Us and Them

Dr. Lívia Markóczy
Cranfield School of Management
Cranfield, Beds MK43 0AL

As we increasingly operate in multicultural environments, we are increasingly being told--- often we tell ourselves--- to be ever more sensitive to the power of cultural differences.

We have been told that the successes (or failures) of American management are deeply rooted in the culture of the frontier and individual freedom. We have been told that the successes (or failures) of Japanese management is deeply rooted in a collectivist national spirit. We have been told that there are fundamental differences between ``us'' and ``them'' in how we perceive business environments, threats and opportunities, the role of management, the value of cooperation, the importance of maintaining dignity (often called ``face'' which makes it sound exotic), and so on.

Are these claims so common because they are correct? If they are not correct, why are they so enthusiastically supported by anecdote, impression and research? If national cultural differences don't matter as much as is often claimed, can we ignore them? These are the questions I want to address here.

``Unconvincing'' arguments

I will claim that national cultural differences are overrated. But in making this unconventional claim I have an uphill struggle, since almost everyone who has some international experience has formed the impression of different ``mindsets'' or different ``ways of interpreting the world'' between people of different nationalities. So I have to persuade most of you to question and suspect some of your own impressions. I have to ``unconvince'' you of conclusions you may have come to through your own experience as well as through reports of others.

To demonstrate that I am not setting an impossible task for myself, take a look at the two lines in the familiar Müller--Lyer illusion in Figure 1. Although you may perceive--- like most people the world over--- that line (a) is longer than line (b), you can quickly confirm that they are the same lengths. Even armed with the knowledge that they are the same length, line (a) still appears longer than line (b). Just as some fact about the human mind causes us to misperceive the relative lengths of those lines, some fact about the human mind (or just possibly some fact about virtually all cultures) leads us to exaggerate cultural differences. Just as we know to be extra careful when looking at the figure, we must learn to be extra careful when looking at cultural differences.

  [Muller-Lyer Illusion]
Figure 1: The Müller--Lyer Optical illusion: Which line is/appears longer?

Again and again psychological experiments have shown that when we view behavior from someone of our own culture we treat it in a rather mundane manner, but when we view the identical behavior from someone of another culture, we attribute deep cultural explanations for it. In one experiment, American MBA students were shown a video of a white American manager (actually an actor) behaving in a particular way and were asked to evaluate the manager. They rated him in fairly normal ways. When a similar group of students were asked to rate a Japanese manager (actually another actor) behaving in exactly the same way as the other manager, they used it as a starting point to argue how different Japanese management was. This is just one of many examples that social psychologists have used to show that we automatically and preconsciously look for and exaggerate differences based on nationality.

Before discussing where and how exaggerated views of cultural differences play a role, I will point out some traps that scholars and others thinking about cultural differences can fall into which lead them to conclude that cultural differences are real, large and important. The list runs from what in my opinion are the most egregious (and least likely to be published) to the most subtle errors.

Recycled impressions

Some studies have reported the importance of national differences based on reports by expatriates. Such studies usually contain delightful anecdotes and often insightful analysis into the differences.

Ultimately, however, these studies are like demonstrating that line (a) in the figure is in fact longer than line (b) by asking people which line appears longer. It may be a very important fact that people see one line as longer than the other (or see large and important cultural differences), but the actual lengths of the lines are not to be determined by majority vote.

The big bad Whorf

Psychologically the most overwhelming factor of cultural indentification is language. It is also the means of cultural transmission, and upon learning a second language almost everyone arrives at the conclusion that you can only understand the other culture if you know its language. The ``Whorf Hypothesis'' (named after 1950s amateur linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf), the view that grammatical facts and categories of the particular language you speak influences (or even determines) the way you think, is rediscovered and republished year after year and has been used often to argue for cultural differences. Some articles in leading management journals attribute differences in Polish and English management more to the differences in the Polish and English languages than to the 40 years of communist rule in Poland.

The problem with the Whorf hypothesis is that it evaporates whenever linguists and anthropologists look at it seriously. Sometimes the ``facts'' about the language disappear, as in the case of the alleged 80 Eskimo words for snow (when looked at carefully English and most Innuit languages have about the same number of words for snow), or the argument proves to be circular: (1) People who talk differently think differently; (2) How do we know they think differently? (3) Well they talk differently! My native language, Hungarian, does not use a separate word for ``she'' and ``he'', but I can personally assure you that Hungarians are as conscious of the differences between the sexes as anyone else.

Those who persue this sort of linguistic speculation often fail to notice that their own language may contain the same exotic features they report in the foreign language. Some people have tried to make a case for some particular view of Japanese mentality by pointing out that one of the words used in Japanese for ``unusual'' can also mean ``foreign''. That may or may not be an interesting fact, but as an argument for a different mentality it is outlandish. Only a stranger to the true subtleties of English could advance such an argument.

Seeing differently or seeing different things

In one series of studies business people in China and in America were surveyed about how they see business. They found that Chinese managers thought that government support is more important for success than American managers did. This was reported as finding that Chinese and American managers have different ways of seeing. But if one is willing to question the conclusion even slightly, the more obvious (and mundane) explanation for the difference immediately leaps out: Government support probably is more important for success in China than in America. If people report differences, it may say nothing about how they perceive the world, but instead simply be because they are perceiving different things.

The spectrum illusion

Some of the better work in the management literature about cultural differences suffers from what I call the ``spectrum illusion''. If you were to blind yourself to every color except green, you would see a whole spectrum of differences, from yellowish-green to blue-green. Blind to any other color you would see vast differences in green. If, however, you saw the entire visable spectrum from red to violet, green would make up a small slice. And if you saw the spectrum from radio waves to X-rays, green would be miniscule band in the middle.

One of the best ways to identify national (or any) differences is to blind yourself to other factors. Look for national differences by taking perfectly matched samples from national cultures, and see if you find differences. Careful studies conducted this way have found differences and there is very good reason to believe that what these studies have found is genuine. But while these studies can identify sometimes even the smallest of differences, they cannot tell us whether those differences are substantial, just as no one can say whether the difference between yellowish-green and blue-green is a substantial difference.

A Hungarian manager and an American one may have a different set of beliefs, but that difference may pale beside the difference between a production manager and a marketing manager in the same organization. In my work, I have found that the actual fault lines in beliefs fall along functional lines and not national ones much to the initial surprise of some of the people studied. But I never would have found this if I only looked at differences based on nationality. I had to look for both kinds of differences, and then compare them. The differences found along national lines were barely measurable, while the differences along functional lines were substantial.

Both researchers and the consumers of research reports may be misled by the term ``statistically significant relationship.'' This merely means a relationship that probably isn't by chance. It does not necessarily mean that the relationship is substantial or significant outside of this very narrow sense. Researchers seek statistically significant relations because relationships that don't occur by chance must be explained by theory. Something may easily be significant while being of no practical importance.

Not all that bad

I have been pointing out flaws, but the situation is not as bad as I have painted it. A great deal of work on national culture in management is very well conducted, and most studies use a variety of methods so that a single flaw in one doesn't invalidate the whole study. Perfection is a tough thing to demand; or rather it is an easy thing to demand, but you are bound to be disappointed if you expect it. The necessary imperfections of individual studies should be tolerated if the overall trend of studies point the same way. But given our natural tendency to exaggerate national differences in our own minds, we should be extra careful in this sort of work. I fear that much of the work reporting national or cultural differences has not been careful enough.

What I am suggesting is that we all excercise more skepticism about the importance of cultural differences than we have been. This does mean looking for flaws in work that report such differences. And since management scholars are as vulnerable to the temptation to overrate national differences as anyone else is, we must take an especially hard look at this work.

Does it matter?

If cultural differences are so small and unfounded can we ignore them? Of course not. Imagined cultural differences can play as big a role as real ones, and differences (real or imagined) exist in any organization that has a work force from different countries. Before discussing how to address this, I will list a few anecdotes and incidents which illustrate that small or imagined cultural differences can get blown out of proportion.

Tempest in a coffee cup

When I was conducting a study of organizations in Hungary with mixed nationality management teams, I fell victim to the exaggeration of differences. As I went from manager to manager in Tungsram, a GE-owned lighting company, I had the feeling that the Americans didn't know how to treat a guest. I walked away from each meeting with an American with the feeling that I was somehow unwelcomed, despite the fact that some of the Hungarian managers were positively frightened. (One of the first things said to me by many of the Hungarians I spoke to was ``Who sent you to me?". I had more difficulty winning the trust of the Hungarians than the Americans.)

After reflecting a bit on why I found the Americans rude, I noticed that all of the Hungarians offered me coffee, while only one of the Americans did. I immediately started to speculate that the Americans had a more ``down to business'' attitude, while the Hungarians were more ``people- and relationship-oriented''. Maybe that speculation is correct, but maybe it is because Americans drink less coffee than Hungarians. Or maybe Americans drink coffee at certain times of the day. (I met the one American who offered me coffee at 8:30 a.m.) Maybe offering coffee to office visitors is an arbitrary fact about Hungarian culture without reflecting on some deep aspect of the culture. Maybe Americans don't enjoy the way coffee is made in Hungary. Maybe it was a statistical fluke.

The deep culturally significant explanation was the one that came instinctively to mind, but once I forced myself to look for mundane explanations, they seem at least as plausable as the deep cultural one. While I can't rule out the possibility of a deep fundamental difference in mindsets, I should explore the mundane possibilites first.

Although my feeling that the Americans were slightly insensitive was probably based on a misperception on my part, the feeling was real. This real feeling, based on an imaginary difference, may very well have influenced my own behavior. I may have then been slightly colder than I otherwise would have been. It is then possible that the person who hadn't offered me coffee (which I would have refused anyway) would have sensed my coldness and responded in kind. This could cycle into a deep (and real) division. Just because the actual cultural difference may be small or even imaginary, doesn't mean that it won't have real and substantial consequences.

Culture takes a holiday

In another organization (Douwe-Egberts/Compack) a Hungarian manager was explaining to me that the Dutch were mismanaging because they didn't understand Hungarian culture. Monday March 15th was a holiday that year, and as a Hungarian manager explained

[The Dutch] wanted to put this working weekend on the 12--14th which would have destroyed our holidays. They thought that this was the best arrangement for us since we can then relax on Monday. This however shows that they do not understand the Hungarian culture and mentality.

Maybe this does show that the Dutch didn't understand the Hungarian mentality. Alternatively it may only show that the foreign managers--- many there without families--- had little better to do during this weekend. They could have expected the local managers to do the same thing, forgetting that the locals probably would like to spend the holiday with their families or had other uses for an block of three free days. Although this was inconsiderate of the foreign managers, it has nothing to do with not understanding the ``Hungarian culture and mentality''.

There may be important job related differences between the expatriate and the local, but those differences may arise more from the nature of being an expatriate and being a local than from national culture. Accusations of fundamental inability to understand each others mentality, however, can quickly escalate.

Enough is already too much

Armed with the knowledge that cultural differences are often illusory, we must still remain sensitive people's perception of them. We can't just declare that we won't care about the differences. The arrogance of that stance would fall clearly into the stereotype of the ``cultural imperialist''. Learning each other's language is always an important step; as is trying to aviod nationality based cliques. These are obvious steps to consider.

Trying to show respect for a culture by following some of its behaviors is a far more riskier strategy. There is a special danger when, for example, people from a developed country are working in a less developed one. An American trying to display a taste for Romanian folk dress might see himself as being culturally sensitive and open. A Romanian might simply consider it condescending.

Reflecting on the attitudes toward the fictitious African country Rimalia in the 1992 novel Le Premier Siecle Apres Beatrice (The First Century After Beatrice), Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf makes this point:

I remember meeting a Rimalian academic who now missed the time when people spoke of `a civilizing mission'; at least then it was still admitted that everyone was civilizable, even if only in theory. More pernicious, according to him, was the `attitude which consists of proclaiming that everyone is civilized, by definition, and to the same degree, that all values are equal, that every human being is a humanist, and that, consquently, everyone must follow the path prescribe by his roots'.

The young man hid his anger behind a veil of cool ironical ridicule: `Formerly, we had to put up with contemptuous rascism; nowadays we suffer from respectful racism. Indifferent to our aspirations, gushing over our gaucheries...'

I recommended earlier that it is important to make an effort to learn each others languages; but even here care should be excercised. English speakers when making a concerted effort to pronounce my name ``correctly'' or ``the Hungarian way'' may think that they are showing respect for me or my culture, but it can be (and often is) perceived as showing me my place and insisting on accentuating my differentness.

The sad thing is that there simply may not be a correct amount of cultural sensitivety. Whatever amount is sufficient to demonstate openness and a desire to understand may already be seen as condescending to the individual. Enough may already be too much.

In the face of this, there are only two things that I can unequivocally recommend. First, with any sensitive interaction consider both whether you are behaving in a way that is not sufficiently culturally sensitive and whether it is so culturally sensitive that it is condescending. Recognize (and accept) that your behavior might have to fail on both counts. Second, when you sense a cultural division, look first for a mundane, ordinary explanation before attributing the cause to deep cultural difference.

This is hardly a magic formula for managing and utilizing cultural diversity. It does, however, have the advantage of being based neither on illusion nor wishful thinking. There is also a pragmatic upshot of all of this: Deep cultural differences of incommensurable mind-sets are largely unresolvable. Once something has been identified as such a difference, nothing can really be done about it. Ordinary misunderstandings and differences, however, are usually resolvable by ordinary means. Just as it makes some sense to look for a lost key under a street lamp because the light is better, it makes sense to look for tractable explanations for various problems before attributing the problems to some intractable cause.

Managing among cultural diversity will still remain something that requires care and thought, but it should be careful thought. We must move away from the culture of culture in which we attribute everything to deep mindshaping cultural differences, and more towards viewing individuals as individuals.