Culture Applied; Management

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!


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Culture Applied; Biodiversity

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. 


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Culture Applied; Language

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. 


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Culture Applied; Foreign Policy

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!


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Culture Applied; Water Management

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!


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Culture Applied; Women

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!


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Culture Applied; The Arts

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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Culture Applied; Power

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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Culture Applied; Incidents

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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Culture Applied; Trust

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!

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Culture Applied; Family Culture

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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Culture Applied; Values

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!

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Culture Applied; Politics

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. 

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Culture Applied; Food and Drinks

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?

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Culture Applied; Religion

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!


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Culture Applied; Time

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!


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Culture Applied; Community

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!

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Culture Applied; Sustainability

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!

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Culture Applied; Environment

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. 

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Culture Applied; Brexit

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.

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Culture Applied; Transgender

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!

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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

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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 ( 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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Culture Applied; Economics

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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