Culture Applied, Policy

Changing times require changing governments. As a first step governments should recognise the (fundamental) nature of the change and its consequences. One of the present changes I mentioned earlier, the shift towards a new type of society in line with the theories of sociologist Inglehart. Widely discussed, is the change towards a sustainable future, based on another economic system, lifestyle, food pattern and the like. Changes like these raise question about the role of government and what the tasks of government are.

A quick and dirty way description the tasks of government is: security and prosperity. Both of them have an internal and external dimension. Security runs from the security of the state (with key roles for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for prevention and the Ministry of Defence for the armed forces) to the security of the citizen (police but also judiciary and fire services). Prosperity focuses externally on good international relations (in particular economic) and the internally on the welfare of the citizen (food, income). Education for instance plays a supporting role in this dichotomy.

Another way of looking at government is the promotion of general interest: what is best for the largest group of people, taking the minority into account? The implication is for instance that a Ministry of Agriculture does not exist to promote the interests of farmers  but the interest of the population regarding agriculture. If indeed nitrogen deposition does more harm to the population at large (through for instance decreasing the quality of nature) than shrinking the animal husbandry sector, the policy should focus on the limits to nitrogen while paying (also literally) attention to the farmers. In the meantime lobbying is allowed but should not change policy or its direction. The nitrogen discussion in the Netherlands is a fine example of lobbying turning into pressure and violence. Farmers and related companies as a rule do not show any willingness to discuss things or to take responsibility. They also have perceptions of what nature is and draw different conclusions from research (if research is accepted as such). 

Over the last 20 years the focus in many countries has been on the markets, in particular the transfer of governmental tasks to the markets (Hayek, neoliberalism). During the corona years we discovered that lots of societal values, including health care, had suffered as a result of this market oriented thinking (government spends the minimum amount of money to sectors that only cost money). In other words markets and social justice do not go together. It resulted in disillusion and mistrust in government. Governments have now to rethink how societal values like the health system can be maintained and paid for but not many politicians are capable of such strategic thinking, leave alone that parliaments go along or convincing the population at large why things have to change that way. Many governments appear not to be willing to learn from developments or simply to recognise mistakes.

All this is strongly related to culture, the way of thinking and acting of governments or governmental culture for short. Considerations like the ones above should also be part of upbringing and education, instilling democratic values and their consequences; yet another area of neglect as well as something with a strong cultural dimension. Many people have been satisfied with their lives over the last few decades and are not ready for the cultural change that is coming. And governments lack the strategic vision to cope with it. By the way, I do not say that I am that well prepared myself, if only for my daily ‘need’ of meat.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Group

The relations between individual and group are a key issue in culture. Most attention in research is paid to individualistic and collectivist national cultures. In the former the individual takes centre stage and the group plays a supporting role. In group oriented cultures we have the same cast but the roles are reversed. In those cultures the individual is subordinated to the group. I suppose this is nothing new for people who have even paid very limited attention to culture. Because of the importance of this dimension I mentioned it in earlier blogs. You can see the conflict on this point for instance in the discussions on multicultural society; a Mediterranean immigrant in the Netherlands is more group oriented than than an inhabitant. 

The column by Wieteke van Zeil (VK Magazine, July 9th, 2022), Little Man in the Crowd; look to the outside discusses the same issue by looking at the painting The Group nr. 1 by Nabil El Makhlouft (depicted). She mentions the feeling of togetherness, the moment that the groups becomes one and that you as an individual become larger, lighter and more powerful than on your own. At the same time the picture shows a degree of relaxation. She draws attention to the boy, looking outside, not being part of the crowd. Next to these positive points she mentions that thinking in groups may also undermine the world and humanity.

When I was looking at the picture I realised that everyone (but one) may be looking inward but if he wants to may be looking outwards over the shoulders of the others in the group. Even a cohesive, tightly knit group is never fully isolated from society if one of its member is willing to look outside. The idea of the flock of a tight religion springs to mind. 

The positive side of a group is its power (more than an individual can do) and the mutual support of its members. You may deal with threats as a group and build on the opportunities. Groups have been and probably still are important for survival, from an individual up to humankind as a whole. The negative side is that you do not count that much as an individual, you have to live in line with what the group expects from you (education, job, partner and so on). The tension to do so is reflected in honour and shame with the related behaviour; considered as excesses in an individualistic society. 

An individual cannot do all and everything on its own and does need groups to realise his or her objectives. Over the last few decades we see a development towards more individualism in ‘western’ countries, accompanied by critical remarks from people in collectivist societies. An interesting development here might be what sociologist Inglehart calls individual self-expression. This might be a characteristic of a new type of society that at present emerges. The idea is in line with individualism but in combination with group memberships. You may have the protection of a group as well as speaking your own mind. 

Every person determines his or her own position on this dimension. I think it is not a single position but rather depends on the group you are in. For instance, you may be individualistic in your work but collectivist in church. Individualistic persons may also enjoy the peer pressure and gossip of a small village in the countryside (a journalist using it as a source). We do make these decisions subconsciously but it would not hurt to pay some attention to the other approach. Respecting one another and being open for each other’s ways of doing things would prevent misunderstanding and conflict.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Climate

Climate as such has nothing to do with culture, but human perceptions (ways of thinking) of climate and the related ways of acting and feeling do so. In view of the heated discussions, you might think that these perceptions, the climate culture, are even more important than the actual climate. In the Netherlands the related issues (e.g. carbon footprints, nitrogen, energy, changing temperatures, nature, food, water) form a toxic mix and the government shows to be incapable to handle things. The neoliberal governments of the last two decades paid lip-service to these issues and were not really willing to act, leave alone spend money on it, when it would have made the difference. At the moment most of the farmers are up in arms because of a package of nitrogen related issues, probably with a much smaller animal husbandry sector as a result. If their violent protests give them brownie points and result in changes in national policy, the rule of law may be threatened, simply because violence pays of. 

The relation between nature and culture is one of the seven dilemmas in the research by Fons Trompenaars (in more general terms the environment gets attention in cultural anthropology and in values research). In his publication Riding the Ways of Culture (1997) he defines the dilemma in question with internalism (internal control) on one side and externalism (external control) on the other. Internalism reflects the idea that humankind has to get a grip on nature, externalism states that humankind is part of nature and has to obey its laws. You may wonder whether the actual climate changes are pushing humankind into a more externalist position but in view of the actions by governments I would say only in a modest way. 

In earlier blogs I also paid attention to climate, including the question what kind of nature a country like the Netherlands should have, the link with sustainability, the slowly moving but fundamental changes in accordance with the model of Stewart Brand, the costs of nature and the idea that all these changes result from human endeavour. In yet another blog I focused on the tested and tried ways and means of conducting research (the scientific culture). Just like the rule of law the overall agreement on how to conduct research is under threat. In the carbon dioxide and the nitrogen discussions protest groups openly doubt measurements and the related models. The consequence of such an attitude is that you have no idea of causes and effects and you would have no basis for defining your policies. A few weeks ago doubts were raised once again about the IPCC reports. 

The war in the Ukraine appears to deliver everything Putin tried to prevent. Maybe this also applies to energy. Putin’s warfare includes decreases in gas and oil deliveries, resulting in a scramble for alternatives. These alternatives may include muddled policies, a lack of focus and a waste of money but they do open the eyes of quite a few people. However, ’opening the eyes’ is not the same as acting upon it because people cannot pay for (sustainable) adaptation and mitigation if they already have difficulties in fulfilling their basic needs. Similar arguments apply to the decreases in food exports. And do not forget the enormous pollution of burning enormous amounts of gas at Russian gas stations because it is not delivered to the customers. 

The range of problems facing governments like the one in the Netherlands appear too much. None of the Dutch national politicians have a comprehensive view or they focus on other issues (like the decreasing quality of education, the malfunctioning of the tax office, the out of control system for asylum seekers, increasing inflation). I may only hope that the focus will remain on climate change because of the consequences of future generations. Probably none of the leading Dutch politicians is capable doing so. I will be grateful if Putin forces a change here as well!

All of this reflects a degree of human hubris. A friend of mine is well versed in all arguments related to climate change. When he read the draft of this blog he stressed that we cannot control the climate, simply because humankind does not control the major forces behind it. I am afraid I have to agree but beaten down in the corner I cannot resist to ask: what to do? My inclination to think in terms of internal control blocks the idea blocks the idea of a partial destruction of humankind with all the related suffering. From my cultural corner I can only say that we need a different way of thinking, acting and feeling; culture for short. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Fortuna

In the first week of August I visited the city of Sneek for a series of workshops for Ukrainians. Because I did not visit Sneek before I walked around the city. One of the things I really wanted to see is its famous Water Gate. However, I was even more impressed by the fountain next to it (see picture).

A sign mentions the following. “A man with a cornucopia [a horn of plenty] stands in the middle of the water on a golden sphere. The image refers to Fortuna, the goddess of happiness and the patroness of cities, families and people. The overflowing horn symbolises the material prosperity of the happy one who gets in touch with it. However, the golden sphere continuously turns around its axis so that the water, like the inflow of fortune, becomes a capricious force. The overflow that pours out over us by coincidence, may be taken from us just as fast again by fate.” Thanks to internet: the sculptor is Stephan Balkenhol. 

Although Fortuna is originally a Roman goddess, depicted traditionally with a golden sphere and the cornucopia. Often she also holds a rudder because she steers our life through fortune and misfortune. In this sculpture the rudder is lacking and the goddess is depicted as a man. 

Fortune and misfortune are elements of life, resulting from a series of uncontrollable circumstances. According to Roman mythology the capricious nature of this goddess contrast with the inflexible nature of Fate. 

Mythology is part of culture but fortune has its own relation to culture. The first point is our perception of control over circumstances. In an earlier blog I already discussed the dilemma of external and internal control (research by Trompenaars). This varies across cultures. Being ill for instance is a question of misfortune in European eyes but a question of self-responsibility in American eyes; the Americans score higher on external control. A related aspect is uncertainty. The degree of uncertainty we can deal with or our efforts to avoid it, vary again across cultures. I would say that the two are related: if you have the idea to be in control, you do not need to be uncertain. 

We all know periods in our lives that the wind blows in our direction. Whether you ascribe such a period to luck or personal achievements is yet another cultural dilemma. However, if you claim achievement in good times, you should also take responsibility in bad times. A related and fundamental question is how much a government should do to prevent and alleviate the bad luck of its citizens; from health care and social services to housing war refugees and mitigating climate change. Even if the core tasks of a state are the same (security and prosperity), the related policies and their implementation depend for quite some degree on national cultures. 

Once again, not everything is our lives depends on culture. Capricious fortune is a force for which you may be grateful when it showers on you; and misfortune may be something for which you prepare as in contingency planning. A touristic stroll reminded me that culture is not omnipotent; making a soft landing on earth. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 



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Culture Applied, Work 2

The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant published on July 9th 2022 an interview with Dr. Jan Lucassen on the occasion of his book The Story of Work, a new History of Humankind (2021). He was also briefly mentioned in my blog of September 7th 2021. Dr. Lucassen uses the definition by Chris and Charles Tilly: work is any human effort adding use value to goods and services. 

I pick and choose (from a cultural perspective of course) a few thoughts from this interview.

When reading the interview I wondered whether work is a topic of the impact of culture or rather an aspect of culture. Even in this short enumeration you see culture coming back all the time; see the words in bold typeface. 

I also went through the database of the World Values Survey. You find a question on the importance of work. People are also asked to react to statements like ‘when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women’; ‘when jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to people from their own nationality, rather than immigrants’; ‘people who don’t work, turn lazy’; ‘work is a duty to society’; ‘work should always come first, even if it means less spare time’; ‘in future changes less importance should be place on work’ Also the position of respondents on  a few dilemmas is recorded. 

All in all I start to notice that present day retirement is more like a long holiday with some household jobs, rather then being (kept) busy. And do not tell anyone but I would definitely be more satisfied if I could pick up parts of my old job again. Why am I writing these blogs?

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Fraternities

Fraternities and sororities are clear examples of specific groups with their own culture. This makes them interesting in itself for someone who studies culture, particularly at special moments. For years student fraternities in the Netherlands (student sororities to a lesser degree) draw public attention with excesses during membership rituals (baptism), resulting even in hospitalisation of candidate members. Collectively these student associations are known in the Netherlands as the corps.  

At the end of July, the event was not a baptism but a lustrum dinner for nearly 2,000 men and women in Amsterdam. Men and women were separated by a temporary wall. At a certain moment the men were throwing ‘plastic beer glasses’ with beer over that wall. During a speech a board member called women whores or ‘sperm-buckets’ and mentioned that the corps stands above society. And this Amsterdam corps started a trajectory of cultural change a year ago. Only a few women left (including a waitress) and a few weeks later new students were queuing to become a member!

If cultural change is failing internally, the external acceptance of that culture is in view of reactions clearly decreasing; in particular the misogynie part of that culture. However, the corps culture is wider that that. It encompasses the idea that member support and defend one another, not only during study but also afterwards. Although many people say they leave the corps behind when they have obtained their master, the reality is quite different. The friendships continue and they often include the passing on of information that may further a career. Sometimes former corps members recommend or even appoint other former corps member for jobs.

In this way the corps culture continues. At such a lustrum dinner former members (if such a thing exists, former members) are present as well, reinforcing their mutual bond. The way of doing things is often considered as false superiority but many managers get away with it; only the employees suffer from it. In my days at the Foreign Ministry the organisational culture was to a large degree determined by the corps and it took me a few years to figure it out (the Free University of Brussels did not have a corps). A key moment was when I was appointed as a liaison officer to the Ministry of Defence and discovered how different the organisational culture could be; including less focus on hierarchy (at DoD!), less on person and more on the job at hand. 

The interesting question is where this culture comes from. Maybe this needs to be addressed by an embedded cultural anthropologist. The misogynie is definitely not a standard role pattern, standard as in common in society at large. The equality of men and women does need more attention in the Netherlands but the differences were never that strong as expressed in the corps. A similar argument may be found in patriarchal thinking. My inclination would be to focus on being part of the elite and the related power. I leave the discussion what an elite is for now but ‘being at the top’ covers it in general terms. 

Another point to consider is the risk of a closed group, if not a closed off group. Indeed many members only meet other members of the elite, both during and after their student years. These people often show a limited capability of having a conversation with less privileged or underprivileged people. This coincides with years old complaints that national politicians function within their own bubble without addressing the real needs of real people. 

I also wonder about the effects of corps membership on later behaviour, in particular in managerial positions. As mentioned above the air of superiority is often resented by others and not even accepted. Such emotions refer to internal relations but do not answer the question whether (former) corps membership has an impact on job performance. On the other hand an expert is recognised as such, whatever his or her behaviour. 

The focus in this blog on fraternities does not imply that everything is peace and quiet in sororities. Because of differences in role patterns (and maybe even on the biological level) women simply have different ways of getting even with another women; less physical power, more soft power like manipulation. 

Furthermore, the excesses are in themselves an insufficient argument against the corps. Membership of a fraternity or sorority does help in finding your way during student days and making lasting friendships. Their focus is on getting together and having fun. Alternatives include for instance student association with a focus on content. Activities then include debates about that topic. The point is not the anonymity in a mass of students but rather a mutual reinforcement of being part of societal elite. The members with a spine are aware of it and act accordingly. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Upbringing

As part of a workshop on Ukrainian and Dutch national cultures, I was asked to pay attention to the perceptions regarding the upbringing of children. I was surprised to notice the limited amount of information on the topic in my documentation. However, a reliable source for getting an idea is the website of the World Values Survey (wvs.jsp) and in particular a series of questions under the heading Important child qualities. The topics mentioned, are good manners; independence; hard work; feeling of responsibility; imagination; tolerance and respect for others; thrift, saving money and things; determination and perseverance; religious faith; unselfishness; obedience. A few other relevant questions related to making parents proud as a goal in life; the idea that a pre-school child suffers with a working mother; homosexual couples are as good parents as other couples; duty towards society to have children; justifiable: parents beating children.

Only three issues stand out in terms of the culture gap between Ukraine and the Netherlands: the child qualities hard work and tolerance and respect for others; and the statement that homosexual couples are as good parents as other couples.

When I zoom out, I would start with confirming that the first twenty years or so determine (most of the time) how an individual will conduct his or her life. A key element are values  and the norms derived from them, in particular when you accept the idea that values do not change in adult life. In the papers by my students in Maastricht the role of family in the development of values was stressed over and over again. 

However, you should also look at the other players on the stage; e.g. teachers, sports coaches, scouting, friends, hobbies, priests, things you do on your own, books you read, music you enjoy and so on. Preparing for an online course on culture I grouped these others under the headings education, upbringing and personal development. Together with family these four are in my opinion the building blocks of individual culture.

I discussed individual culture in these blogs before. The idea is that each of us is or was a member of hundreds of different groups; each group with its own culture. An individual person is then a unique combination of the cultures of all the related cultures, a crossroads. This idea go ways further than a label and a funny concept. Turning the process around, from the individual to the constituent cultures, proves quite enlightening in understanding oneself; as again proven by the papers by my students. This understanding of oneself in turn helps in dealing with cultures. I definitely would welcome more research along those lines. 

You may characterise an individual by personality and identity (nature and nurture respectively). Individual culture would then be a synonym for identity. Nevertheless, both terms result in different descriptions of the nurture part of me because the two different starting points are linked to different scientific cultures. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Workshops for Ukrainians

In the first week of August I organised six workshops for Ukrainians in the Netherlands. The facility in question was a hotel in the city of Sneek, rented for a year by the municipality. It housed around 100 Ukrainians and 30 children. Most of the residents found work, the children faced the difficulty of empty hours during summer holidays. On regular days the children bike to school. 

All six workshops dealt with the Dutch and Ukrainian national cultures. In addition, each workshop paid attention to a specific topic (European integration, transformation in Central and Eastern Europe, values, upbringing, work and cultural competence). Thanks to these topics and the variation in times and days, participants could choose what suited them best or fitted their interests. 

Regrettably, the number of participants for each workshop was small. The command of English was limited and hence, everything was translated into Russian (by a Belarusian). Nevertheless, those that participated were quite involved and the discussion in the Ukrainian group on these issues is now starting up. Indeed, better one that gets inspired than a hundred, leaning back and relax. 

Overall you might say that the importance of dealing with the two national cultures is now recognised but actually doing so is still in an early stage. Dutch authorities appear not to be interested in dealing with culture or only in terms of some tricks of the trade. They are not aware of the necessity of having a wider background, in particular about the cultural competence (knowledge, skills and attitudes) and experience. 

The liaison officer between facility and municipality told me how the reception of the Ukrainians did not fit any of the standard procedures of the bureaucracy, resulting in uncertainty avoidance and an unwillingness to try something out. On the other hand the municipal authorities had to do something. The tension between the two approaches continues but works out well, compared to some other facilities. In the same vein employers really had to be convinced to employ Ukrainians, requiring hours of talking to them, one by one. By now, that flywheel is spinning.

You might say that the realisation of the workshops on two national cultures showed some aspects of the organisational cultures of the municipality and the employers. And if that is not enough culture yet, you might discuss the organisational culture of the facility. In my opinion the Dutch staff is quite considerate, open and willing to address all possible issues. I noticed a good balance between involvement and rules. The Dutch staff recognised the difficulties for the Ukrainians and tried as best as possible to accommodate them. On the other hand rules were strictly applied. Someone who sprayed graffiti in the fitness room was sent to a shop to buy wallpaper and the necessary equipment; at his own costs. A fight between two residents was not swept under the carpet of war trauma but the police was called in. The open doors to the terrace were indeed symbolic for the atmosphere. 

The children do go to school but the Dutch schools are now closed for holidays; so they are just hanging around. They have bikes for going to school, so they bike for fun. They play all kinds of games and some stayed close to their parents during the workshop. I loved a little Ukrainian girl with a Ukrainian jumper, blue on top, yellow at the bottom and a big red heart in front. You do not need language to give a high-five when passing by. A Dutch manager said she had all of a sudden 31 children and the kitchen staff was singing nursery rhymes to the children. A security guard told me that some children like to go out on their bikes at 21:00h or even 22:00h. He discussed it with parents because it is dark and they do not the rules that well. An accident may easily happen. The first reaction by parents was: well, they bike to school as well, do no they? And the guard answered: yes, in daytime and we will get an immediate phonemail if they don’t arrive. Little details like that tell a interesting story! This rosy picture of the children does not say anything on the effects of the war on them and these effects may take longer to show. 

I know that all this only applies to a single, small town; to a hundred instead of thousands of Ukrainians. But it may serve as a model! And yes, that would requires effort, facilities and a willingness to try out what works. As for me, I am thankful for the learning experience. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Research

I realised I had a prejudice that I was not aware of before, related to mindlessness and academic training. A lawyer told me that Einstein was rejected the idea of quantum physics as proven  proven by his statement that God does not play dice. And even that statement was proven to be wrong. Later on the lawyer made things worse by admitting not to have the faintest idea what quantum physics is. 

I was flabbergasted. This is a mix of physics (the ‘real’ world) and the supernatural and ‘never the twain shall meet’ (Kipling); at least for now and as far as we know. The Roman Catholic church could not prove the existence of God over the last 2000 years and its confession still starts with Credo or I believe, not I know. A similar argument applies to other religions. And why would you make a statement about something you do not have a clue about? 

At the same time this statement is a sign of the times in which science and research are much less trusted than before. This development may be even intrinsic to research because it builds on itself and frequently falsifies earlier results. For people not involved in research this may result in questions about what to ‘believe’. Worse is the misuse of science and research by for instance government. And I am not even talking about conspiration theories. 

An example from the Netherlands may clarify this point on misuse. For years the government only used models to determine the noise and other pollution of Schiphol airport, not actual measurements. People living in the area got nowhere with their complaints. This use of models has an effect in other areas, including nitrogen deposition and the need to decrease livestock to a considerable degree. Even Members of Parliament stated that the nitrogen models could not be trusted, ‘forgetting’ that the nitrogen deposition is actually measured as well (even a publication from 1963 remains valid). The Dutch prime-minister made no effort in preventing an anti-science motion during the yearly congress of his political party. 

Research or the scientific approach is for an important based on the work by René Descartes (Principia Philosophiae, 1644). It is a systematic approach to understand and describe the real world, including the parts that we cannot discern by our own senses. However, it is a way to describe our world, not the way. Even Descartes acknowledged other realities but they could not be described and researched. The best we could do, was to prove that paranormal phenomena did exist; e.g. the work by prof. Tenhaeff in the sixties and seventies.

Culture is not a paranormal phenomenon and simply focuses on how people behave with the related patterns of thinking. Within that framework you may talk about a scientific or research culture (which may vary from discipline to discipline but only as a variation on a theme). The study of culture fits within this scientific paradigm. This paradigm leaves a lot of space and begs to be applied to a series of (sub)domains of culture. But I draw the line on nonsens. As I noticed, my whole system shows an immediate repulsive reaction.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Government Culture 3

Last week’s blog on government culture focused on internal aspects of the cultural change in Dutch politics; mutatis mutandis applicable to a range of other ‘western’ countries. Such a cultural change is a combination of internal and external factors, an interplay. Furthermore, you need a change in patterns of thinking before people start to behave or work in a different way. This is one of the key problems in change management and implies lots of discussions, prior to interventions. This problem is demonstrated by the Dutch government over and over again over the last years; deciding on policy and then trying to sell it. The failure of this reversed order of things has even cost lives during the corona-crisis.

The violent farmers’ protests over nitrogen policies may look like an internal factor of the need for change in government policy. Actually, they refer to an external factor, the European Union (EU) and the Dutch position in it. This position often looks like a Janus’ head. In Brussels the Dutch government is more often than not pro-EU (in particular if it does not costs too much) but in The Hague European integration is minimised. European legislation is an easy scapegoat for the Dutch government; but it never mentions that it agreed with it when proposed (for reasons x or y), leave alone how that legislation was going to be implemented. 

This half-hearted position may be seen in getting exceptions (e.g. in the amount of manure per hectare), delays, insufficient implementation (e.g. the designation of Natura 2000 areas with a singly focus on ecology), an underestimation of long-term consequences,  judgments by the European Court of Justice and national court cases in which people refer directly to European legislation (in particular when the Dutch government is too late with the conversion of European into Dutch legislation). However, in the end the Dutch government has to toe the line and many people find themselves all of a sudden in a tight spot. Better (political) management would have softened the impact to a considerable degree and would have spread the problem over time. When you have to move a lot of sand, you better do some spades per day, rather than trying to do it all at once. 

Dutch government culture focuses more on talking with one and everyone, Brussels on rules and their implementation (universalism in terms of Trompenaars’ research). No single country gets its way. European legislation implies a lot of wheeling and dealing but once in place, it is hard to change (also because the wheeling and dealing may have included concessions in other areas). EU member states may have increased their power over the last few years but that did not change this principle. 

The Dutch government needs to make a mental change from ‘the Netherlands and the EU’ to ‘the Netherlands in the EU’. The latter attitude implies rather a lot. To start with, you are part of a larger whole and you have to find your proper place in that wider framework. Secondly, more attention should be paid to co-operation between the member states: what is best for all of us? Thirdly, you have to think through how you are going to promote Dutch interests in that wider framework and what is feasible. And finally, as a loyal member of the club, you need to stick to the rules, whether you like them or not. 

If indeed the government serves the people (through its key tasks of security and prosperity), then it has to consider how to do so through the EU and only then on a national scale. At present things start in The Hague and is Brussels taken along, if at all. You might say that my position results from a political choice but I do think that it results from necessity. The problems humankind faces cannot be solved by a series of 194 states. And I admit that the co-operation between a smaller number but larger units will not be easy either. The alternative is ultimately an end to live on Earth through climate change. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Government Culture 2

In my blog of October 12th 2021 I discussed government culture, the way of governing a state (patterns of thinking and acting). This was and is a hot debate in the Netherlands, simply because the default option of governing the Netherlands is no longer sufficient. The rules of the paradigm are still in place but success is far from guaranteed. By the amount of attention paid to the topic by the mass and social media you might be tempted to believe that the discussion is cooling down. Such an impression may be reinforced by some small gestures by the government and the use of different terms. But do not be fooled!

Member of Parliament Pieter Omtzigt is at the heart of the debate. In a recent interview in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant he clarified once again what is at stake. Democracy requires transparent decision-making and open debate. However, in reality, government and Parliament are not focused on finding and implementing solutions; and the media play a negative role in the increase of distrust in government and politics. 

My blog of May 24th 2022 focused on poor implementation of policies because of complexities but foremost of the low standing of implementation. Implementation is a problem across the board, ranging from the application of European legislation to making welfare payments. In a television programme on June 27th 2022 research was presented, indicating that approximately 10,000 people do not receive such payments while they are in principle entitled to them. The Netherlands also faced another affair in which allowances for child care had to be repaid to the Tax Office. This issue got so out of hand that people lost their home as a result of it and some 1600 children were placed in foster care; still an open nerve, characterised by undeserved misery.

Implementation does show that government is not really serving people, the core task of government and politics according to Pieter Omtzigt. Indeed, my own experience is that most civil servants and politicians are busier with their careers and positions than doing the job they are paid for. Implementation  might be an element of government culture. However, most of the discussion under that heading is about the transparency of government towards Parliament.

Pieter Omtzigt’s conclusion is that the Dutch are on a downward slide [is there something like an upward slide?] and that many basic functions are no longer realised. I agree. In order to repair things we need to know their causes. High on my list are neoliberal thinking (which might well clash with Dutch national culture) and a government (in particular the prime-minister who is already in function for over a decade) without a vision where to go to. 

Politics and government in the Netherlands are in the beginning of a cultural change. We are rejecting parts of the old culture (ways of thinking and acting) but have hardly an idea what should come instead. This is like the Central European countries in 1989, rejecting socialism and ‘going for’ the temptation of the Coca-Cola economy of the West (often being disappointed in the process). The question ‘where do you go to my lovely?’ hardly gets any attention. I did not notice that the Dutch government is aware of Inglehart’s post-industrial society or Raworth’s doughnut economy, just to mention two options. I may be retired but I do not rest assured. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, Transculturalism

In all these blogs I did not pay much attention to dealing with other cultures; and please note that I am not saying cultural differences (see below). Actually, I do and did spend a lot of attention to dealing with cultures but rather in an implicit way. The reason (problem) is that each of us deals with (and has to deal with) another culture in another way, simply because none of us has exactly the same degree of cultural competence. Another way of phrasing it is that our individual cultures differ. 

On the other hand the concept of dealing with another culture is rather clear and is called transculturalism (also introduced in the blog of October 19th 2019). Most people would use either the adjective intercultural or cross-cultural but both do not help in dealing with another culture if you use these terms in the technically correct sense of the word. Intercultural stresses the differences and leaves out the commonalities. Such an approach results in two parties simply confronting one another, ignoring the common ground. Cross-cultural is the opposite, stressing commonalities and leaving out the differences. Clearly, that is not going to work either because the differences and related difficulties will pop up later on. You actually need both, the differences and the commonalities. The commonalities are the building elements of bridging the differences. And indeed, transculturalism is the reconciliation of commonalities and differences. It creates (as I mentioned three years ago) ‘your own mini-culture for the short duration of contact’. 

By now you may understand why I do not like terms like ‘dealing with cultural differences’. Doing so, puts you on the wrong footing from the start. People have much more in common with one another than they differ from one another; we share our DNA for 98%! You also cannot solve differences in isolation, without taking the commonalities in stride. A focus on differences may result in a recognition and respect but does not show a way forward. In the same vein I would not favour a focus on commonalities. A term like ‘dealing with culture’ also recognises other than national cultures. Although I also use ‘dealing with another culture’, this term could be misleading because each of us is involved in a myriad of cultures, not a single one. 

Transculturalism may also be considered as one of three basic perceptions of culture, next to monism and relativism. These three were introduced by cultural anthropologist Dr. Evelien van Asperen in a booklet (2003) on diversity. She used the term ‘communicative moral universalism’ but in my blog I mentioned above I indicated why I did not like this term. I grant you that ‘transculturalism’ is not standard but at least correct. Monism and relativism both focus on differences and do not work for dealing with culture. 

In dealing with culture transculturalism is only part of your toolkit. Overall you need the cultural competence and experience. The cultural competence is the integral combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes to deal with culture. If transculturalism would be one of your attitudes, you would definitely have an advantage over others. We do know that people with a monist or relativist attitude did more harm than good in representing their organisation abroad (also applies to diplomats …). Whether I was personally able to do so, is for others to judge

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Video

This week’s Culture Applied is not about the usual look through cultural glasses to get a different angle on topics but about the release of a new interactive video on cultural competence. 

In the video you see a map of Cultural City. This village (even if it calls itself a city) has only six streets, coinciding with the branches of the mind-map of culture. It also has only 72 houses, each representing a culture related topic. The houses have the same shape and size because none is more important than the other; even if some pigs are more equal than others … (Orwell, Animal Farm). When you start the video, you see an avatar walking from Competence Square to house 1 through house 72. Each time the avatar reaches a specific house you see a pop-up, indicating a culture related topic. House 1 for instance represents the four major disciplines studying culture, house 2 one of the barriers in studying culture (you being part and parcel of culture) and so till house 72 (body language). 

With each pop-up two buttons appear, labelled theory and exercise. When you click on the theory button a window opens with some text on the background of the topic in question (often the short version of the texts on the mind-map on www.culturalcompetence.eu). The exercise button offers an interactive exercise. In the draft version of the video these exercises had a rather reflective nature; e.g. what is your own postion on this topic? Because the people who tried out the video considered these exercises rather boring, all exercises were redeveloped. In addition, an icon of the topic in question appears in the top left corner of the screen. 

Of course you do not like to watch the whole video till the point in which you are interested. You may move the cursor in the progress bar but that is not very accurate. For this reason, ‘bookmarks’ were added (bottom left). Clicking on the bookmark symbol allows you to jump at a specific street (Research Lange, Concept Avenue, People Street, Aspects View and Impact Drive). At the beginning of each street, a sign (another pop-up) lists the houses and their topic, allowing you to jump to that specific house. In addition you may vary the speed of the video and you may turn of the sound (a wallpaper music). 

Although the title of the video is Cultural Competence, it does not claim to be a comprehensive course on cultural competence. A competence in itself is an integral combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes. This video mostly contributes to the development of your own cultural competence through knowledge and to a limited degree skills. Furthermore, the cultural competence needs to be complemented with experience. Experience is not only the recognition of the cultural dimension of things that happen to you, but also drawing the lessons from it and the application of these lessons to later, somewhat similar situations. 

The good news is that the video is free of charge (and that for a Dutchman). You go to www.culturalcompetence.eu/moodle and click on login. If this is your first visit to the website, you may register here. When you are logged in, you click on ’Courses on Culture’ and then on ‘Cultural Competence’ and ‘Enrol me’. You may now click on ‘cultural competence’ and the show starts. You also see a category ‘Exam’ to test yourself. The category ‘Exercises’ indicates ‘not available’, because the exercises are integrated in the video itself and are not separately available.

In a couple of months I will release an even more comprehensive course with 128 topics. This course closely follows the whole mind-map of culture. At present a Ukrainian artist develops 128 illustrations, one for each of the topics. For each topic you will see a short introduction, quotes indicating practice (from papers about living and working abroad) and an interactive exercise. But all that is still thousands of clicks away. Have fun!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, LHBTI

I got a question how I look at the LHBTI discussion from a cultural angle. Let me start by saying I might not the best person to address the issue because of my background: a family of boys (my sister was 15 years younger and 2 when I left home), a boarding school for boys, military service and 15 years in a rather male working environment. In short, I am rather on one side of the relevant arguments. 

The mind-map of culture shows the following labels with a direct link to LHBTI.

The men women emancipation discussions of the last few decades raises further points of attention, in particular related to role patterns; e.g. protection, dependency, beauty, power, caring, considering people as objects, communication styles, use of facial expressions. Issues like these still need a lot of attention and indeed, emancipation is far from complete. These issues interfere with the LHBTI discussions.

Another related issue relates to the use of language. Indeed, in many languages you do not have much difficulty in finding implicit bias regarding men, women and gender. The need and desire to change language accordingly is without question. Quite a few things may be adapted without further consequences. However, some ideas for another use of language do not help to get the message across by obscuring concepts rather than clarifying them. 

Maybe I am simply not woke enough, too old or both to feel the sensitivities in question. But as a researcher I do understand them. From that perspective I can only hope for an open debate without too much emotion. In the end, everybody should be happy in the s/he likes.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Guns

The heading of an editorial of the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant (May 31st 2022) is that guns have become an article of faith to the US Republicans or at least an important part of them. It quotes senator Ted Cruz that people kill, not guns; that the shooter in Uvalde was mentally ill; that it is caused by videogames; and even by ‘the culture’. Well, I wonder what culture he blames. If that is indeed the American culture, then something is rotten in America. The Republican culture on the other considers the use of guns a normal way of thinking, acting and feeling. Indeed, as the editorial also mentions, the right to own and use weapons has become part of the identity of this group. I disagree with such perceptions and consider it as an aberration of Western civilisation. 

The conservative flywheel is not slowing down, whatever the abhorrence of mass shootings or the clearly isolated position of this group in an international framework. On the contrary, thanks to Trump’s conservative judges, energy is added to the flywheel. If guns are indeed turning into an article of faith, the Republican party is turning into a religion based party, like the Christian democrats in Western Europe. The latter would not welcome the former! More important is to remember the principles of democratic societies, including the idea that a minority is not taking the majority as hostage. I do think that a majority in American society is in favour of restricting guns (including proper registration). The same principles also hold that political parties should represent the general interest of society as a whole and they should not be a lobby organisation. Sometimes I get the impression that the NRA (the National Rifle Association) is sitting in Congress instead of the Republican Party. I simply do not understand why all republicans go along with these ideas. 

I do understand that the history of the USA results in a rather tolerant attitude towards guns. Decades of struggling to conquer and cultivate the land includes the recognition of all kinds of danger and the need to defend yourself (this sentence is meant as a description, not an evaluation). I may also think of a link with individualism and other elements of culture. However, culture is dynamic, not static and the group in question simply refuses to move along with cultural change. 

Next to historical and cultural considerations you may wonder how much humankind is inclined to violence. The Economist of April 23rd 2022 discusses the book Why we fight by Christopher Blattman. “A dismal belief holds that people are hardwired to settle disputes by violent means. Christopher Blattman … says the opposite is true” because of high costs and uncertainty. This would (again) imply that the use of guns is on the nurture side of the nature / nurture discussion. 

The recognition that the ownership and use of guns is man-made and not something we simply need to accept, opens the way to change things. Legislation is for now not going to work because it will be blocked in Congress. We may rather draw on the lessons of cultural change. This starts with another narrative and convincing more and more people of it. This opens the way to a series of initiatives, in particular from the bottom-up (grass roots versus top-down). Voters may for instance demand from political candidates to express themselves explicitly on a range of related issues. The floor may be open for debate, at least more so than at present. President Biden’s speech on June 3rd is only a small step on this road of convincing people. Co-operation is indeed part of the human condition, an evolutionary necessity.

And please remember that the American use of violence is not limited to mass shootings like Uvalde. Many US police forces remember Europeans more of military forces than ‘protect and serve’. Even US military personnel appears in my experience more violent than their European counterparts. In this way US culture is characterised by a violent streak that is not fading away over time and with civilisation. How come I do not like visiting the USA?

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to one of the online courses. The interactive video Cultural Competence has just been released, covering 72 culture related topics (content and exercises). Go to www.culturalcompetence.eu/moodle, click on login (register if necessary) and select courses on culture and Cultural Competence. Then click on enrol me. 


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Culture Applied, Life

Are my life and my body truly my own? This difficult question came up when reading an article in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of May 25th 2022 by Marli Huijer, professor of philosophy (specialisation public philosophy or audience oriented philosophy, depending the translation). The article discusses the final phase of life, in particular the medicalisation of that phase. Over the last sixty years medical doctors take over and people lose control over their over their own dying. Taking back controls includes the following points of attention.

These issues imply a certain way of thinking that originates in the progress of science, and hence our culture. At a certain point people do think ‘enough is enough’; further treatment does not contribute to quality of life. If you know that you are going to die from a terminal disease without a cure in sight, you may try to organise things in a dignified way. However, both the medical approach and the one of taking back control, have the illusion of control as a starting point. Again and again the question pops up: who is the boss, humankind or nature?

Coming back to my original question: is your life really your own? You may think that your life is complete (no partner anymore, children on their own feet) and that you do not add anything anymore, however modest. However, other people may perceive things differently. For them you are not a burden to be taken care of, but still an added value (wisdom, background, stories, love; you name it). To decide that dignified dying may be the next step, may then be a selfish act (assuming that you recognise your value to others).

A similar argument applies to the second part of my question, my body. This discussion comes up now and again. In the discussion on abortion one of the arguments is that women may decide on their own body, their body is not ‘property’ of the state. I do agree but I still like to include the position of the man who made the woman pregnant. Another example relates to organ transplantation. The discussion is more about donating organs than about receiving organs. Because the option of not willing to receive an organ, is not available in the Dutch national register, some people indicate that they do not want to be a donor; or have it registered at a public notary (and yes, you may wonder whether that document is available when being in the operation room). A third example is that some people only want to be buried or cremated with every element of their without leaving even a simple swap behind. 

I do not need to elaborate on the fact that questions like these get different answers in different cultural contexts. Indeed, those questions are definitely linked to culture, if they are not part and parcel of culture. The intergenerational value shift to the next type of society, as discussed by Inglehart (1997, 2018) may serve as an example ‘Western’ countries are stressing more and more self-expression values. They include a range of issues but focus on people making their own choices. Questions of life and death and of self-determination regarding your own body fit well in this pattern. 

As the ancient Greek philosophers already knew raising questions is quite something different than answering them. Development starts with raising questions. The people who may do so, may have the qualities of observation but not those of solving issues. Questions and solutions require co-operation, one of the things humankind is good in. So, indeed, I raised a few questions without providing you with answers. Emotionally I am all in favour of dignified dying, including the decision on the when and how. However, I also know that the group of people born in the 1950’s is all in favour but ultimately refrain from doing so. As long as I have added value without tax, I’ll soldier on. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Implementation

Last week we had in Dutch Parliament Accountability Day, the day on which the government has to show how it spent its funds. This yearly event sounds as boring as it is. However, an auditor’s report showed that no less than €15 billion did not fit the rules. This is even more than in previous years and may only be justified for a small part by corona measures. In addition I heard that the Dutch government has over €20 billion on equipment that it cannot use because the required radio frequencies are not available; properly acquired but unused. Even military missions abroad are often less effective than they should because the troops cannot always use the radio frequencies their equipment needs.

The point is the implementation of policies, or rather the lack of it. In my mind, the reasons given only scratch the surface. I would say that it starts with the status of different kinds of work and the related renumeration (including status, promotions and the like). Policy making is sexy, implementation is dull. Making policy has a much higher status than implementing it; the arrogance of people with an academic background over people who do not have one. This is already something that you may consider in cultural terms, a way of thinking, acting and feeling. 

Such an attitude (culture again) also overlooks the complexities of implementation. A simple rule never fits all possible relevant situation. It needs a degree of flexibility in its application without interfering with the principle that all people are equal under the law. Rigid implementation results in disaster; witnes the previous government that had to step down because of it. In that particular case thousands of people became poor, lost houses and jobs and nearly 1700 children were taken from their parents and placed in foster care. The government was already fined 50,000 times for a total of €70 million for not providing documents in this case alone.

Another aspect of implementation is the availability of expertise. Last week the mass media reported that the Dutch Watermanagement Board is forced to re-tender the adaptation of the Afsluitdijk (the 32 km dam that protects the Netherlands in the North) with additional costs in the hundreds of millions. It forgot to include a report in the requirements. The media mentioned once again that the decline of Dutch Watermanagement Board resulted from the replacement of engineers by managers. 

In the eighties the Dutch government also made a fundamental turn around. Up till then citizens received money if they were entitled to it under whatever programme, even if they were not aware of. Later on people only received money when they applied for it. This resulted in saving hundreds of millions. Last week this was demonstrated by an arrest of the highest Dutch judge. A couple of years ago the Dutch government had asked a group of taxpayers too much money. The judge decided that the government only has to compensate those who objected to it within the given time limits. Hence, an even larger group of people is basically robbed by government. 

Poor implementation also results in a lack of trust in government. Last week the Dutch prime-minister tried in Parliament to turn things upside down by saying that Parliament is to blame, not cabinet ministers. He forgot the key principles that government serves the people and Parliament controls government. As an historian he should know how such a disregard of democratic principles may work out.

Poor implementation is not only the net result of an arrogant attitude but also of management and organisation. For decades countries like the Netherlands have accepted and implemented American management models without realising that they are based on another economic system and another national culture. I for one am not surprised that their effectiveness when applied abroad, remains rather limited. This has been reinforced by neoliberal thinking. The latter resulted in an orientation on markets ad savings on expenditures with a limited return. The result is that the government has no longer control over essential services (e.g. energy) and that all things with societal values (education, health care, police, defence, the elderly and more) are realised through bare bones organisations. 

If even the Dutch do not know how to spend their money … Well, I do not trust this government (basically the same as the previous two that made all these ‘mistakes’) in realising a more transparent governmental culture that helps people instead of trying to control them. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Narrative

Communication was probably a key tool for human survival. It may well have started with the primary needs, indications of food, drinks and shelter. At a later stage stories werd added to human experience, including for instance about the origin of the group. In those early days you already saw the beginning of culture, a way of thinking and acting. Culture and stories became more intertwined and turned into a narrative. A narrative indicates the dominant frame and helps people to put things into perspective. It shows ‘the truth’, while a story focuses on what happened. My love of culture is also a narrative!

A narrative may not be recognised as such. The Bible for instance is recognised as a religious book but may also be understood as the story how humankind moved from the hunters-and-gatherers society to agricultural society. This is demonstrated by primatologist Carel van Schaik and historian Kai Michel in their TheGood Book of Human Nature, an Evolutionary Reading of the Bible (2018). 

A friend told me that this reading of the Bible clarifies why it helps so many people to get a grip on life.

  1. You learn from the mistakes from the past; like gossiping.
  2. You develop an understanding in the many forces beyond human life; science.
  3. The development of a cultural system, enabling the solution of problems. 

The work by Van Schaik and Michel reminded my friend of the way in which Spinoza in his days (400 years ago) separated political and religious thinking (freedom of thinking, symbolic stories, use of power et cetera) and miracles moved from reality to motivational stories. Indeed, the Bible is not only a book of Christianity. However, even if it was, this study clarifies the different nature of God in the Old and in the New Testament, strict and forgiving. These two relate to the value systems of the two different types of society. As the sociologist Ronald Inglehart indicates hunters-and-gatherers society was harsh and unforgiving and agricultural society focuses on co-operation.

Once the Bible was codified, humankind developed the industrial society and used again the stories of the Bible with that type of society. These stories remained relevant, albeit with a different interpretation. Nowadays we are probably on our way to the fourth type of human society, the post-industrial one or even a sustainable society and many people still find support and consolation in the Bible. For some, this may be an indication that the Bible reflects universal truth, for others simply that the Bible has such a high degree of familiarity that it serves as a primary mental framework. 

From this wider perspective culture is also an instrument for survival. Like communication it is part of human nature or the human condition. Without certain ways of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people, as well as the different ways of passing them on to others, humankind would not be dominating evolution as it does now (the anthropocene). And once again we see why people survive best in groups of up to 150 persons. In groups of maximum that number you may know each individual and how s/he fits the culture. Each child may be unique at birth but has to toe the line of the group’s culture!

Like the model of Stewart Brand mentioned in a earlier blog (August 3rd 2021) we all are inclined to focus on the froth of the here and now and tend to neglect the slow moving long-term forces. A study like this lifts you from your feet and shows you a wider panorama. Do not get dizzy!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Functions

People often ask me why I am so involved in culture and even more so, why it is so important. The former refers to me as a person and the answer is simple: that is what I am good at. The latter is rather complicated and includes a discussion on the functions of culture.

These functions of culture may be answered at at least three levels. Most of the literature considers culture as the social glue, the rules of the game in groups. This is for me the intermediate level.

The macro level refers to civilisation and evolution. Evolution implies that a species only survives by being in the best possible way adapted to the environment (fittest). The question is what the niche of human beings was and is. Possible answers include acting together, consciousness and intelligence. These and other answers have made us who we are and also sets limits to our future development (path dependency), not only in terms of  the survival of humankind but also (possibly) the survival of our environment. Working together of course requires some rules and these depend in turn on the size of groups. You probably have heard of the research on the preferred size of a group and the span of control. However, we also needed wider frameworks, larger than groups we may imagine. The word for it is civilisation.

In these blogs I refereed to civilisation before. Civilisation tells us how society is organised and culture enables people to accept that organisation; up to a point of course.Civilisation also 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 humankind is nothing special, there is no special reason for being here and we are are not going anywhere after out death. 

The functions of culture in this wider framework are that it helps to perceive reality and how it is structured. It not only shows how society is organised but also the place of people in society. This includes the membership of a range of groups because the belonging to groups helped humankind to survive. As mentioned above, culture assists people in their functioning in groups. 

On the other end of the scale you may recognise the functions of culture on the individual level. A human being is a unique combination of the hundreds of groups s/he belongs to or has belonged to and hence, of all the related cultures. At the same time an individual person is born with certain characteristics and capabilities but also with the constraints as the result of evolution. Do not forget that homo sapiens has lived for over 90% of its existence in hunters-and-gatherers societies with the related patterns of thinking, acting and feeling (culture). Against this backdrop the function of culture on the individual level is one of assistance, the orientation on, functioning in and dealing with groups, big and small. 

Let’s hope dat the “special military operation” in the Ukraine is ‘only’ a clash of civilisations. Then you can still talk about it and make changes. If however, the war is about the attitudes and the related underlying values of the Russian leaders (The Economist talks about an ideology), we face a major problem. You cannot change the values of adults. Hence, you may talk about doing things in a different way - we face that problem in the Netherlands on a much smaller scale - but the change will not be realised. People may be talking differently but their behaviour does not change, although it may find a different form (while the problem remains). 

And one day, it all ends; the day the music dies (free to American Pie).

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Climate Change

In these blogs I have been paying attention to climate change before because the phenomenon forces humankind to change its patterns of thinking, acting and feeling or culture for short. The experience with a change of culture may help in tackling climate change. CC requires CC: climate change requires cultural competence! And by the way, not doing anything is no option. We do need contingency planning and the implementation of projects for adaptation (dealing with what is already happening) and mitigation (preventing further damage). At the same time we should not forget that control is an illusion to some degree.

This time I just finished the book Klimaatgeneraal, bouwen aan weerbaarheid (Climate General, Building Resilience) by Tom Middendorp, the former chief of the Dutch armed forces. When he was still in function he already asked attention for the link between climate change and security. Because of it, he was called the Climate General. Now he wears it as a badge of honour, using it as the main title of his book.

The book clearly demonstrates both direct and indirect links between climate change and security. An example of a direct link is the rising sea level and the consequences for coastal communities. The indirect links are less visible on our mental radar. Think for instance to melting glaciers in the Himalayas, resulting in floods and inundation, destroying crops and migrating people as a result. Or droughts that destroy the harvest, allowing recruiters for jihadism a target group with few alternatives on how to make a living. Some other catchwords include water shortages, decreasing ground water, extreme weather, the use of dams in a conflict, competition for fertile soil, refugees, emergency assistance, the military and commercial interests in the North-pole, loss of land mass, nature fires and ecological degradation.

Climate change has already resulted in insecurity, deprivation and poverty and the expectations are that things may well turn out worse. This conclusion also creates a link with development, particularly in poorer countries. We do need to take a series of steps that require vision, money and effort. We have to look beyond the here and now and to think about the future generations. This thinking is based first of all on the available knowledge of the phenomenon. This may not be complete but what we do know, is more than enough to develop comprehensive plans at all levels (from Earth to the individual), to give it the necessary priority and get into action. As mentioned above the action should be a balance between adaptation and mitigation. Indeed, climate change should be an integral element in decision making from boardroom to parliament and from individual to government. 

General Middendorp mentions that NATO is concerned because climate change makes the world a more dangerous place. He also discusses a range of options to make the armed forces more sustainable. The options and consequences are much more wide-ranging than I expected and a source of inspiration in other domains. What we need is an ecosystem, a system in which self-interests are served by the overarching interest of a safe world; integral and sustainable concepts and applications (page 271 and 275). And I just repeat the perception that security is one of the two key tasks of a state.

In one sense the book is a reminder of the need to tackle climate change and the actual opportunities to do so. On the other hand the book reinforces the idea that a change of culture is a necessary ingredient of the mix of things to do. However, you cannot force a change of culture, you do need to convince people first (see also the booklet I wrote with Shahram Fazili: Change, a Question of Culture). Convincing people implies raising awareness and repeating the message over and over again at every opportunity and in every group. This book really helps in awareness raising and is also a source of inspiration for specific actions. Some editing would help to reach a wider audience and in doing so, it may translated into English as well. 

Climate change, security, development and culture and some more may be a strong brew for business and governments but we do not have a choice (anymore). Politicians in particular should live up to the expectations of them and realise that market forces and legal frameworks are completely inadequate. This reinforces Inglehart’s ideas that we are facing a new type of society with another orientation of politics. If so, present politicians better step aside for the next generation with another way of thinking and acting. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. My free online course on the Ukrainian and Dutch national cultures is now also available in Ukrainian. 


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Culture Applied, Names

The topic of this week’s blog flows from the birth of my second grandchild last Friday. My daughter and son in law proved their nerdy nature (or rather culture) once again by giving her two names that are palindromes (you may read them forwards or backwards). The birthdate is also a palindrome: 22-4-22 (although the Americans would write it as 4-22-22). Although giving birth is quite a natural process. it is riddled with culture: how to give birth, anaesthesia or not, home / hospital / maternity, interior design, clothing, rituals, ceremonies, presence, names and more. I included presence because I recall that some nurses found it odd when I was present during the birth of my daughter in 1983 in Jakarta. Birth also raises the question of the life and future we offer to the newborn, but that is for another day.

Names may be divided into given name and surname. Starting with the latter, the surname may be that of the father, the mother, the combination of both. made-up or no surname at all (the latter not common anymore due to bureaucratic requirements). These are not clear distinctions; e.g. officially registering the child with the surname of the father but in practice always using a combination of the surname of the father or the mother. The discussion also depends on how the marriage of the parents is registered (surname of the man, the woman, combination or made-up). German law (Ehename Gesetz) was one of the first through which the couple could chose the surname of the woman. 

A family name was introduced by law under Napoleon. It resulted for instance in many ‘family’ names that were only an indication of the village or city a person came from or lived in. The alternative for a family name is a patronym, a matronym or no family name at all. A patronym indicates that a person is the son or daughter of a man; e.g. William-son. In Dutch a single s may indicate that a patronym was turned into a family name, e.g. Willems. Most patronyms are used for ‘son of’, the indication ‘daughter of’ is rarer. An example of the latter is  -dóttir in Icelandic. A matronym is much the same as a patronym but refers to the mother. Some family names have variations for men and women (like -ova in Czech for women). 

Given names are more like a cultural labyrinth. You may make a distinction on a time axis: given names that refer to the past, the present, the future or again a combination. With names referring to the past I think of names that remind the person in question where s/he is coming from, ranging from family to geographical background. Names anchored in the present may be names that the parents simply like for whatever conscious or subconscious reasons.e.g refering to a person you admire (hero, athlete, anchor woman, journalist, movie star and so on). Names with a link to the future are like messages from the parents to their child, something the child may or even should achieve in life. A name like Alexander may say: go and conquer the world; or: we hope that he will untie many knots. 

My own given names (Pieter Jan Maria) are a combination. My parents started with the idea that the first name of the uneven children are named after the family of my father and the even children after the family of my mother; they deviated from this rule with the third and fourth child but then returned to form. I was second, so it was my mother’s turn. She did not like the given names in her family and decided to call me after the saint of the city she was born and raised in (Saint Petrus Canisius). The second given name was always the name of the godfather or godmother and the third was always Maria. The latter was a catholic tradition at the time. In this way my names refer to traditions, family, background and religion with religion a not very implicit message as well. My father’s diary if full of hope and expectations that his children will turn out true catholics. 

Once parents have navigated their way through the labyrinth some other issues turn up. I love to consult the Dutch national database of given names and read up on the background and meaning of given names. Sometimes parents may be pleased with that information but sometimes I deliberately decided not to pass it on. This may be related to the sex of the child. A name may be female in one state and male in another. So, parents may give their daughter a name that fits another national context but is actually a male name in the Netherlands. 

Another point many parents overlook is the meaning of the initials in another context. If you name your son William Christopher, his initials also refer to a toilet. Victor William refers to a car and so on. 

Yet another cultural aspect relates to celebrating birthdays. Some cultures do not celebrate anything special or only the transfer of one phase of life to another. Other cultures celebrate name-days, according to the catholic calendar. I do admit to not knowing what the date for Petrus Canisius is but I do know that I was born on the day of Saint Joseph (March 19th). Because Saint Joseph is the patron of fathers, Fathers’ Day was celebrated in catholic countries on that date; and mothers’ day on Maria’s Assumption (August 15th); both commercially not very interesting.

On celebrating birthday you have two options: the day itself or the evening before. The latter is the traditional option. You thank (the) god(s) for the year you had and on the first day of your new year you beg (the) god(s) for another year. The nowadays presents may well be the ‘translation’ of the offerings of the past. This traditional option did not disappear but receded to the background. The Dutch Saint Nicolas tradition still represents this idea (the birthday of Saint Nicolas is December 6th but it is celebrated in the evening of December 5th). 

Whether you like it or not, you have to live with your name. Officially changing your name requires not only effort but is not always allowed. I left religion behind but my names remind me of it.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. My interactive online course on comparing Ukrainian and Dutch cultures (for free) has now been translated in Ukrainian and will be published in a couple of days. 


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Culture Applied, Emotions

The link between emotions and culture is already apparent in the definition of culture: a way of thinking, acting and feeling (of a group of people at a given time and place). This a mutual relationship, emotions and culture influence one another. However, the research on this couple is rather limited. You find it for instance in the research by Trompenaars in his dilemma neutral - affective with a focus on the degree of showing emotions in public. Emotions may also be noticed in discussions on other aspects or impact of culture, e.g. the degree of focus on individual and group (series of researchers) or the dimension transactional - interpersonal (Solomon and Schell).

Part of this discussion is the debate on facial expressions (see also my blog of November 12th 2018). The sculptor Franz Messerschmidt (1736-1783) crafted a series of heads with specific emotions. Well known is also the research by Paul Ekman on universal facial expression, falsified a few years later but still in use by US law enforcement agencies. And do not forget the discussions about cameras in the public sphere. However, by taking a facial expression with a pinch of salt and having an idea of the person in question you do have a first indication. More generally, reading body language is not a one-dimensional trick.

On March 26th 2022 I was reading an interview in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant with professor Mariska Kret, studying the emotions of animal and humankind. Some quotes.

This is also the discussion of knowing with your head and knowing with your heart (or even a gut feeling). Looking back I might say that I focused too much on the former; trying to describe emotions with ratio does not work. So, I welcome these ideas and the upcoming publication Tussen glimlach en grimas - Uitingen van emotie in mens en dier (Between smile and grimace - Expressions of emotion in human and animal); in Dutch for now. I wonder whether I am subconscious competent or should do more to learn the tricks of the trade.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Security

Due to the war in the Ukraine the mass media pay a lot of attention to security but often with a lack of understanding of the concept. Going back to basics helps. In essence a state (is not a country, is not a nation) has two tasks: security and prosperity, both with an internal and external dimension. The internal side of security is the protection of the citizens of that state; think about large-scale public unrest, disasters, terrorism and civilian defence. The external side of security is about the protection of the state (as an institution). The two components of this external side are prevention and preparation. Preventing war is a core task of a ministry of foreign affairs. If prevention fails, you need to be prepared. The latter is the task of a ministry of defence.

The experts I see passing by in the mass media are often on one side of the argument. On the one end you have the experts with a military background. They focus on what is happening on the battleground and do not pay enough attention to the political ramifications. On the other end you see the experts with a political background (security experts) without a proper grasp of military strategy and operations. The latter group may be further divided. You have for instance the ‘realists’ who argue that you have to give Putin something and the ‘idealists’ who focus on justice. However, none of these security experts have for instance visited a nuclear powered submarine with intercontinental missiles. 

A major part of the security discussions is about dependency and interdependency. Dependency indicates that a state in a specific field of its economy depends on the supply by another state; e.g. oil and gas and in the future a dozen metals that you need for sustainability. In itself dependency is not wrong. No state can exist on its own; autarky is no option. The point is to establish a balanced network of mutual dependencies, interdependency. When the balance tilts to one side or the other, problems arise.

The idea of interdependency is more than a century old. Already in 1902 Lenin wrote (in What to do?) that war in Europe had become impossible because if would boil down to automutilation by the elite. Well, the First World War did occur and even the Second. By then (1945) we had destroyed interdependency to quite some degree. In Western Europe it took half a century to rebuild it through the EU and now we are facing once again centrifugal forces and ‘misunderstandings’ by heads of state and government. In the meantime Putin is earning money as a result of his war. On April 8th Dutch radio reported on an investigation that a Dutch citizen is paying €2 per day to Russia and that was €1 per day prior to February 24th!

By now you may wonder what this has to do with culture, my other hobbyhorse (come and visit my stables). As mentioned in earlier blogs and on my website, culture is about groups, groups of all sizes and from physical to virtual. The groups of security experts and military experts result in security culture and military culture (and I do not pay attention to the details and nuances). In line with the definition of culture these two cultures have their own ways of thinking and acting. You may expect that a security expert pays attention to the consequences of support of the Ukraine for the relations with Russia and the inevitability of these relations in the longer term. A defence or military expert focuses on dealing with the conflict and may well have the tendency to reach for the next bigger weapon (escalation). Against this backdrop the ‘West’ should honestly admit that it did not pay enough attention to the effects on Russian (and other) thinking when it was enlarging the EU and NATO. A key element of prevention and hence, of international relations and in particular foreign policy is exactly that, trying to see the world through the eyes of your counterpart.

Going back to the Greek philosophers: I do raise questions but I do not claim to have answers. I may raise these questions because I do have a defence and security background and I have been for nearly twenty years involved with the former East-bloc (including the training of some of their diplomats, from Albania to Mongolia). Maybe I cannot give answers in view of my awareness of the nuances involved. What I do know though, is that culture gives you an angle on the conflict in the Ukraine and also gives you a handle to deal with it. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. I just finished an online course, comparing the national cultures of the Ukraine and the Netherlands (see www.culturalcompetence.eu/moodle). 


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Culture Applied, Civilisation

My triangle model of culture (discussed several times before; see www.culturalcompetence.eu - Mindmap - What is Culture? - Concepts - Triangle Model - Theory) includes two fractals, two processes that are in principle the same but have a different appearance at each level. These two are about uncertainty and identity, In a similar vein you may notice two fractals at the wider triangle of civilisation. 

The two fractals of civilisation are acceptance and the question of death. Acceptance indicates a function of culture, how culture helps or forces people to accept the given civilisation as is. This works through the underlying values. The question of death implies that each civilisation has a specific answer to this question. Actually, three answers, one to each sub-question: where are we coming from? why are we on Earth? and where do we go to after our death? Most of the time this question is answered by religion, but it may also be answered through evolution. In the latter case we are not coming from anywhere, we do not have any special reason to be on Earth and we are not going anywhere after our death.

The whole idea of civilisation is getting more attention with the Russian atrocities in the Ukraine. Indeed, Mr. Putin did mention that the Russian values are not those of the ‘West’; and he did so already in the previous century when he was deputy mayor in St. Petersburg. If you share only a limited amount of values, you do not have a common perception of reality and hence, ultimately insufficient commonalities for good cooperation. The ‘West’ may think that increasing interdependency creates a common framework but recent events have shown that it is an illusion. And in a recent interview with the journalist Anne Applebaum on Dutch television (April 2nd 2022), she mentioned that we are making the same mistake with China. By the way, the idea of interdependency was already mentioned by Lenin in his book What to do? (1902). 

One aspect of the focus on civilisation is the concept of the civilisation state. In my documentation I found the Charlemagne column: Huntington’s disease, Our new Charlemagne columnist argues that the EU is becoming the world’s latest civilisation-state, in The Economist of January 4th 2020. Some quotes.

On the one hand this discussion appears to be out of sync with the present situation but on the other it gives a rather good idea where the EU stands at the moment, an island in the world, anchored by a few other countries. It also indicates that more fundamental processes are at play, which demand leaders with a proper understanding of the nature of these processes, a long-term view and a commitment to take the initiative and to shape developments in line with these processes and to the benefit of humankind as a whole. Well, you can always dream.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Ukrainian and Dutch Cultures

Here it is: an online and interactive course on the national cultures of the Ukraine and the Netherlands. I would say I proudly present but the occasion is too sad. Regrettably, the authorities in the Netherlands were not interested in my offer of providing lectures or trainings in this field.

The first part of the course deals with general information on culture (definition, model and basic perceptions), but also includes a few remarks on identity, multicultural society and the transformation process in Central Europe. The second part outlines the aspects on which the two national cultures differ from one another. This also allows the participant to recognise his or her own position on each of these aspects. The third part focuses on the cultural competence you need to deal with another national culture. 

The course is free of charge. You find it in the following way. 

If you face any difficulty, let me know and I’ll try to solve it. I noticed for instance different login screens on desktops, laptops and phones. If need be I may create an individual login. 

The quality of the course may be enhanced by a translation in Ukrainian. I am even willing to pay for it if a Ukrainian is interested in doing so. I prefer a Ukrainian because the knowledge and understanding of the Ukrainian national culture goes way beyond ’simple’ translation. It sounds odd but if that person had to leave home and country, so much the better for me! It implies motivation on the one hand and gives me the illusion to contribute in some way.

At present the quality of the course is based on my experience of living and working abroad, 20 years of teaching on culture and my experience with developing online courses (in this case with Moodle). I recognise the desirability of additional elements but I did not want to make the course too heavy, either for the participant or the IT environment. For the same reason I limited the number of pictures and did not include videos. Due to the desirability to make this course quickly available, it has only be tested to a limited degree. 

Nevertheless, I make 10 copies of my book Encyclopedia of Culture available for anyone who helps me with improving the course. This ranges from typing errors to necessary clarifications, relevant examples and the effects of history. However, I do say up front that not everything may be realised (from technical limitations to preventing overburdening the IT system or the participant). Fancier exercises for instance would take time to develop and may take more than a second to download; undesirable!

An additional note on privacy. I am running this course on my own Moodle server which already limits acces to hackers. Your e-mail address will only be visible to the webmaster and the administrator (me) of this website. If in doubt, use a separate free e-mail address, only for logging in on websites. 

If people would like to use this course as a template, they can send me an e-mail. With a bit of an effort you can copy a Moodle course from the one Moodle server to another.


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Culture Applied, Professional Culture

In my blog of June 22nd 2021 I discussed professional culture on the basis of the work by Henry Mintzberg. If you make the work of a professional (from nurses to teachers) the core of your organisation, management has only a supporting role (with all possible consequences for salaries and incentives). Concepts like these are also linked to the economic system, ultimately a cultural choice.

Professional culture is a somewhat neglected topic. In line with the definition of culture, as used on my website, it is the way of thinking, acting and feeling of the group of people with the same job; the accountant way for instance. This applies to a period of maximum a few years, because jobs are not static. Regarding place you may think of professional cultures across national borders but also some very specific jobs in terms of location (training dolphins for instance). Some jobs have official standards (from layers to medical doctors), which are in fact codified professional cultures; at least their outlines. In addition, professional cultures may be influenced by specific circumstances, including national contexts. Up to a point a teacher in the USA works in a different way and emphasises other things than a teacher in the Netherlands. 

I was reminded of professional culture when I read an interview with e-commerce specialist Chantal Schinkels at the occasion of her book The IT Girl (in Dutch). She notices that the IT world is still a male world; working hard is not enough. Only 14% of people working in IT is female. At the current speed it takes up to 136 years to change. Next to numbers you see a gap in wages, an inclination not to grant projects to women and a lack of promotions for women, in particular to management positions. The effects are also quite visible in the working climate. The problem is that thinking and approaching problems from a male perspective results in products and services that are less suitable for women; e.g. games. 

One aspects of The IT Girl is the overlap of two cultures, the culture of the IT professional and male culture (even going back to the Second World War; watch for instance the series The Bletchley Circle). Overlaps between cultures may be quite poisonous, as the book demonstrates; but again, the topic needs further research. You see the same in the sharp discussions on identity politics. I always found identity politics a fallacy or a misnomer because identity consists of hundreds of aspects. You are not only black or only a woman or only a US citizen. The idea of individual culture is that each person is a unique crossroads of all the groups s/he has ever been a member of and hence, the cultures of all these groups. In that sense The IT Girl clearly shows the need to pay more attention to the interface between cultures and the related handshake protocols. 

I do not think that I need to point out that The IT Girl is yet another demonstration of the need to reflect the diversity of humankind in the working environment and in particular ensuring that that diversity is respected across the board (inclusion). We all know that diversity and inclusion result in better performance but more often than not may organisations appear to forego the advantages. And yes, even as a white male, I do remember now and again not being welcome in a female environment. 

Returning to the topic of professional culture as such I should remind you that cultures are not good or bad, they simply exist. However, they may have desirable or undesirable effects (from whatever perspective). Hence, you may promote professional cultures or not and you may delineate their effects (e.g. exclusion). Promotion of professional culture should be welcome if it enhances the quality and performance of the job in question. On the other hand, if professional culture has a negative impact on organisations (e.g. limitations, demands) or on people (e.g. interference with another profession) you need to consider ways to decrease the impact of the professional culture in question. 

Looking back on my career I now all of sudden see overlaps between cultures with all kinds of consequences. My individual culture is even more difficult to grasp!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Transformation CEE

With our daily dose of misery from the Ukraine we tend to overlook a longer term process, which actually helps to put things in place. You may discuss the start of this process: was it perestrojka and glasnost (and what caused these?), the fall of the Berlin Wall (the European 9/11), the end of the Sovjet Union (25 december 1991) or the emergence of socio-economic conditions which enable the development of the necessary values for pluriform democracy and market-oriented economy (2000)? And we also do not know exactly when it will be finished, probably just before the end of his century (without other major developments).

In the early nineties’Western’ countries started their assistance to Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia with the transformation process. The focus was very much on political and economic aspects. However, even in the early days we noticed both the importance (George Schöpflin) and the lack of institutions (in the sociological sense of the word, not in terms of organisations). We also knew that these institutions are grounded in (national) culture. In short,  culture was a pre-condition for success of the transformation. More and more research, also in other contexts (Putnam, Inglehart) confirmed this idea.

In 1997 Inglehart published his idea about intergenerational value change. If values are developed in pre-adult years and do not change afterwards, you need one or more generations for the new values to take effect. Research on immigration showed that you need three to four generations, 75 to 100 years. However, this process may only start under certain socio-economic conditions. This idea was for a while a hot potato but Inglehart 2018 is rather convincing. You might say that these conditions were more or less met from 2000 onwards in eight Central European Member States of the EU.

In such a long-term view the problems with for instance the rule of law in Poland and Hungary may be expected and should be taking in stride, not as a separate issue but rather as an indication of the difficulties of the process. Developments in the Ukraine prior to February 24th moved in the same direction and possibly it had reached the take-off point. Clearly, Putin could not accept prosperous and democratic brothers and sisters next door because of its effects on the Russian population. Worse, when a majority of a population stresses self-expression values (nowhere in Central and Eastern Europe yet), some form of democracy will emerge as well (Inglehart 2018). Much better to bring the Ukraine at heel now!

People are inclined to think in the short term. Even a decade is an impossible long period. However, some historical developments take much longer. An example of human impatience may be found in the title of the Free exchange column in The Economist of February 12th 2022:  The curtain falls, Thirty years on, the promise of many former eastern-bloc economies is unfulfilled. Indeed, an unreasonable short period; think also about the effect of values over 300 years as demonstrated by Putnam in Italy.

The article in The Economist starts by stating that the increasingly icy relations between East and West may signal a coda to the era of increasing global economic integration which began with the collapse of communism. Globalisation in terms of trade worked well but not for all countries. Thirty years on [from the end of communism], the question of why some succeeded while others failed remains difficult to answer. Most of the columnists’ answer relates to economic issues. You should not be surprised if I point to the necessary institutions as a necessary conditions and even the cultural conditions for those institutions. Just to be clear: I do not condone how some people got very rich through a botched privatisation, I simply note that the necessary conditions were not taken into consideration and hence, you have to face the music. And you cannot say that people did not know about these conditions. 

To the end of the column in The Economist you see a wider view emerging. These divergent experiences raise difficult questions: did the quality of institutional reform determine the economic and political avenues available, for example, or did other factors — like natural-resource endowments or the prospect of closer ties with the EU—affect how robust reforms were? Certainly, the literature on transitional economies suggests that countries faced different internal constraints as they reformed. (…) And yet external forces do influence internal politics. This is not enough. The importance of institutions is known for thirty years, as well as that you cannot force them on people; you do need the underlying culture, in particular values. And yes, the starting point influences the outcome (path dependency, Inglehart 2018) but the starting points of the roads towards democracy and market economy need some common elements. 

It’s culture, stupid (thanks, Bill Clinton). 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Transformation CEE

With our daily dose of misery from the Ukraine we tend to overlook a longer term process, which actually helps to put things in place. You may discuss the start of this process: was it perestrojka and glasnost (and what caused these?), the fall of the Berlin Wall (the European 9/11), the end of the Sovjet Union (25 december 1991) or the emergence of socio-economic conditions which enable the development of the necessary values for pluriform democracy and market-oriented economy (2000)? And we also do not know exactly when it will be finished, probably just before the end of his century (without other major developments).

In the early nineties’Western’ countries started their assistance to Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia with the transformation process. The focus was very much on political and economic aspects. However, even in the early days we noticed both the importance (George Schöpflin) and the lack of institutions (in the sociological sense of the word, not in terms of organisations). We also knew that these institutions are grounded in (national) culture. In short,  culture was a pre-condition for success of the transformation. More and more research, also in other contexts (Putnam, Inglehart) confirmed this idea.

In 1997 Inglehart published his idea about intergenerational value change. If values are developed in pre-adult years and do not change afterwards, you need one or more generations for the new values to take effect. Research on immigration showed that you need three to four generations, 75 to 100 years. However, this process may only start under certain socio-economic conditions. This idea was for a while a hot potato but Inglehart 2018 is rather convincing. You might say that these conditions were more or less met from 2000 onwards in eight Central European Member States of the EU.

In such a long-term view the problems with for instance the rule of law in Poland and Hungary may be expected and should be taking in stride, not as a separate issue but rather as an indication of the difficulties of the process. Developments in the Ukraine prior to February 24th moved in the same direction and possibly it had reached the take-off point. Clearly, Putin could not accept prosperous and democratic brothers and sisters next door because of its effects on the Russian population. Worse, when a majority of a population stresses self-expression values (nowhere in Central and Eastern Europe yet), some form of democracy will emerge as well (Inglehart 2018). Much better to bring the Ukraine at heel now!

People are inclined to think in the short term. Even a decade is an impossible long period. However, some historical developments take much longer. An example of human impatience may be found in the title of the Free exchange column in The Economist of February 12th 2022:  The curtain falls, Thirty years on, the promise of many former eastern-bloc economies is unfulfilled. Indeed, an unreasonable short period; think also about the effect of values over 300 years as demonstrated by Putnam in Italy.

The article in The Economist starts by stating that the increasingly icy relations between East and West may signal a coda to the era of increasing global economic integration which began with the collapse of communism. Globalisation in terms of trade worked well but not for all countries. Thirty years on [from the end of communism], the question of why some succeeded while others failed remains difficult to answer. Most of the columnists’ answer relates to economic issues. You should not be surprised if I point to the necessary institutions as a necessary conditions and even the cultural conditions for those institutions. Just to be clear: I do not condone how some people got very rich through a botched privatisation, I simply note that the necessary conditions were not taken into consideration and hence, you have to face the music. And you cannot say that people did not know about these conditions. 

To the end of the column in The Economist you see a wider view emerging. These divergent experiences raise difficult questions: did the quality of institutional reform determine the economic and political avenues available, for example, or did other factors — like natural-resource endowments or the prospect of closer ties with the EU—affect how robust reforms were? Certainly, the literature on transitional economies suggests that countries faced different internal constraints as they reformed. (…) And yet external forces do influence internal politics. This is not enough. The importance of institutions is known for thirty years, as well as that you cannot force them on people; you do need the underlying culture, in particular values. And yes, the starting point influences the outcome (path dependency, Inglehart 2018) but the starting points of the roads towards democracy and market economy need some common elements. 

It’s culture, stupid (thanks, Bill Clinton). 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


2022-03-22

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Culture Applied, Democracy

The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of February 12th 2022 devoted ten pages to 49 columns and six cartoons on democracy because democracy appears to be fragile. The editor in chief describes the essential characteristic of democracy as the search for a shared reality in which the views of minorities are respected. Once again, culture was hardly addressed.

Democracy is part of Dutch national culture (a way of thinking, acting and feeling), as it is of other national cultures. However, democracy from one state to another is not the same. Instead, the underlying values are. This is another demonstration of what Inglehart calls path dependency: the starting point differs and hence the outcome (shape of democracy in this case) as well. Democracy is an implicit collective choice for organising society, emerging over centuries. In line with several studies full democracy in Central Europe will only be reached by the end of the century.

An important starting point for democracy in case of the Netherlands was the demand by cities to have their own authority, around 500 years ago. In Central Europe on the other hand the starting point was the rejection of the system they had (or the temptation of the Coca-Cola economy). In between you have the study by Putnam, Making Democracy Work (1993), indicating that the success or failure of Italian regional governments depended on values patterns of 300 years ago. Again and again, the slow-moving but fundamental nature of values and their change are overlooked with all (unintended) consequences (e.g. Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia).

In earlier columns I already referred to the emerging fourth type of society with its focus on self-expression values and taking survival for granted. These self-expression values also result in one form of democracy or another. From this perspective improving living conditions may in the long run imply a change in government in China. The Economist of January 16th 2021 quotes the American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset that a healthy democracy requires broad-based prosperity.

Democracy is supported by institutions (not the same as organisations; marriage is an institution for instance). Again the Economist of January 16th 2021: without strong institutions in place, democracy would succumb to mob rule. And: [democracies] can be successful only if countries put the necessary effort into nurturing democratic institutions: guarding against too much inequality, ensuring that voters have access to objective information, taming money in politics and reinforcing checks and balances

Interestingly, the Dutch with their old democracy, do not elect any politician in power; no president, no prime minister, no provincial governor, no mayor and so on. The Dutch vote for political parties and then have to wait and see what these parties do with their votes. These parties do not have a majority and hence, are forced to agree on coalitions. Coalition agreements may include major policies that were not mentioned in any electoral campaign or going beyond the maximum any party indicated. Furthermore, parties determine who will hold political positions. The idea to have direct elections for mayors is already for decades on the agenda (but not in the interest of political parties in power). 

The changing values patterns also imply a change in the topics of interest, e.g. less on economics (with the exception of the costs of housing) and more on identity. I was shocked for instance to read the programmes of the parties in my municipality. Most of them were flat against housing immigrants or even providing temporarily shelter, even if it is a national obligation; and that was before the 2022 Russian invasion in the Ukraine. Populism remains an important issue in elections. I understand that people prefer black and white over 254 shades of gray but life is not that simple. Just like culture, you need to do some effort in understanding reality. In that sense populism is also a reflection of the failure of education. 

(National) culture has a strong impact on democracy and democracy may only be properly understood by studying culture. Regrettably, this is niche market.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Ukraine 2

In my blog of January 18th 2022 I already paid attention to the situation in the Ukraine (effects of history, international public law, sovereignty, heads of states and government as a specific group, difference between states and nations, power, loss of face). Now, after the start of the Russian aggression I return to the topic. How could I avoid it with my background (NATO crisis management; the transformation in Central and Eastern Europe; training of Russian and Ukrainian diplomats)? And again, this space is not enough, even with a limitation to culture.

A key point is that the community of states plays the same game (the organisation of the world in states) but with different interpretations of the rules. Sovereignty and territorial integrity for instance have only meaning if you recognise the area in question as a state; a military intervention may be justified but war is also a legal concept and so on. You may even call this subcultures because they imply different ways of thinking, acting and feeling. The question is of course how to create a common understanding.

In a way the EU is the outlier in this game. Russia, the USA and China think in terms of power and the related geopolitics; the so-called realistic school of international relations. The EU instead promoted interdependency, the idea that you could weave such a dense network of relations between states that any aggression would be like automutilation. I still think this should be the long-term trend, also in view of sustainability. By the way (curious detail), this idea of interdependency was already defined by Lenin in his short book What to do? (1902).

Secondly, if the fog of war is nothing new, fake news and cyber warfare on this scale and with this intent certainly is. What will happen for instance when the Russian population discovers how it has been deceived by its own government? In the same vein I do think that the sanctions against Russia do not make a necessary distinction between government and population. Traditionally, the consequences of war for the populations involved have always been kept to a minimum. All this will change Russian national culture.

Thirdly, you should think about long(er) term consequences, their impact on our thinking and acting (culture). I wonder whether that happens sufficiently. Some catchwords.

An where do I stand? I think that the Russian war in the Ukraine is a bloody shame, created by men who did not make the change to a post-Cold War world. It demonstrates that you develop your values in your pre-adult years and that they do not change afterwards. This war disturbs a major development in the transformation in Central and Eastern Europe with the related values change and that only just started (and now probably takes more than a century). This war is also creating enormous human misery but we should also not forget all kinds of human suffering in other parts of the world for other reasons. And all of it completely unnecessary and unwarranted. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Inequality

The Dutch journalist and cultural anthropologist Joris Luyendijk published his new book De zeven vinkjes, The Seven Check Marks. It is about inequality, in particular how people are advantaged by circumstances at birth. Luyendijk describes seven check marks: male, white, hetero, one parent with a university degree or wealth, one parent born in the Netherlands (to pass on the culture of the majority), the highest level of secondary education and a university degree. This enumeration is based on the Dutch situation (e.g. the point on secondary education) but may easily be adapted to other national contexts.

Inequality is nothing new and in pessimistic days may appear as a characteristic of humankind. If we are honest to ourselves, we would all recognise it in our own lives. I did not read the book but rather the extensive interview with Joris Luyendijk in a Dutch newspaper (Volkskrant Magazine, February 5th 2022). The interview clarified for instance how white privilege works; many people subconsciously favour white people over non-whites. The same mechanism applies to the other check marks. Joris Luyendijk also indicates that a person with seven checks only needs to follow the track that has been intended for him (!) and everything falls in place. If he does not, he is ill prepared to cope with disadvantageous situations, simply because he never learned to do so in childhood. The interview alone already gives lots of food for thought.

The wide ranging comments on the interview and the book indicate that Joris Luyendijk touches a nerve. In his column Erdal Balci (de Volkskrant, February 8th 2022) mentions that it is not a question of seven check boxes but rather the soul of the country. He contrasts Joris Luyendijk with himself, the son of a ‘guest labourer’ and indicates all the implicit discrimination he had to face and cope with to become a journalist. Other comments by readers of the newspaper indicate the combination of gratitude and guilt and shame; additional check boxes; the need for empathy; the improper appropriation; the primacy of basic needs. More columns indicate the decreasing acceptance of inequality, the impossibility of judging a person by a protocol, the need for society-wide discussion, and the role of money. I liked a column by Frank Heinen (Volkskrant February 9th 2022) in which he stresses that health is a pre-condition we should not neglect. Indeed, at the start of each year I always wish people good health, because health is the basis for everything else. 

All this is strongly linked to culture. The subconscious assumptions we make about others coincide with stereotypes and prejudices, one of the fives barriers in studying culture (a stereotype is a superficial judgement about others, a prejudice adds a negative or positive connotation). Stereotypes and prejudices are part of the way humans think, putting things in boxes. This does not make it right but only indicates (once more) the difficulty of tackling inequality. Efforts in this domain include open information and the role of education. 

The cultural aspects of inequality is also linked to evolution and human development. If survival is in question, as one of the columns mentioned above indicates, inequality fades into the background. However, once survival may be taken for granted, self-expression values start to dominate; the theory of Inglehart and others (see earlier blogs). These self-expression values include the whole gamut of human relations. From the perspective of this wider development, the increasing attention for inequality is no surprise and will even become more prominent.

One more cultural aspect has to do with role patterns. How should people behave within the dominant culture and how much freedom does an individual have to deviate from it? If inequality is widely accepted, behaviour will fall in line. This is also the discussion of emancipation, which in turn harks back to the self-expression values. In the same vein the discussion touches on identity.

Quite a different aspect of the discussion is what happens if the seven check marks do not work out. What happens if for instance a person with seven check marks (a man by definition) deviates from the track he is supposed to follow? Or when personality conflicts with the expectations, based on the seven marks? Are the people in question victims of the system or game-changers? In addition we should not forget that inequality is not limited to personal relations but also applies to opportunities, incomes, circumstances and even states.

Anyway, we should tackle inequality to move forward as humankind. Ticking boxes is clearly insufficient, the wider framework of culture does help, both by placing inequality in a wider context and by indicating ways to decrease its effects. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Indonesia

Several times I mentioned already the importance of history (explaining up to half of the cultural differences between states), as well as the idea of individual culture (consisting of well over hundred aspects, each of them related to a group and its culture). For me these two things now come together in the publication of a report on February 16th 2022. Its title: Independence, Decolonisation, Violence and War in Indonesia 1945-1950.

The Dutch colonised Indonesia centuries ago and were mostly interested in one way trade (from Indonesia to the Netherlands). The development of the country hardly got attention. Indonesia declared its independence on August 17th 1945 and the Dutch recognised its independence on December 27th 1949. In the intermediate four years the Dutch tried to regain the territory by military means. The list of atrocities is long, next to the loss of 100,000 Indonesians and 5,000 Dutch. A commentator on Dutch radio said that the Dutch do have difficulty to recognise the black pages in their history book; in itself already an aspect of Dutch national culture (and a euphemism as well). 

This topic touches me as a person in several ways. To start with my father. He was legal adviser to the prime-minister from 1946 to 1962 and secretary-general of the same ministry from 1962 to 1972. His diary is not yet available. The official government position on the use of violence during that period dates from 1969 and is now outdated by the new report. In view of the demands for apologies for events in the past, I wonder whether I should apologise for my father 😀

I also had an uncle who was called into military service just after the war for duty in Indonesia. Because he talked to me about it, one of his daughters asked me years later whether he might have one more child in Indonesia. If so, hopefully a love child because I do not want to think about the alternative. 

In the first half of the eighties I served as a diplomat in Indonesia and I developed quite a liking of the country. My wife and children are mixed bloods (Indonesian and Dutch) but I met her before a posting in Jakarta was on the horizon. 25 years after my posting I took my children to Indonesia for a holiday. However, as they well know, it was also a learning experience. I showed them where a range of products is coming from by visiting plantations (tea, coffee, cacao, rubber, fruits, rice and so on); how colonial. We also got permission to visit the beach where sea turtles lay their eggs (one of them graced us with her presence). 

During my posting in Indonesia I also accompanied a famous Dutch historian during his research on Indonesia during the war. Although this was considered an honour, I was quite disappointed myself afterwards, when I read the book in question. This historian showed his inability to accept a different reality by sticking to his European mental framework. The only positive detail is that it shows the strengths of culture, how hard it is to let go your mental framework, even for a small part. 

Regrettably, the Dutch and the Indonesians do share a past but when you hear them talking about it, you hear two different histories; and the twain shall never meet? We waited way too long to build a bridge between those two perspectives of history but we should be able to recognise a number of common elements. The hatred of the Dutch in Indonesia has often been exaggerated (I did face it though) and the willingness of the Dutch to face the difficult periods in its history appears to be chiseled in stone but neither blocks the road to a more aligned future. 

Indeed, history impacts our culture, whether we recognise it or not. And yes, we all are part of history.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Corona Lessons

While awaiting more variants and sub-variants and even more viruses, the present lull in the corona-crisis invites a moment of reflection. Indeed, some reports do appear and I surf along with my cultural glasses. Some of the points on my initial list are rather specific to the Netherlands and hence, only apply in that cultural framework. An example is that the Dutch have a prime-minister and not a premier. Formally, a premier can tell other cabinet member what to do or not to do and a premier cannot; political reality is another story. From that formal point of view I would have welcomed a prime-minister who would have played a more co-ordinating role (as defined in the Dutch constitution), in particular between the Minister of Health and the other sectors of government.

My most general point harks back to the definition of culture as a way of thinking, acting and feeling. As a former crisis manager I do know that crisis management requires a specific way of thinking and acting; you might call it crisis culture. It implies for instance capable persons (specific personality profiles, proper training and more), contingency plans (enabling better decisions in a much less time), means (such as  human and technical infrastructure) and (lots of) communication. In NATO member states much of it was available as part of civil defence efforts and abolished after 1989 (fall of the Berlin Wall) as part of the peace dividend. Neoliberalism did not favour spending money on things that might never occur either (e.g. keeping spare capacities) and hence, crisis preparation was next to abolished. Hence, we learned that societal values, such as health care, do indeed cost money but are much valued by the population at large.

Developments like these affected health care. Dutch health care for instance is quite capable, effective and efficient in normal times but such a lean organisation cannot cope with a spike in demand. The net effect was a shortage of expertise, staff and capacity. This resulted in a kind of tunnel vision with a focus on the issues at hand, neglecting wider frameworks. You may wonder for instance why corona patients would get priority over other patients but that is what happened (and yes, I know raising the question is easier than answering it). The Dutch did not have enough track and trace capabilities and other countries struggled with it as well. In case of the Netherlands we also had the problem that much of the crisis had to be handled by more or less municipal organisations over which the Minister of Health formally does not have any authority. What more do you need? In short, a purpose driven temporary organisation.

A key point in dealing with a crisis situation is communication. The last few months you see and hear the one after the other expert explaining conditions, requirements, procedures and so on. From a cultural point of view we know that thinking has to come before acting (proven in studies on change management). So, if you want people to behave in a certain way, you need to convince them first of the need for doing so. A national press conference by cabinet ministers is not even coming close. You need to spread the message by go, tell it to the mountains, over the hills and everywhere. The message has to be brought to the neighbourhoods by people who are trusted there (and speak the language). You cannot wait two years to publish leaflets in different languages, you cannot wait till a general practitioner discovers that explaining things to his patients works best and so on.

Communication also needs to be transparent. Hiding things creates mistrust. You do need to tell people what you know to what degree, including the things you do not know. Do not forget, in a democracy the government serves the citizens and people are more than a strange phenomenon that appears at the ballot boxes once in the four years. Even in public relations this principle of transparency was established more than fifty years ago. Once people discover that they have been served with incomplete or dishonest information, they will disengage, creating more problems in the end. On this measure of transparency much of the corona crisis has failed (starting in China 😀), resulting in series of protests, blockades and the like. Politicians only need to point at themselves. 

Going one step further you may wonder whether the corona measures went against the grain of human nature as a social animal; or even against the idea of evolution. Again, asking is easier than answering. 

In short, I wonder wether I should be less afraid of corona than of the politicians dealing with it. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Threats

For years Dutch politician Geert Wilders is surrounded by bodyguards because of serious threats, related to his political position. More and more politicians receive threats and sometimes ‘visits’ at home. A couple of weeks ago the Dutch Minister of Finance saw a man with a burning torch in front of her house (legally, this was intimidation, not a threat). The Dutch MP Nilüfer Gündogan speaks of psychological intimidation (in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of February 3rd 2022). Overall, I see a trend of disgruntled citizens who air their feelings through threats and violent acts and I wonder where this phenomenon comes from. 

Looking back may clarify the position we came from. Decades ago the government served the national interest by considering what is best for the largest group of people and taking the position of other groups in stride. Citizens  basically supported government with changes once in the four years. If citizens did not agree with the government, they had a series of channels to express their dissatisfaction, such as trade unions, political parties (with many more members than nowadays), the church and more. In the Netherlands a demonstration was an instrument of last resort, in France the start of a debate. 

Important to note is that the available channels of the past were all collective elements in an individualistic society. Many of these institutions do still exist but with much less influence or power. This development may result from society becoming more individualistic. If so, people may think not to have an alternative but taking action with a few like-minded (topic specific). Another possible explanation may be found in the neoliberal policies of the last thirty to forty years. More and more is (was?) left to the market and if you could pay for it, you were in. However, more and more people were left outside in the cold with no or limited means to express their dissatisfaction. With some exaggeration you might say that neoliberal policies go against the social nature of humankind. 

The two possible explanations mentioned above also reinforce one another. They are also reflected in changing values and attitudes. Dissatisfaction with globalisation is a factor, in particular the decreasing part of the economy going to labour (companies got richer). This is also one of the origins of increasing populism. Furthermore, societies became more complex (including multiculturalism) and education struggles to adapt. In addition we face an overload of information (with the related questions of reliability) and a disruptive role of some social media. This potpourri created the assault on the Capitol in Washington DC and the torch bearer in the Netherlands. 

I do not need to explain that these changes in thinking and acting are elements of cultural change. Even if their origins are not (yet?) crystal clear, the resultant behaviour is. The more interesting question is how to get the genie back in the bottle. The discipline cultural anthropology is full of examples of how ethnic groups across the globe and over time solve their conflicts. The book Building Tribes (in Dutch) mentions a few of them, as well as their application to organisations. 

For society as a whole we do not have yet a proper idea how to address these issues. Again, we do need to start with the patterns of thinking in order to change behaviour. However, in the meantime we should not neglect the necessary punishments for acts (big and small) against the law and in such a way that retribution does not aggravate the developments in question. The idea to revisit neoliberalism is already on its way. The corona-crisis has clearly shown that financial values do not always coincide with societal values (e.g. health care) and hence, a movement to promote a stronger role of the state; a state that directs the movie of society without necessarily taking everything in its own hands. Another part of the solution is a closer look at the actual situation of individual people, rejecting the illusion that rules may be applied without differentiation (e.g. a Dutch tax scandal resulted in 1150 children placed in foster-care). Citizens are not clients and the state does not serve its own interests but that of its citizens; attitudes! Much more needs to be done but those two points show the difficulties and time required. I am not impatient but the present society is not the one I’d like to leave behind for my grandson. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Diversity

In the Netherlands we now have our own MeToo discussion, related to the TV entertainment programme The Voice of Holland. At least two men of the programme were accused of sexual misconduct vis-à-vis female candidates (people who hope to boost their career in singing through participation in the programme). Regrettably, in itself nothing new. Circumstances helped to spark public indignation; good.

Sexual misconduct is a way the flip-side of diversity. Diversity implies that we consider all people equal, all on the same level, no one better or worse than another. Reality still shows something quite different, although progress has been made and includes amongst others men who no longer express their (illusion of) power over women. 

Ibtihal Jadib summarised this idea in a beautiful way in her column in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of 26 oktober 2019. “My father was right: I do not know how men think. I am dying to find out because I wonder what men would think if the roles were reversed. If men were deprived for centuries, globally and structurally. If they invariably would be assessed as more stupid. If the norms for squaring up men would be determined by women. If men were learned from the cradle to think in limitations, rather than potential. I have no idea how would then react. Men themselves probably also because the science fiction content is too high. For this reason let’s not make it too complicated, because men appear not to like that. Men have a more practical approach. It just happens that quota for women to grow into [the workforce] appeared a quite practical solution.”

Looking through my cultural glasses I recognise the role patterns and how they developed from agricultural society onwards (in hunters-and-gatherers society men and women were probably more equal). This piece of “science fiction” implies a reversal of role patterns. Would men then go for beauty and improve their communication skills? And would women go for power? Would such a reversal be beneficial? No answers but the progress in terms of emancipation shows that other than the traditional answers are indeed possible; even if Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens suggests that inequality between men and women is a given.

I also kept on file the fictitious Diversity Memo from a shareholder to the CEO, a column in The Economist of November 9th 2019. The subject of the memo is A hard-headed guide to corporate diversity. Some quotes.

Diversity, sexual misconduct and role patterns are all a question of collective choice. This is hard to change and requires persistence and major societal upheavals. And, as the lessons of culture and change management show, thinking has to come before acting. But yes, we can. Maybe not quick enough, maybe not without stumbling but definitively in the direction of a more equal society. A recent example in the change in patterns of thinking also emerged in the Voice of Holland discussions. Blaming the victims is no longer acceptable. An employer cannot say that victims could have turned to a trusted person. In the legal field people are more and more taking the position that it does not matter what the man in question did or did not do but only that the woman experienced the situation in the way she did. 

Even if all this is already a thorny problem, we should not loose our sight on the wider context. The question is not only the relations between men and women (in whatever direction!) but thinking about others in terms of better or less. This context includes different ethnic groups (biologically speaking race does not exist), handicapped people, people with limitations, chronically ill people and more. We do need to tackle pollution and climate change and realise sustainability but as human beings we benefit most with real diversity. Climate change is important for the Earth, as is diversity for human society.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Organisational Culture

Consultants Marcel van Wiggen, Gerard Vriens and Frits Galle published De Cultuur Ladder (The Culture Ladder), a book based on experience rather than research. You might even consider it a marketing book, positioning themselves to help you out. In first instance I was inclined not to discuss it here because it lacks substantiation. The authors do refer to two American theories but don’t build on them; and these theories are even irrelevant in a European context. They do not even develop a theory, they simply state their ideas. They also lack an overall idea or understanding of culture. However, their ideas may still serve as inspiration.

American organisational research often refers to the values of an organisation. I always wondered about it because the values research indicates that only individual people have values (developed in pre-adult years and not changing afterwards). When you talk about the values of a society, you are actually talking about the values most people agree on in that society. If most people are individualistic, the society is considered individualistic. In the same vein you may look at the values of an organisation as the net result of the values of all employees. However, the American organisational research states the opposite: organisations have values and people adapt to them. In that context you have a problem of aligning organisational and individual values. However, “Studies find no correlation between the supposed core values of companies and employees’ assessment of how they reflect them.” writes The Economist of August 10th 2021 in a special report on the future of work. 

Back to the Culture Ladder. The authors start from two axes (remember: no underpinning). You may wonder whether the complexity of organisational culture may be captured in two axes, even if more research follows this idea of two but not always the same axes. Their axes are the added value for the organisation (horizontal, from low to high) and the added value for the employee (vertical, from low to high). On this basis they develop six partially overlapping types of organisational culture (from bottom left to top right). The simplest (low on both axes) is the performing culture (doing what has to), followed by the instructing culture (doing the right thing), the connecting culture (doing together), the achieving culture (doing the best), the learning culture (doing ever better) and the inspiring culture (doing the unbelievable). Remember, just for inspiration!

These six types of organisational cultures indicate that you may increase the added value of both the organisation and the employee. This ties in with idea of more autonomy for an employee, a concept that is being developed in ‘Western’ countries over the last fifty years. Recent work is for instance An Everyone Culture by Robert Kegan (with the DDO: the deliberately developmental organisation), Humanocracy, Creating Organisations as Amazing as the People Inside them by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini and some studies with diversity and inclusion as focal points. However, in many national cultures such an employee autonomy would not be desirable or acceptable. Less than one third of national cultures may be characterised as individualistic, a culture in which individual autonomy has a positive connotation.

Because the book is more about management and leadership than about culture (title notwithstanding), the authors link the six cultures to leadership styles in the following way. 

Organisational culture and management style should match. I do agree, also on the basis of my own experience. A consulting firm changed their managing partner without realising that its organisational culture was shaped by and dependent on the out-going person. The result was a split of the company.

The book is accompanied by worksheet on internet. Regrettably (for you) is that they are only in Dutch. I do have my doubts because I do need theory, research and the like. However, as consultants say: if it works for the client, it’s fine.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Ukraine

The Russian demands regarding Eastern Europe and the Ukraine in particular have some cultural connotations; no surprise to regular readers. First of all it shows the effects of history. History shapes our culture and culture defines how we read history. Indeed, half of the cultural differences between states may be explained by history (Inglehart 1997). President Putin now uses history for his demands, the former unity of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus. His claims brought me back to the history books and I would say that these claims are the result of selective reading (in particular the different histories of the Eastern and Western half of the Ukraine). However, that makes them no less real in Putin’s mind or their expression in the international context. In a similar way Serbia claims Kosovo because of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

Another cultural aspect relates to international (public) law. The world of humankind is organised in states. How states relate to one another is defined by treaties and customs. You may also consider international law as a form of culture because it is a way of thinking and acting of a group of people, the people who take care of the relations of states. This group mostly consists of politicians, parts of governments and diplomats (with their own diplomatic culture). Ironically, the former USSR had a good reputation regarding international law, even if it followed a different interpretation (e.g. the Helsinki agreement on the OSCE). 

A key principle of international law is sovereignty, defined 500 years ago. Sovereignty indicates that a state has its own authority and no state has authority over another state. Spheres of influence go against this principle, even if this idea has been applied now and again in history. Putin does not accept the full sovereignty of the Ukraine, as he showed  in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. He did not accept it in some other countries as well. You might say that Putin acts against the grain of the culture of states. 

You may even consider the heads of states and government as a specific group with (by definition) their own culture. Putin’s actions will not be welcome in that group either because they create tension. Depending the support Putin gets from other, he may even isolate himself with all possible consequences, ranging from economic relations to the lone wolf effect. 

Another aspect of culture is the formal difference between states and nations. A state is defined in international law (population, territory, government; and government exercises control). The world has 194 recognised states. A nation is a group of people with a common history, language, habitat and more; e.g. the Kurds. The world has over 6000 nations and every state faces the difficulties of reconciliation between nations. The Russian, Belarusian and the Ukrainian nation drifted apart over 600 years ago, even if their histories overlapped to quite some degree. 

At the moment of writing we do not know whether the situation will escalate or de-escalate. In both cases culture pops up. In case of further escalation you may think of power and how it is exercised. The relation between power and culture includes the origin of power, exercising power, acceptance of power (power distance in Hofstede’s term) and the role of hierarchies. De-escalation involves the need to prevent loss of face of Putin or Russia as a whole. Culture shows not only the importance of preventing loss of face but also the effort required, in particular in relations between individuals. Loss of face is a global problem, although underestimated in ‘the West’. 

In view of all these cultural aspects you may only hope that those involved have a proper understanding of culture! Did I pay enough attention to it when I trained Russian and Ukrainian diplomats in the mid nineties? 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Corona Values

In my blog of December 14th 2021 I mentioned already the the book Cultural Evolution, People’s Motivations are Changing and Reshaping the World by the American political scientist Ronald Inglehart. I then applied his theory to China; superficially of course because of the nature of a blog. 

I use this theory already for more than 20 years in order to get a grip on societal developments and with quite some success. For that reason I was happy with this 2018 update in which Inglehart addresses the criticism on his theory. In some aspects he is more careful but most of it is a confirmation, thanks to 20 years of additional data. Inglehart argues that we develop our values in line with survival (1997: depending socio-economic circumstances). He perceives a major change from survival values to self-expression values in younger generations. These self-expression values develop when people take survival for granted. Such a value change only has a societal impact after decades when people with new values also express them. This is in line with theories that values develop only in pre-adult years and hardly change afterwards.

Inglehart’s theory has an explanatory purpose and is not intended for predictions. Indeed, developments are path-dependent, i.e. the starting point has an impact on the destination. This caveat notwithstanding I wonder whether the theory may indicate a long-term effect of the present corona-crisis, in particular on those who are now enrolled in primary and secondary education. In many countries the closure of schools has raised questions about the the mental health effects for pupils. 

If we indeed develop our values in pre-adult years and those values do not change afterwards, each of us has to face life with his or her values at around 20 years of age. However, the development of values has been disrupted by the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic over the last two years. Indeed, survival has become more of an issue, even in affluent societies. Inglehart indicates that in such circumstances we may expect a fall-back with more focus on survival values and less on self-expression values (e.g. free choice, environmental protection and gender equality). In addition we may expect a stronger effect on adolescents than on those in primary school, because values development is more a question of puberty. We should also not forget that the corona-crisis already encompasses 10% of pre-adult life (2 years out of 20). 

The net effect will only be visible in 20 years from now when the present adolescents start to exercise their influence through work and their position in society (intergenerational value change). We may only hope that the effect will be limited to a delay in the developments Inglehart describes. However, the disruption may also lead us to a different path with a more uncertain destination. 

One area of interest may be politics. In 1997 Inglehart already indicated that the traditional left-right division (based on the ownership of the means of production; labourers - bosses) is becoming less and less relevant. In 2018 he develops this idea further. He expects a political division, based on postmaterialist values on the one end and xenophobic authoritarian values on the other; the greens and populist right in present day terms. From this point of view a green party is not a leftwing party but rather a defining element of a new political order. 

The corona-disruption of these developments may well result in some delay in the development of sustainability-politics but I do hope and expect that we cannot turn back the clock. The necessary restructuring of society may take some more time and support may falter here and there (e.g. acceptance of lower quality living conditions) but the desirability of sustainability will stand. In short, I remain hopeful - why not in view of the resilience of the younger generations? - and place my trust in today’s adolescents, wishing them strength with their future. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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2022-01-07

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2022-01-07

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Culture Applied, Intentions 2022

Last week’s blog focused on what I learned in 2021 and this week’s blog on the hope and intentions for 2022. Please note that the tradition of reflection and intention is a cultural topic; just like the perceptions of time.

Looking forward may be perceived as a dilemma between pessimism and optimism. On the pessimistic side I do not need to remember you of the lingering corona-crisis (when is it endemic? what is its lasting influence?), the insufficiently tackled issues of climate and energy, the shortages of affordable houses (in some places they would already be happy with sanitation), the quality of education, health care (costs, qualified staff, availability, equipment, buildings), authoritarian tendencies in for instance Russia and China, poverty or inequality. In more general terms I do not expect an increased willingness to co-operate or an increased openness to other cultures (from the individual level to that of the state). 

The corner of optimism is harder to defend (maybe due to my age). Yes, we are time and time again surprised by human resilience. We do find solutions to problems (the human survival strategy) through research, technology, persistence and trial-and-error. We need to and will find a solution to the paradox of declining consumption and maintaining or increasing the quality of our life. The wider question is how to rebuild our societies into sustainable ones. We are not going to solve that question in 2022 but we may set important steps on the way; both the starting point and direction are clear. This will create new opportunities, also for business. However, most of it is shrouded; and do not forget that the fog of the future also contains unknown unknowns (Rumsfeld), the things we do not know we do not know. 

Optimism should outbalance pessimism, like looking on the bright side. It creates the energy to improve the world we live in. If we only see a pile of problems, we do not see the ways and means to tackle them. Indeed, if we do not realise sustainability in one way or another we may on the way to destroy ourselves. 

This future is very much a cultural issue. If culture is a way of thinking, acting and feeling, we do need another way of thinking, another way of acting and another way of feeling; another culture for short. Here we do have a problem. As change management shows you need to start with another way of thinking, because the acting is driven by the thinking; you cannot do things in different ways with an old pattern of thinking. A fundamentally different way of thinking requires approximately three generations, 75 years (three rounds of what Inglehart calls the intergenerational value change). However, we cannot wait that long. So, we better start yesterday!

In christianity a candle is a symbol for sacrificing yourself (burning down) for a higher purpose (giving light). Burning a candle is probably not very green but we also need those strong symbols. On the road to sustainability I will not be around by the end of the century but I did start back in 1972 with the Club of Rome Report on Limits to Growth. I paid more attention to this report than to the final exams of my secondary school (or to an even more urgent family issue). Being retired I can only make modest contributions to changing culture. For society as a whole I would say: ‘yes, we can’, but only if we take the all important baby steps in 2022.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Reflections 2021

LinkedIn asked all its professionals: “For you, what’s one thing you learned in 2021?” A flippant answer might be: nothing, I’m retired. However, I do not think that learning stops with retirement. Actually, I do learn from my grandson, who is only five years old. And even when I limit my answer to my professional interest (culture) I cannot give a simple answer; just like dealing with culture is never a question of bite-size chunks (a characteristic of this age, partially inspired by IT). 

The first answer is that I read a series of books on culture. Probably the most important is by Ronald F. Inglehart (2018) Cultural Evolution, People’s Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World (discussing evolutionary modernisation theory). This shows the long-term change and impact of culture and puts quite a few societal developments into perspective. Other books dealt with history, cultural anthropology or organisational culture but they did not add much. 

Secondly, I learned again that people underestimate the importance of culture and are not willing to do the effort to get to grips with it. When I explain, everyone says yes and amen. And then I see mistakes with costs in the hundreds of millions and even in human life (mishandling the corona-crisis). On a personal level I see only a few visitors to my website on cultural competence, hardly anyone who subscribes to the online courses, read my blog or buy my books or e-books. 

Thirdly, I enhanced my understanding of culture and its application by writing my weekly blogs, Culture Applied. The choice of a topic is never a real problem. I simply look around me and follow the news (in particular the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant and The Economist). The range of this year’s topics may be summarised as follows.

Throughout I do think (and even more and more so) that we should recognise and show the cultural dimension in order to better deal with the issues at hand. Like Stewart Brand showed, we are so very much focused on what is happening from day to day that we do not see what is happening below the surface. By doing so we deny ourselves the perspective that all major issues from the level of the individual up to human society as a whole deserve if we want to make progress. Indeed, every professional should recognise the cultural dimension in his or her discipline. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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2021-12-15

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Culture Applied, Psychiatry

A couple of months ago I read an interview with the transcultural psychiatrist Glen Helberg on the occasion of the publication of his book Als ik luister (If I listen). I was triggered by the correct use of the word transcultural, for once. By now I have finished the book. In it Helberg (66 years) looks back on his life by discussing the major themes of life: birth, the body, intelligence, emotion psychiatry, culture, gender and sexuality, colour, relations, ubuntu, spirituality, politics and death. The whole book is a big band of culture in its perceptions.

Helberg is was born on Curacao from Surinamese parents and studied in the Netherlands. This background makes that cultural differences is a given to him, including the respect they deserve. From this perspective he is amazed that psychiatry is still determined by male and West-European thinking; from Freud and Austria onwards. However, national cultures do play a role when a person gets unbalanced and needs help to get back on track. For this reason Helberg does not follow the traditional approach in his discipline to disregard culture and/or spirituality and does not simply allow them in but rather embraces them. You need to consider a patient in all of his or her aspects, whether they are relevant or even realistic to you, the psychiater. In the same vein he shows the major shortcomings in the DSM V, the (infamous) diagnostic handbook. 

Another refreshing idea is that he includes the body and haptics. Several times he describes that he asks his patient where s/he feels the pain and most of the time the patient does indicate a specific spot or area. This is in line with the studies on culture and communication in which the importance of body language is emphasised (possibly up to half of the communication). Again, the traditional approach mostly neglects the body and assumes that all psychiatric problems are in the head. The importance of the body and the idea of body language also coincides with the idea that many psychiatric problems are basically communication disorders. 

These two elements (culture and body) may in principle add to the complexity of psychiatry because the psychiatrist should learn more to take them on board. However, the more important consideration relates to the patient. A psychiatrist should look at the patient as a whole and not only the brain without culture. The patient should be the starting point and if you do, you cannot reject a comprehensive approach. Beyond psychiatry I would say that everyone should take culture into consideration, a daily need, whether you like it or not. Actually, many people do so but only on a subconscious level; and there is so much more …

Yes, I do have some questions and remarks. Indeed, my copy of the book was read with a pencil in hand as most pages testify. The thing I really regret is the title. If I listen is conditional. It implies something like ‘I may listen or I may not, but if I do …’. Helberg may have intended When I listen (temporal), the moments I listen in my study (in contrast to the moments I do not listen). However, the content of the book may rather be summarised with I listen. Helberg clearly shows he is always on and listens with all his senses; such an attitude became his second nature. 

Transcultural psychiatry is as yet in its own corner but should become mainstream. The book is a fine example of the all pervasive nature of culture. It is also a welcome demonstration of the need for inclusion of culture in healthcare (see my blog of July 20th 2021). I still cannot understand why a BA programme on business and a MA programme on European integration deleted culture from the curriculum and why other programmes never included it. Books like these give hope and return some optimism on dark winter days. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Solidarity

Solidarity, such a nice word; what could be wrong with supporting one another? I am not talking about nepotism or corruption but rather about solidarity as the basis of the welfare state or even national community. In the pre-corona days we had a discussion in the Netherlands whether obese people or smokers should pay more for health insurance, while at present the basis health insurance covers the same for approximately the same price. At the time people warned that doing so would be like pulling a threat and disabling the system. Nowadays we may be waiting for more expensive health insurance for unvaccinated people or unvaccinated people paying their own hospital bill (Singapore).

For me solidarity is linked to the recognition of all people being equal and a sense of community. The former implies the recognition that everyone may face periods of mishap. In a welfare state you get some assistance to get through. You do not pay it back as such but you contribute to the system as a whole through taxes and the like. The latter (community) includes the idea that you solve together the major problems your community is facing. Solidarity is also like a fractal, ranging from the individual through groups and organisations to the state and international relations.

In individualistic countries like the USA you do not have a welfare state (possibly for other reasons as well). Indeed, people are born equal but that is the end to equality. Uninsured people have to pay themselves for their medical treatment; unthinkable from a European perspective. On the other hand you see states that cannot afford a(n extensive) welfare system. Solidarity then boils down to smaller groups, like the extended family. 

At first glance you might expected increased solidarity in view of the corona crisis. Its extraordinary nature forced most governments to intervene for the collective good. However, you may also observe signs of decreasing solidarity. Populist politicians did not think that corona posed such an existential threat and doubt the scientific results. More and more people started to grumble about the obese and unvaccinated people that ‘unnecessarily’ occupied hospital beds in the intensive care units at the costs of non-corona patients. Developments are heating up to rather restrictive regimes for unvaccinated people. Such measures would put an end to the idea of solidarity and ultimately the welfare state.

Politicians are on a slippery slope. Taking the Dutch government as an example, I would say that the government should explain much better why they are taking the steps they propose, to what end, the necessary conditions and the possible consequences and all of that for all inhabitants with suitable communication techniques. Up till now the Dutch government does not have a comprehensive policy, intervenes too late, abolishes measures too early and fails in communication. In a wider framework you see governments focusing on the rate of infections and those with an eye on the number of hospital beds occupied by corona patients. No surprise that the former do better because they take measures while people are still getting sick. Looking at hospitalisation you are losing two weeks (incubation time). Policies and communication may make or break corona solidarity, even if we all have to deal with lots of uncertainties. Trust in government varies accordingly. 

From a cultural perspective solidarity is based on values, in particular the equality of people as human beings. This is linked to ideas of citizenship, social capital and national institutions. Demolishing national institutions (instead of changing them to the times), is ultimately destroying the state. Education has an important role in clarifying these issues. Furthermore, solidarity is linked to the degree individualism or collectivism in national culture and the impact of national history. In the end solidarity underpins civilisation, culture on the level of humankind. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, (Dutch) Politics

I’m getting more and more frustrated with Dutch politics and the obvious reasons are simple. Trust in government steadily declines (not doing what they promised to do) and I’m no exception to this rule. More and more questions are raised about handling the corona-crisis and I subscribe to many of them (also against the backdrop of being the crisis-co-ordinator of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the late eighties). We have a prime-minister (not a premier) who had to step down because of lying in Parliament, who plays a major role in the formation of a new government and will probably the next prime-minister. And even more importantly, government fails over and over again to serve the public, in particular those in dire circumstances. 

However, the both outgoing and incoming prime-minister and his political party are supported by a majority of the voters. So he rests assured. In addition his political party does not appear to have a candidate to replace him, by intent or not.

The question is why this paradox continues, why this malfunctioning prime-minister keeps his job. Trying to answer it from a cultural perspective I start once again with the definition of culture: a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people at a given time and place. Behaviour, group, time and place are clear: voting for the liberal conservative party, the group of voters, at present (2021) and the Netherlands. Hence, I need to find my answer in thinking and feeling. 

The thinking part (of this group and so on) may be simple: their interests are best served by the party who is the largest. Indeed, the Dutch government at first did not support one of the Glasgow decisions because it is not in the interest of Dutch international business. Next to being the best party for business, the neoliberal ideology best protects those with a job, a house and no debts (or conflict with the tax services). However, not everybody in such a position takes such a short-term view. Many do recognise the problems of education, healthcare, safety, pollution, energy, climate change and more and would like to see more political involvement in them. 

This touches on a key principle of democratic society. Government should act in accordance with the best interests of society as a whole, not the interest of a political party or a specific group in society. Furthermore, in each decision the interests of minorities should be taken into account. Politics is not lobbying for a specific interest, even if we have political parties doing so (animals; retired people, farmers). Each political party should outline how it sees serving the interests of the population as a whole in all areas of governmental interference. And each party should be willing to give it a try; although we do have parties in Parliament who reject participation in government.

I do think (also in view of my trainings of politicians) that people are no longer fully aware of the principles underlying a pluralist democracy with a market oriented economy. This perception is not limited to the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph but the full set. These principles are like values, underlying subconscious orientations. However, values are not lost on the individual level but clearly these principles are (or they have never been engrained sufficiently). Well, I do not wish anybody to have my upbringing but these principles are rock solid and I can only keep on warning people for them. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Diversity

‘Diversity policy’ is a bit of a misnomer. When two people are together, even identical twins, you already have diversity. People are simply not the same. Their individual cultures differ, the unique mix of all the cultures of the hundreds of groups a person is or has been a member of; their cultural DNA. In dealing with other people you always have diversity and you always deal with different cultures, whether you like it or not. 

Diversity policy aims at increasing diversity, e.g. the ratio of women to men, age groups, disabled persons or ethnic minorities. In a way promoting diversity goes against the grain of human nature. We prefer to deal as much as possible with similar people. We do not like Talking to Strangers (Malcolm Gladwell) and we prefer clones of ourselves in the boardroom (the discussion on women at the top). Hence, diversity policy is not only a misnomer but also an uphill battle. 

As indicated above diversity also touches the core of culture. Clones do not need to deal with cultural differences (intercultural). They only have commonalities (cross-cultural) and do not aim for a reconciliation of differences and commonalities (transcultural). In reality, most of us do try a transcultural approach, whether they call it like that or not (respect, adaptation, politeness, openness and so on). Some people think that you can never really learn another culture and hence, should not try (relativism). And a small group think that their own culture is better than others (monism); but they still need to deal with those of their own culture. 

Diversity has a simple starting point: people are indeed different but not better or worse than another. This sounds simple but emotional reality begs to differ. More important and more difficult is the realisation that this statement (equality as human being) fits individualistic societies and hardly collective societies. When you realise that only a quarter of national societies have individualistic cultures (to different degrees), you know that the diversity officer has even more difficulties to stay on course. 

Inequality is the net result of not recognising the other as an equal human being (I am not talking about position, income or so, just the human condition), because you do see the one as better than the other. I grant you that we will always have some degree of inequality. The question is what degree of inequality we find acceptable and how that acceptance may be influenced. In her column in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant (October 13th 2021) Marcia Luyten mentions that unequal societies are inherently unstable and that democracy will fail with too much inequality. Could democracy and individualism be two sides of the same coin?

In short, in a human society diversity is a process, a road that you may travel but never reach its end. An understanding of culture may smooth the wheels. Regrettably, not every diversity officer wants to hear about culture and how to deal with it. Just imagine that it may help.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, 9/11s

Autumn is also the period between the American 9/11 and the European 9/11, between September 9th and the 9th of November. The European 9/11? The fall of the Berlin Wallm, the end of communism and the East-West divide. The former may still get the most attention but I do think that the latter should be considered as the more important. Both touch on values and hence, culture.

In his column of September 6th in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant Arie Elshout is clear. The American 9/11 has been in vain. ’The only advantage is that a new 9/11 did not occur and that Bin Laden was punished and became feed for the fish. However, America paid a heavy toll for it. The country is exhausted. It overestimated itself (Iraq), it lost itself (Abu Ghraib), it got lost in the border area between retribution and law (Guantanamo), it alienated itself from its fellows (erosion of alliances), it neglected its own house, tore in two and got into war with itself (Trump).’ (my translation)

The European 9/11 is not a success story either but it is not a failure. All warnings notwithstanding the required efforts have been underestimated and by far not enough. The lack of political will and co-operation is reflected in current developments in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. And the reason is simple: a change of values takes much more time and effort.

Let me explain. In 1989 the 28 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkan, Central Asia and Mongolia shed the old system in different degrees, lured by the temptation of the Coca-Cola economy. They had no idea of the implications of capitalism and only saw the luxury. To enable the transformation from a centralised system with a planned economy towards a pluriform democracy with a market oriented economy, the related values had to change. As a first step certain socio-economic conditions had to be met. Only two or three countries did so in 2000. Next you need to know that the values of adults do not change because values are developed in pre-adult years. In theory only the children born from 2000 onwards in those two or three countries could start to develop new values. And they needed to be adults to work with them (around now). For society as a whole you may expect three to four generations, up to a century. More than 20 years ago a group of people of former refugees from the East Bloc (Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1967 and on) even thought I was on the optimistic side. Even if everything works out, you cannot expect a smooth ride. Indeed, up till now only 10 countries are still in the race, a few are in a pitstop and half have given up by falling back in old patterns. 

The point is that the European 9/11 has had an overall positive impact on the global system (including stability in Europe) and its effects will linger on for decades to come. The American 9/11 has in my mind a negative impact because the position of the USA in the global system has been toned down quite a bit, complemented by decreasing trust in it. Internally the USA has paid a considerable price as well and the consequences of it are still spilling over. If the Americans would start to write their dates in the European continental way, they could turn this dark page and focus on something important And I admit that I do not know the Chinese way of writing important days but I have read over and over again that they are in for the long haul. I will not be at the finish!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Costs of Nature

In previous blogs I strongly supported sustainability and the efforts to realise such a system. However, doing things a different way is not enough. A necessary first step (see also the blogs on change management) is a change in the way of thinking, mentality. A lot of attention has been paid to facts (depletion of resources, climate change, pollution and the like) and the related necessity to change our way of living. In view of the increasing number of problems and the growing intensity of them this has not been enough. Understandably, because the rather abstract and long-term nature of these problems do not fit well with the daily concerns of most  people. 

General awareness has indeed increased, considerably so in prosperous states. Indeed, many people make green choices, install solar panels, turn down their heating and so on. All these efforts notwithstanding, a fundamental change in patterns of thinking did not occur; regrettably. Most people still consider many other problems more urgent and they do have a point. However, climate change is a slowly moving and fundamental problem (see also the discussion of Stewart Brand’s model in my blog of August 3rd 2021). This implies that relatively small steps now have huge consequences in the future and that waiting results in the necessity of making really big steps (with all costs and consequences). Tackling climate change goes hand-in-hand with dealing with other problems.

Because talking and present efforts are not enough I have reached the point that people should feel the need for developing a sustainable system. This may a dangerous route because measures may be experienced as punishment. More generally, you cannot force people to think in a different way. Whatever you do, it has to include such considerations.

One option is outlined in the Free Exchange column in The Economist of February 6th 2021, paying for the costs of the ‘services provided by nature’ as part of economic activity. In itself this is nothing new. In the Middle Ages brewers used the water of the rivers without paying for it. Up to today we still have chimneys emitting heated air or polluted gasses. The column is inspired by a report on the economics of biodiversity by Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge. The report mentions the environment not only as a source of extractable resources but also as a stock of natural capital (e.g. refreshing air, turning waste into nutrients, keep temperatures within limits). Between 1992 and 2014 produced and human capital increased “while the estimated value of natural capital declined by nearly 40%”. Stopping such a decline requires huge efforts, leave alone the surprises of turning points. Building the necessary political will to tackle these problems requires “an appeal of values”.

Mentioning values brings us back to culture, because values are at the core of culture (nothing new here for regular readers of this blog). One example is the internalist - externalist dilemma (research by Trompenaars and others). The internalist position states that the environment is at human’s disposal and humans may use as they see fit. The externalist position is that humans are part and parcel of nature and subjected to the laws of nature. 

If tackling climate change boils down to changing values, we need to think in terms of three to four generations, roughly a century (way beyond 2015). We better start now!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Government Culture

In the Netherlands the government had to step down when the prime-minister was caught lying, we had elections in March, just reached the decision to form a new government with the same four political paries and discuss the idea of a new culture of government (bestuurscultuur). Politicians and the mass media do talk a lot about that culture of government but both the actual an the desired situation is not well defined.

The present situation is that political parties that intend to form a government, write down their intentions in a so-called coalition agreement. They then form a government that implements it. The problem is that it reduces the power of parliament. The government has a majority and forces legislation through parliament, simply because it is mentioned in the coalition agreement, not because of content or arguments. This process is reinforced by lots of informal talks behind closed doors, e.g. between the leaders of the coalition parties in parliament and the government. I am not going to bother with all kinds of historical details that might explain this way of doing things and the related pattern of thinking (the present culture). The point is that the present system got out of hand, endangering parliamentary democracy. Once you reach this conclusion, the question is how to change the system. Like in change management people talk a lot about doing things in a different way without paying attention the necessary preliminary change in patterns of thinking. That is also why I do not believe that the intended coalition will be able to create a new government culture. 

One additional factor is the attitude towards government. The present prime-minister, in office for ten years, likes to see government as managing a firm. This attitude is reinforced by his neoliberal thinking. Government services should in his view be subjected to market oriented thinking and costs should be reduced. The corona-crisis showed that this implies a neglect of things with a societal value, like healthcare, education and safety. The key problem with this managerial attitude is basically that government is not business. To start with you have three groups of organisations, each with their own interests: government with public interests, business with private interests and ngo’s with an interest in improving society. Public interests imply that you look at what is best for society as a whole and how to improve society in a given direction. Private interest looks at itself and how to make a profit. This point alone already implies quite different ways of dealing with people and topics. In my mind government is more than the implementation of an agreement and a prime-minister who sees himself as a manager, is not a politician. 

This very brief summary gives already much food for thought. Although I used the situation in the Netherlands as a starting point, much of it applies to other national governments as well. However, do not underestimate the impact of national culture; how it shapes government and its actions. The more I read about culture, the more I see the effect of this immaterial phenomenon, national culture. 

Back to the case at hand. The two things I hear mentioned the most are much shorter coalition governments (only a few pages instead of dozens) and much more public discussions. Both are immediate reactions to the situation at hand. However, as mentioned above, they should be based on another pattern of thinking. That appears like a wide open field. I do think that we have to go back to basics, e.g. what is parliamentary democracy, how should it function (including structures), what is the role of monarchy, how is religion involved or the roles of government and parliament? Questions like these will result in long and difficult discussions, requiring much more time than the months of agreeing on a coalition agreement. In the past this circumstance has been used as an argument not to have such discussions but we cannot avoid them any longer. Society has changed too much and continues to do so. Waiting implies a growth of cancer. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Patterns

The study of cultural anthropology survives in the Netherlands but is no longer standing on its own feet. Cultural anthropology is called anthropology, not for short but because other disciplines of anthropology (e.g. linguistic or biological anthropology) have all been scrapped. Furthermore, anthropology has been for a while an alternative for non-western sociology. Nowadays, the discipline is taught at BA level in combination with developmental sociology. On the other hand we do have a few (cultural) anthropologists who are specialised in organisations.

One of them is Dr. Danielle Braun. Compared to the ever repeating books on management and change her books gives a refreshing perspective on organisations; no breakthroughs but a focus on the human dimension. Her latest book is Patterns, Recognising and Changing with an Anthropological View (in Dutch). ‘A pattern consists of a repetition of simple units or the application of the same rules, resulting in a range or field.’ Patterns have five characteristics: (1) they are repetitive (2) they may be observed at multiple levels (3) they have a systemic consistency (4) they form energy fields (5) they are transferred. The organisational culture of a specific company may be recognised in its patterns. They need to be codified, interpreted and communicated, before you may change them.

Dr. Braun’s work stresses the inclusivity, the community of all who work for an organisation. She does not have much patience for the outlier, whatever Malcolm Gladwell and others say about their importance. Possibly because I have been an outlier more than once, I am inclined to be in the latter camp. However, the culture in question has to recognise the importance of outliers; welcoming alternative perspectives as sources of inspiration. 

In her books you do not find a methodology, model, plan, approach, consecutive steps or so. She rather outlines the rational and irrational practices of human behaviour and their meaning; and not all of them contribute to the performance of the organisation, they may even harm it. In addition to learning and in particular experience, you need flexibility and a trainer’s mindset. When you present the patterns you found, you need to do so in a non-confronting or even empowering way. While she is more inside the group (although with an outsider’s view in recognising patterns), I am more on the outside. I learned from the book that I am better at explaining the theory in question, not telling people how to deal with it. 

Her idea of patterns fits very well with my triangle model of culture. For more than twenty years I have presented culture as a fractal, something that occurs in groups of all sizes and even at the individual level. A friend of mine mentioned this consistency as the key advantage, linking one type of culture with another. The model meets the five criteria she outlines and hence, underpins its validity. 

In earlier blogs I mentioned that the problem with change management is its focus on behaviour, doing things in a different way, neglecting that that behaviour should be based on another way of thinking. However, business often does not have the time for weeks of discussions but rather needs change now. Although managers do know that change often fails and that you need to take time, they do the opposite time and time again, often being worse off in the end. From this perspective I am glad that Dr. Braun emphasises the need to pay attention to culture first.

You cannot demand that every manager should know about culture but actually culture is a key condition for successful management. Way to go!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Gossiping

I just finished reading the PhD thesis by Dr. Rinus Feddes (2018) on gossip. The thesis is in Dutch and language may be of importance because gossip has in Dutch a more negative connotation than in English. However, this minor detail already refers to a key point of the research: gossip is often more a positive than a negative form of communication (constructive versus destructive). Mr. Feddes looks at gossip as an interactive social phenomenon that plays a role in organisations, families and friendship (or all social bonds), whether you like it or not. Positive aspects include the bonding between people, the communication between people, it is also an additional circumstance next to the existing relationships, where people can create a situation to discus taboo –topics.  And in particular the results of talking about gossiping. 

From my cultural position I’m inclined to consider culture as a wider context to gossiping with communication as an intermediate layer. Looking at the definition of culture - a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people at a given time and place - the focus is more on acting and feeling than on thinking. The group of people involved in gossiping has a minimum of three persons, the two persons gossiping about an absent third. Within a team gossiping may be a sign of dissatisfaction or tension that needs to be addressed. Within an organisation gossip tells you something about organisational culture, as mentioned either positive or negative; specific gossip may be constructive or destructive. Gossip may also have a national context, like gossiping about a cabinet minister or media gossip. This may have a signal function; everything for image and opinion polls.

The four layers of the triangle model of culture also include the individual level (next to team, organisation and the state). At first glance this level may appear irrelevant, because you need at least three persons. 

People with a three-ways split personality are rare, leave alone that they can gossip about one another. 😀 However, at that level you need to address a series of relevant questions, like why an individual gossips, about what (from management style to sexual orientation), with whom, when, what surroundings and so on. You also need to consider what an individual might do if s/he learns that s/he is the object of gossiping

I also tried to look in the other direction, from gossip to culture and found that more difficult. Gossip may have an impact on culture. It may for instance influence the attitudes of people towards one another (the minimum three persons or more). Many people would consider gossiping as having a negative effect on organisational culture. Managers often try to prohibit gossiping in the illusion that you can switch if off as a light bulb; well, then you are really in the dark. You rather need to think about it and in particular to talk about it (meta-communication). Gossip may then well have a positive contribution to make. Similar remarks may be made on the team and national level.

The thesis does mention culture a few times. (1) The approach of the research process is similar to the one I used to construct the mind-map of culture (p. 25). (2) Reassuring for me but irrelevant for you! 😀 On p. 148 it mentions that the description of social connections in case of gossiping requires attention for culture in terms of expectations, values, norms and objectives. (3) In the discussion of a specific research the question is raised whether you have absolute values or only contextual values (p. 169) (4) Finally (p. 194), it mentions that the cultural dimension may not alway have a rational base and hence, the irrational aspects of humankind cannot always described that way. 

In short, this thesis opens new perspectives and fields of research. Rinus Feddes and I already started over a cup of coffee. You’re welcome!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. If interested, I may send you the summary of the thesis. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Individual

The individual perspective of culture is rather neglected. Culture influences an individual and an individual faces, uses, copes and deals with culture. In my blog of December 24th, 2018 I described what I consider as individual culture: an individual is a unique mix of all the groups s/he belongs to or has belonged to and hence, is a unique mix of all the cultures of these groups. 

The French sociologist, Nathalie Heinich, clarifies the concept of individual identity as an interplay between self-image (who am I?), presentation (what do I show?) and ascription (how does the world sees me?). In order to fit all the individual identities in a national identity we need a common framework to establish a community. If we do not pay attention to it, fragmentation will result with undesirable consequences (blog of December 18th, 2019). She sees identity as ‘the result of the package of procedures that assigns an attribute to an object’ (and uses a chapter to explain). Identity is something external.

Other people stress the internal dimension of identity, something you are born with. In order to avoid confusion you better see this as personality. Personality refers to stable inclinations in our behaviour and is internal. A well known model of personality is the Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. In my blog August 5th, 2019 I indicate the influence of (national) culture on tests like these. 

In their book Intercultural Psychology [actually transcultural psychology] Van Oudenhoven and Van der Zee (2019) describe their model of transcultural characteristics: cultural empathy, open-mindedness, social initiative, emotional stability and flexibility. In terms of cultural competence (knowledge, skills and attitudes related to culture) these five are mostly on the attitudes-side, not the skills and knowledge you also need. 

In this discussion of identity and personality two important distinctions pop up. The first relates to the nature  - nurture dichotomy: is a characteristic something you are born with (nature) or something that you somehow learned (nurture). Identity, in particular as described by Mrs. Heinich, is external and hence, on the nurture side. Personality is on the nature side. Both include minor escape hatches, allowing influence from the other side. 

Secondly, identity is not limited to a person while personality is. Identity may be scaled from an individual person to that of a state or even beyond that (gender identity, national identity, the identity of a company, European identity and so on). 

Looking at an individual person on the basis of identity and personality you may recognise the same three perceptions as applied to cultural differences, indicated by the prefixes trans-, cross- and inter-. An inter- approach (e.g. intercultural communication) focuses on the differences between the persons involved. Cross- as in cross-cultural psychology looks at commonalities. And trans- as in transcultural communication tries to reconcile the commonalities and differences. A transcultural approach of an individual person does not focus on either identity or personality but rather takes them in stride. Both elements, possibly in combination with others (although experience and education may be included in identity) shape the individual perspective on culture and how to deal with another culture. 

I’m painting myself in a corner because the combination of my identity and personality makes me less suited for dealing with culture. At least I know about it!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, European University

A Dutch website on higher education, Science Guide, reported that Maastricht University used the opening of the academic year to launch its new strategic plan. The chairman of the board calls it the composite dream of its staff. The title of the plan is European University of the Netherlands. The question is what that is, a European university. Science reports that it is an on-going project, its definition left unanswered. That allows me to think along. 

Looking though my cultural glasses the term European university raises a series of questions (that may have been answered in the process of developing the plan). First, ‘European’. Is this limited to the EU or does it refer to all European states (including for instance Russia and Moldova)? Is ‘European’ limited to education or does it have a wider meaning? The latter idea brings me to mentality (a pattern of thinking and as such a constituent element of culture) and from mentality to values. A historical study within the European Values Survey indicated that Europe differs from other continents through the combination of antiquity, Christianity, Enlightenment and the nineteenth century or positive nationalism. If indeed this quartet characterises European thinking and by extension its culture, you may even wonder whether a European university suits non-European students. Afghanistan is just one more example of this fundamental difference; not everyone wants to be like a European or an American.  

Casting the net somewhat wider, I would like to refer to the more general question what encompasses internationalisation in (higher) education. When I was a senior lecturer internationalisation, I always stressed that internationalisation was not defined by international co-operation or trips (I am deliberately not saying ‘duty trips’ because many of them were more a gift to friends in the organisation than contributing to internationalisation). Key to internationalisation in my mind is that a university shows in all its activities and in each lecture that we all live in a yellow submarine, an international context that you cannot set aside (see also my two online courses on the international and the EU context). Such an attitude is also required in a European context and especially an EU context. Lecturing on European integration I often asked students what was the influence of the EU on the classroom (e.g. day light, height of the doorframe, door opens to the outside, aspects of furniture, several safety requirements). The surprise effect never failed. 

When we look at the second part of the term, university, the focus shifts to (higher) educational systems and related traditions. What do we have in common in those 44, up to 51 states in terms of higher education? The question is easier to answer when you limit yourself to the EU but then you would leave out for instance the UK. Yet another way of looking at it, is focusing on the differences with other continents. The article on Science Guide mentions for instance that we differ from the US with ‘our’ focus on co-operation and an interdisciplinary approach. That would throw the cut-throat competition out of the window but I do know universities in the EU that focus on excellence. 

The idea of a ‘European university’ could be something to aim for. We have not only a culture to defend but we could also be a showcase of a way of living that ensures prosperity and security. On the other hand we should not be naive because European values are hard to transplant and we should show respect for other ways of doing things / cultures. At the same time a European university should be open and pluriform, not inward looking in an EU context. I have fond memories of teaching at Maastricht University to students with around 50 nationalities and hence, I wish the university all the best with their travel on this road in the coming years.  

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 25 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Work

Culture Applied, Work

Time and again I read articles that show the relations between work and culture. I see work as an instrument of survival but it does have other connotations, like status or improving life on Earth. The fairy tale hunters and gatherers society with lots of leisure time only points at the relatively limited effort people had to do for their food and drinks. Things changed considerably with agricultural society, not only in settling at a given place but also in the effort people had to do. And we all know how industrial society emphasised productivity and more and more a 24/7 economy. These and other changes are different ways of doing things, resulting from changing patterns of thinking, based on shifts in values; cultural change in short.

The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of April 7th 2021 had an interview with the social anthropologist James Suzman. The title reveals the message: you may also have a meaningful life without a full working week. The occasion was Suzman’s publications Work, a Deep History and Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time. Four quotes from the interview. 

The history of work is also discussed by Jan Lucassen in his The Story of Work. The final paragraph of the review of this study in The Economist of July 14th 2021 starts with “And yet his history also shows how much today’s workers have in common with every other soul who has toiled these past 12,000 years. They remain at the mercy of their appetites, and of political and economic institutions built, often consensually, to help them product more.” 

The Economist of August 10th 2021 has a special report on the future of work. Again a few quotes. 

A couple of days ago the mass media mentioned the proposal of 30 hour working week. The idea originates from a study indicating the stress resulting from the present system. However, this idea will not solve the shortages of staff. For now, it is just one more idea in the process of on-going changes in work. We still need to answer the question why we work: for ever more or fulfilling our needs? 

I refrained from discussing for once organisational culture and how developments like these might be reflected in it. If you still do not get the idea how strongly culture and work are interrelated, I propose that you start working. 😀

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Afghanistan

In a way I am grateful for the failure of the US led intervention in Afghanistan, because it shows the consequences of neglecting culture (with a cost of tens of thousands of lives and more than a trillion dollar). The purpose of these blogs is exactly to show these consequences by stressing the impact of culture. In the past you might have used the arguments of insufficient understanding of culture and a lack of instruments but no longer. 

In an interview on Dutch television the American journalist Tim Weiner (Pulitzer Price, National Book Award) mentioned that the failure of the USA in both Vietnam and Afghanistan results from the neglect of the countries’ history and culture. Indeed, I recall a statement of 20 years ago that the none of the US security services employed a single person who mastered either Dari or Pashto, the main languages of Afghanistan; leave alone an understanding of history and culture.

You may wonder, even today what that Afghan culture is. It is not a national culture in the European or American sense. European national cultures are shaped by antiquity, christianity, the enlightenment and the nineteenth century or positive nationalism. None of this applies to Afghanistan with its focus on clans, loyalty, distributed power and religion. The two perceptions are next to impossible to align and you cannot avoid that both parties act on their own mental frameworks. 

In previous centuries a military victory resulted in the subjugation of the conquered people, at least to the outside world. This is also reflected in an argument in Greek mythology. Why did Zeus have so many affairs? Because an affair with a goddess in the religion of a conquered people would incorporate that religion in Greek religion and hence, integrate that people. 

Military victory also reflected superiority. US superiority has taken a beating and not only in Afghanistan. The status (a cultural aspect) of the USA in the international community has decreased, also because it fails to accommodate the rising power of China in the international system. This is a loss of face (a cultural aspect) of the USA that may well have far reaching (international) consequences. The international standing and power (a cultural aspect) of the USA has decreased and we do not know what the consequences will be. Do not forget that the USA has enormous debts that may only be maintained because the US dollar is the international reserve currency. Ultimately, this is a question of trust, yet another cultural aspect. Replacing the US dollar with another currency is not easy and would take years, but still. Also in other domains the lower international standing of the USA, already damaged by Donald Trump, may have all kinds of consequences, particularly if or when other countries fill a specific gap. 

Even if the USA take up a good cause, like adaptation and mitigation of climate change, it will be hard to find partners to co-operate with. An inward turning USA through protectionism and the like (America First) would hurt all democratic states. ‘Making America great again’ is only possible by co-operation with mutual benefits. This is a key paradox: getting great through co-operation with others. However, at present the US give-and-take is more and more defined by US conditions.

As the Chinese say: we live in interesting times; but it is not a wish for Afghan women. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Education

I am still surfing on this idea of the slow but high impact of culture that I discussed in the previous three blogs (the model by Stewart Brand as such and applied to climate and economics). This time I apply it to education. 

We all know that the organisation and content of in particular primary and secondary education reflect the society and its values of which it is part. In addition, educational systems are hard to reform because the rather extensive range of interests (from government through parents to pupils, not to mention the financial aspects and the employment of all teachers and staff). Even a discussion on ‘only’ the content of the programmes being offered or learning objectives ends after years in a compromise. We should also not forget that people build their lives on the education they received, whatever the quantity or quality. 

These ideas are strongly linked to culture, again working in the background. sometimes next to invisible. The obvious example may be found in the values we pass on to our children. What we find important for children varies considerably from one country to another. The World Values Survey (round 7, 20217-2020) shows for instance that 52% of the respondents in the USA find good manners important versus 83% in the Netherlands; hard work: 68% USA, 24% the Netherlands. On other topics the difference is smaller. 

Values are at the core of culture and education is an important channel for passing on our values, in particular in view of the theory that values are developed in pre-adult years and do not change afterwards. Culture has also an important effect on how we organise our society, including our educational system. Education is also reflected in legislation, itself a reflection of culture. In addition, culture is mentioned in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - a document that in view of the range of national interpretations is by far not that universal as it should be. Article 26 UDHR starts with “Everyone has the right to education”.

When I look at the educational system in the Netherlands I notice a legacy of over a century, visible through the role of religion. The so-called freedom of religion implies that every religion is entitled to establish its own schools, funded by government if they fit a loose set of criteria. Because three earlier blogs already discuss the link between religion and culture, I am not going to repeat the argument and only stress that this is one more relation between culture and education.

The Economist of June 26th 2021 contains a briefing on post-pandemic education. “Covid-19 disrupted education on a scale never seen before.” Children learned much less than usual and The Economist quotes a study that the pupils in the Netherlands did not learn anything new during eight weeks of online learning. If you throw inequality in the mix you see that the learning loss is greater for children with poorly educated parents. Positive elements include stronger links between teachers and parents and a strong introduction of technology. The stop-gap measures also showed (once more) the differences between children because some did benefit from online learning. Nevertheless, the editorial starts with “School closures have caused children great harm. Governments are doing shockingly little to help them catch up”.

The choices we made during the corona crisis are influenced by our cultures and education was not a primary consideration. It rather faced the music and tried to dance along. Now that the parade has passed the village green, we see the debris left behind. If we would allow ourselves a moment of reflection before acting, we could still save the day. Let’s just say that I am happy not to be a pupil, a student, a researcher or a lecturer those days

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Economics

In the last two blogs I discussed the high impact and slow grinding process of culture. I mentioned the model of Stewart Brand and some aspects of the relation between culture and climate. This blog focuses on culture and economics. In previous blogs I discussed some examples of the latter relationship, including the nature of our economic systems, (the need for) a sustainable economy, economics as a social science, behavioural economics, political economy and an empirical approach of economics.

The column Free Exchange in The Economist of June 26th 2021 adds one more element, evolutionary economics. The idea is simple. “An evolutionary approach acknowledges that the past informs the present: economic choices are made within and informed by historical, cultural and institutional context.”

The article quotes Thorstein Veblen: “An evolutionary economics must be the theory of a process of cultural growth”. Near the end the article conveys the same idea. “Perhaps most intriguing is recent work on culture’s role in shaping economic outcomes. To accept that culture influences behaviour is to allow that people are not foresighted utility calculators, but rather social creatures who rely on norms and traditions when taking decisions. But culture - which changes slowly and is often transmitted across generations - cannot be understood outside an evolutionary framework.” 

These quotes point at something that I have been saying for years, that you need culture, even more than mathematics, to get a grip on economics. I am looking through cultural glasses, but the quotes above come from an economic perspective. I do not think that the gap between the two disciplines is hard to bridge conceptually (although still a paradigm shift), only in terms of effort. 

Culture is working in the background. It is a way of thinking and acting of groups of people at a given time and place. That may sound fine but for years the net outcome of these processes were far from clear, for instance as a result of insufficient research, a lack of focused research questions and scientific life in different silos. Economists did not know about their culture and cultural research did not focus on economics as such; only on aspects like organisational culture or trade and culture. This is not to say that nothing was done. In the nineties I had a series of discussions with British academics in the field of international political economy, IPE for short. We joked that by adding culture, IPEC would become the OPEC of humanities. In the end it proved a bridge too far for established academic structures. 

We need to expose culture within economics, the impact of values, the patterns of thinking and the related ways of acting. Culture could enhance our understanding of economics in a considerable way by bringing humankind back into a science that has been kidnapped by mathematics (Sedlacek). A clear example of the impact of culture may be found in the transformation process in Central Europe, moving from a closed, centralist, plan-based system towards pluriform democracies with market-oriented economies. Yes, the process may take up to a century but that should encourage rather than discourage to find out what is at play. I do not want the populations of Poland or Hungary the living conditions that they are actually facing today!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Climate

Last week I mentioned the slow working process of culture, mostly in the background (inspired by the model of Stewart Brand). This week I apply the idea to climate change and next week (once again) to economics.The publication of the IPCC report is just a happy coincidence. A detail related to this report is that at least two of its authors praise the attention for cultural differences within a group of authors.

Over the centuries humankind has shaped society through cultural choices. Cultural, because they reflect patterns of thinking acting of groups of people, e.g. elites. These choices have consequences over centuries, beyond the scope of human memory. One of those choices focuses on the position of humankind towards its environment. If you see humankind as something special (e.g. religion), you create a dichotomy, mankind versus nature. On the other hand you may recognise humankind as part of nature, an animal between animals, however special. From Darwin’s theory of evolution onwards the latter perception (recognising the roots of humankind) is getting more and more attention; simply counting the number of books and scientific and popular articles. You might say that the former position (master of the universe) is losing ground in view of the consequences of that position and I wish it would do so more quickly. However, not everybody in that group is ready to cede ground and we may see the climate sceptics all around us. 

You can never convince all the climate sceptics but governments, scientists and others could do much more to explain the how and why. A necessary condition is that these efforts will be done through the media the sceptics trust, not the traditional mass media or scientific journals. Scientists may also be a bit more strait-forward, not wrapping each fact in a web of disclaimers and statements about further research. Governments should stress the general interest and not hide behind for instance commercial interests (neoliberal policies). I am convinced that the finger-pointing to business will increase, in particular if it is not getting its act together by recognising that preventing climate change has commercial benefits just as well. In the same vein many climate sceptics may be convinced by direct benefits; as the Dutch say: when they see it in their wallet.

A fascinating aspect of climate change is that it is not a linear process but rather characterised by tipping points (prof. Marten Scheffer in de Volkskrant of August 7th 2021); nothing gradual about that! Once you have passed a tipping point change will reinforce itself while a return to the previous situation is next to impossible. 

The proposed Green Deal by the European Union is a good step in the proper direction. Even a usually critical economist welcomed the deal in his column in the newspaper de Volkskrant (July 17th 2021). However, the deal needs to be approved by the EU member states and even more important, implemented. These two conditions will be very hard to be met. You may take the Netherlands as an example. Years of neoliberal policies have thrown the idea of general interests out of the window while populists were climbing in from the left and the right. Redirecting the ship of state and its population requires an enormous effort that may take years; starting with a new government with a clear policy direction. 

I am convinced climate change is happening and that most of it is the result of human endeavour; read culture. It is the heritage of centuries of choices on how we want to live. At the same time I am convinced that we can make other choices, that we need to; cultural change (paradigms be aware). At the same time, as a grandfather I am sad because many of our grandchildren may be worse off, at least in the material sense. They have to face the music, not only for our imprudent decisions over centuries but also for at least half a century (counting from the Report of Rome of 1972) of unwillingness to do something about it. In addition, we also need to decrease human population to quite some degree without the suffering of the ‘revenge of nature’; the anthropocene and the disturbance of all natural processes. As a babyboomer I should be glad not to join the ride!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Civilisation

An article in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of July 17th 2021 by Marjolijn van Heemstra had the title ‘Time to zoom out to start seeing the centuries’. She refers to the pace layers of Stewart Brand. In this model Brand makes a distinction between fashion/art, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature; going from the fastest to the slowest layer in the system. Each layer must respect the different pace of the others. He describes the relationships between the layers as follows: “Fast learns, slow remembers.  Fast proposes, slow disposes.  Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous.  Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution.  Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy.  Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power” (from Brand’s article in the Journal of Design and Science of January 18th 2018).

The internal relations are not one-directional, e.g. from the slowest to the fastest layer. Stewart gives the example of permitting commerce to exploit nature at a commercial pace, destructing nature in the end. Indeed, forestry experts and business are always at odds with one another. You do need to respect the internal rhythm of the different layers, disaster is waiting to happen.  

One of the interesting elements of the model is the integral place of culture and hence, the necessity to take culture into consideration. However, this is culture at the level of human civilisation; the group in question consists of all humans. Individual culture, team culture, organisational culture, national culture or even European culture is of lesser importance. 

The model shows what we need to think of in terms of a sustainable society. Indeed, most people live and think in the fastest layer and have difficulty to recognise the (consequences of) slower speeds. Now I understand why so many people have difficulty in understanding my message of the importance of culture! And culture is easy compared to sustainability. 

This model also made me think about layers within culture. The triangle model (see my website www.culturalcompetence.eu) has the size of groups as a starting point, in particular  the different groups depicted as layers of the triangle (see third paragraph). Other researchers try to clarify the nature of culture through layers of the concept itself; for instance the onion model of Hofstede. 

In such an approach I would start with the definition of culture: a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people at a given time and place (culture as an institution; Vroom). The outer layer (surface) would be expressions of culture, artefacts in terms of Schein. You may think of a company logo, a painting of a former cabinet minister or a company museum. The next layer would be our specific behaviour, the ‘way we do things here’ (John Mole); e.g. customs, traditions or standard operating procedures. Third is then our way (or patterns) of thinking, resulting in behaviour, which in turn results in objects; for instance the things a Dutchman takes for granted or a particular approach or attitude. Finally, the bottom layer consists of our values and beliefs and their variation across and within states (see www.worldvaluessurvey.org). I did not spell it out before because it is so obvious to me but it might be useful for those who still struggle with the concept of culture. 

Years ago, one of my students at Maastricht University compared culture with a layered cake. You may see it as a reminder that you may taste each layer separately but you best take the cake as a whole. The cake of culture has many ingredients, as you may recognise by reading this blog. The best thing is, as I learned again, that you can keep it for years and it will still be tasteful. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books (10 e-books or Encyclopedia of Culture), or subscribe for free to the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Body Language

Body language is indeed quite important - the CIA has convicted people on that basis - but the scientific basis is shaky. For instance, the research on universal facial expression that the CIA used, was falsified within a few years but used for many more years. People even do not agree on what is included or not. For some tone of voice, including sounds without a linguistic meaning (also called paralanguage) is included in body language. Others see it as a different game. Aspects of body language include proxemics (e.g. personal distance), territoriality, kinesics (gestures, greeting), facial expression (eyes and mouth in particular), chronemics, haptics (touching), physical appearance (e.g. clothing), posture (including arms and legs), and olfactics (smell).  A lot of (most?) body language is subconscious and on the biological level but the interpretation may still be on the cultural level. 

We do know that body language is an important part of communication but not exactly how much. As such body language is also of importance in dealing with another national culture. Indeed, you need to know the meaning of body language in another culture, including the evaluation of biological expressions of it. However, in view of the lack of understanding, this may be next to impossible. If you do not know body language in any detail in your own national culture, you do not have a basis for comparison. Generally accepted facts should establish a solid basis but none of these ‘facts’ is at present without discussion. 

I recall a female BBC journalist who tried to visit a forbidden women’s refugee camp in the north of India, dressed as a local woman. Everything was worked out in detail, including the way of walking. However, she was still recognised because she showed a too direct way of looking. 

My learning process about communication across cultures and body language in particular over the last few years is not so much about gaining understanding but rather shedding understanding through falsification of previous research. One of the theories was that women see more than men because their eyes are more in front of the skull. As a result women would be able to see up to one third more, both in the vertical as in the horizontal plane; women take a picture, men need a look-over. This would be one reason that women are better in reading body language than men. This theory combines several assumptions. Eyes more in front does not imply a wider field of vision; seeing more does not imply seeing and interpreting more body language. In addition, if women are indeed better in reading body language, some cultural explanations / theories would serve just as well. 

A couple of weeks ago I contacted a friend of mine, an ophthalmologist. She told plain and simple that the research into the field of vision did not show any difference between men and women. Once again, an attractive detail was up in the wind. Women may still be better than men in reading body language. The applicable cultural theory has the greater physical strength of men as a starting point (probably from the beginning of agricultural society 10,000 years ago). If a woman in traditional circumstances reads that a man is getting angry, she may get out of the way or try to defuse the situation. Another theory points at the need to read body language of babies (health, food, comfort).

An interesting field of research in terms of dealing with culture focuses on mirror neurons. “A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another” (Wikipedia). In this way behaviour is copied and possibly emotion and intent as well. This would for instance help with learning new skills. Mirror neurons would also help with empathy and learning a language. Indeed, empathy and language are important in dealing with another culture but mirror neutrons might also help with adaptation. If you copy behaviour in another national culture you would stand out less.

The research of body language is still a box with bits and pieces, waiting to be assembled into a comprehensive view. Possibly this remains the ultimate dream but we should be able to set some steps in that direction. A better understanding of body language would help us all in every contact with another, not only in dealing with culture. I do expect progress in the coming years but only is we keep an open mind; that makes reading it so much easier. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture), one of the e-books or follow one of the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Health Care

Not that many people pay attention to the relation between culture and health. If they do, the impact of health on culture is in the minority group. Thinking about the group of people sitting in a wheelchair for instance, you may easily recognise how that condition is influencing their way of thinking, acting and feeling.

The other way around, the impact of culture on health(care) you need to think the frequency of medical conditions, the prevention of illness and the ‘maintenance’ of your body, diagnosis and communication, treatment and after-care.

Regarding frequency research indicates that some medical conditions occur more in certain ethnic groups than in others. In the city of Rotterdam for instance, some years agothey thought they had an outbreak of tuberculosis. However, the people who tested positively, came from the Rift Mountains in Morocco. Tuberculosis is endemic in that area, so people tested positively without being ill. Such research would be hard to do with the pre sent privacy rules! In terms of culture you may also think of other groups, like male and female diseases, medical conditions that run in a family, religion, sports (boxing), professions (ballet) and more. Who knows?

Cultures stress healthy living in different degrees, including the importance of doing sports. In terms of sports we do know for instance that individualistic cultures stress winning and collectivist cultures the effort (very much in general indeed). Is not-eating-pork a culturally shaped health measure? Who knows?

Some anecdotes do indicate that a physician needs to take national culture into consideration when passing on a diagnosis. When a national culture is not open to homosexuality, aids is a taboo. A diagnosis is much more than simply a medical condition and needs to be embedded, also for successful treatment. For the specific details, I simply repeat: who knows?

Regarding treatment and and in particular care you easily find scores of anecdotes. Turkish people in the Netherlands in the seventies for instance came to the hospital with bandages and other supplies for their colleague, because back home each hospital had a shortage. Or people in the Netherlands with an African background who came with food three times a day, because back home hospitals did not have kitchens. You need a toolkit for dealing with the cultural backgrounds of patients. Who knows?

In terms of after-care I may return to the general ideas of prevention and the maintenance of your body. An interesting cultural question is how much support the patient gets from his or her environment. Is illness you own fault or an act of God? Who knows?

You may have noticed that I finished each paragraph  on the impact of health with ‘who knows?’. Indeed, we need much more research, probably most urgently regarding nursing in hospitals. This preference already indicates that we need applied research, rather than theoretical research. We might start in a simple way by collecting a series of anecdotes, looking at them through cultural glasses (listening to them with cultural hearing aids), come up with some suggestions on how to deal with these situations, testing those suggestions in practice and adjust the approaches. Increase the number of anecdotes and repeat the circle; over and over again. In the end each health related educational programme needs a cultural component. I thought I was retired … but my health is still serving! 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website or read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture). Did you discover my 10 short e-books on managementboek.nl? And through my website you also find 23 online courses on culture.


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Culture Applied, Cultural Genocide

The mass media reports on the mass graves of indigenous children in Canada (cultural genocide in terms of The Economist) threw me back in time. I have been in a catholic boarding school as well but I have mostly good memories. No, the point is that I wrote in 1980 and 1981 a paper on the Canadian “Indians” as a minority. That term was at the time the most commonly used term, even if another ethnic group was already indicated as the Inuit. The paper was the formal conclusion of my training as a foreign service officer and had to be written during the first posting, in this case Ottawa. Much information was collected through the then Museum of Man and in particular ethnologist Ted Brasser. 

In the conclusion I wrote that the starting point of the paper was a minority policy. ‘However, this is a fiction, because everything concerning the [First Nations] is regulated separately. It is in fact an ethnic policy and the liberal newspaper Le Devoir has even called the system of reservations an apartheids policy.’ The final paragraph of the conclusion read ‘However, [First Nations people] may only conduct a dignified life with its own ethno-cultural identity if the policy of the government changes from an ethnic and paternalistic policy towards a minority policy on the basis of equality. … the [First Nations people] are searching for their own identity. These efforts are intended to prevent full integration into western society and also not always to bewail a past that does not exist anymore. This new identity has to be the basis for an equal participation of [First Nations] in Canadian society. How that exactly needs to be developed, may be discussed; that it needs to be done, is necessary because the consequences of the present policy are irresponsible’. 

Re-reading this conclusion I would say that the government has made steps in the right direction; towards a minorities’ policy. You may recognise the three basic perceptions of culture according to cultural anthropology: monism (my culture is better than yours), relativism (all cultures are equal but you cannot mix them) and transculturalism (a reconciliation of commonalities and differences). Similar arguments may be found in the debates on multicultural society in countries like the Netherlands. Integration is then (theoretically) acting in the public space as much as possible according the culture of the host society, while keeping one’s own national culture private (‘behind the front door’). Full integration or assimilation takes three generations in the USA and four generations in Western Europe. However, in case of the First Nations the idea is not to aim for assimilation but to preserve key elements of their culture. 

In the past the Canadian government tried to enforce assimilation by denying the First Nation culture of the children in question and to enforce a Canadian culture; whatever a Canadian culture is when you look at the variation within that culture. You may wonder whether you could succeed doing so at all. Aggravating circumstances were poor health, poor food and the role of catholicism (the Roman Catholic church in itself already monistic). The combination was deadly, literally. 

The question is the way forward. The Canadian government ordered quite some studies into the First Nations and the preservation of artefacts (museums) has improved considerably. More dialogue is required to determine which aspects of the cultures of the First Nations need to preserved. The link with the traditional life has been severed and the memories of the original cultures have been tainted by decades of efforts to survive in Canadian society. When you know what to preserve, you need the answer the questions of how, the costs involved and the like. If this is really going to happen now, these children have not died in vain, even if they should not have died at all. Maybe I can draft an update of my paper in ten years from now!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read one of my books or follow one of the 23 online courses on culture. 


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Culture Applied, DNA

According to a short article in a newspaper (de Volkskrant, June 30th 2021) the Greek EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas mentioned that culture is part of the European DNA and that revival of the cultural sector is necessary to be a cultural superpower once again. This single sentence with two statements raised enough questions to look up the original speech. Indeed, those two points were mentioned:: “La culture fait partie de l’ADN de l’Europe.” and “Pour que l'Europe retrouve son statut de puissance culturelle mondiale, …”. 

The reference to DNA is unlucky at best and arrogant as well. Unlucky, because DNA refers to the biological code that is used to develop our bodies and culture (in one of its definitions) is everything that is not biological. This is close to Never the Twain Shall Meet as a rule. The exception is that patterns of living (culture) may ultimately result in changes in DNA. An example is the theory that men got physically stronger and taller than women after the transition to agricultural society. 

The statement is also arrogant because culture as a way of thinking and acting is important to nearly every ethnic group. You may think of the Yezidi, the Kurds, the First Nations, the Inuits, the San and over 5000 nations more. Even if you limit the statement to the cultural sector, i.e. the arts, the statement remains arrogant because why would ‘our’ arts be better? Why should we be a superpower, implying dominance and the like? This is a monistic view, or ‘my culture is better than yours’. You might say that all colonial wars are the result of this view. 

The term European DNA is a misnomer as well because there is no such thing. You may talk for instance about human DNA and its variations across ethnic groups or other dimensions but Europeans or EU citizens do not share a specific DNA. I do understand that Commissioner Schinas wants to stress that the arts are very important for EU identity but that does not apply to every EU citizen and does apply millions of non-EU citizens as well. Of course he tries to find a catchy turn of phrase but this is one that creates more confusion than it clarifies. 

The confusion between culture in the general sense and in the specific sense is also at play in the background. In the general sense culture refers to a way of thinking, acting and feeling of a group of people at a given time and place; e.g. national culture, group culture, organisational culture. In the specific sense culture refers to the arts. On this issue you may wonder what is European about arts. Is art European because it was created within the European Union of by someone with European nationality? You might also say that true art has a message for next to everyone and hence, surpasses national borders or classifications. You might defend the (unstable) position that European art is based on European values. In terms of values EU identity is shaped by antiquity, Christianity, the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century or positive nationalism. European art would then be an expression of this heritage. 

We should focus on dialogues between cultures and the arts. The role of government, including the EU, is not to set the direction or to determine the criteria for quality but to set the conditions, enabling every artist to participate in these developments (income, location, means and so on). I know it is hard for government but government should take a step back and trust the sector and its developments; all kinds of support notwithstanding. 

Mr. Schinas is first and foresmost a politician but he has also shown an insufficient understanding of ‘his’ sector. Regrettably, he is no exception in governmental postions. I do think that politics and professionalism could go hand in hand, although a politician may promote the hobby horses of his or her profession. This combination of politics and is slowly dying out, like so many languages and ethnic groups. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my books or follow one of the online courses. 

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Culture Applied, Sports

As a follow-up to my blog of February 10th 2021 I noticed the article Sports Culture. Health may never be an obligation by Sarah Sluimer in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of April 17th 2021. The introduction reads “The attention for the body was already considerable but according to Sarah Sluimer sports and healthy food have become regarded by now as a weapon in the fight against corona. The contrast with the attention for culture is appalling.” Some more quotes:

  1. The maintenance of our health plays is getting more and more a key role in life. This development no longer focuses on mental well-being or idle motives. Sports and healthy food have become a weapon in the fight against covid. Indeed, the idea is that healthy people suffer less from an infection. 
  2. In the country of Mark Rutte [prime-minister] and Willem-Alexander [king] sports has always been the rampart of our common identity: soccer, skating and the King’s games are essential in our national culture. 
  3. Body culture is dominant for quite a while, also with the avant-garde: the young, 'conscious' thinkers, celebrities and a part of the intellectuals.
  4. However, with covid as the main booster ‘healthy living’ has become more and more a societal obligation. A responsible citizen is by now a fit citizen: one who does not occupy hospital beds and does not impose additional costs on society through his fat torso or her dirty lungs. 
  5. What is wrong … with getting old without many ailments? The contrast is only so appalling with the total lack of attention for for instance the closed libraries. 
  6. The arts and culture as pillars of well-being and progress have been more or less expelled from our thinking and acting, although these elements are yet still regarded as benchmark of individual civilisation and common well-being in neighbouring countries. 
  7. Indeed, for Rutte [prime-minister] and associates the arts are a fringe in the most humiliating sense of the word: an unnecessary distraction of the real life, a frivolity, of no direct importance in guarding the citizens’ health. 
  8. What are the possible future consequences of a society that considers the condition of the body as the most important indicator of the value of a citizen?
  9. Sports as a means to keep healthy has to remain a pleasant means to do other things: thinking, loving, having fun.
  10. And individual value has many elements but the condition of the body should not be one of them. 

The article is a mixed bag of remarks. To start with it is not about sports culture in the sense of the way of thinking, acting and feeling of the group of people who sport (at a given time and place). The introductory remarks refer to sports and healthy food as an instrument (also quotes 1, 4 and 9) and contrasts sports with the arts (culture in the limited sense; quotes 5, 6, 7). Furthermore, in quotes 2 and 8 the article refers to sports as an element of national culture; up to nationalism and as such also a distraction for dictatorial regimes. The term ‘body culture’ in quote 3 is a bit confusing. It is clearly not the way of thinking, acting and feeling of the body but rather a culture that attaches much attention to the body. In view of quote 8 this culture might be national culture once again. 

Quote 10 raises a number of question, the first ‘why not?’. As I mentioned before you may consider individual culture as the unique mix  of the cultures of all groups an individual has ever been a member of. Sports or the condition of the body might very well be an element of that mix. In a biological sense you might say that a healthy body is a condition for successful pregnancy and delivery. More importantly, the subordinate position of the body came with the Enlightenment and plays a role in the subservient position of women. And if you do not need to pay attention to the body, you might as well throw away the whole beauty industry. 

Quote 9 (sports as a means of keeping healthy) is rather normative and excludes other functions of sports. Traditionally sports also functioned as war games and even the preparation for war. Sports also forms an environment in which people learn to deal with one another (social development). This is the part I missed when growing up and I am aware of it up till today. In addition, sports may just be fun and an acceptable way of passing time. On the other hand you may wonder whether top sport is still sport. It is definitely not about a healthy body (but rather damaging the body) and possibly more about financial interests. For instance, a world tennis player was fined for not addressing the press, even if a press conference is a different ball game than tennis; and some politicians are better in press conferences than in politics. 

In short, the article is not about sports culture but rather some cultural aspects related to sports and the different degree of attention paid to sports and the arts. Sports culture does need more attention. It is not the same in cricket or soccer or in a commercial versus leisure time environment. It may interfere with other interests (nationality, money, prestige, corona and more). Happily, some people are working on it and even if I do not like sports all, I am looking forward to their reports.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my physical book (Encyclopedia of Culture) or one of the e-books, or follow one of the 23 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Professional Culture

In the Netherlands we face some serious problems in domains like health, education and the police. Time and again people cry out for the recognition of the professional, to give him or her the opportunity to focus on his or her job without being bothered by administration or management. This idea relates to what the Canadian professor of management Henry Mintzberg calls the professional structure, in my terms a specific form of organisational culture. 

Take the example of a teacher. As a professional s/he knows how people learn, how to get the message across and how to take the variations between children into account (from personality differences to mental handicaps). This includes issues like motivation, feedback and testing. In a professional culture the teacher is expected to focus on these things and s/he gets status in accordance with the success in doing so. It implies that others take care of the things that support the professional, for instance a building, a classroom, equipment, schedules, information to the parents, health issues, heating and so on. 

If you take this idea to its logical consequence something odds happens. Indeed, the professional is at the core of the organisation and its performance. Nobody tells the professional what to do or not to do, leave alone how s/he should do his/her job. The oddity comes with management. In view of the example you easily see that management has a supporting role, not giving direction or determining what to do. Basically, management has to create a climate in which the professional likes to work and gets the best results. One of the jobs of management is to get the right professionals for the organisation and to replace a professional if need be. In a traditional organisation this would include yearly or so evaluations of the professional, indicating what needs to be improved. Such an inherent negative approach may or even should be replaced by approaches (school of Positive Management), like abolishing such evaluations or focusing on the strengths of the professional. Even in the case of traditional evaluations, management has a supporting role. 

So far, so good. The next step is to think about salaries and related aspects. If indeed management is basically supporting the professional, you may wonder why management would earn more than the professional. Once you accept that idea, you will enter quite a different world of salaries. I give again an example from the Netherlands. Someone who just got his MA degree and starts working for the government or in education receives a salary in scale 11 (sometimes 10). A lecturer at a university of applied sciences may reach with some effort scale 12 and with a part-time research assignment scale 13. Management starts with scale 12. It implies that a lecturer who want to earn more, has to make a switch to management. This is often a third choice; first a field of study, then education and finally management. I leave the consequences of such a system to your imagination. However, in a professional organisation, management and professionals at least start at the same level and both may reach the same ceiling. 

Part of this story relates to the economic system. A manager in the Anglo-Saxon system has to increase the value for shareholders and to stay at a distance from the primary process. This idea of management has been spreading from the USA to other countries. It implies that many managers have no clue of the primary process or what their instructions imply for the professional. I recall a manager in a university of applied sciences saying that a good exam is one that allows at least 40% of students to pass. Indeed, lecturers got a warning and had to change the criteria if the threshold was not met. The professional countered that such a criterium had nothing to do with the understanding of the discipline but had to face the music, as well as a remark in his evaluation form.

I would welcome professional cultures in a series of domains but I am not very optimistic. The interests of management prohibit fundamental changes and most of what may be done, will not be more than lip-service. You may always dream that universities learn something from research. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. When you want to know more about culture, you may use my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture), download one of 10 e-books or follow one my online courses. 


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Culture Applied, Inequality

The Economist of January 7th 2021 mentioned an article by professor Emmanuel Saez (University of California, Berkeley), Public Economics and Inequality: Uncovering our Social Nature (working paper 28387, National Bureau of Economic Research). Prof. Saez argues that the axiom of economics, the rational individual self-interest, needs to be complemented with social factors. The Economist: “Societies have largely chosen to tackle problems such as old age poverty and inadequate schooling with collective solutions rather than individual ones …”; financial incentives go hand-in-hand with social factors. The Economist continues: people not only find it difficult to provide such things for themselves but they also reflect values. And the frequent readers of this blog know that values touch on the core of culture. 

Saez: “A social solution arises when a situation is resolved at the group level (rather than the individual level) through cooperation and fair distribution of the resulting surplus.” A social welfare function is outside the standard framework of (public) economics. However, “… the social nature of humans … is crucial to understand our large modern governments and why concerns about inequality are so pervasive.” In theory people could take care of education, retirement, health care and income support but they are not good at it and in practice governments are heavily involved for several reasons. In case of education for instance you may think of nation building and human development and opportunity. In view of the fact that the “pooling of resources through taxes and transfers is very large at the level” of a state but rather limited across states. In short, “the scope of the social group matters greatly.”

In his article prof. Saez stresses the strong human inclination for social organisation. It may be a characteristic of humankind or the transmission of culture (way of thinking, acting and feeling) of the hunters-and-gatherers society. Indeed, in the beginning of the article it is mentioned that humankind for 94% of its 200,00 years of history lived in this type of society. Cooperation may be sustained through altruism and reciprocity, through authority, through resentment and punishment and an acceptable distribution of surplus. In addition prof. Saez notes that pre-tax redistribution is more popular than tax redistribution. 

Looking at these arguments and more (in the article itself) you do get convinced that the first form of human society still has quite a strong effect on human society and humankind itself. Other sources discuss the impact of agricultural society, industrial society, the transitions from the one type of society to the next and the emergence of a new type of society (post-industrial). A few of these issues have been briefly discussed in earlier blogs. Time and time again the discussion is about changes in our ways of thinking, acting and feeling or culture for short. These changes are driven by changes in values. Most probably, values do not really change but new layers of values are added on top while older values fade into the background. Whether this process is the result of socio-economic change or something else is still debated by researchers. In my terms all of this is a question of culture, the related changes in culture and the legacy of the past. 

Such a long-term process helps in shrinking your ego and to recognise your role in the social process. No wonder that neoliberalism failed. It focuses only on part of humankind. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture) or the 10 e-books or follow one of the 23 online courses.  


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Culture Applied, Rules

Once more I’d like to discuss rules. In earlier blogs I mentioned rules as an instrument for the functioning of a group, as an expression of morality and values, rules in different groups (from individual to states), the strict or loose application of rules, the rule of law and the link between rules and institutions. The reason for returning to the topic is an interview with two protocol advisers in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant of May 4th 2021.

The two protocol experts make a clear distinction between protocol and etiquette, although they do not elaborate on it. Protocol is placing one authority against another, who goes first, who sits where and so on. Etiquette is about the correct position of (silver) cutlery on the table and the like. Protocol is 90% the same across states. 

In this way protocol is about the representation of power, about who is more powerful in a group than another and how is that reflected in physical position vis-à-vis the others. Etiquette is about behaviour (ladies first) and proper display. Etiquette may well vary from one state to another and even within a state. I found it interesting to notice etiquette differences between regions in a small state like the Netherlands. 

Protocol is for instance about who to invite for dinner and how to place the guests, etiquette about the lay-out of the table. However, just like two cultures, protocol and etiquette have more commonalities than differences. Both are sets of rules that allow people (the dinner guests in the example) to focus on their conversation by being assured that they are in the right place and to process food and drinks. Both are security issues (in a stretched sense of the word).

All these rules do not prevent mishaps. People do make mistakes and sometimes hosts deliberately skip protocol. I recall that I as a junior diplomat  had to draft a diplomatic note in response to a formal complaint by a German ambassador that he was placed too low during a dinner at his Dutch colleague. However, I also recall sitting next to Shirley Temple when she was the US Ambassador; that time I was way too high up.

You may simply translate these ideas about etiquette and protocol into culture. Culture as a way of thinking and acting of a group is indeed about the rules of the game. How do you behave in this or that group? Although you would not think about protocol and etiquette during a dance festival or a shelter of the homeless, the process is much the same. In both examples you have to play by the rules in place or you will not be accepted.

The corona-crisis has a direct impacts on different sets of rules. I saw for instance articles on how people dealt with corona prevention rules in society as a whole (the universalism - particularism dilemma of Trompenaars), the rules of video-conferencing and the new office etiquette. The latter point includes issues like going to work with a cold: from a sign of involvement in pre-corona days to foolish nowadays. I also had to  think once again on the effect of the corona-crisis on organisational culture; or in terms of this blog the protocol (power) and etiquette (appropriateness) of work. 

Extending the argument of culture as the rules of the game you may see dealing with another culture as learning about the rules of the group you are visiting and your adaptation to them. I never thought I was going to like etiquette and protocol.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. A series of 10 short e-books on culture is now available on managementboek.nl. Five online courses on culture (together summarising the theory) are now available on springest.com


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Culture Applied, Bubble

The last few years the idea of living in your own bubble is getting more attention. In itself the idea is nothing new because you cannot simply live together with everybody else on Earth. You live with a small number of people and you are a member of dozens of groups; together they are your bubble (although bubbles always overlap). The recent discussion started with the role of social media in providing people with information according to their profile. Such a process might create a self-fulfilling loop, enhancing your own position and decreasing the understanding of others (by omission of information). Because humankind should be in control of technology and definitely not controled by some tech companies, governments started to react. This in turn resulted in discussions on the role of government. So, we all live in a (yellow?) bubble but we do not want outside forces exercising (much) control. 

When you start thinking about it, you discover more types of bubbles. One is for instance the bubble of research. I have seen series of PhD theses that neglect wider contexts. This could be the result of a deliberate choice, e.g. when the PhD research is part of a wider project that includes those wider aspects. Such a situation is rather the exception than the rule in my experience. Take for instance a PhD thesis on mental trauma that did not include some personality test or other. Other research (e.g. trauma processing by prisoners of war in Japanese camps during the Second Word War) strongly indicates differences in processing trauma due to personality. A third of these prisoners had a kind of internal mechanisms and counselling and support had an adverse effect. I know that more and more PhD research is part of a research project but we need to wonder about the effect of research bubbles. Indeed, some PhD theses do require a thorough understanding of the project as a whole. 

Another bubble I noticed in politics. The Dutch government promotes ‘fieldlabs’, research on the effects of corona when a large group of people attends certain events. One such fieldlab dealt with a soccer match, attended by 1200 people under controlled circumstances. Prior to their attendance these people had to be tested on corona. The nearest location was 40 km away. So, 1200 people had to travel back and forth, a total of 96,000 km (not counting people who share a car or the division between cars and public transport). You may wonder how such travel sits with the priority policy of sustainability. ‘No, no, I need to understand that these are two different things.’ Well, that is exactly the old style thinking we need to get rid of.

Extending this thinking about bubbles I would say it is just another way of describing dealing with culture, from the individual to the country level. I live in my bubble, you live in yours and between us we need to reconcile the commonalities and differences (transculturalism). The process of doing so, is neither simple nor strait-forward. Because each individual bubble is (slightly) different, you cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach. You do need to do the effort, based on your cultural competence. This requirement touches on my objection to many theories or how-to or recipe books on culture, claiming that they provide the solution to questions on culture. You cannot have a ready made meal but you do need to do your own cooking. If done well, the taste is marvellous!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. A series of 10 short e-books on culture is now available on managementboek.nl. Five online course on culture are now available on springest.com


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Culture Applied, Nationalism

The Bagehot column in The Economist of March 20th 2021 draws attention to the growing English nationalism (English in the limited sense of the word). It opens with the statement “English nationalism is the most disruptive force in British politics.” The column describes the change from a more cultural to a more political nature of this nationalism. The change is caused by English grievances. “But grievance is animated by a strong set of values: commitment to fair play and parliamentary democracy, and a fierce pride in England’s history.” The expectation is that this nationalism is not going away.

Nationalism may well be considered from a cultural perspective. In order to avoid confusion I start with the term ‘nation’. Formally, a nation is neither a state nor a country. The world of people is organised in 194 states. Here starts the confusion starts. In international law the USA is one state; what the USA calls states are actually countries (a country is an autonomous part of a state). A nation is a coherent group of people who share ethnicity, culture, geography, language and more; the Kurds are a good example. The world knows some 6,000 nations. More confusion: nationality has nothing to do with the nation you belong to but the state you belong to.

The idea of nationalism is based on this narrow definition of a nation. The idea of a nation as a group also allows the link with culture. Culture is the way of thinking, feeling and acting of a group of people at a given (period of) time and place. Hence, each nation has its own culture, a way of thinking and acting. This culture may be expressed in different ways, often subconsciously. Nationalism is an explicit expression of this culture, showing pride. In practice, nationalism is linked to the state. As such it may be a positive force, e.g. in international sports events. However, nationalism may also cross the line by indicating ‘my culture is better than yours’ (monism in terms of basic perceptions of culture). This may result in armed conflict; the history books are full of examples.

In itself nationalism is nothing new; see the ancient Greek city states or the Roman empire. In the nineteenth century governments started to use it as a political force. The idea of the nation-state was born, an oxymoron. The number of nations is way bigger than the number of states, to start with. More importantly, you cannot control that people from one nation marry people from another nation. To what nation-state belong bi-national people? Nevertheless, the idea of a nation-state with the related nationalism worked fine as a motivating factor. However, as the two world wars show, the political use of nationalism is a genie that you cannot control.  

Nationalism is reappearing in today’s world. The English nationalism is but one example. The nationalism of China, Russia and the USA quite another. Nationalism based conflicts between states do not have a solution; swallowing pride is too difficult for national leaders. Positive nationalism may be (carefully) encouraged, negative nationalism should be contained but the distinction may only be clear in hindsight.

Again, nationalism is an expression of a large group of people. In a group of millions of people this common link is only one of the many characteristics. The culture wars show a similar property by stressing only one aspect, while individual people are characterised by a multitude of aspects. Reminding yourself of this simple fact may be quite useful. By stressing other aspects you may prevent nationalism getting out of hand. Who was saying that culture is not useful?

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture), watch the  videos on my YouTube channel, read the 10 specific e-books or follow one of the 25 online courses. 


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Culture Applied, E-books

Culture Applied, E-books

May 11th 2021

Ten brief e-books on specific topics of culture are now available at www.managementboek.nl for €4 each. Below you find some info on each e-book.

My latest physical book, Encyclopedia of Culture (2018) provides a helicopter view of the different theories regarding culture. This led to questions for more specific texts about certain topics. The answer is this series of e-books. However, per e-book I stick to my point of providing an overview. The reason is that culture is quite different, depending persons and situations and hence, one-size-fits-all solutions do not exist. The consequence is that you always needs to do some effort. Culture is never a topic for which you only need to follow the steps described in whatever text.

What is Culture?

This e-book starts with discussing the barriers in studying culture. These barriers always play a role in the background and hence, should be a starting point. The e-book then moves to definitions of culture and selects one that may be used in any situation in which culture plays a role. Furthermore, you may adapt the definition to your own individual strengths and weaknesses and use it as a starting point for dealing with culture. The model presented reinforces these ideas. It is based on the size of groups, ranging from the individual to the population of a state. 

National Cultures

National cultures do get a lot of attention in dealing with culture but most of it is relatively superficial, because it expresses the averages of the answers by a representative group. Averages do not show the enormous variations and do not include specific aspects like folklore (aspects that may well be more telling). The information on national cultures may be used as a starting point and needs to be checked against the actual persons you meet.

The e-book discusses the theories of Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Richard D. Lewis, Solomon and Schell and Erin Meyer. They are summarised in five clusters: relations, rules, time, environment and communication. 

Multicultural Society

Multicultural society is a topic that clearly shows the difficulties of dealing with culture. It is hotly debated and ranges from individual experiences to national politics. This e-book is not going to solve the issue but contributes to proper understanding and serves as a source for inspiration for dealing with it.

As a starting point three basic perceptions of culture are presented: monism, relativism and transculturalism. Then the problems are discussed in terms of generations, migration, nationalism and in terms of groups and the individual. These problems lead to another discussion of perceptions and possible solutions. 

Organisational Culture

Organisational culture is of quite some importance for organisations itself (internally), the ways of means of dealing with multicultural society and for international contacts. A suboptimal organisational culture costs a lot of money. However, the available knowledge and related instruments are limited. 

The e-book discusses first biases in research, definitions, aspects and layers of organisational culture.It mentions the research by Mole, d’Iribarne, Harrison, Quinn, Rohrbach, De Caluwé, Trompenaars, Hofstede and Dreimüller. The e-book should inspire to start doing something about organisational culture (HRM in the driving seat!). 

Teams and Projects

As a logical consequence of the model of culture, used in this series of e-books, small groups need to be discussed, even if the available knowledge is relatively limited. The same applies to the link between culture and projects. 

Research on team often focuses on  roles of team members. However er, in day-to-reality managers do not have the possibility to select people according to these theories.  

The e-book discusses first small groups, in particular family, teams, multicultural teams and the theories by Richard D. Lewis. Secondly, it discusses projects, even if this is more a list of topics that need further attention in research.

Individual and Values

The relation between individual persons and culture cannot be researched in any detail because it differs from the one person to the other. That also applies to dealing with culture differ from the one person to the other. 

The concept of values is discussed, as well as definitions, some basic values and the effect of values over time. The effects of values is demonstrated through the European Values Study. The relation between individual and group gets some special attention because the topic returns in many studies on culture. Finally, the data from the World Values Survey show that a fourth type of human society is emerging in the so-called western world.

Communication

Communication is the flip-side of culture because culture only exists in its communication to others. The study of communication as a process in society is a fairly new discipline and this applies even more so to communication across borders.  

First the process of communication is discussed, including a model and aspects of communication. The focus then shifts to communication across borders. The e-book discusses the cultural dimensions.

Communication across borders includes Hall’s handles and direct versus indirect communication.

Abroad

The focus of this e-book is on the individual confrontation with another national culture. The discussion takes the the time spent abroad as a starting point. It discusses the duty trip, student exchange and an expat assignment. Living abroad implies the intention to stay abroad and not to return. This division coincides with the increasing requirements for dealing with the experienced differences. Other reasons for travelling, such as holidays are not mentioned.

Specific topics include the preparations for the stay abroad, culture shock, the reverse culture shock when returning home, dealing with culture, points of attention, history and experience.

At Home

Many people think about national cultures only when they go abroad. Actually, that should be more the exception than the rule, the rule being that we deal with culture all the time in our day-to-day life. A key idea in this series of e-books is that our thinking and acting is influenced by the dozens of cultures we are or have been part of and hence, we deal with culture all the time

This e-book takes the international and European context of many jobs as a starting point. The relevant information is provided through two quizes, one on the international and one on the European context. In addition to answers you need to thing about the consequences of each answer.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence indicates how each of us may deal with culture. Actually, we all do in every contact, albeit at the subconscious level. Moving it up to conscious level, helps you in understanding yourself (individual culture), clarifies aspects of job, sport or hobby (organisational culture, team culture), highlights the difficulties of the multicultural society and indicates the differences between states (national cultures). 

This e-book consist of three parts: the idea of cultural competence (knowledge, skills and attitudes) and  experience, acquiring cultural competence and the application of cultural competence in dealing with culture. 

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Culture Applied, Reading

The reading scores of primary schools pupils in the Netherlands are tumbling down for years. This is also a worrying trend for dealing with culture.

Let’s start with the importance of reading. A couple of weeks ago I read a story about a woman who lived in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. Although reading implied a death sentence, she would read a novel at night and would secretly tell the other girls the story during their forced labour. Indeed, a story to live and die for (Neil Gaiman). 

My professor philosophy at university was a survivor of German concentration camps. He told us, students that you were not selected by the Germans if you had your own inner world; e.g. mentally writing a book. The same idea is also expressed by Viktor Frankl, founder of the logo-therapy (e.g. in Man’s Search for Meaning).

I should point out that stories like these do apply to the German prisons and concentration camps but not to the Japanese camps during the war. The culture gap between the Japanese and the war prisoners was much wider and the Japanese had a different perception of and attitude to the prisoners. More research!

These rather extreme stories point at the key role of imagination. Imagination is also the key point of the advocates of reading. However, this is clearly an insufficient argument, because the causes of the tumbling scores have not been dealt with. You also see this in the World Values Survey. On the question what values children should learn, imagination ends as the least important (or one but least important) over the last few decades. I always found this a surprising outcome in view of the cry for innovation. How can you have innovation without imagination?

Imagination is a key condition for understanding another person because you get an idea of who the other is and his or her circumstances (empathy). The expression is that you can place yourself in the shoes of the other but as a man I could never imagine why women would torture themselves in high heels. More seriously, empathy is shaping the bridge between the individual and the other. A writer of novels probably needs more empathy than imagination; which sets demands on education and upbringing. In more general terms a community (as in people living together, up to society as a whole) cannot exist without empathy, a mutual understanding for one another. The less understanding, the less community or the quality of life in that community.

This brings us back to the importance of reading. Reading novels and the like shows you the reality of the lives of others and as a result shapes your interaction with the other. Such processes happen all the time and most of them are a subconscious level. However, tumbling scores of reading also suggest decreasing tolerance for others and hence, a decreasing quality of society. Big words indeed, but do think about it!

If you are still with me, you will also understand the importance of reading for dealing with culture. You need to reconcile the commonalities and differences of the culture of the other with your own culture (transculturalism) but you need to outline them first! Reading a historical novel on the other country (culture) does help a lot (Inglehart: half of national cultural differences may be explained from history). Below the level of states the story is not really different. You may only understand another organisational culture, team culture or even individual culture if and when you reach out beyond your comfort zone. Such stretching makes you a bigger person!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. My 10 short e-books, each on specific aspect of culture, are now available on www.managementboek.nl


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Culture Applied, Bye Neoliberalism 3

In the two previous blogs I indicated that the corona-crisis not only shows the shortcomings of the present ideology of neoliberalism but also the need to replace it with something else. Nobody knows what that something is. However, an open debate is hard to realise when events (e.g. climate change) already force a change of course. We do need societal debates with options for the future, as well as dealing with the consequences of events. Some aspects of the important role of economics were mentioned in the previous blog. The focus in this third blog is on politics and government. Although politics by its very nature has a strong role to play, it cannot and should not force the outcome of these discussions. 

The period of neoliberalism did people recognise again that the idea that government and management are two different things. The market is not always the answer to societal problems and government is not about process and low costs. If the focus is on financial value, societal value is not considered. I do think that the Netherlands is a prime example. In the over two decades of neoliberalism societal problems (including housing, education, health care, security, labour market, transparency) have not been solved or became worse. At the same time business profited much more of economic growth than households; see the new book Phantom Growth (for now only in Dutch). 

Business did play a major role in government. Research by the Open State Foundation (reported in the newspaper de Volkskrant) indicated that nearly half of the appointments with external parties in the agendas of cabinet ministers in the Netherlands were with companies or their representatives. 

If business cannot solve societal issues, government has to step in. Even if a majority would agree, the realisation of such a decision would take years. A few examples may explain this. Management qualities became a major criterium in the selection of the upper echelons of government and hence, no specialised knowledge of the department involved is readily available. As a consequence many policies and decisions are floating in the air, detached from the reality on the grond. How are you going to bring back the knowledge and experience required? A second example deals with the steps taken to decentralise a series of policy areas to municipalities, stressing the idea that municipalities are closer to the people, know their needs better and will come up with better solutions. However, a single municipality cannot deal with issues that are too large for it; e.g. children with multiple handicaps, now left in the cold (and climate change is not going to change that). 

The two examples are part of a longer list. For some of them you might find a solution, even if it would take a few years (retraining civil servants, establishing national health care facilities and so on). However, such measures, however difficult, are only piecemeal solutions. We need to replace neoliberalism with something else and this needs to be done through a combination of an open discussion and necessary responses to developments. Culture does play a major role in at least two aspects. The first is that culture (the way of thinking, acting and feeling of the population) has a major impact on the organisation of society. You need to find out what the people think and what they find acceptable in terms of the consequences of the possible changes. Secondly, culture has learned that change is only successful if thinking and acting go together; preferably you would focus on patterns of thinking first and then implement behavioural changes. Such a preference is a luxury in the sense that is not available anymore. Too much has happened already and hence, we need to work on both ends at the same time. 

The Economist of March 20th 2021 quoted Adam Smith in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments: markets are “living institutions, embedded in the culture, practice, traditions and trust of their day”. Indeed, markets are part of it but not a dominant part. I do not need to open the debate because in many (particularly ‘western’) states it is already taking place through elections, parliamentary discussions on governmental policies and measures, budget allocations and more. The more we recognise the common elements, the more focused we may work together in finding a new direction for our societies. Bye neoliberalism! Welcome post-industrial / sustainable society! Culture is here to help. 

This is the third out of three blogs on neoliberalism. Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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.  


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Culture Applied, Bye Neoliberalism 2

Last week I supported the idea that the corona-crisis has shown some structural shortcomings in the way ‘western’ societies have organised themselves. Culture has an impact on the organisation of society because the way of thinking and acting of populations drives that organisation. The problem is (as mentioned) that people are inclined to focus on the acting-part and do not pay enough attention to the thinking-part while the latter determined the former. In the same vein the approach of the corona-crisis often failed because governments focused on behaviour without convincing people of the need to change. 

We do not know what will replace neoliberalism. Yes, we may have extensive discussions (e.g. the Wellbeing Economy, the Doughnut model, the CLEVER strategy, the Green Deal, the UN Agenda 2030) and we should. At the same time events are already forcing change (and the consequences of these events need to be shaped as well). In politics for instance the left - right dichotomy is of less and less importance, as predicted by sociologist Ronald Inglehart in 1997.

In economics more and more attention is paid to a comprehensive calculation of all costs to the environment.  You may see this as a shift from internalism (human control nature and the environment) to externalism (in the end nature determines everything). The Economist of February 6th 2021 mentions for instance the report on the economics of biodiversity by Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge. But it [the environment] also shows up more broadly as a stock of “natural” capital from which humans derive “regulating and maintenance services”: the work of environmental cycles that refresh the air, churn waste products into nutrients, and keep global temperatures hospitable (…) The inclusion of natural capital enables an analysis of the sustainability of current rates of economic growth. (…) But whether a better understanding of the economics of biodiversity is essential to improving humans’ relationship with nature is another question. … Building the political will to prevent irreparable damage to the environment, though, may require an appeal to values that are beyond the purview of economics. And values are at the core of culture! 

This discussion is also at play in Japan. At Keidanren, Japan’s big business lobby, “no one denies” that corporations should create value beyond pure profit … Instead, the discussion is about “how to define” those broader, fuzzier values for today’s more complex society. (…) the list of stakeholders that companies must consider is lengthening. The Economist March 20th 2021

Strongly related to values is also the discussion about inequality and economics and how this is reflected in (higher) education. Students say that inequality is the most pressing economic problem of the day … But in many textbooks … the topic is merely appende to the core curriculum. (…) she was delighted to be able to replicate analysis that found discrimination against people with black-sounding names. “The course made me realise, oh, this is economics.”  The Economist March 20th 2021

A book review, again in The Economist of March 20th 2021 reflects the same ideas.

Inclusion and sustainability are only examples of a fundamental change that is taking place and shaping our future. This change is not limited to economics but to societies as a whole. Indeed, politics should open the debate and indicate the direction on the basis of democratic consultation. 

This is the second out of three blogs on neoliberalism. Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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.  


2021-04-20

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Culture Applied, Bye Neoliberalism 1

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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.  


2021-04-13

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Culture Applied, Religion

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture) or follow one of the online courses. 


2021-04-06

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Culture Applied, Freedom

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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.


2021-03-30

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Culture Applied, New Politics?

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2021-03-23

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Culture Applied, Touch

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2021-03-23

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Culture Applied, Organisational Culture 4

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See the website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture) or follow one of the online courses. 

2021-03-09

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Culture Applied, Rioting

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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!


2021-03-02

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Culture Applied, Loneliness

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2021-02-23

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Culture Applied, The Arts 3

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website, read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture)or subscribe to one of the online courses.

2021-02-16

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Culture Applied, Sports

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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). 


2021-02-10

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Culture Applied, Brain

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!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. Want to know more about culture? See my website or  read my book (Encyclopedia of Culture).


2021-02-03

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Culture Applied, Wolf

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2021-01-26

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Culture Applied, Girlhood

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: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2021-01-19

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Culture Applied, Geography

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.  

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2021-01-12

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Culture Applied, European Union

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-12-29

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Culture Applied, What is in a Name?

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-12-22

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Culture Applied, Communication

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. 

 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 

2020-12-15

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Culture Applied, At Your Service

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-12-08

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Culture Applied, Competitive Autocracy

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!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-12-01

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Culture Applied, Society

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-11-24

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Culture Applied, Institutions

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.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-11-17

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Culture Applied, Rule of Law

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.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-11-11

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Culture Applied, The Arts

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-11-05

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Culture Applied, Values Change

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

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-10-27

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Culture Applied, Corona Policy

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-10-21

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Culture Applied, Importance

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?

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-10-13

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Culture Applied, Foreign Policy 2

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.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 




2020-10-06

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Culture Applied, Second Wave

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-09-30

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Culture Applied, Post-modern

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? 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-09-24

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Culture Applied, Corona (again)

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?

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-09-15

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Culture Applied, Capitalism

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!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-09-08

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Culture Applied, Conventions

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.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-09-01

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Culture Applied, Belarus

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!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 

2020-08-25

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Culture Applied, the Past

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?

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-08-18

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Culture Applied, Wisdom

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?

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-08-11

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Culture Applied, Huawei

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!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-08-04

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Culture Applied, Confinement

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.

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-07-28

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Culture Applied, Online

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!

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-07-21

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Culture Applied, Theocracy

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-07-14

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Culture Applied, China

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-07-07

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Culture Applied, Civilisation

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? 


Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-06-30

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Culture Applied, Mouth Masks

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-06-23

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Culture Applied, Iconoclasm

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.

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-06-16

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Culture Applied, Corture 2

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. 

Thanks for reading, Pieter van Nispen. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu. 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. 


2020-06-09

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Culture Applied, Black

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. 

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-06-02

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Culture Applied, Dealing with Culture 2

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.

Difficulties

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!

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-05-26

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Culture Applied, Dealing with Culture

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? 

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-05-19

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Culture Applied, New Society 2

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. 

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-05-12

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Culture Applied, Organisational Culture 2

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.

  1. Watch what may go wrong, preventing errors through thinking in scenarios
  2. Prevent simple conclusions to avoid wrong decisions, based on false assumptions.
  3. Sensitivity for the operation through thorough knowledge of the process, situational awareness and a keen eye for deviations.
  4. Flexibility and resilience to solve problems satisfactorily.
  5. Respect for expertise independently of hierarchy, status, years of experience et cetera.
  6. Mutual learning (this pattern was added from practice to the original five from research).

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.

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-05-05

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Culture Applied, Organisational Culture

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.

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-04-28

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Culture Applied, New Society

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!

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-04-21

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Culture Applied, Anthropocene

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. 

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.

2020-04-15

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Culture Applied, Privacy

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! 

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-04-07

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Culture Applied, Corona Culture

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. 


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-03-31

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Culture Applied, Uncertainty

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.


2020-03-24

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Culture Applied, HRM

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. 

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-03-17

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Culture Applied, Corona

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.

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-03-11

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Culture Applied, Underland

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.

Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-03-03

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Culture Applied; Body Language

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!


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-02-25

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Culture Applied; Economics

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!


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


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!


2020-02-18

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Culture Applied; Trust

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!


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-02-11

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Culture Applied; Trade

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?


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-02-04

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Culture Applied; Illness

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!


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-02-03

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Culture Applied; Death

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?


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-01-14

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Culture Applied; Future

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. 


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2020-01-07

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Culture Applied; New Year

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!


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2019-12-31

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Culture Applied; Role Pattern

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. 


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2019-12-24

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Culture Applied; Identity (again)

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!


2019-12-18

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Culture Applied; Importance

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? 


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2019-12-10

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Culture Applied; 9/11

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?


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2019-12-03

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Culture Applied; Hong Kong

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.


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.

2019-11-27

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Culture Applied; Branche Culture

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!


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.


2019-11-19

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Culture Applies; Democracy


[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. 


Want to know more about culture? Take a license on this website, read my new 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. Comments: pieter@culturalcompetence.eu.

2019-11-19

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Culture Applied; Egocentrism

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!