longer delivers. Problems in the three sectors mentioned (police, education, care) are tackled in terms of what it would cost, not in terms of what is best for society as a whole or how things could be organised differently. My favourite in the latter category is more trust in the professional and as a consequence, much less bureaucracy.
A related issue is the core orientation of government, business and NGO’s, respectively general interests, private interests and idealism. This works through in the basic motivation of the employees of these three types of organisations. In government you spend money while being well aware how hard it is for some to pay taxes, and hence, you try to be careful without special favours to the one or the other. In business you earn the money and try to maximise profit (and in an Anglo-Saxon context: increase shareholders’ value). NGO’s focus on improving things in society; not everything costs money and if it does, money is a secondary nature.
If we look at China’s state capitalism, we may conclude it works, delivering companies and mastering technologies. We need to ask what the consequences are of the related societal system. When properly informed we may ask what we could learn, what we definitely do not want and how we deal with such a China. Such a choice may not be very explicit but is part and parcel (in ‘western’ countries) of the democratic process. I go for green, full speed ahead!
The last two weeks the media paid much attention to the conventions of the Democratic and the Republican Party. I saw a clash of cultures that needs to be solved in the interest of the state; transculturalism or the reconciliation of commonalities and differences. Given the strength of the differences this will be hard to realise and promises interesting times, maybe not in term of the Chinese expression.
One party stresses the growth of the economy, the management of the corona virus and law and order, just to mention a few key points. These three points may well be qualified (e.g. shareholders value versus jobs, trade war with China, the comparison with other states in dealing with corona and the fact that repression is not solving things) but that is irrelevant. The illusionist’s show must go on and the public has to believe in its tricks. From my point of view the latter point, believing the illusions, is next to impossible. However, if you are not interested in the news, if you do not want to try to develop your own perceptions of reality and even reject scientific facts, the illusion is an easy escape.
The other party has less of its own story and focuses on what went wrong with society with the danger of only reacting. Yes, they focus on the causes of public unrest but do not have a comprehensive answer. They stress more community and less market, but they are far from socialists (in European eyes they are still right-wing). Elements of this orientation include heath insurance, education, a police to protect and serve, sustainability and more focus on stakeholders, rather than shareholders. Most of it is pie in the sky because the Democratic Party contains so many voices that it did not succeed in a unified choir work of one song.
These and the other differences may be summarised as quite different ideas on the organisation of society, an aspect of culture and civilisation. ‘Where do we go to, my lovely?’ I do not know. Whoever wins, will meet lots of practical problems, because in the words of the Dutch poet Willem Elsschot ‘laws and conventions stand between dreams and deeds’. The Republican Road looks more predictable with only white heterosexual men as beneficiaries. On the Democratic Road signs and directions are in discussion and the destination is unclear.
You might say that this is an internal question. It is not. As the expression goes: the US presidential elections focus on internal arguments but is mostly realised abroad. Indeed, the USA has been the leader of at least ‘the Western world’ for decades and a dysfunctional USA is clearly felt in those states. To start with ‘America First’ may only be realised if the USA takes its role of world leader seriously, rather than retracting. Leadership results in compliance, protectionism in disagreement. The trade war with China shows at least two major dangers. The first is that the internet will splinter (from global to regional internets) and a series of divergent standards for electronic equipment. This will be the end of globalisation and although some people would welcome that, we still need it to solve the major problems like climate change. The second danger (also already emerging) is that the US dollar will no longer be the world’s reserve currency. That may result in economic disaster.
Interesting times indeed but probably a bit too much and unnecessarily so. The only thing I can do, is to send a complimentary copy of my book Encyclopedia of Culture to the next US president.
I admire all those people in Belarus who are demonstrating for weeks and I do hope that they succeed this time. Up till now the demonstrators have won a battle but not yet the war. In the past the regime and its brutal repression did win the war. However, even bringing down the regime is only a temporary success for the demonstrators. Comparable situations in the past show other divisions start to crumble the face of unity, possibly resulting in an unstable period. The question will be how to re-establish authority and of what kind. In addition, I should not remind you that these questions will not only be answered by the regime and the demonstrators but also by outside parties, all with their own interests; China, Russia, the EU and the USA to name just a few.
The use of history (cultural argument) may help. The name of the state, Belarus is often translated in Dutch as White-Russia, while the proper translation would be Pure-Russia. Belarus was the area in which the Russian ethnic groups survived after the Mongol invasion so many centuries ago. Some Belarusian diplomats expressed to me their pride of having such a meaningful name for their state. If (!) done properly, you could turn this into positive nationalism, one of the four founding factors of Europe. Such nationalism unites and motivates.
In rebuilding the country (still assuming the toppling of Lukashenko) the lessons from the transformation in Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 may be of use. During the nineties the focus was very much on getting those states up and running again, placing them ‘back on the map of Europe’ (Vaclav Havel). In general terms the efforts of the countries concerned and Western assistance were directed towards the establishment of democracy, economic reform and the necessary conditions (from the judiciary to land registration). Afterwards we learned that we should have started with rebuilding institutions (not as an additional issue) through building trust; cultural transformation. The nice example at the time was that of George Schöpflin (then at the London School of Economics): a group of friends who enjoy a beer together every Thursday, putting the change in a box for a rainy day. Simply because someone has to keep the box, trust (in institutions) starts there.
Rebuilding trust in institutions is of course primarily a cultural argument, linked to values. Yes, I may be blindsided by my interest in culture, but I do think that this idea is one of the key lessons that might used in Belarus. The people in Belarus will not be capable to do so by themselves (even if only for the long period of repression and the lack of democratic experience) and any outside assistance will be regarded as interference; if not (with Cold War logic) an effort to draw Belarus in the camp of the assistance provider.
I did not discuss yet in what direction Belarus might moving. Again, as in Central Europe at the time, the people are against the present system but have no idea with what to replace it. Thirty years back we were talking about the temptation of the Coca-Cola economy without any idea of the consequences involved.
To see some of the problems on the road ahead is easy, steering around them or cutting them down is already more difficult and discovering that two trees grow for the one you avoided, is discouraging. However, I do hope that Belarus started on its journey of a thousand miles and that first step is in the right direction. At least Svetlana Tikhanovskaya did so; well done!
Time and time again heroes of the past are labeled as villains in the present. You see this development for instance in the discussion on racism (blog of June 2nd 2020) or in the tearing down of statues (blog of June 16th 2020). In cases like these we evaluate developments in the past with the values and norms of the present, even if some people do stress the need to see things in the context of its time. Looking back with the eyes of today is like rejecting the past.
This argument should be stressed more. All these events in the past that we now reject and all these people that we now evaluate as wrong, could also be perceived as steps on the road to where we are now; and to whatever that roads will lead. I’m not saying that this road leads in the right direction, only that the events and people of the past are the bricks in the road to the present. If we throw the bricks out, we do not have a road anymore, we do not know where we stand and in what direction we should or could go. With another metaphor: if we throw the lessons of the past away, we cannot do an exam for the present.
Whether we like our history or not, it is our history. We can only accept and respect it. However, acceptance does allow interpretation, in particular what lessons we learn from it. To start with we never have full factual information and sometimes events may have been set in motion by a simple remark or secondary event we do not have a clue about. This is like a car crash, caused by the reckless behaviour or a third party that nobody remembers afterwards.
Secondly, what is relevant in the past for the present, depends on the glasses we use to read history. Time and again history provides different answers and responds to different questions. History may not provide a full answer but at least the illusion of an explanation, a logical cause and effect.
Thirdly, history does give explanations for traditions and parts of mentality. Some researchers indicate that cultural differences between countries may be explained for up to 50% by the effects of history (if a country exists for some centuries and its borders did not change much). This is line with values research (e.g. Putnam, Inglehart), for instance that assimilation of migrants takes up to four generations; a century! Values patterns do have their effects over centuries. To complicate things: history shapes values but values shape history just as well. In that sense historians need to have a proper understanding of the concept of culture.
I do not deny wrongdoings in the past and I cannot imagine the suffering when I read about practices in the past. However, I do not shut my eyes, I do not reject them, I do not join in iconoclasm and I do not lock myself in the prison of identity politics. Instead I go for an effort of understanding and an effort in making things better, not just for me and my neighbours but for mankind as a whole. Join me?
Although I mention time and time again that culture is a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people, my blogs on the thinking-part are rather limited (philosophy, values). Hence, I welcomed an article in a Dutch newspaper (de Volkskrant of July 25th 2020) by Kees Kraaijeveld with the title Time for a New Socrates.
Mr. Kaaijeveld starts by saying that many people in their search for answers on the questions of life turn to the classics. Although admiring them Mr. Kraaijeveld stresses that the philosophers of antiquity (all men) lived in quite different circumstances. If wisdom is about practical lessons for life, this focus on the classics results from three fallacies (it is good because it is old; confirmation bias; and human nature bias). Then he turns to present-day wisdom. He states that we need ‘wisdom … based on accurate scientific knowledge about the world and mankind instead of outdated mythical images’. We need to start to draft our own science-based wisdom, free from religion.
Wisdom in this sense is all about our patterns of thinking and the consequent behaviour and hence, also very much part of culture. It is not about the rejection of the classics but about a critical look at our own roots, roots that did not change much in the last 2,000 years. Children are still encouraged to read the classics in secondary schooling and a quote from antiquity is always well received.
However, we moved from agricultural to industrial society and are now probably be moving to post-modern society. A different type of society does require another culture (if not civilisation), including the patterns of thinking. Inglehart’s theories on this issues are a clear example: from a focus on politics and hard work in industrial society towards quality of existence and individual self-expression in post-modern society.
The article also reminds me of a study by prof. Arts that I summarise with E≠A: Europe is not America, Africa, Asia, Australia or Antartica. According to that study the unique character of Europe is defined by the integral combination of four factors: antiquity, Christianity, Enlightenment and the positive or nineteenth century nationalism. Only Enlightenment is still standing strong, although the rise of fake news and doubts in the results of science are worrying signs. Do we need a new definition of Europe or do we start working on more global patterns of thinking and related wisdom?
Question are easy and we learned from the ancient Greek philosophers (!) that people who raise a question and people who answer it, do not need to be the same. So, I am quite convinced by the argument and need to develop new wisdom, but I do have the question how we are going to do that. And even more so, how we are going to implement it. For me the answers are not that urgent, for my grandson the more so! Could acceptance be wisdom?
The discussion whether Huawei delivers safe IT equipment, symbolises the shifting power balance of China and the USA. Most of the arguments I have read focus on technical aspects of Huawei equipment, whether it has a backdoor that enables unauthorised parties (including governments) access to the data being processed or stored. The same argument has often been used for American software. This argument has been settled and the answer is that Huawei hardware and software do not contain backdoors. The British government built a special laboratory and tested the equipment ‘to the bit level’.
Another argument against Huawei focuses on its status as a Chinese company and the legal framework of China. The problem is that the Chinese government may at all times demand customer and other data from any Chinese company (and possibly even any company on Chinese soil). Nobody knows if and when the Chinese authorities would do so and what data they would request. The legislation in question is both wide-ranging and opaque. The question is whether you trust the Chinese government enough to be in business with Huawei. That is a question of trust and hence, you may call this the cultural argument.
Because Huawei is a symbol, it stands for larger issues, in this case the role of China as an emerging power in the international arena. The international arena is not a fixed space; not every ounce of extra power for China implies an ounce less for the others. The question is rather how you may reorganise things to the benefit of all states involved (win-win or integrative negotiations). One side of the argument (the role of China) gets lots of attention, the other (re-alignment) much less. In particular the USA sticks to the fallacy of a loss of power.
If parties in an argument have such diverging positions that a compromise is impossible, the argument will fester on and turn more and more into conflict. Again, the question is how you handle that. From the perspective of the organisation of the world in states you will be in favour of any effort of dialogue or mediation. This is quite different from the perspective of a state or government. If a state and in particular the USA is not willing to grant China a well deserved place under the sun, an increased role in the international arena, developments may well escalate. Bullying does not help and makes things only worse. On the personal level bullying may result in a nose-bleed, on the level of states in an armed conflict with the loss of lives. In the longer term it may even result in two worlds of IT standards that do not communicate with one another.
An important aspect of this rivalry between states relates to political systems, democracy versus one-party rule. This is again a cultural issue, the choice of the political system and the organisation of society. Both China and the USA do not like and even fear the system of the other. Thinking about it this way shows that the Huawei issue is mostly a political and in particular a cultural problem. The only thing we may hope for, is wisdom, mature leaders who can step beyond the here and now and recognise the wider issues (whether the cultures of societies allow them to step forward). And I did not even say a word about the culture of Huawei!
On the occasion of decreasing corona lockdowns The Economist of May 16th 2020 published an article on confinement (Within four walls, Bounded in a nutshell). It describes all kinds of physical and mental restrictions over the centuries: from imprisonment to the womb, from routines to offices, from limitations to rules, from demanding that women stay indoors to hermits, and of course freeing the soul from the body. All these restrictions reflect a wider culture. Indeed, confinement is an interesting way to look at culture. Why do people do those things and why are they accepted?
Some quotes show how much culture is linked to confinement. “Confinement, of all kinds and degrees, is part of human life.” “… the mind of the growing child was straightened by careful instruction in discipline and manners.” “But attitudes to confinement are not merely a matter of prevalent social norms. they also lie in the mind and mood of the beholder.”
Zooming a bit out you may compare culture to a cage. Everybody has his or her own cage and all cages are placed in larger cages (here the limitations to the metaphor start to show). Cages come in an endless variety, golden, gilded, metal, rusted, wood, green, yellow, large or small and so on. ‘Rusted’ reflects the idea of the slow change of culture but the implied idea of iron is less attractive; the shape of the cage should be adaptive.
The idea of a cage fits well with the three basic perceptions culture. Each cage on its own: relativism (blog of October 15th 2019). Bragging about your cage being the best: monism (blog of September 10th 2019). Or you may sing to one another: transculturalism (blog of October 29th, 2019). Again, monism may only result in conflict, whatever the position of some politicians. Relativism is like the principle ‘all states are equal’ and we know the practice of that. The only way forward is transculturalism.
In her book Jam Cultures (2019; in Dutch) on inclusiveness in organisations Jitske Kramer uses the subtitle ‘culture as a subtle prison’ (page 99).
Each of us has the task to know as much as possible about his or her own cage as a necessary condition for singing to the others. The world of cages may be a cacophony or a symphony. If you have read Tolkien’s The Silmarillion you know that creation started with music (and discord turning into evil). Harmony is a dream.
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In Western Europe the first corona wave appears to be over and many people return to their former culture (way of thinking, acting and feeling). However, in other parts of the world the first wave is still increasing for all kinds of reasons (from poverty through political will to incompetence). Only a relatively small number of people is looking out for the second wave. The hope that the post-corona world would be different is fading quickly. However, some things might change indeed but whether they are major or minor needs to be seen.
I read a few articles on how cities changed over the centuries as a result of contagious diseases but whether that will apply to cities the coming years is hard to tell. A front-runner in the expectations for change was a limitation or even an end to the single focus on markets. Indeed, even prior to the corona outbreak the end of neoliberalism was announced. During the crisis many people in the western world advocated stronger government policies in fields like housing, health or industry. At present many people think the market orientation will return in force.
One area of possible changes might be in offices. Working online and videoconferencing may have been frowned upon a few months ago but now many people do see its advantages and would like to continue to do so, albeit not full-time. If online would apply to for instance 25% of the working time, the market for hiring, selling and buying offices might well decrease with consequences for prices. Office buildings that are no longer in demand might be used for other purposes, like housing. A country like the Netherlands needs over 800,000 houses in the next ten years.
The remaining offices need to meet different demands. Flexible work spaces require more cleaning; bring your own keyboard? Doors may be opened by elbow operated buttons or the use of sensors. The open office (the ‘office garden’) may be out for risks of contamination and the need to keep distances. I would only welcome that, thinking back to time and again marking exams in one open space with 90 colleagues around me. The flow of people may get more attention, as well as the communication with peers and managers. And do not forget conference rooms!
More working online also has consequences for housing. An uninterrupted video conference requires a separate room (the home office; even two if both are working), including cupboards that you can lock and a will functioning broadband connection; a physical separation of work and private life. Home offices are not part and parcel of the architectural staple food. In addition, the distance between house and job may no longer to be determined by daily travel distance and a move to the countryside may become more attractive (The Economist, May 30th 2020).
Routines and procedures may need to change as well. The Economist (May 9th 2020) gives the example of the use of a seal instead of a signature in Japan. An important issue (at least for managers) is how managers may control their staff: do they do what is expected from them? Do they make their hours? How do you measure the quality of their work? Are they talking to the competition? And if people do their job in less hours at home, should they get more tasks? Trust in employees may be more in demand but hou do you build that trust? And what are the consequences in terms of organisational culture?
If online work will be an important part of our job, then our way of thinking, acting and feeling or culture for short is changing. The details may not be known yet but do prepare for this cultural change if it is coming!
A theocracy is a state in which religion determines government and society. Three of the 194 states are theocracies, the Vatican, Iran and Israel. In addition, religion plays a strong role in some other states. A theocracy may be considered as culture because they represent a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a (very large) group of people.
From a scientific point of view a religion itself is already a culture (same argument). However, for the believers culture is part of religion. In their view religion is the wider framework in which all thinking, acting and feeling takes place. Only with some moderation you may reconcile the two points of view.
If religion comes first and last, the people concerned tend to be inflexible; religion as justification. In a theocracy this applies to the state as such, its government and the organisation of society. Politics are determined by religion.
The scientific view argues that religion is a human invention, a way of dealing with uncertainty. However, reality shows that religion, invention or not, has major consequences. Israel claims its territory on the authority of the Bible, a document that might just as well describe the transition from a hunters-and-gatherers society to a agricultural society (see The Good Book of Human Nature, An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible). The Vatican claims enormous wealth and art while its religion is about supporting those in need. The consequences of theocracy on daily life in Iran do not need any clarification.
The role of theocratic states in the international system may well need some attention. The three do not accept any discussion of their respective religions and their internal consequences. The Vatican for instance is not a member, only an observer of the United Nations for just this reason. Because of the role of Christianity in the Western world and the dominant role of the latter in the international system, criticism of the Vatican is rather limited. The intransigence of Israel and Iran results from the perception of owning the Truth and all non-believers are less (hubris). It is clearly visible, although Israel gets more support of powerful states than Iran.
In the same vein religion has played an important role in aggression, violence and terrorism, even if most religions rejects such behaviour (unless for the defence of its own religion …). I leave alone the link between religion and ethics and morals. On the other hand, Israel should support much more the idea of sustainability because Jewish faith stresses the need to preserve the Earth (see The Economic of Good and Evil).
If indeed the international system is characterised by interdependency, the world would be better off by shaping that interdependency to the better good. This should include the theocracies of this world. What I am aiming for is a transcultural approach, a way of reconciling commonalities and differences. I do think that such a focus could give direction without drowning in idealistic bla-bla. At the same time the fate of the League of Nations and the United Nations does show that political will is a rare material and that own interests are the stop-gap of choice. The first step for me would be the limitation of religion to the private domain, banning it from the public domain. In view of the fact that most religions are a way of life, that might be difficult enough to keep us busy for a while.
The international system may be considered as the culture of the group of 194 states and two areas that are not recognised as a state. This culture is ultimately based on the Treaty of Westphalia (1648; sovereignty) and characterised by both interdependency and the use of power. Within the academic domain of international relations the ‘school of realism’ stresses that states try to maximise their power to their own ends. This contrasts with international public law (in which all states are equal) and in particular interdependency. The latter stresses that no state can stand only on its own feet (autarky) and hence, states depend on one another and have to work together. In particular from the Second World War onwards the international system has developed a series of rules and procedures on how to play the game; voluntarily, because of sovereignty.
This development has brought enormous benefits in terms of security and prosperity, the two key tasks of a state; whatever you think of globalisation and whatever you think of market-based economy. And yes, the story is not without its flaws, violence did erupt, poverty and inequality were not erased, and power was exercised without failing.
Against this backdrop recent developments are quite interesting and may even be a turning point. The Chinese Communist Party is trying to have its cake and eating it too. It wants the benefits of the global system without toeing the line of those rules and procedures. China, in particular the Party, used the system for economic growth but does not accept any external interference. It does not accept the consequences of a series of international treaties to which it subscribed or uses its own interpretation (e.g. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Hong Kong). At the same time it projects more and more power, even if that is for now mostly of a non-military nature; e.g. economic sanctions (Australia and its position on the origin of the corona virus!), cyber warfare or fake-news.
The European Union has taken the opposite direction by reinforcing interdependency and co-operation. The USA has always been the guardian of this international system because it is in their best interest. America First (in reality, not in name) was always realised by a strong international presence. The Trump presidency has turned this on its head, demolished its own and international institutions and is not realising what a price it is going to pay.
The possible turning point in the international system depends on the degree to which China gets it way, the EU remains strong (and getting more united) and the USA turns outwards again. The initial reactions by governments on the new Chinese security law indicate that governments are not willing to stand up against the Chinese Communist Party. This may be considered as a success of Chinese power play. If a turning point does occur, it will be like a culture change without management (sovereignty again). On the other hand you might expect that the USA and the EU are willing to defend the international system and to pay the price for democracy. Looking at these developments through cultural glasses does have its advantages - even if at least one Western Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have any interest in culture in its foreign policy and diplomacy.
Season 1 of Corona (no, not The Crown) may be over for Western Europe but for the fans (?) Season 2 is being developed. While we take a breath behind our face-masks, we may consider how serious it was and what the first lessons may be. Technology played a key role because the control measures we took would have been impossible only a few decades ago. The balance between mankind and the rest of nature was and is questioned again, as if questions of sustainability and climate change are not sufficient by themselves. Even more fundamentally: how do people live together? This question touches on civilisation and how it is defined and realised is enabled by culture. Corture (corona-culture) once again.
Over the last few weeks you may have noticed a few discussions on the target groups of Corona. Kids are not to blame and teenagers are in the clear. That means that the building blocks for future societies are in place, even if they may be damaged somewhat. The elderly, the obese, the handicapped and the ill were good at catching the virus. Some of them were rewarded with scorn, they should have taken care not being obese (neglecting the fact that it might be a medical condition). Some went even further than that and I did see statements indicating that Corona did a good job cleaning up.
Anyway, locking up the elderly without human contact and a decreasing quality of life as a result, did not really improve the situation. The nursing staff in question often had to work without the necessary protective gear and was too busy for adding the human touch. It simply happened to the elderly, they were not consulted in any way. Only much later some of them mentioned in interviews that they considered seeing the family as much more important than extending life at any cost. Quite a different spotlight in this theatre.
The question of who is getting what care is indeed a difficult one. As one of my favourite columnists (Asha ten Broeke in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of April 3rd 2020) said: you cannot say that society is better off without the weak, you cannot speculate whose life is more valuable than that of another. We need to remain people in which we recognise ourselves. If not, we lose our heart; in my terms: our civilisation. Another columnist, Marjan Slob, mentioned in the same newspaper (June 29th 2020) that civilisation may grow in the space between impulse and action.
Even if we have difficulties with it in practice, inclusion, belonging to the group, touches the core of human nature. All the related rituals are in the domain of culture. The same applies to the flip-side of this coin, discrimination or exclusion. Together we stand, even if it implies that you go to the shop alone, not with your family. The insurance calculations of the financial value of a human life may be a neo-liberal necessity but also shows that we have reached the end of our present civilisation. Paraphrasing Peter Sarstedt (what is in a name): where do we go to, my lovely?
The Economist of May 30th 2020 has an article on fashionable mouth masks (title: ‘Viral couture. Paris masked. The French embrace covid chic’). My first reaction was that designer masks are not very practical. In public transport you are required to wear a new mask for each trip. As a consequence you have to carry several masks with you and you need to wash them. If you have one daily commute by public transport, you need at least 10 masks a week (no public transport in the weekend). And do you need to iron them as well?
Such an argument is completely irrelevant within the domain of fashion culture. Fashion is indeed a culture because it represent a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people. The fashion paradigm (the applicable rules that result in success) is all about use, a bit about manufacturing and hardly about maintenance.
One of the sentences in the article refers to a wider context of fashion. “To the French, some suggest, the uncovered face represents modernity and liberation from religious, patriarchal or other prescriptions.” However, the patriarchal system has not been abolished and fashion still refers to it. In an unequal world appearances are a way to exercise influence.
Fashionable masks are also a question of the well known supply and demand equilibrium. Once you offer people a choice, people start making choices; for a whole range of reasons.
Another interesting aspects of these masks is that they distort face recognition software. The underlying research was already questioned by the results of practical application and the idea of universal facial expressions of emotions has been falsified. In the USA nearly 200 algorithms for facial recognition are used, but Amazon decided to suspend the use of its algorithm for the police forces and IBM withdrew from the field. If you value you privacy, should you be wearing a mask? If so, do not forget to turn off the wifi!
The article ends with “Today’s mask may not be the accessory of choice. But Parisians are turning it into a choice accessory.” Well, maybe, if you accept the idea that you have to cover your nose and mouth. You may also consider alternatives, like the niqab (might even be more confortable 😀. The simple fact that the niqab would not be acceptable for men already points to role patterns and inequality.
The masks will be with us for quite a while, even if many people think that they go against the grain of mankind. If you think about the centuries long link between drama and masks, you may be reminded that we all are playing a role with the virus as a public.
The widespread anger about discrimination and police brutality included a toppling of statues. The related arguments were well summarised in The Economist of June 13th 2020. “Statues become flash-points at times of social change because they honour the values, and reflect the hierarchies, of the times in which they were erected.” (…) “Yet statues also provide a record of a country’s past, and the desire to respect and understand that history of commemoration argues against dismantling them.” (…) “As a rule, someone whose failings were subordinate to their claim to greatness should stay, whereas someone whose main contribution to history was baleful should go.”
These quotes are already full of cultural aspects: social change, values (and implicitly the intergenerational value change), hierarchies, respect, history and (implicitly) symbols. I want to go one step further. The culture of a country - with all the shortcoming of determining such a culture - is to strongly influenced by its history. The American sociologist Ronald Inglehart for instance mentioned that half of (national) cultural differences might be explained by history. I am not talking about kings and generals, war and famine and all these major events that we have to learn in school. No, I focus on the effect of all these events on our mentality, our culture, ranging from the organisation of society to some local tradition. The interest for such a look of history is relatively recent.
We all know that reading the lessons of history is a never ending process, serving many masters with the risk of projecting our present norms on the societies of the past. If we do so (projection), we will never understand why people did something in the past, because we attribute norms that they did not have; talking about cultural conflict! History is in itself a repository of things and events that in themselves do not change. However, the meaning and importance we attach to them do change, even has to change because history also reflects the present.
If we would erase the past, we would erase the present as well. We would be like trees without roots - well, maybe that is too much honour for mankind. This is much like the old argument against travelling in time, in particular to the past. Just by being present in the past (no pun intended) you change already that past with irrevocable changes for the periode from then to now.
The statues are symbols of past societies. Instead of condemning those societies on the basis of the norms of today, we should respect those societies as such, discuss them, recognise their value in the chain of history and acknowledge their commonalities and differences with our present society. You may see this as a fractal of dealing with cultural differences, from the individual to the society as a whole and from the present to the past.
I mentioned the relationship between Corona and culture (corture) already several times (origin and transmission of the disease, emergency preparedness, treating people, urbanisation, solidarity, the human system and more). The mass media of the last few weeks offered a range of additional topics: trust, privacy, diversity, touching, dealing with the environment, national culture and confinement. If you read all this, you can build up a corona-based course on culture, much more so than I expected. For starters, I will continue with some Corture blogs, this time about trust.
In earlier blogs on trust (February 19th 2019 and February 11th 2020) I stressed the importance of trust for the functioning of society and the trust in society, politics and institutions. The link with Covid-19 is highlighted in an article on lockdowns and trust in The Economist of May 2nd 2020. “Higher trust correlates with greater wealth, less crime and other metrics of well-being. It also seems to influence responses to covid-19. Trusting countries have generally implemented less stringent lockdowns. Rather than harshly enforcing social-distancing rules, their governments rely on citizens to observe guidelines voluntarily.” And in conclusion “This suggests that during epidemics trust is a double-edged word. High-trust countries will probably do better economically, as they usually do. But in public-health terms, high trust may have lulled Dutch and Swedes into a false sense of security.” This contrasts with for instance Romania: low trust, harsh lockdown, relative low death toll.
In The Economist of May 9th 2020 Margaret MacMillan (historian at the University of Toronto) writes “… We can see that South Korea, Denmark and New Zealand have controlled the pandemic more effectively than other countries, in part because their people have faith in the authorities and each other. Without trust - that the water is clean, medicines are safe, or thugs wont’t get away with it - societies are vulnerable.” And in yet another article about restoring international travel the importance of trust between governments is stressed.
The one trust is not the other. In the World Values Survey (www.worldvaluessurvey.org) trust is measured in nearly 100 states over the last 40 years. Variables include the trust in people (in general), trust in people you know personally, trust in the neighbourhood, trust in people you meet for the first time, trust in people of another religion, trust in people of another nationality, how much you trust your family and a series of quite related topics (e.g. confidence in government, in the police or in the press).
We also learned from the transformation in Central and Eastern Europe that the dual focus on political and economic transformation neglected the necessary condition of rebuilding trust in institutions.
Trust appears a human condition but also one that needs continuous maintenance. Lost trust is rebuild only very slowly with lots of effort. To some governments I would like to say to be cautious in decreasing trust. Trump trumps trust at what cost? Trust me, it will be very expensive and not only for the USA.
Black is an odd colour in the sense that it absorbs light (in contrast to other colours); e.g. black hole. In most cultures black is associated with the underworld and death, for most of us places we do not want to dwell. And then we have black as a skin colour. The last few days we have seen again how this physical characteristic has obtained a series of symbolisms and prejudices; indeed, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The riots will continue for a while and will be suppressed in the end. Police officers will go to courses, a lot of money will be spend and a lot of efforts made. All of it will be to no avail because it will happen again. The reasons for this re-emergence are simple, the solution very hard and against the grain of the USA itself.
The point is that the events have very fundamental causes that take decades of dedicated change. That is not going to happen because of more or less the same causes. The key points are the attitudes towards violence and black people. Attitudes are based on values. As I mentioned before, we obtain our values in our pre-adult years and they do not change anymore in adult life (at least in theory). Changing values requires a new generation with somewhat different values (intergenerational value change). If parents push their values to their offspring without much leeway, change is not very likely. Even if the next generation is able to develop new values, you would need several generations for the value change that is now required in the USA.
This argument applies both to violence and black people. It is reinforced by the constitution (the right to carry arms), market orientation and ideas about the role of government. These last two are like communicating vessels: if the role of government should be limited, the role of the market increases and the other way around. A beautiful example is a study of American prisons. Prisoners are better off in state or federal prisons than in privately owned institutions. The reason is simple: part of the fixed budget is for profits and salaries at the top.
In order to realise the necessary value change, you need a series of major interventions in education, the judiciary, law enforcement, the labour market, housing, health and even religion (in particular the white Christian churches). I am not sure whether I mentioned all relevant areas but you see the point. Time and time again teachers and managers need to stress a different approach: violence is not the solution, black skin is just a physical characteristic and nothing else. Slowly, slowly over generations the message will sink in. The present riots may look like those of the sixties but then you neglect what has been realised in the meantime (Obama!).
Yes, some things have been realised but that is not enough. The necessary changes require major governmental interventions (from the level of the federation to the smallest municipality), an approach that does not fit with the US political philosophy of a limited role of government. So, things will continue.
The country of the free has always been about a privileged group, supported by the not so free.
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Last week I discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers within the context of dealing with cultural differences. I mentioned that this wider topic really depends on the individual person. In this blog I will elaborate on it by mentioning some of the problems and the difficult road to travel towards a solution.
What to do?
In view of this next to impossible list you may become fatalistic and not even willing to raise to the challenge of dealing with cultural differences. People have actually done so for centuries, even if we did not have the terms for it. The simple fact that people married across ethnicity (around 6000 nations and under 200 states) proves the point. Practice is a source of consolation, as well as a prize because dealing with cultural differences also proves to be enriching; not in terms of money but in terms of personal development.
The two necessary steps are continuous efforts to further develop your cultural competence and increase your experience. The value in those efforts is in the process, not in the never completed results. These efforts have their own rewards. The papers by over 1000 MA students at Maastricht University, discussing their experiences with living and working abroad, prove the point over and over again.
In the process you also discover aspects of yourself, for instance how far you are willing to go in adaptation or how to ‘play’ the ‘game’. This should not surprise you because you are as an individual on the spot, facing the other and deciding how to react. Over the years and through experiences you discover where you face problems in dealing with cultural differences. You may summarise them in around five catchwords. This small list may always be in the back of your mind, warning you for pitfalls. Where no mines are buried, the road is free! Happy travels!
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Sorting one and a half year of weekly blogs into topics, I noticed that I did not discuss much how to deal with cultural differences. Knowing what culture is, is one thing, how to deal with quite another. One of reasons of my serious shortcoming is the fact that dealing with cultural differences boils down to the individual. The individual is on the spot, trying to handle the situation with his or her cultural competence and experience.
From this background you may understand how glad I was when I saw the latest book by Malcolm Gladwell (2019) Talking to Strangers, What We Should Know about the People We don’t Know, Allen Lane. When I opened it, I noticed my own tunnel vision or coloured expectations on the basis of my individual culture. What I thought was ‘a book on dealing with cultural differences from an individual perspective’, what I got was ‘talking to strangers’ in the sense of anybody you do not know. Culture is hardly mentioned at all.
Gladwell discusses three problems.
His final sentence reads “Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger.” (p. 346)
In short, we know better why dealing with cultural differences is so hard to do, not how to do it. Gladwell raises three points that are part and parcel of human thinking with its related behaviour and attitudes. This brings us back to the cultural competence. Theoretically we need to include these three points but that would go against human nature itself. The maximum we can do, is to be aware of them and to take them into consideration all the time. The book contains series of cases to demonstrate the point, including a case with death as result of not taking one of these problems into account. Even that fallback position of awareness proves hard to defend. However, saying you cannot be blamed for mismanaging cultural differences is going a step to far; unconditional surrender. Like life itself you might find value in making the effort. Along the way you will get it right now and again but not always. And if you succeed, you will most probably find it an enriching experience, even one you want to have more of. Indeed, I do know people for whom dealing with cultural differences is like an addiction; but like any other addiction I do not favour it.
The opposite perspective, not dealing with cultural differences, is devastating and would leave the world an inhabitable place. Or is climate change going to do that?
In my blog of April 21st 2020 I discussed the idea that the corona crisis might result in a value change and as a result a new type of society. Human resilience has filled the social and mass media over the last few days with ideas for a reorganisation of society. I also read warnings not to pin up your hope too high because lessons from the past and vested interests indicate that chances are only small. The required cultural change - a change in behaviour and thinking - hardly gets any attention, leave alone the conditions and efforts required.
This is not to say that we cannot draw lessons from the experience. Again, the media are filling up with initial ideas, e.g. more working from home, more video-conferencing and hence, less traffic and travel. Whether we are actually going to learn from the crisis, implementing the lessons, is another story; the barriers on this road are easy to spot.
Faced with such discussions I like to go back to the underlying principles and ask whether they need change or whether they require another way of implementation. Throughout these discussions you see the role of states and governments are mentioned. The two key tasks of a state are security and prosperity. Security may be divided into national and international security, or the security of a citizen and the security of the state. Prosperity is subdivided according to primary needs: shelter, food and health. From this perspective the economy (or education or …), including jobs and incomes, is just a means to an end. People spend money on fulfilling these basic needs, security and a bit more. Governments do not need to supply all these things but need at least to set the conditions, enabling people to fulfil the primary needs. Health is a good example of the range of options available, from setting market conditions (USA) to governmental provision (UK).
At the same time we have to recognise that no state can do it on its own; autarky is no option. Yes, international supply chains have proven to be vulnerable but re-shoring production is impossible. Such an ultimate consequence of America First will turn into disaster. The member states of the European Union are in a unique position because together they are capable to implement the principles mentioned to quite some degree. The key word is ‘together’, because political will and political courage to explain it to the populations is lacking for a few years. A third major factor in the international arena is China. The party does not want the country to be integrated in a world community but rather to be on its own without external criticisms; if possible even on top.
Culture has a strong influence on how society is organised and in democratic societies that influence is in a constant flux. We may have put climate change and sustainability in the fridge during the heat of the crisis but the fridge is not going to contain it much longer. Developments like these may be pushing developments in a green direction, especially if business spot the opportunity to make money out of it. A discussion of the pros and cons of a market economy, neoliberalism and the like is probably even more difficult. In the end not governments are drawing lessons from the crisis but individual people and they will promote other ways of doing things; cultural change. The crisis was (and still is) tough but the aftermath will be thrilling. As the Chinese say: welcome to interesting times.
In the blog of March 17th I mentioned the key role of HRM in optimising organisational culture. Last week I linked organisational culture to animal behaviour. Reliable research on organisational culture is limited and the results of research in the USA are hard to use in other countries. However, we do have instruments to help in defining, improving and maintaining organisational culture. Some of these instruments rely on a combination of research and practices, possibly in several countries.
I came across a book that meets these three criteria - research, practice, international application: Dr. Johan Boudewijns (2019) The 6 Culture Patterns of Successful Organisations - Reliable performance in a volatile world (I used the original Dutch version); no publisher mentioned. The research in question focuses on HRO, High Reliability Organizations. The starting point of the book is that you can only perform reliably if you are aware of the factors of influence. This awareness focuses on three areas (objectives for management): being in control internally, continuing to deliver added value to stakeholder and innovating through learning (p. 14).
The unwritten rules in HRO boil down to six cultural patterns.
These six patterns enable the realisation of the earlier mentioned management objectives.
When you need to change the organisation, adaptation of the structure or procedures does not solve the problem. The focus should not be on the problem but on the effect of the current behaviour on the realisation of objectives, The six patterns function like a compass in a gap analysis; culture maturity shows the degree of presence of these patterns.
The book is clearly written by a consultant and may well act as a teaser to hire him. Like similar books the reader misses details on how to apply the theory and perceptions. This is a usual tension between the open discussion in research and the commercial need for the protection of intellectual rights. However, the book mentions quite a few things that may serve as inspiration, while other parts did clarify experiences in previous jobs. Indeed, I have seen more things going wrong in terms of this book than right with all the negative consequences. That is why I decided to pass on the six patterns.
In view of the importance of organisational culture, if only in financial terms, we need much more research and the development of reliable instruments for diagnosis and change. However, organisational change will always remain a difficult process. As I mentioned nearly 10 years ago in Change, a Question of Culture such changes may have quite some consequences on the individual level and most probably some people will leave the organisation. Change is no fun, only a necessity.
Up till now I hardly paid attention to organisational culture. Although the topic is often considered a sideshow for management, it actually sits at the heart of business. Even more important, organisational culture increases profits if done well and costs a bundle if mistreated.
What are we talking about? Organisational culture is the way of thinking and acting of the group of people involved in a specific organisation. I did say involved because all stakeholders affect organisational culture, although the major contribution comes from employees and management.
If organisational culture is well aligned with strategy and supported by all, it increases efficiency and effectiveness; and the other way around, when organisational culture is costing money. A good organisational culture enhances job satisfaction and decreases health related absences of staff.
Lots of literature points at the links between the human and the animal world. You may have heard of The Naked Ape (2067) by Desmond Morris or the studies by Frans de Waal. Most of them focus on monkeys. From its title the book I just finished appears doing the same; Constanze Mager (2019) Never disturb a grooming monkey (regrettably only in Dutch). She does discuss monkeys but casts a much wider net. Lions, insects, penguins, flamencos, waders, the Madagascar red fody, wild dogs, meerkats, the blue-streak cleaner wrasse and more are mentioned to demonstrate what lessons nature has in stock for mankind.
The third chapter highlights the seven management styles of the gorilla, the golden lion tamarin, the orang-utan, the Celebes crested macaque, the lion-tailed macaque, the chimpansee and the bonobo. Of each style the advantages and disadvantages are mentioned and demonstrated in the human world. I would say that this chapter is much more illuminating than much of the management literature I had to go through.
Another example relates to the division of labour. Different roles within a herd, mob, gaggle, flock or swarm with the purpose to achieve something together, normally do not occur (p. 131). However, a well balanced division of labour may be found with the social insects. The roles in question have been acquired by birth and are determined by genes or hormones (p. 136). Reading this latter part I shuddered to think of always playing the same role but of course the insects in question would not know any better; and if they did, they would be horrified by the human need of continuous adaptation.
At the end of the same chapter (p. 145) the author notes that the division of labour amongst social insects appears to serve a higher objective but is in reality determined by genes. This raises for me the question whether people in an organisation do serve a higher purpose. What is the added value of an organisation, not in economic terms, but in terms of society and mankind? Is this one more human illusion?
If indeed the very small corona virus can have such an enormous impact, why would not the rest of the animal kingdom? Mankind may be at the top of the food-chain but not necessarily at the top of evolution and definitely not isolated from the rest of nature. We better recognise the continuum.
When Pandora’s box was opened, only Hope was left inside. With the present Covid-19 crisis we see again that hope springs eternal. Lots of people hope (!) that we have learned our lesson and that we now start working on sustainable societies. Hope needs to be channelled into a new way of thinking, acting and feeling, culture for short.
The new way of thinking should be based on a change in values. An article in a Dutch newspaper (de Volkskrant, March 31st, 2020) links pandemics with culture on the basis of the human reflex of self-protection in case of collective threat. According to an evolutionary psychologist people in areas with lots of deadly infectious diseases have stricter social norms, are more introvert and prefer authoritarian leaders. China is mentioned as an example. The article mentions that the value change in question only occurs on the basis of a shock experience. Western countries may expect an even stronger shock.
In another article human hubris is mentioned and the loss of control. In my opinion this idea of control has always been an illusion. Nevertheless, when people experience it as such, it will be felt as a shock. Who did expect such an impact of a mere flu virus?
I concur with the idea of shock experience and the need for values change. However, research indicates that values do not change within a few months or even years but generations. Values are developed in the pre-adult years and do not change afterwards. Immigration, integration and assimilation show that such a change takes three to four generations.
The slow development of values might explain why people focus on ‘back to normal’. This is not to say that we simply sit back and redevelop our illusion of control. Indeed, some things did and do change and you cannot undo them. Political leadership implies a choice for a new direction, including the related societal debate. The problem might well be that the politicians have too much vested interests for really sailing in a different direction. In addition ideology may conflict with general interest.
If you hope for a new post-corona society, you have to solve the tension between the short-term measures and the long-term value change. The answer might be found in norms, our personal rules that translate our values in day-to-day behaviour. Norms are more flexible than values. While we are developing new values, norms may allow people with old values to prosper in a changing society, recognising and accepting new developments and not rejecting them. As with all cultural change, this demands lots of debates, lots of trials and errors, moving forward and sometimes backward but keeping (almost) everyone on board; inclusive.
The Economist (March 28th 2020) mentioned that in “the past few weeks politics has retreated to its core function protecting the tribe from death and destruction”. In weeks or months that period of focused attention will end and we will move on. The question is how. A trip of a thousand miles starts with the first step but it might be even more important to consider in what direction you take that first step. And when doing so, you better think of culture as well!
The book Underland by Robert Macfarlane (see my blog of March 3rd 2020) discusses amongst others the anthropocene. It refers to the activities of mankind as a geological period, a geographical layer in the history of Earth. The term indicates that mankind has a strong influence on all natural processes; for better and worse, even if mankind sometimes forgets to be married to Earth. Macfarlane describes the anthropocene as “an epoch of immense and often frightening change at a planetary scale, in which crisis exists not as an ever-deferred future apocalypse but rather as an ongoing occurrence experience most severely by the most vulnerable. (p. 14)”. One of the advantages of talking about the anthropocene is that the concept forces us to think in terms of centuries, rather than the here and now; or for politicians the next elections.
“But the Anthropocene, for all its faults, also issues a powerful shock and challenge to our self-perception as a species. It exposes both the limits of our control over the long-term processes of the planet and the magnitude of the consequences of our activities (…) as the landscapes we are making now will sink into strata, becoming underlands. (…) As we have amplified our ability to shape the world, so we become more responsible for the long afterlives of that shaping.” (p.77) The same idea but from a difficult angle is also expressed by David Farrier in his book In Search of Future Fossils (discussed in The Economist, March 14th 2020).
“Our accumulative activities have even produced a new type of rock called plastiglomerate - a hard coagulate that contains sand grain, shells, wood and seaweed, all held together by molten plastic produced by the human burning beach rubbish on campfires (…) it has been proposed - due to its durability and distinctive composition - as a plausible future Anthropocene strata horizon marker.” (p. 320)
Thinking about the anthropocene starts of course with the question: true or false? The series of reports of the effects of mankind on nature strongly indicates that we should indeed accept this idea of a lasting influence of mankind on nature and all its processes. If this is a negative influence we may only prove so when it is too late!
If true, we have to acknowledge the consequences of our way of living, based on our patterns of thinking, acting and feeling. In other words the consequences of our cultures and by extension our civilisations. In view of the irreversible steps we have taken (whether deliberate or incremental), I would say that our culture is damaging the very conditions of human life.
At the same time we may choose for another way of life, a sustainable world; even if it includes a considerable decrease in world population. To do so, is a cultural change at a massive scale. People do not like to change their ways of thinking, acting and feeling but may be convinced to do so when faced with the consequences of our present way of life. At the same time we need a beckoning model for the future. For now for me the best model is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economy but we need much more thinking.
Covid-19 forces us to take a break. We might well use it to think about the world we want to live in and how we may prevent the mistakes of the past. We should not navigate on auto-pilot from a pre-corona to a post-corona world.
Last week I mentioned already the Big Brother aspects of the Covid-19 crisis. Mass and social media are indeed full of items on how digital technology helps us in tracking the virus, online teaching, video calls with quarantined people, working from home and more. All of it enhances the position of states and the tech companies involved. Focusing on solutions we tend to forget the (unintended) consequences, like giving away personal data that would have been considered sacrosanct a month ago.
The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant (April 4th 2020) interviewed Ms Marietje Schaake, the international policy director of the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University. She warns for far-reaching measures that infringe on the privacy of citizens. One example relates to the video-conferencing app Zoom. This app is under investigation for privacy issues but Ms Schaake is at the same time forced to use it for her teaching. This example also clarifies network effects: if everybody uses it, you cannot not use it.
Her major point of concern deals with companies that make location data available to government. She wonders whether those data would really help in combatting the virus and stresses the danger of authoritarian approaches, e.g. the police coming to your home, warning you that the battery of your phone needs to be recharged (case of Taiwan). If you do make these data available, you should set strict limits to its use. In the longer term the question is whether these policies will be phased out again.
Another important issue is the enormous amount of fake-news. It results in people staying online (good for the ‘advertising companies’ like Facebook or Google) and enhances dependency. At the same time fake-news undermines in her opinion political leaders, the health system and liberal democracy.
At present we cannot yet balance positive and negative developments, leave alone what governments should do. This uncertainty requires the avoidance of irreversible steps and the continued protections of rights.
This is the kind of interview I like to read, not because it makes me happy but because it forces me to think. The question is what kind of world I like, for me, my children and my grandson. That is a cultural question because it does concern our way of thinking, acting and feeling. If we know what kind of world we would like or rather not, the question is how we may realise it. As an individual you may wonder how much influence you can exercise on such global and commercially powerful developments. Well, I may vote, switch off some privacy settings and write a blog. Happy thinking; privately!
Two weeks ago I discussed the link between the corona virus and culture (corture) in general terms and last week I focused on uncertainty with the virus as a case. Reading, listening and watching the mass media I noticed many more aspects of corture and I do not think we are done yet.
One of these is what a Dutch newspaper called the culture war in the USA, in particular between rural and urban areas coinciding with Republicans and Democrats. You see two opposing views on how to deal with the virus and as a result a lack of solidarity between the member states (although Corona forces their hands); a cultural conflict! Part of the problem is whether you focus on the economy (Republicans, Bolsonaro, Sweden), on people (Democrats, the EU) or on the government (China). Again, these different views reflect cultural differences.
The virus also questions the value of solidarity. Next to solidarity within states you may notice a lack of solidarity between states. The EU is a case in point (also protestant North versus Catholic South) but a global crisis needs global co-ordination. However, some countries prefer a focus on their own (nationalistic, protectionist).
And what do we do with the Big Brother aspects of using digital means to monitor the population (in different degrees)? Apparently, most people are willing to give up part of their privacy for now but will governments be willing to turn these efforts back in the post-corona period?
Another aspect is a series of remarks on the vulnerabilities of the systems we have created with a focus on efficiency and profit maximalisation. The post-corona world should pay attention to (too much) travelling, migration, the way of treating animals and the environment, both individualism and collectivism, the gig economy, the perception of health care in terms of costs, globalisation, supply chains, limited attention for (system) risks, neoliberalism as the dominant paradigm and more.
In addressing these issues you see a series of options at the national and international level. One question is whether China will use the opportunity to establish itself not only as an economic but also political global power. Remarks on the superiority of the Chinese approach of the virus (true or false) are a case in point. The lack of US leadership does not help.
Another point of consideration whether we will decrease globalisation, even if such an approach will be disadvantageous from a series of points, including the economy, the arts, education and science. Going one step further is the question whether the corona outbreak will inspire us to develop sustainable systems, possibly with a stronger role of the state.
As the Chinese expression goes: we live in interesting times. I do start to question the world I will leave behind to my grandson.
Welcome in uncertain times! Simply because uncertainty avoidance is such an important aspect of culture, I should feel completely at home. Well, I am not.
We all have to deal with uncertainty and how we do that depends on culture. If you welcome uncertainty, you do not need to prepare for unexpected situations and you trust that you will be able to deal with the situation at hand. On the other hand you may try to contain uncertainty by establishing rules and procedures for all kind of situations. Dr. Hofstede has shown the variation in uncertainty avoidance from one state to another. I may add the variations within a state, depending group memberships; e.g. the variation between a lawyer and an artist.
At present we face worldwide a mostly unknown virus, we do not know in detail how it is spreading and people get infected and we do not have yet a vaccin or medicine. The first step was as usual in science to give it a name (covid-19) and to determine what it is and what it is not. Beyond that covid-19 is creating havoc in most if not all societies.
In a wider perspective uncertainty is part of the human condition. However, that is not to say that we simply accept it and sit back. If so, human evolution would have come to nothing; fear would be a dominant factor. No, we struggle with uncertainty all the time in a continuous effort that is never going to end; mankind is not perfect after all. The question then becomes how we struggle.
One question is to step beyond the here and now. Yes, we face difficulties, make mistakes, are ill-prepared and so on but what is going to happen when we have a grip on covid-19? Are we going to learn from the pandemic or perceive it as an incident? Some people expect that we are going to live in another world - well, that happens all the time - with a stronger social orientation, possibly more collectivistic. Nobody knows of course but drafting scenarios is one way of decreasing uncertainty. The lessons from other disasters and war tell us that the push for change is more often than not rather short-lived.
From my side I hope that mankind will better recognise that it is part of a global system and nothing special. That would include a renewed welcome to uncertainty, acknowledging that we neglected this permanent guest in our house. Taking things one step further the post-covid-19 period would get rid of some aspects of capitalism (market orientation as the holy grail) and focus on sustainability. Such an outcome would make covid-19 more than welcome but uncertain.
In other blogs I have already mentioned the importance of culture for organisations. In business for instance a proper organisational culture enhances effectiveness and efficiency, increasing profits and employee satisfaction while decreasing illness related absence. The importance of culture is also related to change management, multicultural society, national culture and international contacts. All of this requires a lot of monitoring and efforts to adapt practices in accordance with cultural requirements.
The organisational focal point for culture should be the human resources manager (HRM) in the strict sense of the concept. In day-to-day reality HRM is often just another word for the personnel department. However, in organisational theory HRM is not involved in hiring and firing but is a strategic function, advising management on both internal and external development through the glasses of staffing.
The promotion of the best possible organisational culture is the most obvious job for HRM and requires an on-going effort. HRM should be capable of adapting existing knowledge, instruments, procedures and so on to its own organisation. This requires a thorough understanding of culture. Please note the gap between theory and practice!
Change management is a ’simple’ example of the problems at hand. If a company face difficulties, management wants to do something and normally management takes measures. Personnel is instructed to do things differently. However, the required new behaviour is not aligned with the old patterns of thinking. The conflict between the two is the key reason for the failure of many change management projects. Hence, change management requires a serious effort in discussing things with the employees in order to adapt their thinking. However, you cannot take too much time for that because the difficulties still need to be tackled. So, at least two simultaneous and coordinated approaches need to be followed.
Similar arguments apply to organisational culture, the alignment of national culture and multicultural society with the organisation and the international contacts (from trade to a daughter company with expats). A good example is given by the French researcher Philip d’Iribarne. One aluminium melting company had three identical plants in France, the USA and the Netherlands. When the staff had to do overtime, the French employees did so out of feelings of honour, the Americans felt bound by their contracts and the Dutch started to discuss the question between them.
In all these cases you need at least one person with a thorough understanding of culture. From an organisational theory perspective this should be HRM. The only remaining detail is that this should be included in the related educational programmes.
Like death and illness (blogs of 14th and 28th of January 2020) the corona virus or covid-19 appears at first sight having nothing to do with culture. And again, a closer look does show a relationship. The first link may be found in the origin of the virus. On the basis of what we know by now the virus was transferred from animals to human beings, in particular by eating either bats or snakes. Whether people eat these animals or not varies from culture to culture. Hence, at least one group in Chinese society likes eating them. At the same time this preference is not limited to China; e.g. a jalapeño snake sausage in the USA.
A second link between culture and covid-19 may be found in the transmission of the disease. One aspect is the behaviour of people. Because culture is a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people, behaviour is culture related. In the case of covid-19 you may think of way of greeting people and preferences for personal distance. People in some cultures prefer to shake hands all the time or to kiss one another in greetings, others much less so. More personal contact supports the spreading of this flu and vice versa. The same applies to personal distance. People in cultures with a preference for a larger personal distance are less at risk than those who prefer smaller distances. And please do not be confused by such preferences and the distances in the metro in rush-hour.
Thirdly, you may think of being prepared for the unexpected. This is related to cultural aspects as uncertainty avoidance and individualism in addition to experience and financial considerations. Singapore was well prepared due to earlier outbreaks of contagious diseases and spent already more money on containing covid-19 than Italy (according to The Economist of this week). The USA is ill prepared (pun not intended) as a result of a series of factors: sick-leave often implies no income; many people without health insurance; hospitals only focused on daily routines; a deliberate breakdown of emergency institutions. These American factors are linked to the national culture, like individualism (e.g. being ill is your own fault).
Linked to preparedness is the factor of treating people. This relates to medical means but also food supplies in locked down areas (an initial problem in Italy) or the role of family and volunteers. The latter is clearly determined by culture. In this regard you may also think about privacy. What China did with electronic surveillance would be unthinkable in Europe. The perception of privacy is an interesting issue. Is privacy a right of the individual (e.g. the European Union), of companies (the USA) or the state (China)?
Well, I am not sick of culture, just driven by it, but again, I think about culture when I am sick.
I just finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, Underland. The cover-text describes it as "an epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth literature, memory and the land itself. (…) passing along the way through Bronze Age burial chambers, the catacombs of Paris, Greenland’s melting glaciers, starless rivers and Arctic sea caves, the underground fungal networks through which trees communicate, and a deep-sunk ‘hiding place’ designed to store nuclear wast for 100,000 years to come.”
This rich book makes you think; something we do not do often enough 😀. It forces you to recognise things you normally take for granted, like the soil we live on and everything below it. It shows how little we know about our underland but use it to quite some degree without fully recognising the consequences. “We have now drilled some 30 million miles of tunnel and borehole in our hunt for resources, truly riddling our planet into a hollow Earth.” (p. 312). It inspires and it raises questions.
I mentioned one of my observations already in an earlier blog (May, 13th, 2019). In Jewish faith Paradise should be created on Earth and hence, the need to take care of Earth. Well, the book raises a few questions in this regard.
Moving to my own country, the Netherlands, I wondered how superficial we, the Dutch are. We appear not to have much underland. Of course it is there and we mostly used it for extracting gas, oil and coal and yes, we have an archeologic dig or discovery now and again. However, in contrast to other areas we did not use the underland much. The fact that one third of our country is below sea-level, makes sub-surface construction difficult. The fundament of buildings raises enough questions, including the questions of soil subsidence. Although I could mention some Dutch interference with the underland, I feel a certain masochistic satisfaction in being confirmed in our superficiality.
Leaving superficiality aside, my key question is what the underland of culture is. One answer is history. Most of the time I think of culture as a characteristic of a group of people, implying that the culture in question was and is developed by that group. However, the effect of history shows that a major part of culture emerges from developments before groups were formed. Indeed, the American sociologist Ronald Inglehart indicates that half of the cultural differences between countries may be explained from history. So, history is one.
Another answer is that culture is also shaped by climate and environment (geography and the like). What we eat and drink, the clothes we wear, aspects of our behaviour or our housing depend on our struggle for survival. Macfarlane’s book is full of examples in this field, culture as adaptation. Hence, our culture (a way of thinking, acting and feeling) is also created by the world we live in.
As a superficial Dutch I am looking in-depth into culture.
Communication and culture are two sides of the same coin. Culture needs to be communicated and culture drives communication. If you do not communicate about your own individual culture (the unique mix of all cultures of all groups you have ever been a member of), people will not know about your culture. And if a group of people develops a culture, communication is a necessary condition for the process to continue. A similar argument applies for maintaining an existent culture, a more dynamic process than we often think.
A three-pronged approach of communication is the split between language, tone of voice and body language (neuro linguistic programming). All three are full of cultural elements and all three need much more research. Language benefitted most of research interest over a period of well over a century, communication is only a discipline for 50 years. Tone of voice has been mostly a side-show. Body language might be the most important of the three because it might well be the major part of communication (expressed as percentage). Body language may be further split in the distance between people, movements (gestures, greeting, facial expression), time, touching, physical appearance and smell. This is by far not the only division and some researchers lump body language and tone of voice together in non-verbal language.
The interesting part of body language is its mix of cultural and biological aspects. You may consciously make certain gestures with a meaning in your culture but your body also transmits signals that you cannot control. Quite a bit of research has been devoted to facial expression, in particular the universal expression of emotions. A few decades ago an American researcher thought that the face expressed eight emotions in the same way all over the world. As science goes, he was proven wrong but his work still affects the interrogation techniques of the FBI and CIA.
The last few weeks several people concluded their PhD research on aspects of body language. In noisy environments for instance people keep more an eye on gestures than on lip movements. The researcher in question found 240 verbs that could be expressed by gestures (e.g. wipe, cut, embrace, pull, throw away, row). Another researcher focused on the conversation between people and noticed amongst others how we indicate the intention of the sentence through grammar, choice of words, intonation and by stretching the final syllable. Eye movements indicated how people started to prepare their reaction when the other had just started to speak. One of the reasons is the preference to avoid silences.
I would say that we need much more of this research, including a comprehensive view of how everything fits together. The existing models of communication between people (next to for instance social media, mass communication, PR or advertising) leave much to be desired and culture is often not included. One such model consisted of dozens of elements. Again, culture was not mentioned but I could easily indicate how each element was influenced by culture.
We might well start with this blog. If you do not read it, it is not communication (with you). If you do read it, you may do so superficially or in detail. Whatever, let me know!
In previous blogs I paid attention to economic systems, international trade and management but not yet to economics as a scientific discipline. That is a pity because the culture of economics is changing; indeed, the way of thinking, acting and feeling of economics.
In his book The Economics of Good and Evil Sedlacek mentions how economics has been hijacked by mathematics, focusing for more than a century on models of economic performance. He mentions that in the process the philosophical, normative and social aspects of the economic discipline have more or less disappeared. Behavioural economics was one response to that development, looking at the actual behaviour of people, rather than how people should behave according to the model - the same bias we notice in opposite direction in machine learning. Taking things a step further is the work by people like the couple Esther Duflou and Abhijit Banerjee with their empirical approach (Nobel prize 2019). I loved their Poor Economics because it was to me a clarifying slap in the face, a wake-up call.
I am not against models, only to a rigorous prescription of how people should behave in accordance with a test-tube approach. In fact, one of the models I really like, is Kate Raworth’s donut economy. This model gives an idea on how we might develop a global sustainable economic system. It is an inspiring road map to a dream future, even if we find some road blocks in the process. As I mentioned before the whole donut model could be rewritten from a cultural perspective; a donut with culture flavour.
In the application of economics I may also mention the Positive Management approach, stressing what people are good at and forgoing to quite some degree their shortcomings. The organisational culture sets the framework and soft controls is one of its application. Next to reasons of efficiency and effectiveness positive management stresses the need for an optimal organisational culture (and as a Dutchman: it saves a lot of money).
Economic systems are changing as well. The discussion in the USA on how to change from a stakeholders model to a shareholders model (you might even say a more Rhineland approach), is a case in point.
The best argument may be found in the column Free Exchange of The Economist of Februari 8th, 2020 and I quote the last two sentences. “Markets, rather, are part of a suite of fluid social forces that shape behaviour. Economists cannot claim to understand the markets until they understand those forces.” Economists need to change their way of thinking, acting and feeling or in other words the culture of economics has to change. That is, by the way, a cultural change!
A series of developments (behavioural economics, empirical approaches, donut economy, positive management, shift from shareholders to stakeholders) force economists to change their professional way of thinking, acting and feeling; a cultural change!
In my blog of a year ago (February 19th, 2019) I discussed the relation between culture and trust in general terms. I would say that in the meantime trust has become an even more important topic, if possible. You see for instance decreasing trust in politics and government. Populism and nationalism are to some degree the reactions to that development. The political elite is accused of being isolated from normal (whatever that is) society and the benefits of free trade and globalisation are hard to recognise. In society as a whole you see developments like digitalisation, applications of technology and increasing complexity that create uncertainty. In addition, the focus on individual responsibility leaves people on their own, not seeing any way forward out of their difficulties.
Trust in institutions and persons appears to decrease. We all know (with the exception of authoritarian leaders) that trust is easy to destroy but hard to build. I do think that we need to worry about that because it touches on a key point of humanity. People are social beings because only through co-operation we could survive and end at the top of the food-chain. I know that the previous sentence reflects my focus on evolution but I would say that religious considerations would not make much difference in the end.
Going through the theories on culture I see trust popping up now and again. You may think for instance about the trust in rules (universalism versus particularism), in people (interpersonal versus transactional), organisational culture (e.g. empowerment), gestures (open physical attitude, showing the palms of your hand) and high and low context. The World Values Survey measures trust in institutions over the last 30 years in nearly 100 states.
From this angle we may wonder how culture may help in rebuilding trust. I should say up front that such a cultural change is not very specific and may take years. One aspect is the emerge of a new type of society, coming after industrial society. Without going in any details I would like to point at the related value of individual self-expression. It indicates that you could be both individualistic and express their opinion in groups (without being forced to toe the group’s line). This could be an interesting compromise that well may be promoted.
Another element could be a change in politics. If societal culture changes, politics have to follow (in the end). This may include more clarification by politicians, priority to fundamental and long-term solutions, less focus on the next elections, less coercion to participate in all kinds of schemes, more transparency, taking responsibility without hiding behind circumstances, collective decision-making or civil servants. One step further would be the recognition that neoliberalism has had its day, in particular in European states.
Regarding trust in society, institutions and politics I am not an optimist for the years to come. However, I trust trust and ultimately I do not think that Trump trumps trust. Like the seventies: be nice to one another!
These blogs discussed more than once the relation between culture and economics, e.g. on economic systems or the development of a sustainable economics (blogs of October 22nd, 2018, May 21st, 2019 and September 4th, 2019 in particular). This time I’d like to pay some attention to trade.
The relation between culture and (international) trade may be obvious. You are dealing with other people with their own way of thinking and acting (culture). This involves all aspects of the cultural competence, including body language, communication styles, direct versus indirect communication, transactional versus interpersonal, personal space, perceptions of time, food and drinks, history, values, rules; to mention just a few out of many. On this level you think about trade in terms of conducting it. In addition you may consider two ways of using the phenomenon of trade for political ends.
A column in a Dutch newspaper last week discussed a shift from promoting trade to increase interdependence and ultimately preventing war towards the use of trade as an instrument to promote your national interests. Indeed, the first argument is more than a century old. Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What is to be Done? notes that the elites across states are so much mutually interdependent that war will no longer occur; costs outweigh benefits. Basically the same argument is one of the founding principles of the European Union. With some exaggeration you might say that the EU is a Marxist organisation by using economic means (interdependency) for political ends (peace and security). 😀
This argument is becoming obsolete in view of the recent extensive use of tariffs and quotas, also called the weaponising of international trade (The Economist). Trade is no longer an activity of international business but is used by governments for reaching political ends. The USA uses it for instance for preventing trade between third countries, e.g. European countries and Iran or a Dutch company (ASML) delivering chip making machinery to China.
The USA is able to do so because of the central role of the US dollar in international trade. The US dollar is the international reserve currency and the USA controls the related institutions. This is a second development below the surface. Of course, action results in reaction and The Economist reported on the efforts of countries to decrease their dependence on the US dollar. If this develops into a major issue in the years to come, the whole international economic system is in for a fundamental change without any clear idea of the ultimate consequences. The necessary decrease of the US public debt will already create a shock by itself.
What we see in short is that some measures have major consequences for international institutions but without considering them or taking measures to control the damage. It decreases in a few months the trust that was build up over centuries. Indeed, you may only reach the objectives of America First by setting a good example in the international arena by defending and improving those institutions, not by destroying them.
Indeed, interesting times. The culture of the international arena started to change without intention or guidance. Nobody knows what the result will be and controlling the process becomes harder by the day. As things stand, no state may be even better off. Once again, what is to be done?
Just like death, illness appears at first sight having nothing to do with culture. Indeed, most of the relationship focuses on how people deal with illness, not illness itself. However, the last point cannot be excluded. Medical conditions may express themselves in different ways, depending for instance on life-style. The same idea is expressed by people who are convinced that a specific diet prevents or cures a certain illness. This direct link between culture and illness needs more research.
In general terms the link between culture and illness appears in three areas: diagnosis, treatment and the social circle of friends and family. In terms of diagnosis the strongest link is with ethnicity (nations, not states), in itself not strictly culture. Certain illnesses occur more frequently in certain groups than in other groups. In addition to ethnicity you may think for instance of how Aids in the past only occurred in homosexuals. The physicians who make the diagnosis have to be aware of group related illnesses. In reality most of them have no idea. A famous example in the Netherlands was an outbreak of tuberculosis. In the end the source could be traced to a specific area in Morocco where it was endemic. This area was also part of the geographical background of the patients in the Netherlands and these people also passed it on to others. The problem was that privacy rules prevented the researchers in question to find this link with all due consequences in terms of human suffering.
Secondly, treatment. In this area you see a whole range of taboos, preferences and traditions. Pills may be acceptable, but vaccins not. The patient may be completely dependent on the medical staff or try to take an active role in his or her recovery. A male doctor is considered to be more professional and is more accepted for that reason. I read a book only on pain across cultures (experience, acceptance and so on). The age of a medical doctor may play a role (e.g. a young doctor with all the latest knowledge versus the old wise man). Female nurses may not touch men or the other way around; leave alone the caring and nursing role of the female role pattern. Religious ceremonies play up, even if only to be able to visit a mosque on Friday or a church on Sunday. Nursing staff in particular need much more cultural competence than is at present the case. Sometimes a doctor has to choose a different treatment that is more accepted by the patient.
Finally, the social circle. One of the questions is how family and friends are supporting the patient. On the one hand of the scale you have people who deliver a patient at the hospital and wait till s/he comes out again. On the other hand you see strongly involved social circles. It starts with visiting times. These are not always accepted or even obeyed. The need to see and support someone is much stronger (e.g. collective societies). Depending national background you see also other patterns emerging. In the Netherlands we had a case of a social circle bringing dressing, band-aids and so on. This was a normal thing to do because ‘back home’ hospitals had a shortage of basic materials; in the Netherlands these gifts did not meet health and safety standards. In a similar way the social circle brought three times a day food and drinks, because ‘back home’ the hospital only focused on medical issues. The question is of course how the nursing staff is dealing with such situations, in particular by not offending good intentions.
In short, when you are ill (as I was the last two weeks) you need to start thinking about culture!
Due to a death in the family I could not escape considerations of death and culture. Death in itself is not a cultural phenomenon but rather a factual one. A body stops to function, whether by biological / medical or man-made reasons. Suicide is one of the man-made reasons and the acceptance of suicide varies across cultures.
Death results in rituals that assist those that are left behind to cope with the situation and to move on. Please note the word left behind. It suggest that the one who died, departed on a journey. Terms like those reflect ideas from antiquity; e.g. crossing the river Styx to reach the Hades. In this perception the person who died, is often better off than during his or her life on earth.
The rituals related to death vary across cultures. This works both ways: culture influences the rituals and the rituals say something about the culture of which they are a part. These rituals relate to series of topics, such as colours, flowers, music, smell, in-group and out-group (public, private), disposal of the body (burial, cremation, entombment, embalmment), religion, time (e.g. burial within 24 hours, mourning period), drinks, objects (from gravestone to coins), words, speeches, announcements or clothing. These rituals are even used for other purposes, e.g. burial diplomacy. In such a case politicians or diplomats use a burial for informal contacts, meeting people as if by coincidence.
As mentioned in my blog of a year ago religion is part of culture from a scientific point of view, because culture is a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people. Religion often answers the question of death, consisting of three sub-questions: where are we coming from? why are we on earth? where are we going to after death? Each civilisation has at least one answer to the question of death and if a civilisation allows more religions, it has more than one answer as well. In addition to religion the question may also be answered by evolution theory (for the major part not a theory anymore). From that perspective mankind is just a part of natural processes and not even its apex, we are not on earth for any special reason and we are not going anywhere; dust to dust, ash to ashes.
Next to rituals and ceremonies cultures show different perceptions of the relation between mind and body. Are mind and body coming together only once and in one life? Does the mind live on in a different form? Does the mind come back in a different form, reincarnation? Furthermore, during life, how do mind and body influence one another? Whether you are a man or a woman, tall or small, with good or bad physical co-ordination, with or without medical conditions and so on influences your personality. But it may also work the other way around, mind over body, beating the odds of a handicap for instance. One aspect of the variations of perceptions and preferences across cultures is the dilemma internalism - externalism (research by Trompenaars). Internalism implies that man controls nature and every natural resource is at his or her disposal. Externalism states that you may jump high or low but in the end you have to obey the rules of nature.
As I told my children, evolution theory is the simple answer to all these considerations; or is it an escape?
In a previous blog I linked New Year celebrations with culture. On the future I mentioned that in all its uncertainty it definitely contains change. Because the future is not a linear expressions of past and present we do not know the nature of upcoming changes. Nevertheless, we do try to extrapolate trends to get a grip on the future. This is a mostly self-serving exercise with only coincidental results. However, in general terms some observations do make sense.
In 1997 the American sociologist Ronald Inglehart published a study on an emerging new type of society. He called it post-modern society because it is coming after the modern or industrial society; even if the word post-modern has all kind of other connotations. Mankind up till now has known three basic types of societies, the hunters-and-gatherers society, the agricultural society and the industrial society. The industrial society was originally known as modern society. When the nature of that society was recognised the name changed. A similar development is expected for the post-modern society.
Inglehart based his work on the World Values Survey and built a theory on the change of values over generations. This theory was based on a series of observations and studies and may be only validated to some degree in a few decades from now. However, over the last two decades it served me well as one of my favourite frameworks for understanding a range of societal developments. Take for instance the transformation in Central and Eastern Europe from authoritarian central economies to pluralist market economies. The process requires such a change in values that you need three to four generations from a starting point that Central European states reached around 2000. Hence, we need the rest of this century to reach that goal (if not distracted by other developments).
In the last two decades we have seen a series of developments that might have invalidated Inglehart’s theory, e.g. the economic crisis around 2009, rising populism, the recognition of climate change, the stronger emphasis on sustainability, the decoupling of the USA and China or the destruction of international institutions (most of them ultimately intended to prevent war). All true but Western societies are not going back to industrial societies, people do not move from white to blue collar again. Hence, the question remains what type(s) of society may emerge in those societies.
I do think that the value change that Inglehart saw emerging remains a helpful instrument for understanding. In post-industrial society he identified two clusters of values, individual self-expression and quality of existence. The latter is easy to understand and is linked to sustainability. The former is something different than individualism. Individualism may result in egocentrism and the use of everything and everybody to reach your own ends. It contrasts with collectivism in which the individual is subject to the group (with protection as a benefit). Individual self-expression however, implies that you may both a member of a group and yet express your own opinion; having your cake and eating it too. Hence, the world does not need to be liberated from group-focused societies or from individual narcissists.
A value change in that direction is a useful interpretative framework. Many people in western countries are fed up with individualism and neoliberalism but at the same time do not want to only serve the interests of the groups they belong to. Once recent example is the movement in the USA from a one-directional shareholder based economic system towards a more comprehensive stakeholders model in which the interests of employees, customers, suppliers and so on do not take secondary place. If that is indeed the case, I value those value clusters and would love them as instruments for change.
I do not much like the lists about all and everything that pop up at the end of the year. However, I cannot deny that the change of one year to another has much to do with culture; culture as way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people. This starts already with the idea of these lists, because they are a way of uncertainty reduction. The need for lists varies across cultures and may well be a research project in its own right.
New year is also linked to the perceptions of time and how they vary across national cultures and smaller groups and their culture (e.g. organisational or professional culture). These perceptions include the value of time, punctuality, impact on communication, synchronicity or duration of time periods.
New Year celebrations are also a tradition, shaped by history. History has a strong impact on our culture (e.g. mentality) and may be expressed through traditions. The celebrations in question range from worldwide to family level.
Related to time and religion is the question whether we look forward or backward. Are we interested on what we achieved in the last year or not or rather on what we may expect in the next year?
The future is contains at least one certainty, change. Whether due to population change, scientific advances, technological change or nature surprises, we do know that you cannot simply continue as is. If indeed change is a given, the question becomes one of change tolerance and uncertainty avoidance.
Everyone has his or her own list of things that might well change. Mine includes a decrease in neoliberalism, a more longterm view in politics, more attention to the cluster of climate, energy and pollution and an (illusory) decrease of world population. The first three are strongly related to culture because they imply patterns of thinking of groups of people. I indicated where I stand vis-à-vis these three topics but I am well aware that I face many groups with different or opposing views, often linked to self-interest.
Knowing that we will be confronted by change, the question is how do we deal with it? Many organisations learned that you cannot force change, simply by telling people to do things in a different way. Each time you have to work on conviction, acceptance and even eagerness to do things differently. For that reason I wrote with Shahram Fazili a few years back the booklet Change, a Question of Culture.
Cultural change has its own rules, including clear starting points, agreement on the facts (an ever increasing difficulty these days), a clear direction, absence of enforcement, means, time (give people the opportunity to try things out), motive and the exemplary behaviour by the top.
I may only wish that more people look through the lenses of culture when dealing with change. Happy culture!
On Dutch radio you may hear the latest song (Her son is a dandy) by Blackbird, the stage name of the female singer Merel Koman. In Dutch Merel is a given name for a woman but it is also a blackbird. Using birds and flowers for names is much related to this week’s argument.
The first line of the song are "I tell your mother / You are with another / And she will be crying / Because you were lying” (the official version has some characters replaced by apostrophes but this website does not allow them). In these lines I recognise an important part of a female role pattern, a way of communication. Another part is appearance and both relate to submissiveness (or acting as if you are submissive).
To explain why, I need to take a step back, a few millennia actually. In those early days the relations between men and women were much determined by the physical strength of men. In coping with dominant behaviour women could accept their subordinate position or try to influence the behaviour of and decision making by men through communication and appearances. Such communication could only be indirect, a direct confrontation would always be disadvantageous for women. Indirect communication includes for instance manipulation, lying, snitching, telling a partial truth, seduction, body language, tone of voice and verbal blackmail. Lacking physical strength women needed to be protected (part of the men’s role pattern), resulting in dependency. The submissive role of women was reinforced by degrading or belittling women (e.g. given names of flowers and animals or abusive terms as chick or stupid cow). Women were compensated with the moral compass, knowing what is the right thing to do.
Over the centuries role patterns became deeply ingrained and some parts are up to today considered as a biological given. Some aspects of these patterns are stronger than all efforts of emancipation. Men and women should, at least in my opinion, be equal as human beings (not the same). If that would be really the case, much of the expression of these role patterns would be relegated to the Museum of Emancipation, including skirts, make-up, jewellery and high heels. No doubt we would have quite a different society with couples with stronger women and couples with stronger men in terms of personality. I would love to read a novel, indicating how dating and partnering would work out in a truly emancipated society.
Against this backdrop you may now see what I heard in the song, even if it is far from the intention of the singer in question. The song starts with the threat (verbal blackmail) of snitching. She will tell his mother, not his father, because mothers care, fathers do not; women rely more on a faithful partner. The mother is proud of her son, as indicated by the title. Yes, mothers appear to be more proud of sons than of daughters because of societal position. And of course the mother will cry if she hears about it, because that is the default option for female distress.
In the last week the Netherlands moved down on the international ranking of the gender gap. Actually, the others charged ahead and the Dutch did not move much. However, over the last two decades the attention for appearances and decency has increased in the Netherlands. Me Too is scratching the surface, I am scratching my head.
A Dutch newspaper (de Volkskrant, December 7th, 2019) published an interview with the French sociologist Nathalie Heinich. Some of her answers complement my two earlier blogs about identity (December 24th, 2018 and July, 2nd, 2019). The earlier blog discusses how individual identity is shaped on the one hand by nature and on the other by the influence of all the groups we are or have been a member of. The later focused on national identity. If things work out national identity is a reconciliation of all the commonalities and differences of individual identities. In line with the discussion on transculturalism you may call national identity transidentity!
I would like to mention some quotes from the interview (my translation of a probably translated interview).
“Identity is never unambiguous … Everyone has several identities, derived from nationality, sex, sexual preference, religion, age, hobbies, profession and other characteristics. Furthermore, our identity strongly depends on context.”
“In her book Heinich presents a model of identity with three layers, like an interplay between self-image (who am I?), presentation (what do I show?) and ascription (how does the world sees me?). These three aspects have to be more or less in agreement with one another for a flexible and happy life.”
“However, in exercising citizenship and in particular the use of public space, it is important to prioritise on what unites us and not on what divides us.”
“But I do not want the progressive case derailed by activists who in the name of the struggle against dominance, try to impose their ideas by force or censorship, while they reject the criticism on a political islam that tries to impose religious rules (…)”
Hear, hear! Always nice to be acknowledged 😀 Of course her own identity affects her perception and a sociologist never preaches absolute truth, but still. I am definitely going to buy her new book. The simple fact of its translation and the low price (indicating a high number of copies) indicate the expected interest in the topic and hence, the societal importance.
On the other hand many comparable perceptions were expressed over the last few decades and not much was done with it. What we see instead is ‘culture wars’ and ‘identity politics’, phenomenons that rather split than unite. What we need, is the next step of using those understandings for building up society in terms of community (not necessarily national societies). A shared common framework, based on history and respect, would be one element. Recognition of everyone’s contribution to society would be another. Enabling people to realise their potential and to use it for the common good is another. This may sound as a political statement but I assure you it’s not. The preservation of society is a necessary condition for a sustainable future with a strong international context. If not, we will reverse our future towards violence and raw power.
On an optimistic note I rather expect a new type of society, the successor of industrial society. The American researcher Ronald Inglehart expects that this society will focus on individual self-expression (which is not necessarily an individualistic society) and the quality of existence.
Wit each blog you learn a bit more about my identity!
If you have an eye for it (like me) you spot something about culture everyday in the mass media. Just over a week ago a Dutch newspaper mentioned the ‘fraudulent culture’ of the canine brigade of the Dutch police forces. In such a case authorities start to take measures without much thought about the nature of the problem. If it is indeed a cultural problem, you might tackle it with the instruments for cultural change instead of for instance ordering that things need to be done in a different way. Just because culture is a way of thinking, acting and feeling, you cannot respond only on the level of behaviour. Changing thinking and feeling is much more difficult, costs more time and hence money; "and we need change NOW!" Not going to happen.
Quite a remarkable coincidence related to the importance of culture happened a couple of weeks ago when two leaders of the Economist of November 2nd, 2019 mentioned culture. One leader was about the British elections. One paragraph started with “What is more, the divide is along a new axis. The old left-right split, along economic lines, has gradually been giving way to a new fissure, defined in therms of culture.” (just as Inglehart expected in 1997). The paragraph ended with “Questions of economics can often be settled by a a compromise. Disagreements about identity and culture are much harder to resolve”. Amen. The other leader was about the future of management education. The students “are in a very different mind space, demanding that we go beyond our traditional teachings on the primacy of shareholder value to embrace stakeholder value". Well, the word value in this sentence refers to financial value, not to values as in fundamental orientations of our thinking but the economic systems in question are based on values (in the latter sense of the word) and those values are shifting in a fundamental way (intergenerational value change beyond what we consider as normal).
The importance of culture has been stressed for a few decades in business literature. Every year billions of euros are lost as a result of failed economic co-operation across borders due to cultural differences. On the other hand organisational culture has a major impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of an organisation (leave alone issues as occupational health and turnover of staff). On the level of society I only need to mention the multicultural society and everybody nods in a confirmative way (forgetting that you also have cultural differences between people with the same nationality).
If culture is indeed so important for our societies and their development, why do not we go beyond lip service?
Symbols are in themselves simple objects, texts, drawings, songs or so but they make people think of wider concepts they represent. They are expressions of what is considered of importance in a given culture. The material value of a symbol is more often than not very limited. All states for instance have a national flag and an anthem. A national flag is a simple piece of cloth but it stands for the sovereign state one belongs to. Flags are quite often symbols squared, because to understand the flag you have to know meaning of colours (e.g. Ukraine: blue sky and grain fields) or the story (e.g. Kazakhstan: the wooden construction of a yurd).
In times of conflict one state may try to diminish the power of a symbol of the enemy. The famous example is the letter V during the Second World War. Winston Churchill showed the V of victory with every cigar he smoked and many people loved the Beethoven symphonies that started with the V in morse code. The Germans responded with the V1 and the V2; V of Vergeltungs Waffen or retaliation weapon.
The USA and Europe have at present even the same symbol but with a different meaning. In both cases the origin of the two is coincidental. That symbol is 9/11. In the USA the date is mentioned with the month first and hence, the symbol stands for the 11th of September; the attack on the World Trade Center. In Europe the the month is mentioned at the end and for that reason 9/11 means the 9th of November; the fall of the Berlin war. The only thing the two have in common is that both parties think that the symbol represents an event that changed world history.
Many cultures have one or more symbols. At the level of a state you may also think about money (representing financial value), parliament (structure, procedures) or elements from its history (e.g. tulips or wooden shoes in the Netherlands). Organisations spend a lot of effort on symbols, in particular the logo, the letterhead, possibly uniforms, ways of addressing customers (e.g. staff pointing with two fingers Disneyland), or the entrance of headquarters. Other large groups also have their symbols, like sports teams but also family crests. Smaller groups have their own symbols as well, e.g. the ties of standing working groups in NATO in the eighties. On the individual level the symbol may be in aspects of clothing, a typical behaviour or use of language. To come full circle: a monarch has a standard, a personal flag, much as the seal of the president of the USA.
If you start to think about it, you are surrounded by symbols and you use them daily, subconsciously (just like culture). You may even start to wonder whether life is symbolic; bu then for what?
The on-going conflict in Hong Kong may be considered from a series of perspectives, including the cultural one. One of the things I realised rather late in the process is the strength of the protesters in defending their democratic rights. The implies that the former colonial power has instilled the related values and confirms the theories that values change takes three to four generations.
On the other hand you may consider the values of mainland China, in particular the communist party and its leadership. The party aims at total control. Although an illusion, the idea of control is a cultural dimension (technical term: internalism). Any deviation would be a loss of face, something that touches on other values, rather important ones in Chinese eyes.
The cultural conflict is for symbolised by the verdict of the supreme court in Hong Kong that face masks cannot be forbidden. The answer from mainland China was that the Hong Kong constitution is under the control of the communist party. Here you touch on the core of conflict, rule of law versus ideology. Western countries should take this lesson at heart because the communist party has for instance full authority to demand all data, kept by Chinese firms. From this perspective a Chinese firm can never be a reliable partner.
The business’ perspective also point at another cultural dimension, the economic order. Doing business in Hong Kong differs from doing so in mainland China. In fact, Hong Kong often enables the latter. If the conflict spoils over in the economic domain, mainland China is going to hurt itself. At the same time the protesters might use the economic weapon more to their advantage.
I can only admire the people who defend their democratic rights and in doing so their unique identity as a special area. The idea that the communist party would show some respect, is an illusion; all effort is geared to full integration of Hong Kong. However, cultural conflicts may only be solved by mutual respect and open dialogue. What you see in reality is a monistic position in Beijing (see earlier blog: my culture is better than yours) and the literature shows that such a position only creates conflict.
My admiration notwithstanding, I wonder how things will end. I fear for repression and would be surprised when democracy is restored in Hong Kong. In a few years many people in Hong Kong may well ask themselves what their position was and what they did in those remarkable months in 2019.
In between national and organisational cultures you have branche or professional culture: people with a similar job and a similar way of thinking and acting across organisations; e.g. accountants, medical specialists. An interesting example is also higher education in the Netherlands, because of two different types of universities: the traditional or academic universities (AU) and the universities of applied sciences (UAS). Because I worked at both, I tend to see the differences and have sometimes to force myself to focus on the similarities (one of the barriers in studying culture).
One important difference (possibly the cause of other difference) lies in qualifications. Students may enter a UAS with a lower secondary qualification than at an AU. Lecturers at a UAS have on average a master, at an AU a doctorate. At a UAS the students goes for a bachelor degree (with the exceptional master), at an AU for a bachelor, master or doctorate.
The financial structure is quite different and not only because of salaries. The highest salary for a lecturer at a UAS is just above the starting salary of a manager. If you want to make money at a UAS you change from lecturer to manager (although many of them are not really qualified for it). This is odd if you look at a UAS as a professional organisation in Mintzberg’s terms. In such an organisation the professional (the lecturer) is at the core of the organisation and the manager supports the professional. In such a situation the manager does not need to earn more money than a lecturer. In reality, managers at UAS tell lecturers what to do in class.
A third difference is in research. Research has quite some status at a AU and a lecturer with a good research record gets easier promoted than a colleague with educational achievements. In a UAS research is often an appendix, required by the Ministry of Education but not really integrated in the core task of teaching. Many UAS lecturers are not even up to date in their own discipline (and are hardly aware of the European or international dimension of their discipline). The applied research at an UAS is also realised at an AU (sometimes under other terms like action research).
Just those three differences may lead you to the conclusion that the UAS is an inferior institution that should be abolished. However, society needs people with higher education with a focus on a specific job (e.g. physiotherapists). Even more important in my eyes is the emancipatory function of an UAS, in particular for people with a mixed or non-Dutch background. Multicultural society would be a much bigger problem without those UAS.
Both types of universities need some cultural change but in different areas. Recognising the differences is one thing, realising complementary and mutually supportive roles quite another. Way to go!
[Post delayed with one week due to technical problems.]
Whether democracy is the best system depends on your way of thinking. As a Dutchman I am in favour while Chinese leaders stress the leadership of the Communist Party. Even if you are in the camp of democracy, the confusion continues. What is democracy really if you start looking at the details? Many would say that unbridled populism is not democracy. However, democratic processes themselves raise questions as well. Do you get elected through a first-past-the-post system (the winner in a district takes all) or through popular vote (the majority of all votes cast in a given state)? As a Dutchman I am in favour of a popular vote but then I have another problem. The Dutch do not choose a head of state, a prime minister, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, heads of provinces or mayors, they choose political parties. After elections the Dutch have to wait and see what democratic parties are going to do with their votes. Is that democratic?
Beyond democratic (?) elections another set of questions may be raised in relation to the behaviour and attitudes of the head of state or government. Is a president or a prime minister the boss (in the political and governmental domain) or does s/he serves the interests of the country and its population? The Brexit discussion indicates that even party interests may trump national interests. Prime Minister Johnson wrote an unsigned letter to the EU, mentioning legal requirements and a signed letter, indicating that he is not going to act accordingly. Who is the boss of what? A similar process was revealed a day later. President Trump acted through official channels in his contacts with the Ukraine, as well as through a parallel circuit.
This leadership question may also be found in business. Is the primary responsibility of a manager to support the work by the professionals in the organisation or does he control these professionals? The latter may have for instance the intention to increase the return of investments, whatever other costs in doing so.
One more question related to democracy may clarified through the Brexit process. Democracy should not be about a majority as such (a majority acting with disregard to other positions) but should take the point of vies of minorities into consideration. In this perspective the Brexit referendum could only have resulted in a soft Brexit - and I am not even raising the question how a referendum relates to a representative democracy.
The political science literature shows many more questions on democracy. However, the few examples here are sufficient to indicate that a shout for democracy - think about the dozens if not hundreds of revolutions doing so - is the easy thing. Realising one form of democracy or another is quite another. A key problem is the required set of attitudes that is only developed over generations (Central and Eastern Europe being a case in point). A democratic way of thinking and acting or democratic culture for short is hard to realise and maintain and imperfect as well. However, with Winston Churchill I do think democracy is still the best system we have.
Last week I attended a funeral. Funerals are of course a rich topic from a cultural perspective. They are not only a question of burial, cremation or entombment (with variations on these main three options) but represent a wide variation of rituals. In addition, the focus may vary from ensuring an optimal after-life for the deceased through consolation to enabling those who are left behind to move on. As far as I know the book on death and culture still needs to be written.
During the ceremony I was thinking about what the personality of the deceased. I recognised some aspects that were mentioned by those who addressed those who attended. After a while I realised that everything I could say, was in terms of more or less in this or that than me or different than me. Taking yourself as a yardstick may sound egocentric but in most cases you do not have another option, simply because the character, habits and so on of another may not be measured in an objective way. You may for instance admire something in another person that may not be important to the other or society at large.
This perception of egocentrism is also at the heart of dealing with cultural differences. Most scholars and others involved in cultural differences stress that culture is always relative. The other is something more or less than you, different in this or that aspect. The same point may not play up at all between two different persons with similar nationalities. Take for instance a Dutch person. The Dutch are considered to be rather egalitarian (on average!). Hence, in general terms, a Dutch(wo)man going abroad has to take into account that most other societies are more hierarchical and Dutch behaviour needs to be adapted accordingly. However, you also have hierarchical Dutch(wo)men; the logic conclusion of working with averages. Such a person has no difficulties with a preference for hierarchy abroad and better focus on other aspects of his or her cultural gap.
This idea also stresses the need to approach the dealing with cultural differences from an individual angle. Indeed, what works for the one might not work at all for the other; similar to negotiation techniques. This sounds simple but has rather far-reaching consequences. The ultimate consequence is that you do not have a standard way of dealing with cultural differences but as many individual ways as you have people. To solve this paradox people may use a series of building blocks and apply them to their own liking. Give people the same Lego blocks and the house will still look quite different (72 blocks in the app I am developing).
Please be a bit more egocentric to create a solid fundament for the bridge to the other; and do not build two bridges between you but just one!
Cultural anthropologist Evelyn van Asperen calls the third basic perception of culture (next to monism and relativism) ‘communicative moral universalism’. I am happy with the concept, not with the term. The idea is simple: cultures have common elements that you can use to build bridges between them.
My problems with the term started with the example given, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Well, the declaration itself may be universal in the sense that it has been signed by most states. However, the interpretation and application of these rights vary considerably (a famous example of differences in interpretation and application is the Helsinki Agreement of 1975, in particular whether individual Soviet citizens could claim the rights of the treaty).
Analysing the term, I had difficulties with each of its three components. Firstly, I do not think that culture and universalism go well together. A couple of weeks ago I was reading an essay by a hotshot in Dutch theatre, mentioning universal stories and myths over the centuries. To me his arguments fitted only within a Eurocentric frame and I had the impression that he did not discuss his thoughts with for instance the Maasai or Inuits. Secondly, morality is linked to culture (also within the limited meaning of ‘moral’ as way of thinking) and definitely not universal. Thirdly, although culture and communication are frequently two sides of the same coin, they need to be considered separately.
Because the concept is quite valuable, I was looking for an alternative and found inspiration in another bone of contention. In the literature about dealing with differences between cultures (whether national cultures or not) you mostly see the terms ‘intercultural’ or ‘cross-cultural’ and both terms are not properly used (from an academic point of view). The term intercultural stresses the differences between cultures and cross-cultural focuses on commonalities. However, you need both commonalities and differences in dealing with cultures. Technically, you should use ‘transcultural’ because it implies a situation in which the commonalities and differences are reconciled. It is like creating your own mini-culture for the short duration of contact. And yes, I admit that to some scholars transcultural has some other connotations as well.
All this is of marginal interest. Dealing with cultural differences it not about the term we use but about the process we apply. I wish you a lot of success of building the transcultural (or CUM) bridge, brick for brick. It’s just like Lego blocks: the variety is huge but it ends in an individual building / bridge. The Lego of culture is transculturalism!
President Trump claims that he is defending the principles of Western civilisation. This begs the question what civilisation is, in particular Western civilisation and its principles.
For me civilisation is a wider concept than culture. Firstly, it tells us how society is organised and culture enables people to accept that organisation; up to a point of course. Secondly, civilisation answers the ‘question of death’, shorthand for three fundamental questions: why are we (human beings) on Earth? Where are we coming from? Where are we going to after our death? Each civilisation answers these three questions, more often than not through religion. However, evolution also provides answers. From that perspective mankind is nothing special, there is no special reason for our existence and afterwards the only thing is ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes’. Furthermore, culture and civilisation are strongly shaped by history but they also do their fair share of shaping!
The answer to the ‘question of death’ is related to the idea of on-going progress of (wo)mankind. Many people found it shocking and unbelievable to read reports over the last few months that the next generation might not be better off than the present one.
Western civilisation is more difficult to pin down. A study by Tilburg University (quoting by heart) indicated that European civilisation differs from others because it is shaped by an integral combination of four factors: the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, Christianity, Enlightenment and positive (nineteenth century) nationalism. What is then the relation with the USA or what is the umbrella of European and American civilisation (leave alone for instance Australia and New Zealand)?
If civilisation has a different connotation across continents, its principles are not exactly the same either. Sometimes the words are the same but the meaning might be quite different (e.g. freedom of expression). The European Union has defined its values in article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” I do admit that theory and practice may show some discrepancy and I leave the comparison with other areas to you. Just one example may inspire you: the right to bear arms.
Yes, principles of Western civilisation are important and need to be protected, including the way the world of states is organised. But the very person, who is claiming to do so, is quite busy undermining them.
In a previous column I discussed monism, a basic perception of culture that boils down to ‘my culture is better than yours’. Relativism is another basic perception. It starts with recognising the equality of cultures and hence, rejects monism. That is progress in my opinion because monism – in my opinion - only results in conflict, whether in words, in the use of violence or even with arms.
However, relativism does not stop there. It also states that each culture is unique. As a consequence you cannot learn the culture of another (at least: not really). For that reason you should not even try to do so. You may respect another culture but then leave it to its own. Well, looking at some marriages with mixed national cultures and the resulting cultural conflicts, I would say that relativism might have a point.
However, relativism also denies the common elements between cultures and those elements are like the fundament of a bridge between cultures. Because of the lack of those common elements relativism rejects the idea of interference of one culture with another. As a result you get a separation of cultures, even geographically. You may think of the Chinatown in San Francisco (where you find no sign of English or Spanish), Lebanon ville in Montreal or the neighbourhoods with people with a Moluccan background in the Netherlands; leave alone a refugee camp.
The problem with such a separation is that those groups turn inwards and they are less part of (national) society as a whole. The group in question often rejects the idea of belonging to a wider society while that wider society either tries to interfere or more or less gives up. This is of course linked to concepts of national identity, nationality, serving your country, multicultural society or integration through education. The economic, political and even legal system of the group may differ from that of the state to which it formally belongs (e.g. application of sharia in Aceh).
Relativism may even be a positive starting point in integration, but turning into separation afterwards. The Canadian authorities at the time (I do not know whether that is still the case) welcomed immigrants by linking them to earlier immigrants with the same national background. The idea was to assist the newcomers through a better understanding of their problems. However, as a consequence they developed groups on the basis of countries of origin. US immigration authorities on the other hand demanded that you promised to break all links with your country of origin. That is why full integration (assimilation) in society at large ‘only’ takes three generations in the USA. The link with the country of origin in Western Europe increases the integration period to four generation or around a century.
Although my flexible mind normally sees different dimensions in every problem, it rejects (cultural) relativism. Just like monism, relativism creates more problems than it solves.
At the end of September sociologist Iliass El Hadioui and his research team presented the results of their research into multicultural schools. How do pupils switch between their different environments? How do teachers relate to these problems?
According to a newspaper report much depends on the individual teacher and his or her preferences. However, many teachers experience a professional loneliness in the sense of insufficient support by colleagues in case of a conflict or feelings of powerlessness in class. Key is an understanding how pupils switch between and climb on the stairs of education, as well as a common normative framework. This framework should help to deal with the social pain, resulting from cultural conflicts. It requires leadership, serving the pupils in reaching higher goals. Ethnicity, age or gender are relatively irrelevant. I added ‘relatively’ because you will always have an effect of national cultures.
In an interview Iliass El Hadioui stresses the need to improve the culture in schools, simply because a poisonous environment blocks any change or improvement. Indeed, school culture is important, but the statement begs the question what the best culture is and how to realise that culture. It starts with a set of common objectives, shared by teachers, pupils and management. The common normative framework is a case in point.
Next to school culture you need to think of team culture, the culture of a mutually supportive team of teachers (without falling in the trap of ‘the teacher is always right’). A strong team culture prevents professional loneliness.
Another important aspect is mutuality. In the interview an example is given of a girl who starts to wear a headscarf. The teacher noticed it, did not discuss it and the girl was left with a feeling of being unnoticed. I had the opposite experience a couple of years ago at a university of applied sciences. The girl in question had decided over the summer holidays to start wearing a headscarf. The first day of the new academic year she came to me and mentioned that she wanted to discuss her decision with me as a ‘normal Dutchman’ (whatever that is). She told me that her reason was not so much religion or fashion but rather the relatively oppressed position of people with a Turkish background in Dutch society. She felt she had a choice between being a higher educated woman, leaving her background behind, and an expression of solidarity with the Turkish-Dutch community.
The report breaks with the implicit notion that multicultural society is a one-way traffic of adaptation to Dutch culture and society. You may be afraid of other cultures or looking forward to enriching experiences (if both are willing to tango). Welcome to the new world!
Thanks to the queen of Dutch columnists, Sheila Sitalsing (her column in de Volkskrant of October 1st, 2019), I kind of discovered a new kind of culture, state culture. In line with my triangle model, you may recognize hundreds, if not thousands of cultures. The most common are national and organisational cultures, but you may also think of family culture, team culture, the cultures of specific professions, cultures with another geographical background than a country or diplomatic culture; in short, the way of thinking and acting of a specific group. Diplomatic culture is a bit of a paradox, because it is indeed a profession-based culture but its aim is also to neutralise the effect of national cultures (in the co-operation between diplomats and governments).
Sheila Sitalsing’s column deals with China and in particular the imperfect China policy of the Dutch government. She writes about the push of the Chinese government of full control over the thinking and acting of its citizens. This is of course a reminder of George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. The warning from this novel got a new context and may at present also apply to quite a few other countries and developments. The need for open debate has not decreased and transparency indices show decreases where they should not be.
If culture is indeed a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people (my starting point), then the above-mentioned full control of thinking and acting may be considered as a state culture. This is at least an oxymoron if not a contradiction, because it is top-down. A feature of cultures is that they are the net result of the interaction between people (within a given group) or bottom-up. The intended full control is the opposite, top-down. The question then is whether state culture is indeed a culture. On the other hand, if it feels like a culture and smells like a culture, it should be a culture (by any other name).
If you would accept state culture as a culture, then you need to answer another question. The state as an institution does not exercise the full control itself. The implementation is done by people, individuals. Are those individuals subjecting themselves to this control, are they part and parcel of it or are they some kind of exemption? If the former is hard to imagine, the latter would imply a state culture for most people and some other culture for those who exercise the control. In that case state culture would imply a complementary culture.
In Western eyes China may be a state of paradoxes and this simple statement also applies to its culture. An outsider may study it and an insider may know and never the twain shall meet. And do not forget: every push will result in a push in the opposite direction.
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Culture and traveling are close cousins but watch the differences. Firstly, what is traveling? You probably agree that the daily commute to and from work is not traveling. And is visiting a brother abroad really travelling? Or mass tourism, like Dutch people spending a couple of weeks between other Dutch people on a Spanish beach? However, you put yourself on the wrong footing if you would say that traveling is limited to getting acquainted with another culture. The consequence would be that getting in contact with another organisational or team culture is also travelling. Traveling does have to do with national cultures but it not cultural anthropologic research.
Secondly, traveling also has its own culture. Traveling on horseback, by car, train, coach (in an organised tour) or plane, walking (a pilgrimage to Rome), backpacking, or even private jet or yacht makes a difference. The means of transport both influence our way of thinking and acting, as they reflect our own (individual) culture. An individualistic person carves his or her own way and an uncertainty avoiding person may go for an organised set-up. None of this is straightforward; a diplomat is an adventurer with certainty.
Traveling does not need to include crossing national borders. Even in small states you have enough places with different characteristics that would qualify as traveling. Indeed, a series of 20 books on Dutch literary history was called Stand still and Travel.
If traveling is focused on meeting other national cultures, then it might be doomed to fail. National cultures are not physical things that you can touch but rather calculated constructs and everybody in that national culture deviates from that average. What you do meet, are a few individuals that formally belong to that other national culture.
Those individuals may have a different way of thinking and acting than yours. In a general way you may prepare for it (see the blog on the road-map) but you should never forget that you meet individual persons who deviate from that national average.
All these disclaimers notwithstanding: happy traveling! It is an enriching experience and ultimately you become a better person (if you open up).
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Over a beer with a friend – and the culture of beer is another story – I was discussing why it takes so much effort to convince people to use culture. The short story is: it takes effort. What people want, he said is a simple one webpage with the cultural traffic rules for the country you are interested in. Quite a few of those sites do exist but I do not find them convincing and doubt their effectiveness. The reason is that ultimately culture means something different for each of us and hence, dealing with cultural differences depends on the individual. The egalitarian Dutch for instance, often face difficulties with hierarchical cultures. However, a somewhat exceptional hierarchical Dutchman does not even notice and adapts automatically in the appropriate way (applying the hierarchical paradigm in this cultural backpack).
The starting point is your individual culture or the net result of the combination of cultures of all the groups you have ever been a member of (hundreds, even if you never left your country). The question is how well you know yourself. Do not forget that we do a lot of things on autopilot and you need to be aware of those aspects as well. This self-knowledge includes the awareness of your personal limits. How far are you willing to go in adapting to another culture? Do you eat blue food or eyes or brains? Are you willing to wear a different kind of clothes? This self-knowledge is also required when your employer starts changing the organisational culture or in multicultural society and hence, you better get started.
A proper understanding of culture is the next milestone on the road. Such understanding is not about some tips and tricks but rather one definition and model or another. the aspects of culture and the effect culture may have.
In terms of cultural competence you then need to work on your attitudes and skills. Attitudes are hard to change but how and when you express them might help. Skills are wide-ranging: communication styles, language, body language (e.g. gestures, smell, personal distance, use of time, touching), adaptation, observation, learning from experiences and so on.
Finally you have some practical tools, like collecting information on another country (in particular its history) and reading on what is known about the other culture (e.g. the comparative studies by Lew, Hofstede, Trompenaars, Solomon and Schell, Meyer; the World Values Survey). Even that reading bit requires time and effort because you need to make comparison with yourself all the time.
It is a long journey and I am the last to say that you are going to end in paradise. However, it is always rewarding and you end as a richer person (not in the Dutch sense).
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The blog of August 13th, 2019 discussed the be-like-me attitude, basically rejecting the idea that culture plays a role in contacts between people – in a way even the idea that culture is an integral element of the human condition. If you move beyond that attitude and accept culture as a bedfellow, you may consider some basic perceptions of culture; monism, relativism and ‘communicative moral universalism’ (term by dr. van Asperen).
Monism is getting its ugly head more and more above the surface and plays its divisive role. It represents the idea that ‘my culture is better’ than yours, implying (rather explicitly) that your culture is less, that you are less. The day-to-day application runs from white supremacy to ‘Islam as inferior religion’ (PVV, Dutch political party). You may also consider monism as passive aggression because an expression of monism creates its own reaction. People start to defend themselves and their cultures, even if they had never any reason to do so. And we all know that words may easily spill over in more than ‘just words’.
Monism is also the driving force behind dictatorship and ethnic cleansing. In colonial days indigenous people were often considered as less than humans and the same happened during the Holocaust. These two examples may be exceptional and extreme but the idea of monism may be observed on a daily basis and in every country.
Monism is also related to the concept of identity politics. In this case identity is related to one specific group (e.g. women or skin colour) with the exclusion of others. I do not deny the occasional need to improve the situation of a specific group but identity politics restrict people to one and only one dimension. However, people are multi-dimensional and part of hundreds of groups. In that sense identity politics is narrow-minded. It may even turn aggressive, e.g. when a white actress wants to play the role of a black person or a white person talking African-American English.
I do not need to mention the strong relation between monism and stereotypes and prejudices.
The opposite of monism is inclusivity, accepting the others (of the group) as they are, respecting the differences and developing a space in which differences and commonalities are reconciled (transcultural). More often than not such transcultural relations are something on the wish list and is monism the dragon that needs to be slain. Why cannot people recognise monism for what it is, an impediment for a better world?
In my blog of October 22th, 2018 I paid attention to the close relationship between economics and culture, in particular values. A column in The Economistof July 27th, 2019 has the same focus (I made a scan for my documentation). Because I am a rather uncertain person, I see this as a confirmation of the importance of the topic. The Economist: “A better grasp of how cultures work may be needed to understand modern political economy”. Just what the doctor ordered!
The column is inspired by Mr Mokyr’s book A Culture of Growth. The first argument is that people are not only driven by self-interest but also by “acquired social codes”, culture for short. Secondly, the book mentions cultural evolution as an essential concept for allowing developments like industrialisation.
The idea of cultural evolution has been discussed before and in quite some detail but not always under that label. The sociologist Max Weber for instance mentioned the values of Calvinism as a condition for the development of capitalism (Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, 1905)
The column continues with the discussion of how economists might make better use of culture, unlocking economic potential through cultural change. Well, in my previous column I mentioned already the effect of culture on economic systems and the need of culture if you want to change the system (e.g. the doughnut economy or the Green Deal). In addition to the column, business also needs culture in terms of international contacts, organisational culture and multicultural society. These three domains have rather strong impacts on the performance of companies and hence, the economy as a whole. In international contacts billions of dollars a year are lost as a result of failed economic co-operation due to cultural differences. Secondly, through organisational culture effectiveness, efficiency and employee satisfaction may well be improved with more than 10%; think for instance about soft controls, better co-operation, or considerable less absence for health reasons. Thirdly, properly dealing with the consequences of multicultural society implies a better hiring and retaining of people, more internal integration (inclusiveness), more turnover and profit and new markets.
Stressing the necessity of culture is one thing, applying it is quite another. One of the reasons is that culture is not a simple tool and depends on individual persons, the organisation and the circumstances. Hence, HR managers (advising their boards) should have a thorough understanding of culture and how to apply it. They should spend time on it, even if this thorough concept of culture was not part of their education.
Well, you can always dream!
In Dutch radio and television you may hear an advertisement with the jingle"Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you" with a strong beat and sung in an innocent girlish voice. It is a line from the song Anything You Can Do, composed by Irving Berlin for the 1946 musicalAnnie Get Your Gun; thank you Wikipedia. The jingle sounds attractive enough but I was struck by the text as such, the text taken outside its context of song and musical.
Focusing on the words only, I would say that the text shows a lack of respect for the other. The other is inferior because s/he is in whatever domain not even equal. In terms of culture this is an example of monism: my culture is better than yours. Hence, you do not even need to try to deal with cultural differences. Well, you may imagine how someone reacts if s/he is approached in that way. Monism always results in (more) conflict and does not solve anything.
Respect is a key concept in dealing with cultural differences. It implies that you take the other as is and reserving your judgment. You do this by active listening deliberately refraining from judgment and thinking, a much more difficult task than the application of gut feeling. Only when you have more detailed information available, you may have an opinion on the other but you still need to treat him or her with respect, accept as is; showing contempt for instance does not promote communication.
In their book Cultural IntelligenceThomas and Inkson prefer the term mindfulness because the word respect would have become more or less meaningless. However, mindfulness also has the meaning of a state of mind with a focus on the here and now of your body. Using that term for the idea of respect is even more confusing. The question is to clarify your meaning of respect.
Respect does not apply to individuals only. As in a fractal it also applies to groups and even to states. In international law all states are equal, although some states are more equal than others (paraphrasing Animal Farm). We all know what happens if heads of state and government do not treat one another with respect!
Repeat after me: I respect, you respect, s/he respects, we respect, you respect, they respect.
Whether the war with IS is over or not, a lot of IS warriors are left behind, many with (also) a Western nationality. The question is what to do with the latter group and in particular with women and children. Governments like to duck the issue, even if they have a duty to care for their nationals.
One issue is this idea of ‘women and children’. In days past you would evacuate them first because they did not have a function in war or for instance keeping a ship afloat. Nowadays we do not know whether the women in question were ‘only’ wives or did participate (without being forced to do so). Like the men, governments do not like want the women in question to return because you never know whether they will continue the struggle back home. Even the children are considered a risk (not adapted to the circumstances back home, psychological problems) and anyway you ‘cannot separate them from their parents’.
The distinction between men, women and children already points at culture (emancipation and all that jazz). Another issue is about the effects of the IS culture. Can you get the people out of IS and IS out of them? Here we face a question about values, the fundamental orientations about good and bad, true and false. According to the theory values are developed in pre-adult years and do not change afterwards. If so, adults who went over to Syria to get involved in IS, will still have their old values and need ‘only’ to re-adjust to the situation back home; a question of norms. However, if those people changed their values, they could be a risk, at least by not participating in the societies back home, leave alone criminal or violent behaviour.
You may wonder whether leaving the people in the camps in the Middle East would solve anything. As professor Gerrit Loos points out that that may well result in revenge. I would say that the Palestinians are a clear enough example. What are governments going to do then? Regretting that the issue became bigger because their predecessors did not solve it?
Ultimately, Western governments are worried about the role of Islam in their societies. The experiences of the last few decades show a rather disappointing accommodation of Islam and neglect of Muslims. In that way many governments failed their societies at large because the failure of multicultural society is easier to spot than its success.
Islam is not the issue but a relatively small group of misguided people is. Get them back and deal with them; re-integration as a condition for return next to legal procedures. Government is not always fun!
You may deny cultural differences and approach the other with a ‘be like me’ attitude (term by Thomas and Inkson). That is even worse than monism, implying that you think that your culture is superior than that of the other. The denial of cultural differences is simple in itself but the consequence may be that you will never have a meaningful or useful contact with the other.
Individuals may (in my most forgiving mood) be forgiven in using the ‘be like me’ approach. When I lived abroad for the first time (in the seventies) I had no idea of culture, leave alone what to do with it. Happily I was open about it. Fellow students took me to the pub and explained why certain aspects of my behaviour were not acceptable to them. The need for adaptation was a starting point in this situation and the reward of enrichment was only recognised much later, leave alone the steps in between.
Nowadays a lot of information on culture is readily available, including its effects and the consequences of neglecting culture. In business every year billions of dollars are lost due to failed economic co-operation across borders as a result of cultural differences and the inadequate way of dealing with them. However, in business you may still use (financial) power and force the other company to toe the line; up to a degree.
In matters of state things are more complex. In day-to-day reality some governments may exercise more power than others. They bluff and bully and use all means of influencing other governments at their disposal (e.g. spying, trade measures, currency, propaganda). Up to a degree this fits a pattern that has grown over centuries. However, if a government breaks such a pattern, predictability decreases and uncertainty in international relations increases. Simply because of the complexity of the latter, a degree of predictability is a necessity. On the other hand uncertainty may result in possibly huge unintended consequences. Do not forget that governments have the monopoly of the use of force and may use the military means at their disposal. History clearly shows how tempting that may be and how difficult it is to refrain from their use.
The other is not going to ‘be like me’. Although you may push the other a bit I that direction, you are never going to succeed. Ultimately we are all different and recognising that is celebrating the condition humaine. Actually, I wish nobody to ‘be like me’; one is more than enough.
A Dutch newspaper reported on research indicating that the Big Five Personality Test may not be applied universally. For me that was way down memory lane. Twenty years ago an HR manager was asked to try out several personality tests and to select one. In the process I was one of her lab rats, filling out questionnaires, answering interviews and so on. One of the first tests we tried was the MBTI and I was really unhappy with the result.
As part of that applied research process we tried to find out why I did not recognize myself in the results. One thing we found was that the test was based on a specific interpretation of the theories by Jung (and not updated with later understandings), specifically an interpretation within an American context. Nearly all terms used got a specific American interpretation. Like management models all this should have culturally translated for application in another country.
Zooming out, you should not be surprised. Our personality is the result of the interplay of nature and nurture, elements we are born with and elements we have learned; leave alone the dynamic aspect of personality. Hence, every personality test should include an evaluation of both elements. In view of the fact that a national culture does not have the same impact on each and every one - so many other factors are at play – you would never be able to design a fully reliable test for just one country. Any claim of universality neglects culture.
Turning the argument around you may describe personality by taking culture as a starting point. As I have argued many times before each of us is a unique mixture of the cultures of all the hundreds of groups we are of have been part of. This is one of the key thoughts of the triangle model. Many of the students who contributed to the mind-map of culture, used the triangle model to have a closer look at themselves; and were positively surprised. Culture proved to be a tool for better self-understanding.
With the mind-map of culture we may take things one step further. You may go through the labels one at a time and wonder how it applies to you as an individual. In the app on cultural competence I am developing at the moment, you do exactly that. In 72 exercises you will be asked to find your own position regarding that topic. Together it will give an impression of your cultural competence and implicitly about your personality traits. However, personality is more than culture!
For years we have a discussion on Islam based education in the Netherlands. The Dutch constitution contains an article, guaranteeing the freedom of education. It implies that every religion or organisation with a specific orientation (e.g. educational approach, like Montessori) is free to establish a school and that the state will pay for it when certain criteria are met.
Although not intended over a hundred years ago, Islamic organisations grasped this opportunity. Nevertheless, many people did not like such a development and hence, government was pressed to have a close look at the quality standards and in particular, whether the Dutch values and the rule of law were sufficiently supported. At present we have 52 Islamic primary schools and 3 Islamic secondary schools.
The last few weeks we had quite a public discussion on an Islamic secondary school in Amsterdam. The intelligence services accused the management team of undesirable contacts and the educational inspection published a critical report. The Cabinet Minister on Education is under pressure to do something, even if the education itself is not really a point of concern. The municipal government is accused of a biased approach.
At the same time initiatives for establishing new Islamic secondary schools have come to nothing. The government uses an outdated argument for turning the applications down: the intended schools cannot guarantee sufficient numbers of pupils. Lacking detailed numbers nobody may answer this supply and demand question.
The whole issue turns about identity, both at the level of the individual and that of society as a whole. On the one hand Islamic people want to express their Islamic identity and on the other most Dutch people only want to marginalise Islamic influence in society. However, nobody determines a national culture, it is rather the nett result of what individuals and groups do and think. Any look at history learns that society is always changing and change is what we can count on. Societal change management is mostly doomed to failure, even if only related to the speed of change.
However, what we can do, is to have an open debate as mature adults. Pluralist multicultural society is not going away and has in fact been the Dutch situation of nearly a thousand years. Majority views may be translated in political objectives and implemented through policy and legislation. However, it takes two to tango. Democracy requires that the majority takes the concerns of the minorities into consideration. In short (and again), the Dutch should be open for the Muslims and the Muslims should be willing to adapt to Dutch society. Yes, we tried so for years and yes, we have not been really successful. But that is what democracy is about, a slow and sometimes painful process without guaranteed outcomes and lots of good intentions.
In June the Technical University in Eindhoven decided to appoint only female professors in the coming years. This is because of the unbalance between male and female professors and the difficulty in addressing that unbalance. You may imagine the flood of reactions, including that of women who would not like to be appointed under such a policy, because they would always be considered not to have been appointed on the basis of merit. Well, some years ago I looked back with a rector of a university on this tenure of five years and he had to admit that not a single professor had been appointed for only scientific reasons.
In her column in de Volkskrant (a Dutch newspaper) Ms. Daniela Hooghiemstra takes a different view. According to her people in technical disciplines tend to think that good theory results in good practice. However, she stresses, human beings are not that linear. That is why this logic from theory to practice often does not work in psychology. Change has to grow from below and theory follows from practice.
This argument of a more or less deductive versus inductive approach neglects the fact that technical disciplines are more often than not based of careful and extensive observation of the laws of nature. Theories were based on these observations and tested and adapted accordingly. Furthermore, technological change often results in behavioural change. In addition, many people acknowledge that the reality we observe, does not exclude the existence of other realities; or even that the observed reality may be perceived in quite different ways (dogs’ noses; eyes with nine instead of three cones).
If culture has taught me one thing, it is the need to reconcile this dichotomy of theory and practice. The literature on culture hardly mentions aspects that my students did find quite important in the practice of dealing with culture. The other way around applies just as well: some theories are quite nice and even convincing but lack a base in day-to-day reality. You see the same point in the studies on organisational culture. Some (mostly American) studies stress the values of organisations, other (mostly European) the practices. Values in this context may be considered as theoretical in the sense that they do not exist as such but are a construct or label to indicate a pattern of thinking.
Coming back to the policy of that technical university (practice): go for it; given that the unbalance needs to be addressed and other approaches did not work. The women in question need to be convinced of their intrinsic value; how difficult is that for a professor? And be aware that the whole issue is saturated with culture!
In his column in The New York Times of July 3rd(It’s the Cruelty, Stupid) Charles Blow states “If the emerging culture of the world has to be put under boot for the established culture to maintain power, so be it. This is the white supremacist mantra; this is the Trump message”.
In a column you may of course exaggerate to clarify your argument and to show the consequences. Indeed, Blow later asks whether people are looking away or mentioning only some positive points. On the topic of white supremacy exaggeration is hardly necessary, even with the most superficial reading of World War II. The question is whether Donald Trump has a white supremacist agenda.
Indeed, we do see policies that express a difficulty with the “somehow other: black or brown, female or trans, Muslim or migrant”. In itself this is nothing new: the colonial powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century did the same (monism in terms of cultural anthropology). However, history is not only a catalogue of events but even more so a source of learning how to do things better in the present and in the future. From this perspective we see that Trump did not learn much: the present-day economy is not the same as those in the days of steel, guns and cars; China is not a backwater anymore and wants its rightful place in a new world order; and so on and so on. Simply because his way is the highway, Trump likes authoritarian or even autocratic leaders, whether that is best for the USA or not. In this way you may also not a conflict between public and private interests, not only in the specific application of Trump’s business.
If you did not know it yet: I am on the other side of the argument. People may be considered as a kaleidoscope of identities and are far from limited to one or two categories. Even the strongest white supremacist is not only that but also man or woman, of a certain age, with a specific degree of education, from a given geographical background, from a family background such and so, a sports fanatic or not, environmentalist or exploiter, with one profession or another, deriving status from achievement or something else, lover of specific music, carnivore or vegetarian, partner or single and so on.
I do hope that single minded governments are doomed to failure and that the variety of mankind is shown as richness. However, I must admit that the Vatican eats away at that hope.
As a result of a few sunny days we had in the Netherlands a debate on office dress code, including whether men could wear short trousers. The discussion focused on what you could tolerate or not. At the same time the fashion pages in the newspaper reported on the skort, a skirt-short for men. You may wonder whether women would find male legs attractive.
Emancipation and fashion go hand in hand. When women started to wear trousers on a regular basis from the sixties onwards, they started with male trousers. Over time these trousers were adapted, both to the female bodies and to their preferences (material, patterns, colours, zipper, pockets and so on). The self-consciousness of women about appearance was expressed in sentences like: how you look, is who you are (please not the anagram of how and who). Men were less involved in appearances and fashion but that started to change.
One of the reasons for change partly results from technological change. The physical strength of men is hardly an advantage anymore and changing attitudes prevent them to derive power from it. The role of men in society has decreased while that of women has increased. Men are looking for new ways to play their part.
In the background another normative dichotomy played a role, body and mind versus body over mind. For years mental issues were considered to be more important than physical ones. After all, thinking and consciousness made (wo)mankind what it is, its unique position in between things and living creatures. Assigning mental things more to men and physical things more to women reinforced an unequal position between the sexes. That is also changing.
Technically speaking, to warm your body you may wrap up each leg separately or both legs together. In reality, the latter option has a strong female and submissive connotation. Allegedly, Freud has said that skirt and dresses represent subjugation through open crotches.
If men would be wearing skirts in day-to-day situations, it might well imply that men are paying more attention to appearances, including the expression of their identity through clothing, accessories, jewellery and possibly make-up and high heels. In all these issues they have to find ways to find male versions of these female symbols (like aftershave), just like women did with trousers. The point is not to feminise men but rather that men find a new way to express their identity. I would imagine that such a development would start with the adaptation of such appearances to the male body. One example is the waist-hips ratio, 0.7 for women and 0.9 for men. Men could have a problem with skirts sliding down and would prefer belts and suspenders; or move to dresses.
Interesting times indeed (like the Chinese curse), if such development would actually take place. Imagine what it could do in terms of the relations between men and women, including changes in female role patterns. Could skirts and dresses for men be the contribution of climate change to emancipation?
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Last week an advisory body in the Netherlands published an extensive report on Dutch identity. It deals with identity on the level of a state. How do Dutch people perceive their Dutchness? The state-level identity is again a typical cultural topic because it describes the way of thinking, acting and feeling (culture) of the group of Dutch people. It complements the identity on the individual level (see blog of December 24th, 2018).
The discussion on what is typically Dutch is rather recent. For years Dutchmen considered themselves as the default option of mankind; normal. A couple of years ago Queen Maxima caused an uproar by stating that THE Dutch identity does not exist. She was and is quite right in the sense that you cannot define a list of qualities that fits every Dutch(wo)man. You may only stress commonalities for the largest possible group, including the effects of history, but not for all and everybody. The confusion at the time is a good example of the fallacy of averages: yes, you may calculate an average, but nobody fits that average to a t.
The American sociologist Ronald Inglehart mentioned the importance of history in shaping national identity. In his opinion half of the cultural differences between states could be explained by the effects of history on mentality, traditions, ways of doing things and so on. This may also apply to nations in the strict sense of the word, a group of people with a shared ethnicity, history, culture, habitat, language and more (best known example: the Kurds; over 6,000 nations and less than 200 states in the world).
National identity is an important issue for most people and wars were conducted as a result of it. Many people are quite proud of their states (singing the anthem, waving the flag and so on) without differentiating between state and national identity. National cultures are studied accordingly and some international business take the differences between national cultures and how to deal with them into consideration (even if we are only at the beginning of that process). However, national identity and culture is hard to describe and nobody represents each element or even to the same degree.
I did not read the report on Dutch identity (the summary is already 36 pages) but the reporting in the media gave a clear impression, including the careful way of reaching those results. I could well agree with what I read. However, I have nothing with the colour orange or the monarchy. Although I can prove that I am a member of a typical Dutch family for over five centuries, I miss at least those two important features. How Dutch am I? Quite so, I would say.
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The previous week was full of inspiration for this blog. I selected the developments in and around Iran because they touch on values (discussed on February, 5th). It is quite a toxic mix of religions, the relation population and government and the relation between states, including the possible use of force. In addition, an article in a Dutch newspaper discussed the values of states, while neglecting the values of individuals and the relations between the two types. Although the article focused on the European Union, in this sense it also applies to my topic of this week.
The latest development was the shooting down of an American drone by Iran. The USA considered a retaliation but President Trump decided at the last possible moment to cancel it. Rumours have it that his reason was the possible 150 casualties of the strike and in particular, the effect on the next elections; elections being more important? Individual citizens were not considered from the start and only appeared on stage as voters when the strike had already started. Hence, the possible strike relates to values of states.
These values deal with the position of a state in the global system. For centuries states and their governments focused on national self-interest. Only after the French-German war and the two world wars people acknowledged that such a focus is too narrow and have negative consequences. We should try to promote our interests through co-operation. From 1945 onwards governments (further) developed a global system with rules for states; with voluntary compliance (sovereignty: states do not acknowledge a higher authority than their own). The system was far from perfect but violence and war decreased. With the election of President Trump this system had reached its climax and started to unravel. The cancellation of the Iran deal on nuclear weapons is only one example. One of the questions is whether sanctions are going to work (another means for the same purpose). Furthermore, sanctions will have more consequences for individual citizens, e.g. their living conditions. However, the hope that disgruntled citizens will topple the government is idle (religion).
The election of President Trump is not the only element of this unraveling of the global system. However, you may wonder whether President Trump listens sufficiently to experts’ advice or whether he applies the values and norms of business to those of states; incompatible. Do we deal with President Trump or Magnate Trump; win-win versus win-lose? The question appears to answer itself. A series of events over the last few years show a similar pattern. Nobody knows where it will end and what the possible consequences might be.
The paradox is that America First may well be realised if and when the USA is strongly committed to an international system of rules. Conversely, the USA will lose its position by dividing tactics and protectionism. Who likes to deal with an unreliable partner?
Last week I was discussing aspects of emancipation with a woman with a somewhat unexpected opinion on emancipation. In her view it is a rather blah-blah concept and women in countries like the Netherlands could do much more. I asked her about her opinion on equal pay in sports, an issue of public debate in view of women’s soccer.
The discussion was not so much on the statement ‘equal job, equal pay’ but rather whether the jobs of man and women in sports are indeed equal. In tennis prize money was brought to more or less the same levels over the last few years. However, the woman in question did not consider the performance of men and women as equal because women only play three sets and men five. Even if the training would be as demanding, the actual realisation of what it is all about (playing the game) is not the same.
In soccer you may see the same. Just because the marketing effect of women’s soccer is much lower (from tickets to merchandise), the net effect is lower and hence, the job is not equal. You might argue that it is the effect, rather than the performance itself.
The argument was further triggered by an investigation by the Dutch public broadcasting organisation. Women’s soccer resulted over the years in more goals and less red and yellow cards; hence, men’s and women’s soccer are not the same. The goals were explained by the size of women (length and goals of the same height) and the red and yellow cards by different ways of solving conflicts (less physical). Length is of course on the nature side of the nature-nurture debate – although women in the hunters and gatherers society may have been just as tall as men – and the conflict solving on the nurture side (role patterns and so on).
When I presented those arguments to another woman, she thought that equal pay was still justified in view of the extra hurdles women have to take to reach the top. Girls are less encouraged to excel and if they do, not always appreciated for doing so (to put it mildly).
This simple column is not going to solve the issue but only shows that things are not that easy; other arguments are not even mentioned. One thing is clear though, equality of men and women would require a change in our societies in the order of magnitude of climate change or sustainability (OK, some exaggeration). A proper understanding of culture and change may help but it will be a long and winding road to reach the destination.
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A reader of this blog asked about culture and the millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 2000). From a scientific point of view the characterisation of a generation needs more time to put it in the proper perspective, also across borders. However, you may consider the generation as a group and as such it has its own culture (by the definition of these blogs and the website www.culturalcompetence.eu). Internet is of course a rich source of information on this generation Y, in particular the English version of Wikipedia. Characteristics include digital natives, pampered, media focused, self-assured, assertive, authentic, flexible work arrangements, adding value, team-oriented, entrepreneurial, customer oriented, decisive, taking the initiative, flat organisational culture, communicative and analytical skills, social liberal, international and delaying adulthood. Describing the millennials as a group is just as flawed as making general statements about the group of men or the group of women, in particular across borders. However, the group nicely fits the theory of Inglehart (1997 and later) about post-modernization. This theory states that wo/mankind is at the brink of the fourth type of human civilisation, post-modern society, after hunters and gatherers society, agricultural society and modern or industrial society. The new society results from a fundamental change of values, due to changing social and economic conditions. Characteristics include quality of existence and individual self-expression. Quality of existence is not limited to hedonism and materialism but may well include sustainability. Individual self-expression should not be taken as individualism. It does not reject the security of the group or even collectivism but allows individuals to give their opinion without social pressure to conform. Another way of looking at the millennials is through the glasses of the mind-map of culture, the basis of my present activities related to culture (see www.culturalcompetence.eu). Many aspects return, sometimes under different labels: importance of values, externalist (nature is the boss, not wo/mankind), involved, low on uncertainty avoidance, low power distance, low in status, egalitarian, work-life balance, change tolerant, gender emancipation, both individualistic and collective aspects, no or limited hierarchy, focus on education and personal development, interpersonal rather than transactional, in favour of globalisation, intensive use of media and cultural competence. Indeed, the mind-map validates itself!
A reader of this blog asked about culture and the millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 2000). From a scientific point of view the characterisation of a generation needs more time to put it in the proper perspective, also across borders. However, you may consider the generation as a group and as such it has its own culture (by the definition of these blogs and the website www.culturalcompetence.eu). Internet is of course a rich source of information on this generation Y, in particular the English version of Wikipedia. Characteristics include digital natives, pampered, media focused, self-assured, assertive, authentic, flexible work arrangements, adding value, team-oriented, entrepreneurial, customer oriented, decisive, taking the initiative, flat organisational culture, communicative and analytical skills, social liberal, international and delaying adulthood.
Describing the millennials as a group is just as flawed as making general statements about the group of men or the group of women, in particular across borders. However, the group nicely fits the theory of Inglehart (1997 and later) about post-modernization. This theory states that wo/mankind is at the brink of the fourth type of human civilisation, post-modern society, after hunters and gatherers society, agricultural society and modern or industrial society. The new society results from a fundamental change of values, due to changing social and economic conditions. Characteristics include quality of existence and individual self-expression. Quality of existence is not limited to hedonism and materialism but may well include sustainability. Individual self-expression should not be taken as individualism. It does not reject the security of the group or even collectivism but allows individuals to give their opinion without social pressure to conform.
Another way of looking at the millennials is through the glasses of the mind-map of culture, the basis of my present activities related to culture (see www.culturalcompetence.eu). Many aspects return, sometimes under different labels: importance of values, externalist (nature is the boss, not wo/mankind), involved, low on uncertainty avoidance, low power distance, low in status, egalitarian, work-life balance, change tolerant, gender emancipation, both individualistic and collective aspects, no or limited hierarchy, focus on education and personal development, interpersonal rather than transactional, in favour of globalisation, intensive use of media and cultural competence. Indeed, the mind-map validates itself!Looking at the millennials through their overall characteristics, I would like them a lot 😀Reality (individual persons) might be a different story ... However, you could have a worse group to manage the globe; I rest assured!
As you may know I follow Casper Vroom’s idea of culture being an institution, a way of thinking, acting and feeling; of a specific group at a given time and place. Now that I am reading a philosophical introduction to ‘modern (wo)man’, I wonder what that thinking is.
The mind-map on culture introduces some aspects of the thinking-part of culture, such as values, (wo)mankind’s relation to the environment, mentality or perceptions of time. Reading the book I cannot but notice the (strong) links between cultural and philosophical thinking; e.g. time and the studies of Bergson. Some questions are of a more fundamental nature. Does reality really exist as such (Ayn Rand) or only in our perception (from Plato to Kant)? Is consciousness the link between the individual and reality (Husserl)? How do the material and the immaterial world relate to one another? The question of the free will of the individual returns over and over again but in most explicitly in the work by Sartre. The free will is of course also part of religious discussions, in particular in contrast to predestination. Religion also answers questions on the purpose of life.
These questions point on the one hand to culture as an integral factor of human endeavours (if not the human condition) but also to culture as just another label for similar patterns of thinking but in another scientific context. At the same time I would like to see more on the link between thinking and acting, between thinking and attitudes and between attitudes and acting.
You may even move beyond the human domain with questions that you might never be able to answer. If for instance (wo)mankind lives in a pre-determined grid (Lévi-Strauss), where does this grid comes from? In relation to Darwin’s evolution theory you may wonder where consciousness comes from. If the latter is part of the survival of the fittest, consciousness may have a biological aspect. One step further is Einstein’s perception that matter is only an expression of energy. Its ultimate consequence would be that reality and human existence is just an illusion.
I know, I am drifting away from the discussion of culture. However, reading philosophy makes one wonder what the patterns of thinking are and what limits they have or that we set to them. Just keep on thinking about culture and it may enrich your life, whether you, life or culture are an illusion or not!
Cultural competence is an integral combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes related to culture (based on the application of educational theory in Dutch secondary and tertiary education). In the mind-map of culture tolerance is included in attitudes and attitudes is one of the labels of individual aspects of dealing with cultural differences. I always had a rather general perception of tolerance. It comes close to respect: observe and recognise but do not judge till you have more understanding. In addition, tolerance is a necessary condition for dealing with cultural differences.
The Economist of May 18th, 2019 reviews the book The Limits of Tolerance. The article opens with “Tolerance is a strange but indispensable civic virtue. It requires people to accept and live calmly with individuals and practices of which they disapprove”. The idea of ‘civic virtue’ refers to a collective, rather than an individual characteristic. However, if many individuals stress tolerance, it becomes collective. Much of the article refers to religious (in)tolerance, which in terms of culture is only one aspect (even if it is the most visible or the most discussed aspect).
The article also makes a distinction between tolerance and permissiveness. In my reading this distinction relates to attitudes on the one hand and legislation on the other. Societies may include certain values or behaviour in legislation (e.g. free speech) but cannot enforce tolerance. If people are not willing to accept the other, you may jump high or low, but you cannot avoid the conflict. Between (in)tolerance and conflict you have of course moderating forces but the same moderating forces may also the cause for the (expression of) intolerance. You may find an example in politics. Some politicians may stress nationalism, sovereignty and border controls and in doing so enhance intolerance of foreigners. Other politicians then need to oil the wheels of multicultural society by stressing co-existence and co-operation.
In this way the individual attitude of tolerance may turn into a major force at the societal level, in particular in case of intolerance. Indeed, many wars have started by perceiving a group of people as less, closer to animals than ‘us’ – and those were not only the colonial days! Hence, tolerance relates to the perception of all human beings as equal, not the same, not better, not worse but simply different; and then to accept these differences.
Looking at these arguments I wonder whether I raised my children with a sufficient focus on tolerance – whatever sufficient might mean. Clearly, tolerance and the development of it start at a young age, at home and in primary education. In line with the discussion on values I wonder whether you can learn tolerance when you are already an adult. Anyway, please be tolerant!
Last week I was at a meeting in which three awards winning books on leadership were discussed. The authors were all American and in my suspicious mind that already implies a cultural bias. The message of the three books was the same: leadership is overvalued and attention should be focused elsewhere. This sounds to me as a correction on the consequences of the American business model with its focus on shareholders’ value.
A couple of weeks I gave a lecture on leadership, management and culture in Aschaffenburg (Germany). Having an overall idea of the theory on leadership and management, I used the mind-map on culture (see the website mentioned below) as a set of glasses. At each label of the mind-map I wondered what its bearing might be on leadership and management.
The overall idea is known for years: leadership and management depend on culture, both in the shape they take and in the way they are exercised. This results in rather general statements as ‘do not stress hierarchy in an egalitarian society’ or ‘a transactional approach does not work in an interpersonal society’. They sound easy but neglect to take the related attitudes into consideration. A hierarchical person is not able to approach others in an egalitarian way and so on. His or her attitude is not as flexible as one would like, because it is based on values, which are set in pre-adult years.
Those attitudes and values also point to another reason why you should be careful to use economic approaches from other states, the differences in economic systems. I give you an example. In the Anglo-Saxon model (e.g. US), the focus is on the return to shareholders. You may close down a company that makes a profit because the return is too low. In such a system a manager should not be involved too much with the people in the primary process because s/he needs to be able to fire them without much regret. In the Rhineland model on the other hand the one who performs best, becomes the leader of the team. Involvement with colleagues makes firing people much more difficult.
The Economist of two weeks ago also mentioned the importance of economic systems. Even if the trade-war between the USA and China would be resolved, the difficulties will remain for years to come, simply because of the differences in economic systems. For regular readers I do not need to add that these systems are based on values and hence, are hard to change.
Yes, we can learn from one another and we may grow towards one another over time (economic systems as a marriage or the other way around?). Simply being a copycat is mental poverty, if not immaturity. Please stand on your own feet and you may try to be my manager!
Last week the UN report on biodiversity was published and its alarming conclusions received all media attention it deserves. A key question is what to do with it? Trying to answer the question a fundamental cultural perception needs to be taken into account, the dilemma between internalism and externalism (in the words of Dr. Trompenaars). This boils down to the question whether mankind or nature is the boss; see also the blog of December 11th, 2018. If mankind is subjected to nature, we have to face the consequences. On the other hand, if mankind is in control we may continue to construct our ever more artificial environment (the anthropocene).
The question is even more urgent in view of related problems, such as climate change, (sustainable) energy or pollution. Dealing with them is ultimately not a question of culture but a question of civilisation. How do we want to organise our societies and why is mankind on Earth (including the evolutionary answer: no special reason)?
Even if you would take one of the two extreme cultural positions (nature or mankind controls), the question relates to a series of dilemmas. Mankind depends on nature for the air we breath, the food we eat, the water we drink and the soil we use (e.g. housing). An increasing number of people implies more use of everything, which in turn decreases biodiversity (e.g. through more efficient farming), resulting in less support of mankind. In terms of sustainability (of present systems) the solution appears to include a decrease of world population.
The cultural dimension of the question of biodiversity may also be answered from a religious point of view, even if you consider religion as part of culture from a scientific point of view (a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people). Tomas Sedlacek pointed in his book Economics of Good and Evil, The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Streetto an interesting difference between the Christian and Jewish faith. Christians are looking for a Paradise beyond the here and now, Jews aim at the realisation of Paradise on Earth. In the latter case you would have no choice but to ensure an optimal biodiversity and to decrease the claim of mankind on all natural resources.
From this perspective you may wonder whether we should incorporate at least a part of Jewish faith in all belief systems, whether we should adapt Christianity (Paradise on Earth) or simply face the music of extinction.
For years we are debating in the Netherlands the role of languages in education. It ranges from bilingual primary education to BA and MA programmes only in English. Arguments range from the relatively small size of the Netherlands, its dependency on international economics, the importance of internationalisation to the opportunities for foreign students. Even a master in Dutch linguistics or in Dutch literary history is only available in English. However, quite a bit of the debate is based on unsubstantiated arguments.
One condition is that mastering one language properly is a necessity for learning another language. This condition is insufficiently met because the focus in education is on skills (communication), not on knowledge (grammar, literature). For more than a decade people are worried about the decreasing mastering of Dutch. Hence, we need to improve the teaching of Dutch first.
An additional argument is that truly bilingualism (two native languages instead of a native and a near-native language) may result in psychological problems. Bilingual children often fail in the deeper levels of language, like the ones you need for philosophy and poetry. Of course most of us do not need those on a daily level, but these deeper levels are a necessary condition for the subconscious processing of strong emotions.
Moving on to secondary education the arguments in favour of a thorough knowledge of linguistics are even stronger. I do know that I belong to a minority by learning a language through its grammar but grammar remains a necessity. Supervising hundreds of BA and MA theses I noticed that student often do not have a clue what is wrong with their texts.
Yes, Dutch is a relatively small language with 24 million speakers and yes, we need one or two foreign languages to get our message across but that applies to most people. In that sense a foreign language is a mere instrument (compared to for instance the enriching experience of reading a foreign novel in the original language, notwithstanding the beautiful work often done by translators). In addition, IT is offering more and more solutions in translating texts; but if you input something wrong in your language, something wrong will come out (IBM: GIGO – garbage in, garbage out).
Regarding internationalisation we should not turn means and ends around. Internationalisation in education is first and foremost showing the international aspects of a discipline. Exchanges and international co-operation help to realise that objective. However, most lecturers in higher education neglect the international dimension in class. I recall a case in bookkeeping: with the same data the virtual company was making a profit according to American standards and a loss if you applied European standards.
Language is very much about identity, our individual way of thinking, acting and feeling. We all benefit by a focused approach to developing our identity, not by moving in all kinds of directions at the same time.
Last week I read in the newspaper de Volkskrant about a critical report of the Dutch diplomats at the EU (published by the Dutch institute of international relations Clingendael). Others perceive the Dutch diplomats as stilted, inflexible and lacking in empathy, innovative ideas and solidarity. On the positive side they are seen as well prepared and credible. The article reminded me of the paper that dr. Peter Ester (cultural sociologist and senator) and I published on Foreign Policy and the Cultural Factor, a Research and Education Agendain 2013, published by the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies. At the time the education and training programme of Dutch diplomacy was revisited but the chairman of the committee in question and the course co-ordinator were not interested.
In the last few years I have noted quite a few examples of the relevance of our paper at the time. The need for a fundamental understanding of culture and a true cultural competence has only grown. Culture is not a topic that is dealt with in a one-day training as part of a year long programme.
On the one hand of the scale you find the study of international relations. The USA for instance acts mostly within the parameters of the so-called realistic school. The latter represents the idea that the world consists of sovereign states and that each fights for its own interests. The EU Member States are closer to the idealistic school, indicating that problems are best solved by co-operation between states. An important part of the differences may be explained by history. Those and other perceptions of international relations impact how the game is played and should be taken into account.
Foreign policy refers to the promotion of national interests of a specific state in the wider world. In order to do so you need to convince others, which implies an understanding on how the message comes across. A minister of foreign affairs should not only focus his message on content and his or her own national culture (the sending part) but also on the interests and cultures of the recipient states. Foreign policy should include culture every step of the way.
Diplomacy focuses on the implementation of foreign policy (and a few practical aspects, like consular affairs). How do you get the message across, how to convince others? You cannot do that if you do not know the culture of the other, the national cultures involved, diplomatic culture and ultimately the individual cultures of the people involved.
Traditionally the MGIMO, the Russian diplomatic university is the most advanced in this perception. Future diplomats obtain first a bachelor in the language and culture of a specific country. This increases the sensitivity for cultural factors but mostly in a specific context. An overall and fundamental understanding of culture may well be lacking.
Welcome diplomats to cultural competence!
A few weeks ago we had in the Netherlands the elections for the 21 water management boards. A key task of these boards relates to the ground water supply. With one third of the country below the sea level this task is undoubtedly quite important but does it warrant elections? Is their job a political or rather an executive one? I was inclined to the second option but discovered the former and with it, the link with culture.
These boards determine the level of the ground water (they are not involved in drinking water supply). This sound like a technical issue but it has such a range of consequences that the question is ultimately a political one. A low level is good for farmers, in particular animal husbandry. This also relates to the Dutch self-image of a landscape with grazing cows and windmills in the background. However, a low level also results in high levels of CO2emissions as a result of drying peat and the top part of the wooden foundations of buildings may start to rot. High levels of groundwater make it more difficult for farmers and preserves wooden foundations but promotes climate change mitigation. This equation is further complicated by the strong lobby of farmers and their economic importance (the Netherlands is one of the largest exporter of agricultural products).
In cultural terms you may think of Trompenaars’ dilemma internalism versus externalism. The former states that mankind is master of the Earth and may use all its resources to his liking. Externalism on the other hand states that mankind may jump high or low but has to obey the rules of nature (ultimately). The question is to what degree mankind may interfere with the planet and all its systems. The dilemma is also linked to the possible emergence of a fourth type of human society (after hunters-and-gatherers, agricultural and industrial society). According to the theory by Inglehart the next type of society will be characterized by two value patterns, quality of existence and individual self-expression. The former clearly relates to the sustainability discussion.
These wider perspectives and frameworks indicate that a simple technical choice has severe consequences for the future of agriculture in the Netherlands and its contribution to a sustainable economy. I even started to wonder whether these elections may be of more importance than those for parliament!
Last week I read that the USA, Muslim countries and the Vatican worked together in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to limit the sexual and reproductive rights of women. As a Western European man, I thought: the USA? Reading on I noticed that the USA supported limitation of abortus and contraceptives. Happily, the newspaper of this week mentioned that most proposals had not been supported and that the Beijing Declaration still stood.
I had a feeling of being thrown back in time. Taking a moment, I realized that this news is just one of the many steps on the road towards emancipation. Indeed, the attitudes in the USA regarding women are less emancipated than in Western Europe (with all the variations in that area). Undoubtedly, a part of the explanation may be found in religion. The traditional family values are much stronger in the USA than in Europe; women may work but also have to bake apple pies and brownies for school outings.
Turning my attention to Europe I have to admit that emancipation here is far from complete as well. Great steps have been made but most of them are legal ones. In the Netherlands women got legal status in 1956 but at present only half of the women are economically independent. The attitudes of men towards women still require lots of attention. Many men still think they are the boss and they express such an attitude in many direct and indirect ways.
At the same time many women may fight the lack of emancipation within themselves. Role patterns are quite powerful and sometimes feel as the natural order of things. It is nice to be protected but ultimately you make yourself dependent on the protector; it is nice to look good but ultimately you are judged on appearances (not the person).
As long as women need to be protected, they are not equal. Beyond this legal aspect lies the attitudinal issue of emancipation. If you want to change anything of this, you need culture and cultural change!
Last weekend I visited an exhibition of Flemish expressionism. The signs explained that a characteristic feature of this school is the desire to express emotion by stressing realism, in particular of people in dire circumstances. That remark made me wonder whether you can have art without an emotion. As a minimum the artist should have had a motivation to make the work. Is for instance seventeenth century Dutch painting only a nice decoration on the wall? Raising the question is answering it. If the arts would not express emotion, we would not go the museums and exhibitions or pay fortunes to obtain an object.
The word ‘culture’ refers to culture in the sense of this website (a way of thinking and acting of a group of people) and to the arts. The two meanings are not exclusive but rather reinforcing one another. The arts may support a culture; oppose it or anything in between; e.g. from Soviet art to nineteenth century Russian samizdat literature. The spectrum contains an enormous variety, including for instance graffiti and political cartoons. It also contains concepts as high and low culture; with all the emotions attached to them.
Supporting arts strengthen the culture in question but this may the culture of a dominant group. Given the opportunity other groups in society may oppose the elite culture, including the use of other means than the arts. As the discussion on Soviet arts showed, the art that supports a dominant culture is not neutral, not a mere decoration, pleasant music or a nice story. It expressed an ideology and how it should be realised. It had a message for other groups.
Opposing arts favour change of the dominant culture and the related system. They propose an alternative, at least another perception. At the same time opposing arts may support the culture of groups that do not call the shots; e.g. the arts of an ethnic minority like the Maasai in Tanzania. This shows that the relation between culture in the wider sense and the arts is not as straightforward as you would think in first instance. The debate even starts with defining arts and defining culture. Is a blog part of the arts or only in the wider domain of culture? And even if a blog is only part of culture, it may still support or oppose that culture …
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Power is a constant factor in our lives, even if it is disguised in some other form. When you do your shopping, you probably do not think about your power as a consumer. However, we all know that that power exists, proven by a boycott for instance.
With the exception of physical power, most power relates to behaviour of people and hence, may be considered from a cultural point of view. Who is ‘allowed’ to exercise power? Who is the ‘victim’ or ‘recipient’ of power? What are the means of power? The answers to these questions relate to our way of thinking, acting and feeling or culture in short. Individuals exercise power, for instance bullies, men over women or the other way around or parents over children. Next to persons institutions exercise power: government, school, employer, sports club or the landlord in a pub. All of them exercise power because we let them, explicitly or implicitly.
The means of power have become more varied over time. In the hunters-and-gatherers society probably had the same physical strength but from the agricultural society onwards that strength became an important source of power; up till today. In the same vein power may be derived from capital / ownership or position. Many a CEO or Cabinet Minister thinks s/he is a bit above the law or may bend the law in his or direction. These are all I-am-bigger-than-you types of power. On the other end of the scale you find the power of numbers (strike, boycott), temptation (again using your body) or communication. The study of the latter includes persuasive communication with government information on one end and propaganda on the other. In between you find elements like fake news and manipulation.
An interesting example at the moment is the effort by the US government to ban Huawei. It does not give a thread of evidence that Huawei is doing anything wrong. Even intelligence partner Great Britain is not convinced, although its communications intelligence service admits that the codes of Huawei’s software are rather messy. Experts also state that you may use the equipment without giving it access to data. In short, the US efforts are an example of political and economic power.
What is the power of this blog?
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Last week I was in Brussels to discuss the details of an international programme at the University of Applied Sciences in Aschaffenburg (a week in April of this year). It has the following subtitle “promoting mindful encounters through intercultural competence and experience”. These words raise more questions than will be answered. Take for instance the word ‘intercultural’. Inter~ stresses the differences, cross~ stresses the commonalities and transcultural tries to reconcile the commonalities and the differences; a mere detail but with quite some consequences.
The actual programme is a good one, as usual at that institution. In view of my own student’s days I envy the students from seven different states who will have the opportunity to participate. The focus is on ‘critical incidents’ in leadership and management across cultures. Each incident describes a near-disaster in international business that should have been handled differently by taking culture into account.
Because we will have six teams of seven students each, a friend of mine and I have started to describe six of those critical incidents (e.g. KLM Air France, dieselgate). The students have to figure the alternative solution (the one with more cultural competence) and turn that in a role-play. The role-plays will be presented on the Friday and later turned into an animated video.
I was really amazed at how easy it is to come up with those incidents. In a few minutes I had seven of them scribbled down and I could think of quite a few other situations of which I had only partial information. In fact, they are not incidents but structural phenomena. In the process I recalled a study of years back in which the costs of failed commercial co-operation across borders but within the EU as a result of cultural differences was estimated on €1 billion a year! Undoubtedly, many qualifiers may be mentioned but the frequency of occurrences is such that you better expect them (contingency planning). The conclusion cannot be anything but a lack of cultural understanding at the top of international business.
In a way I should be happy because my work is waiting for me without being threatened by being taken over by the computer. However, the overall feeling is one of sadness that this does occur, rather as a rule than as an exception.
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Trust is an often-neglected topic but at the same time a necessary condition for modern society. If you do not trust government (up to some degree), chaos will result. The whole financial system is based on trust because coins, bills and bites have no or hardly any value of their own. The whole international order as built from the Second World War onwards demands trust; only Trump trumps trust.
Trust also represents a key difference between manufacturing and the services economy. If you want to buy a product, you may look at it, compare it, test it and so on beforehand. Hence, production precedes purchase. In services it works in the opposite direction. When you bring your shoes to the shoemaker, the act of leaving them there represents the contract; the service still needs to be provided. In the service economy the contract (agreement, intention) precedes performance. When I worked in management consultancy I was not allowed to make any content related remark during the acquisition process, even if I thought that a glimpse of the solution might convince the potential customer.
The importance of trust may be clear from these examples. However, whom you trust under what conditions depends on culture. In a group culture mutual trust is much more a default option than in an individualistic society. On the other hand, culture is not the only explaining factor. We all know examples of people who are more reliable than others. You may wonder in turn whether reliability is influenced by culture; again, to some degree. We simply need more research on the details of the relation between trust and culture, even if the relation as such is without any doubt.
I trust culture as an explaining factor and it has worked in my favour in the past. Trust and personal integrity may well be at odds with opportunism (simply going for the best deal, disregarding the effects on people) but I do not think any of them to stem from biological factors (the nature – nurture debate). If so, trust boils down to judging people, a balancing act between trusting and dealing with hurt feelings. The more I trust, the more vulnerable I may be but at the same time more embedded in my social environment. Talking about paradoxes!
Last Thursday my brother presented his book to the press, colleagues, friends and family. In it he has a dialogue with his father through the latter’s diaries. Because our father passed away in 1972 when my brother was 18, a face-to-face reflection on youth and puberty was not possible. By reading the thousands of pages of the diary my brother learned much about the background and development of his father. With more life experience my brother could add his own perceptions without ever getting into the question who is or was right or wrong.
He started the book as a project for himself. However, because all kinds of specific aspects of our youth and the position of my father, a publisher got interested. My brother had then to rewrite the text with an eye to a wider public. In view of the number of people who turned up last Thursday, the assumption of a more general interest proved to be correct.
One of the things he discusses time and time again relates to codes of behaviour. He mentions for instance a group of aunts and uncles at a birthday party, chatting in an amicable way with one another. However, they were also at each other’s throats when their mother’s inheritance was at play. These codes of behaviourare nothing but culture, a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people (at a given time and place).
Simply because a family may be considered as a group, a family also has its own culture. For that reason, my brother’s book may be read as a description of that culture; more a cultural anthropological description than a score on a series of dimensions.
In the same vein each team has its own culture. Much work has been done on the ideal composition of a team in terms of roles, distribution of work and leadership - from a theoretical point of view because in practice most of the time you simply put together the people you have available. Looking at teams from a cultural point of view sheds a different light on the human interaction at play and assists to quite some degree in the realisation of the team’s objective with more motivation and satisfaction. Looking at one’s own family from a cultural perspective may not always be welcomed!
Even if the specifics from one family to another differ, making them more or less interesting to others, each family has its own culture; what is normal in that family. Using culture to look at one’s family, lots of elements fall into place. Culture gives the picture of the family’ s jigsaw puzzle!
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Values are at the core of culture. They are the fundamental orientations of our thinking about true and false, good and bad. We develop them in our pre-adult years and theoretically they do not change afterwards. Norms are the day-to-day application of values.
In 1948 the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the years that followed these human rights did not appear as universal as hoped for or expected. Both governments and individual people had quite different interpretations of these rights. Part of it results from the power play of governments (e.g. the application of the 1975 Helsinki Treaty) but most from differences in the underlying values. Lots of research shows that we do not have (a set of) universal values. Even if we give a value the same name, the related concept differs at least in detail.
Prof. Pinto gives an interesting example with the famous Maslow pyramid of human needs. Its original form has basic needs at the bottom, followed by certainty, acceptation, recognition and self-development at the top. Pinto showed that model only applies to individualistic societies. In collective societies the pyramid would be constructed by the layers primary needs, pleasing the group, reputation and honour. In short, the value of values differs from culture to culture.
According to an article in a Dutch newspaper (Looking for the DNA of the Dutch by Hans Wansink, November 3rd, 2007) the classicist and archaeologist Enklaar recognises twelve Dutch values in three groups. Four values originate from Christianity, five from Weber’s labour ethics of Protestantism and three are uniquely Dutch. In line with sociologist Inglehart I would say that these last three originate from Dutch history. If that is true, then other countries would also have a unique set of common values, consisting of values shared with other states and values resulting from history.
The international co-operation between states may only be enhanced through the reconciliation of cultures and their underlying values. Stressing a universal nature of values leads us to misunderstanding and ultimately rejection of this valuable concept. Instead we should work on the creation of a space in which we reconciles commonalities and differences (transcultural). Welcome to the future!
A few developments in the Netherlands the last few days reminded me how strongly politics and culture are intertwined. Take for instance political parties. They are groups like thousands of other groups, each with their own culture (a way of thinking, acting and feeling). Through the political process these parties try to mainstream their perception of reality and their dream future of society. The process should result in solution, balance and the best representation of (national) interests. If political parties primarily serve specific interests (e.g. identity politics), finding common ground is more difficult with possible damage to the process.
That process itself depends on culture; on what people consider a fair and proper way of conducting the business of politics. From one state to another this process varies, sometimes considerably, even if sometimes not directly visible. An example is the confrontation style in the British House of Commons versus the basic orientation of working together in finding solutions in the best interest of the country as a whole (the Netherlands). Such a process results from history and continues to develop in the future.
An interesting element of the process may be found in the arguments politicians use. Theoretically, politics should find the best solution to a problem for the country as a whole while taking the minority view into consideration, even after the decision has been reached. However, the position of politicians is also determined by the interest of the political party itself. What is for instance the effect of a position on the next round of elections? If people are not convinced that politicians have their interests at heart, trust in politics and government is declining. Trust is at the heart of the game and very much determined by culture.
A fact-check on Dutch municipal politics showed an interesting example, a correlation between political orientation of municipal councils and municipal taxes; the more left of centre, the higher municipal taxes.
With politics grounded in national cultures, you may start to wonder about international politics. The point is that we do not have international politicians, only politicians with national orientations. Reaching international decisions is like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps or lifting yourself up by pulling your own hair.
National and international politics are not perfect and open to improvement but is what we have. Recognising the cultural dimension may help to improve politics.
Last week an international group of scientists published their findings on the sustainable diet of the future. Realising it would be a major change in behaviour, creating strong resistance. However, we would improve our health and be happier as a result. Health redefined as happiness or the other way around?
In a way I am happy with the outcome of this research. For years I am not convinced of the Dutch ‘disc of five’, a circle with five segments, indicating what type of food and how much one should eat per day. For dieticians this disc of five is start and finish of every discussion. They disregard any criticism and claim its universal nature. The facts that it includes dairy products and that 80% of world population has problems digesting dairy after the breast-feeding period, are mere details. For me the claim of universality rings hollow and I am now vindicated by the new proposal. The disc of five included choices on non-biological grounds and hence, implies culture.
I do not deny biological aspects of food. We know that spicy food in the tropics opens the pores and helps us perspiring. Some food combinations create proteins that help with physical out-door labour. In the arctic climate the fat layer is supported by food preferences. However, a one to one relationship between taste and needs does not exist.
What we do see is that what we eat and drink and how we do that varies considerably from one state to another (even if within the same climate zone) and from one region to another. The variation in how we eat is even bigger. You may think of utensils (hands, knife, fork, spoon, chopsticks; glass, cup, bottle), burping, soup first or last, from intake of energy to social event, variation, number of courses, number of meals per day, hot or cold, shop versus fresh from the sea, the hunt or the field, protocol (e.g. hands on the table, use of the left hand), talking business or not, halal, and more.
All these variations show next to necessity a lot of choice and hence, cultural elements. This also implies that we learn what to eat and drink and how we do that. As a consequence we may also learn something else; maybe not as an adult person, set in his or her way, but at least in a next generation. This at least indicates that it is possible, even if it requires quite some effort, time and transitional phases.
Welcome to sustainable food! Or, as Wendy said: where’s the beef?
A current topic of public discussion in the Netherlands is the translation of the Nashville declaration. The declaration has been drafted by Christians who favour a literal reading of the bible, rejecting homosexuality and bisexuality, leave alone transgenderism. The discussion is not about the existence of such ideas but rather about how they fit in Dutch society. A Dutch politician (leader of a Christian-democratic party in Parliament) has subscribed the translation, politicising the issue. Ultimately the question is whether the declaration conflicts with the Dutch constitution and whether MPs should defend the constitution (although in the Netherlands the constitution is not legally binding). This example shows different perceptions of the role of religion in society in the USA and the Netherlands. Another example would be former president George Bush who started his working day with a prayer session with his staff; impossible in the Netherlands.
Culture and religion have a difficult relation with one another. From a religions point of view, religion is the wider framework in which all human endeavour takes place. In such a case religion cannot be restrained by human rules or undertakings; one of the reasons why the Vatican is not a member of the United Nations (the only recognised state). From a cultural point of view the faithful of a certain religion is just another group, like pupils in a school, the member of a sports club or people with a certain profession. Because each group has its own culture (a way of thinking, feeling and acting), these faithful also have a culture, one of the many thousands in society. In this case the culture of this religious groups is just one of the many human activities and hence, subjected to the human condition.
The religious point of view makes religion a sensitive topic. The ‘us’ not only defend their position against all others (the them) but evens demands special consideration, protection even. Whether evolution should be mentioned in school or not, is just a simple example. The cultural perspective has allowed such a claim of special treatment but in theory would reject it. Indeed, culture recognises the influence of culture on society. Atheists cannot but recognise the influence of Christianity on Dutch society; you need to understand elements of Christianity.
Over the last few decades religion became less prominent in the public domain (in countries like the Netherlands). Religion became a more private issue. It moved from the public domain to somewhere ‘behind the front door’ of people’s houses. I would put even more faith in culture!
In the discussion of culture the perceptions of time do not get the attention they deserve. Yes, we know that people in one culture are more punctual than in others. In Peru they even make the difference between Peruvian time and English time when making an appointment. However, differences in time perceptions relate to many more topics and taking the consequences on board is often neglected.
Differences in punctuality, long-term versus short-term orientation and the value of time are the more familiar cultural aspects but adapting to these differences often proves much more difficult than expected. Irritation may easily spill over to other topics, resulting in anything from strained relations to lost contracts.
The research by Trompenaars adds the degree of overlap between past, present and future, the importance of each of these periods in relation to one another and the perceived duration of each of these periods takes (from seconds to years). Regarding overlap you see on the one hand cultures with no overlap of past, present and future (they do not have any impact on one another) and full overlap on the other with varying degrees in between; chronology versus synchronicity. If the past has no effect on the present, you cannot for instance argue in terms of continuity, while in other cultures the past should always be included.
Time also impacts communication styles (research by Hall). You may think of tempo, rhythm, synchrony, scheduling, lead-time and the importance of proper timing.
Most of these aspects work in the background and we deal with them on autopilot. This habit results in an underestimation of the consequences of the different perceptions and hence, in misunderstandings in contracts and relations. Being open to them (deliberately) also opens the door to some interesting discussions. Look less at your watch (or phone) and think more about time!
In countries like the Netherlands Christmas is all about being together with loved ones, whether religion still reigns supreme or not. Together you look forward to more light, a more peaceful existence. At the same time we are reminded that we should enlarge the group, in particular with those with less opportunities. However, we cannot have a community with all and everybody. A community is a group of people belonging together, people we can trust and who share values and aspirations. This is the core of the idea of community.
The larger the community, the less people share, although they still have patterns of thinking and acting (culture) in common. Indeed, the word ‘community’ is used for a neighbourhood, a village and even a country as a whole. The elusive concept of national culture indicates what people have in common at this general level. Key is a set of values and beliefs and the norms derived from them. These values and beliefs are the fundamental (subconscious) orientations of our thinking, shaped by history and religion. According to some researchers up to half of our national culture may be explained by the effects of history on our thinking and acting.
Scaling up the concept of community from Christmas to country coincides with the cultures of larger and smaller groups. However, a group is not only defined by size and by what you have in common but also by its opposition to other groups; us and them. If you start thinking about, you discover hundreds of ‘us’s and thems’ (with ‘me’ in the middle). All those groups overlap and all have commonalities and differences that need to be dealt with. The problem is that people have a strong tendency to stress the differences while in fact the commonalities are much bigger (e.g. at least 98% of our DNA).
Time and again we learn that stressing differences results in things getting off the rails. From culture through Nelson Mandela to negotiations we also learn that we only move forward by taking the commonalities as a starting point. The latter lesson needs to be re-learned over and over again and appears not to sink in as a standard operating procedure. As a result we discover tine and time again that people are not willing to recognise the commonalities and that we need time to find that common ground.
If you do not ‘spot the differences’ but ‘spot the commonalities’ you do not end up counting!
Economist Kate Raworth has presented a very interesting concept for a sustainable economy, the doughnut economy. The empty core represents the situation in which nobody should live; poverty, hunger, no sanitation, lack of education and so on. The outer limit indicates what Earth may provide as a maximum and we all know that quite a part of world population is living beyond those borders. We should all live in the doughnut itself.
When I read the book, I realised that such a concept touches on nearly all aspects of culture and requires a global cultural change. All the discussions on change management are peanuts in comparison. Aspects include more focus on the community (a partial reversal for individualistic societies), a change in values (e.g. no blind focus on growth), more awareness of dependence on the environment, a global involvement, different rules, other symbols and heroes, a different basis for status and power, adaptation of jobs and more change tolerance. Such a change may also include different role patterns for men and women and a different balance in the nature – nurture discussion (dealing with undesirable or no longer functional nature aspects).
In more general terms such a concept would include a restructuring of our societies. As a consequence the co-operation between states needs to be strongly enhanced, decreasing the amount of sovereignty. The latter is a fundamental principle of how the world is organised at present and such a change will in itself be enough for years of discussions, treaties and the like. The climate summit in Katowice is not even a warming-up. At the other end of the scale the individual also needs to change and become less self-centred and more community minded. You cannot even imagine how many vested interests need to taken down and how strong the reaction will be if you start trying to do so; again: across the whole spectrum from individual to the state.
Resistance is no reason for not trying and we even need more than trying; we need realising. Although I have been involved in cultural change in organisations, I have only a faint idea of where and how to start. Nevertheless, culture can help, if only by taking it into consideration. I would like to have my doughnut and eat it too!
In the Netherlands we have an on-going discussion on the management of nature reserves. Should we for instance provide extra food or let nature run its course, including starvation of many animals? Last week a judge decided that shooting hundreds of deer (to correct overpopulation) was allowed. One end of the discussion maintains the Netherlands is too small for true wilderness and that everything is tightly controlled. On the other end the argument is ‘nature is nature’, including the less appetising factors.
This dichotomy reflects a wider cultural difference of opinion, the relation between mankind and its environment. The question is who is the boss, man or nature? If mankind controls nature, it may use its environment to its liking. This includes the use of minerals, dumping of waste, housing, water management and so on. Nature has the task to take care of itself and to remain to be at service. The opposite view holds that mankind may jump high or low but has to obey the rules of nature in the end. Nature then sets ‘limits to growth’ and opposes mankind with everything from agricultural pests to earthquakes and floods.
These different perceptions of the environment run through national cultures but also economic sectors; from mining to wildlife shelters. At present the difference plays a major role in the background of two global and connected issues, sustainability and climate change. If we want to realise a sustainable economy, like for instance the doughnut economy, we need to give the environment a place of honour at the negotiating table. The same argument applies to limiting, mitigating or adapting to climate change.
Both issues prove to be hard to deal with. Many good reasons may be mentioned for these difficulties, including costs involved, the consequences for our lifestyle (a cultural aspect in itself) and the sovereignty of states. However, behind all this hides the perception of the environment. To complicate things further I may also mention the relation with religion. Some religions stress the need to improve the Earth because Paradise will be established here, while for others afterlife is beyond the physical constraints of our environment.
I’d say, take a hike and enjoy nature as long as it lasts.
Comments in the mass media often link Brexit with the election of president Trump and the yellow jackets in France. Often mentioned reasons include the rise of populism, the gap between cities and countryside and the effects of globalisation. Populism refers to the dissatisfaction of ‘normal’ people (actually quite a diverse group) with the elite, with globalisation and immigration. The effects of neoliberalism are nicely summarised in a remark by journalist Chazia Mourali in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of today. In the past your status as a human being depended on your social impact but is now reduced to your economic meaning.
All these developments have a strong cultural component. Some browsing on the website of the World Values Survey shows a range of significant figures. I just take one example, the survey 2010-2014, the confidence in government and only the answer categories ‘a great deal’ and ‘quite a lot’. For France the scores are 3% and 26%, for the UK 5% and 28% and the USA 5% and 32%. As is often the case, relatively small differences may have quite an impact. In combination with some other data they may explain why things turned violent in France.
In the case of Brexit we need to disentangle immigration and the EU. In the referendum the two together created a platform for the expression of dissatisfaction. As The Economist showed not immigration as such was a problem but the relatively strong increase of immigration in a given area. The change per district over the last few years determined the vote, not the absolute numbers. This refers to cultural dimensions as change tolerance and uncertainty avoidance.
The EU side of the argument refers to the position of the UK in the international order of states, from an imperial power that rules the world to a simple member of the EU in less than a century (not to mention the war efforts). A key cultural component here is the effect of history on mentality. Not the history of dates, battles and kings but the history as a contribution to national culture. According to the American sociologist Inglehart history in the latter meaning may explain up to half of national cultural differences.
Some more understanding, some more accommodation, some more co-operation, some more peace and quiet.
The last few decades more and more people openly opted for a sex change. To do so in public is in itself a cultural change because it points at changing attitudes regarding men and women. Even the technological developments enabling sex change have a cultural component when you think about the choice of using the medical system for this purpose. However, I would go one step further in claiming that it is all about culture.
From a strictly biological point of view a sex change is (as yet?) impossible and many transgenders do not even want to. A man becoming a woman cannot get pregnant and a woman becoming a man cannot make a woman pregnant. Yes, the discussion is not that black and white. You do have people who were born in between (e.g. XXY) and you do make changes to the body (e.g. through hormones). However, if people cannot change their sex in the strictly biological sense, the doors are wide open for a cultural discussion.
From a cultural perspective the transgender discussion is about role patterns of men and women in society. These role patterns developed from the early days when men were stronger than women and the different contributions to the survival of mankind (in particular from agricultural society onwards). Over the last century some imbalances have been addressed but not fully taken away. In legal systems for instance women are more protected than men. Women more often than not may still call the shots at home but not at work.
In our present society (biological) men may see more advantages in female gender (role pattern) and women may recognise benefits in male gender. Nothing wrong with that. The question is only whether you solve this issue by becoming a transgender. An alternative answer (more on the collective rather than the individual level) would be a change in role patterns. This is of course easier said than done but the developments in the last few decades indicate that such a process may have started. In short, men: dress up! Women: dress down!
Last week a judge in the Netherlands ordered a foundation to make the personal data on one member available to the tax office. I admired the foundation for going to court but wondered at the same time about my own personal data. This led to questions about privacy and in particular the cultural aspects of privacy.
I see at least three cultural aspects of privacy: values, institutions and individualism. The latter is the easiest. In a collective society the group is more important than the individual and hence, (individual) privacy less so. You may still have sex in private but lots of personal data are well known within the group.
Values as fundamental orientations of our thinking play an important role. A key value is trust, in particular trust in other people, in institutions and in particular in government. You need to trust other people in keeping your data safe. A simple example is well known for years at airports: thieves may see from your luggage label that you are on holiday and use the opportunity. You also need to trust institutions (companies, foundations, associations, government and so on) that they protect your personal data. Many states do have rules and regulations how to do that but human systems are never perfect and hence, may be misused. In addition, some rules and regulations pose a disproportional burden on an organisation. Take for instance some IT requirements for a local soccer club.
Trust in institutions is a key element of and is promoted by civil society. The transformation process in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall showed that the promotion of civil society was often more important than the political and economic aspects of the transformation. We learned that the quality of civil society is a key condition for the democratisation process. In this sense trust and privacy are strongly related to people taking the initiative to improve society.
In short: get involved, get private
Last week a Dutch newspaper published an article on how women are better than men in recognising faces. Among the possible explanations the evolutionary aspects were not mentioned.
In addition, I would like to stress that no universal facial expressions exist. Yes, some facial muscles we cannot control and they may be linked to emotion but the claim that all people express some emotions in the same way has been invalidated (even if for instance the CIA still uses it in its interrogation techniques). If no universal facial expressions exist, culture always plays a role in how to interpret these expressions.
One possible evolutionary explanation of women’s capabilities starts from the idea that men are taller and stronger than women. In The Good Book of Human Naturethe authors claim that this is only the case after the transition from the hunters and gatherers society to the agricultural society. The question is how women deal with this difference, how they compensate for this physical inequality (on average). The short answer is better communication (up to manipulation) and appearance (up to seduction). Related to facial recognition women had to read the early signs of possible violence, either to defuse the situation or to get out of the way.
Another evolutionary reason has to do with traditional role patterns. If women take care of babies and small children, they depend on body language to recognise for instance illness.
If indeed evolution is at play culture does play a role. The ways of thinking and acting (culture) in those early days became embedded in mankind as a combination of nature and nurture. Let’s read!
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Two weeks ago I spoke by chance with an American law professor (not to boast but just to highlight the different cultural frameworks). We discussed the emergence of strong political leaders across the world and agreed on three widely accepted causes, technological development, globalisation and immigration. The last round of globalisation – an earlier round was just before World War I – increased global interdependence and decreased border controls with international migration as one of its consequences. National societies realised more and more to be part of a global society but many individuals remained in their established national frameworks. However, they were forced to live with this international exposure for better and worse. Better in view of economic growth, more choice and cheaper products. Worse in terms of losing the overview, being unable to deal with it. From an individual perspective for instance people lost jobs to other countries and on top of that foreigners came in to take even more jobs. In such circumstances economic benefits from a national perspective disappear behind the horizon.
From a cultural perspective technological change, globalisation and migration create uncertainty. Many national cultures try to avoid uncertainty, for instance by creating and enforcing rules. In this case rules hardly work because of the slippery nature of the developments and the sovereignty of states. And what we had for an international rule-based system is being broken down by the state that is (was?) at the heart of it. When rules do not work, people demand that their leaders do something. Enter populism and the strong leader.
However an additional factor plays in the background, the shift to a fourth type of human society. Because it comes after the modern or industrial society, it is called for the moment post-industrial or post-modern society. In terms of sociologist Ronald Inglehart this type of society will be less about politics and hard work and more about the quality of existence and individual expression (not the same as individualism). This nicely ties in with concepts as sustainability and Kate Raworth’s donut economy. Most of Inglehart’s theory needs to be proven by the developments in the coming years but it does give handles to understand quite of developments.
We do live in interesting times and we do need to map out the road towards the future.
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Today I was interviewed on radio (www.newbusinessradio.nl) about my new book, Encyclopedia of Culture. Such a one hour live interview with tens of thousands listeners is a culture in itself, one for which I did not have the paradigm readily available; culture shock! I took the lead of the interviewer, tried to answer his questions as best as possible and left the process to him. Well, it seems to have worked out and for those of you who understand Dutch I will add a podcast to my website!
A key question was: why would business be interested in culture, leave alone other target groups? Not that I did not consider the question before but three hundred pages does not equal three minutes. I started my answer with the bottom-line of business, money. If an organisational culture is well aligned with the objectives of the company, effectiveness and efficiency increases, health related absence decreases and employees are more satisfied. The London School of Economics calculated some years ago that every year at least €7 billion is lost as a result of failed economic co-operation across borders within the European Union alone.
I then widened my answer with the triangle model of culture in mind. On the individual level culture may helps us to recognise how we are conditioned by all kinds of influences. Self understanding helps in doing your job in a better way from drawing lines to jumping at opportunities. The effect is quite visible in teams but teams in themselves are objects of culture. The better the culture, the smoother the co-operation, the better the results.
Next to the individual and team you may think of organisational culture, not only for the point mentioned above (the alignment with the objectives) but also for change management. Change management often fails because people are instructed to do things in a different way without paying attention to the required change in thinking. New procedures and old patterns of thinking result in conflict and ultimately something breaks.
At the national level culture plays a role in for instance multicultural society. Whether you like it or not but business has to take different backgrounds into consideration. If not, people will vote with their feet or just do not do things as they should.
Finally, on the international level business has to take differences in national cultures in stride. Failing to do so results in lost business or rather strained and short-term relations. The Dutch are famous for going after every possible business opportunity at the lowest possible price but they are definitely not the most loved persons.
In an ideal world the Human Resources Manager is the person who looks after culture within the company and its contacts with the outside world. In reality many do not have a clue, even if only because it was not included in their study programme.
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Economics and culture have a close relationship and a separation is unthinkable. You see this immediately when you look at organisational culture or the culture of a team. It also plays an important role in international contacts: trade, joint ventures, investments, buying a company and so on. The London School of Economics once calculated that the failure of economic co-operation within the European Union as a result of cultural differences costs €7 billion per year. The costs of a suboptimal organisational culture are harder to calculate but include bankruptcy.
Values (the fundamental orientations of our thinking) show this close relation in another light. They determine the nature of our economic systems; yes, ‘systems’, plural because economics is not a worldwide one-size-fits-all. The Anglo-Saxon system gives priority to the return on investment for the shareholder. This single-minded focus even implies that you may terminate a healthy company (profits, satisfied customers) because the return on investment is too low. This system contrast with for instance the Rhineland model in which the shareholder is just one of the parties. The Rhineland has a focus on the product and its customers. The difference between the two systems is visible in the difficulties of applying business models from one system in the other. The last few years have shown quite a few examples of the problems a Rhineland company faces when it tries to act as an Anglo-Saxon one. Such a travesty is a recipe for near-disaster.
Because values are developed in the pre-adult years and do not change much afterwards, changing the economic systems is not only hard but will also take three to four generations. At the same time we do know that we have make a fundamental change, a paradigm shift, in view of limited resources, pollution and climate change. With Kate Raworth’s donut economy we have at least a starting point for doing so. The hole in the donut represents the situation in which people live below minimum standards (e.g. starvation, war, lack of health care). The outer limit of the donut stands for the outer limit of what the planet may provide us, a limit we should not be passing (but actually do). The model implies that we should live within the donut.
If you take a closer look at the donut economy, you see it is all about culture. Examples include the focus on community and cohesion (see the cultural discussion on individualistic versus collective societies); a re-orientation of the ideas of growth and entrepreneurship (pillars of the present system); the link with politics and internationalisation; the perception of the environment (is the environment at the disposal of mankind or does mankind have to obey the rules of nature?); and over and over again values, beliefs and their consequent norms. To realise a sustainable economic system like the doughnut economy is a global cultural change. Either we all work together in realising such a change or nature will force us to do so if we want to preserve mankind.
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Rules are an instrument of organising the functioning of a group. They determine what you should do or should not do. But rules also imply a moral dimension. Just take two extreme examples: do you allow abortion or euthanasia or not (by law or in practice)? In this way rules refer to justice and what is justified.
In terms of culture rules are based on values and these vary from group to group, society to society. It implies that rules are strongly linked to culture. The same argument applies to that moral dimension. Morality is again strongly linked to values. The same line of thinking also applies to the use of rules to protect weaker persons or groups. Women's emancipation for instance has explicitly used legislation. In the same vein rules may assist with uncertainty avoidance. Rules play a role at all levels. Your personal rules are the norms you live by; individual level. In a family or a team you see a limited number of explicit rules but quite a few unwritten rules, both with consequences if you do not stick to them. In an organisation the rules are already more explicit. I recall an organisation that allowed only four cups of coffee or tea per day through your personnel pass. At the level of the state you see the whole system of legislation and all the forces to implement it.
According to researcher and consultant Trompenaars the application of rules differ across cultures. In universalist countries people prefer to stick to the rules but in particularist societies people look at the circumstances first.
Looking at the level of states the principle of sovereignty implies that states do not recognise a higher authority than themselves. However, states may create such a higher authority between them and stick to it. That is the role of international organisations with the European Union as the extreme example. Over thousands of years we have learned that some (voluntary) international rules for states are the only way to prevent a power grab and to ensure security. That is why the international rules based system of the last 70 years is such an enormous progress and why we should do our best to protect and improve it. States have no alternative.
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Welcome on this new blog that will discuss culture in day-to-day life. I will use two approaches. One is to show the cultural dimension of events and developments discussed in the mass media or on social media. The other is to take an aspect of culture and to show its impact. Culture is taken as a way of thinking and acting of a group of people (at a given time and place).
Let's take an example. When Trump was just elected, the attitude was 'Trump trumps trust' or in other words 'you cannot trust that guy'. Trust is one of those concepts that depend completely on culture. Who do you trust and for what reason? The answer to this question ultimately depends on our values, the basic orientations of our thinking that tell us what is right or wrong, true or false. Values in turn are at the core or culture. If things get out of hand you might get 'trust trumps Trump'.
From the other side I may start with the dimension of individualistic versus collective society. The USA is a strongly individualistic society. A win-loose approach (the winner takes all) would well fit in such an environment. However, such an approach is bound to create difficulties in a world community of sovereign and mutually dependent states. A loser may then be quite willing to wait a while to turn the tables.
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