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Why Understand Cultures?

John HookerJohn Hooker
T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility
Professor of Operations Research
Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon
April 2007




We Westerners believe that everyone should, at some level, be like us. We see our way as the only rational way. We are sensitive to cultural differences, but for us these are such surface features as language, cuisine and custom. In our heart of hearts we assume that everyone is basically the same inside.

The evidence is everywhere. We speak of universal human rights, but they are an invention of eighteenth-century Europe. We see no viable alternative to a democratic form of government. We divide the world into “developed” and “developing” nations, and the developed nations are the ones more like us. We convince not only ourselves, but much of the world, that our economic system is the only rational way to organize commerce.

Our universalism, along with our ability to persuade others to share it, can have unhappy consequences. One thinks of failed post-colonial African states built on a European model, or botched attempts to install Western-style democracy where it does not belong. The World Bank’s well-intentioned efforts to promote Chicago-school economics have had mixed results at best. The Asian financial crisis of the 1990s resulted from an abrupt and ill-considered transplant of Western finance into an ancient and successful relationship-based system. We may not view this system as successful, but we should bear in mind that China, for instance, was the world’s largest economy for eight of the last ten centuries and will become so again in the present century. It largely escaped the Asian crisis because it continued to rely primarily on traditional family-based financing.

The age of Western economic dominance is quickly coming to a close, as nations learn to build on their own cultural strengths rather than importing Western ways wholesale. We have entered a new global order based on cultural comparative advantage. Japanese social discipline brought about a revolution in efficient and high-quality manufacturing. Indian intellectual rigor is the basis for its world-class information technology. Korean loyalty to superiors helped create an economic success story that rivals any in the world. Cantonese entrepreneurship is one of the engines driving Chinese economic growth. These successes and others are a direct outgrowth of indigenous culture.

Yet we Westerners continue to equate development with movement toward Western institutions and practices. Why is this? It is not because we are particularly arrogant or naive, but because our culture requires it. A culture hangs together because it instills basic assumptions that we may fail even to recognize as assumptions. We in the West must believe that our values are universal, because we are individualists. Autonomous, rational individuals ultimately cannot be coerced but must be rationally persuaded to live together peaceably. This means we must believe in self-evident values to which we can all voluntarily assent. But if they are self-evident, then they are universal. It follows that the whole world, once it thinks clearly, will want to imitate us. Some of the world does, but when we meet resistance, we are genuinely perplexed.

If we want to understand what is going on around us, and if we want to succeed in the new world order, we must learn how differently other cultures think. We must go beneath the cultural surface and discover the tacit assumptions that shape everything else. This requires interleaving anthropological analysis with real-life experiences and constructing your own understanding of the culture you want to engage.

In my view this exercise teaches two life-changing lessons. One is to recognize that others ways of life have a logic of their own. Civilizations develop, but they develop along different and equally legitimate paths. We can learn a great deal from each other, because some aspects of humanity are in fact universal—a common biology, a common planet, and a common mortality—and different peoples have found different solutions to our shared problems. African cultures, for instance, may someday show us the way to sustainability, since they kept the human species alive through countless millennia when they were the world’s only cultures.

The second lesson is how to cope with culture shock. We live in an age of cultural mixing. Many of us find ourselves living and working in unfamiliar parts of the world or, even when at home, interacting with people of vastly different cultural backgrounds. This creates stress. Yet because stress is part of our common biological heritage, all cultures have found ways to deal with it. In fact the role of stress appears to so central to human existence that cultures are to a great extent defined by how they manage it. Culture shock itself results from the absence of the stress-relief mechanisms that support us at home. This means that by knowing how cultures deal with stress, we can tap into these mechanisms to ease cultural adjustment. We can also begin to see how the seemingly strange or annoying behavior of coworkers makes perfect sense in their cultural contexts.

Our own primary stress-management tool is technology, and the science on which it rests. We are good at technology, not because we are smarter, work harder, or (dare I say it) more advanced, but because we need it. It represents our peculiar way of dealing with stress, inasmuch as we get control of our fate by manipulating our environment. Other peoples have other ways, sometimes radically different ways.

Our Western tradition has the intellectual resources to uncover its own assumptions. Self-examination is in fact an old habit of ours; it was well over 2000 years ago when the Oracle at Delphi advised us, Γν?θι σεαυτ?ν (“Know thyself”). Self-knowledge is the key to getting in touch with others as well. By recognizing our own assumptions, we can open our eyes to the fundamental differences between ourselves and others. It is high time we do so. Only by understanding and respecting these differences, rather than pretending everyone is basically the same, can we can build bridges to other peoples and coexist on our crowded planet.

(This is a summary of ideas in the author’s book, Working across Cultures, Stanford University Press, 2003.)




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