RW3's CultureWizard is a leader in the intercultural and e-learning industries. He creates customized, co-branded CultureWizard websites that teach culture and foster cultural awareness through interactive e-learning tools and resources.
CultureWizard works with experienced interculturalists globally and tens of thousands of employees of global corporations turn to his insights daily. Country specific information on over 135 countries provides a wealth of cultural information and strategies for success when living and working around the world.
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2014 was the year culture came to the forefront of the collective imagination. While Oxford chose vape due to the explosive popularity of e-cigarettes, Meriam-Webster named culture “Word of the Year” because of a 15% surge in searches including the term in the past year.
While the sudden uptick in “culture” searches can be partially attributed to recent headlines and news stories about “workplace culture”, “celebrity culture”, and “rape culture” dominating the media, the word has a more nuanced meaning than most realize. A recent article in The New Yorker sheds light on how the word has continued to pique the curiosity of the general public. It’s clear that “culture” has different definitions based on the context in which it’s used:
“If our increasingly analytical, sociological way of thinking about “culture” is helping us to improve the culture, that’s a positive development. Confusion over its evolving meaning is a good reason to look up “culture” in the dictionary, but so is an interest in understanding the world and making it better.”
In years past, lookups for “culture” on Meriam-Webster’s website would spike during the fall, presumably due to students seeking an academic definition for research and coursework. But in 2014, searches remained persistent as the term was used more frequently in social phenomena.
“Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness,” explains Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large for Merriam-Webster. “And it’s efficient: we talk about the ‘culture’ of a group rather than saying ‘the typical habits, attitudes, and behaviors’ of that group. So we think that it may be the increased use of this newer sense of the word culture that is catching people’s attention and driving the volume of lookups.”
As we move into 2015, how do you think perceptions of culture will evolve in society and the global workforce? Do you have a game plan to improve your interactions with your intercultural colleagues?
With global Ebola panic in full swing, it may surprise you to learn how calm many West Africans remain as the disease continues its deadly rampage in their communities. A recent New York Times piece by Liberian-American journalist, Helene Cooper details the admirable resilience of Liberians as they weather the storm of a ruthless illness.
As a child, Cooper and her family left Liberia to escape the horrifying violence that plagued their homeland. Having endured 14 years of civil war, Liberians consider themselves to be a nation of survivors and many of them have the harrowing stories to prove it. “They came by that resilience the hard way,” says Cooper. Her own sister was kidnapped and narrowly escaped death. Another hid in a remote area for two years after seeing a coworker brutally killed by rebels.
On a recent visit to her home city of Monrovia, Cooper was surprised to see how calm Liberians are remaining even with the ever-present threat of disease. But given their painful history, Liberians see Ebola as another problem that must be dealt with. She explains:
“[Many] Liberians are treating the disease with much the same resignation as the killers of the past — accepting that the threat is there, and doing their best to navigate around it. They wash their hands with chlorine; they walk up to the laser thermometers at the entrances of public buildings to check their temperature. They still take care of family members who fall ill because there is no other alternative.”
Liberian hospitals can be expensive and difficult to access, so most of the afflicted are tended by their family and friends. For Liberians, the need to comfort and care for loved ones often trumps fear, but many have paid the ultimate price. This article by Indian broadcasting network, NDTV details the effects of a highly contagious sickness in a tactile culture, where hugs and kisses are a standard greeting. “You have to understand,” says one man, who survived the illness after caring for his late sister, “This Ebola thing. You will see your son or daughter sick in bed and say, ‘[I’m] not touching her?’ That is impossible.”
Everyone is aware of the risk and many remain vigilant to guard themselves against infection while continuing life as normally as possible. But for locals, it’s impossible not to notice taxi drivers leaning against windows to avoid contact with strangers or people picking through the marketplaces with their sleeves covering their hands. Greetings and farewells are no longer extended affairs, with hugs and kisses being replaced by fist bumps.
How would you adjust your daily life, including typical greetings and behaviors, to mitigate the impact of a disease like Ebola? How would cultural values potentially clash with changes suggested by medical professionals?
It would be difficult – perhaps impossible – to sum up the cultural character of a nation’s people in one word. After all, culture is a multifaceted entity, built upon layers of both visible and invisible elements, and no aspect of a given culture is random or unrelated. *
Nevertheless, Swedes have succinctly distilled their culture into a single word; an essence called lagom (pronounced law-gum), which is said to permeate the Swedish mindset. Loosely translated, lagom means “just enough” or “everything in moderation”. A recent article from travel journal, Roads and Kingdoms delves into this cultural phenomenon and what it means to Swedes.
To outsiders, lagom might be perceived as outward quietness or misconstrued as Nordic “coldness”, but the concept goes much deeper than that. The origin of the word can be traced to Viking days, when after a hard day’s sailing, they passed around a mug and drank a “lagom” amount and then passed the mug to the next person, ensuring enough remained for everyone to quench his thirst. †
For contemporary Swedes, lagom continues to shape attitudes and beliefs. They work hard enough, but not too hard; eat until satisfied, but not to excess. They speak enough to convey their point, but won’t ramble ad nauseam. Most importantly, Swedes are among the most egalitarian people in the world, known for seeking fairness and equality in all aspects of both their business and personal interactions.
If you’re traveling to or doing business with Sweden, it’s important to keep in mind that Swedes tend to be modest and downplay their accomplishments. Jante Law — another uniquely Swedish phenomenon — teaches the importance of being humble and not “thinking big”. This means that Swedish professionals tend to be group-oriented and like to come to decisions through consensus. They communicate in a direct and honest manner and prefer not to show emotion in the workplace. Given the egalitarian nature of the culture, it is important to treat everyone you meet with respect. Speak directly and avoid using hyperbole or superlatives.
Do you have experience working with Sweden? How does lagom or Jante Law manifest in your work life? How is Swedish business culture different from your home country?
Earlier this week, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide announced its plan to move their global headquarters nearly 8,000 miles and ten time zones from Stamford Connecticut to India for the month of March 2015.
The Times of India reports that this is the third temporary “leadership move” Starwood has undertaken, which fosters an innovative approach to developing a global business culture and fostering relationships in developing markets. Previously, Starwood Hotels has sent their executives to China in 2011 and Dubai in 2013.
Starwood President and CEO, Frits Van Passen had this to say about the one-month move:
This is a particularly exciting time for us relocate to India. Its renewed focus on travel infrastructure is much needed, as travel demand is fueled by economic growth and a population expected to overtake China by 2030. We all know of India as a hotbed of technological innovation and global services. Coupled with the rise in entrepreneurship and investment, millions of people are joining its middle class every year. And, of course, this means millions of new travelers. At the same time, India is both unique and immensely diverse. Our extended time there will allow us to immerse ourselves and appreciate new approaches to the business of hospitality.
India’s economic future seems brighter than ever and more global organizations are looking to invest and do business in the vibrant nation. For foreign executives, working with India for the first time can be both an enriching and perplexing experience.
It is important that those looking to do business in India take note of some key cultural considerations: *
1. Companies tend to be extremely hierarchical with a top-down management structure. Titles denote status and a person’s position within the hierarchy. Subordinates address their managers as “Sir” or “Madam” and would not think of addressing someone senior to themselves by their first name. Business cards may include university degrees as a visible testament to hierarchy and status. Managers can be more autocratic than in many Western cultures because of the respect employees have towards hierarchy. Concurrent with their status, however, managers have obligations towards their staff that may extend into the personal realm.
2. Personal relationships and trust are key. Indians generally see the good of the group as paramount and are willing to subjugate their own desires for the group’s greater good. They strive to show mutual respect and agreement within the group. This is especially pronounced in the workplace. When part of any group, Indians strive to avoid disagreement and confrontation and do not embarrass each other, since doing so would bring dishonor to the group.
3. Indians are often indirect communicators. For the most part, Indian communication strives to maintain group harmony and respect hierarchy by telling the other person what they think is the desired response. This is not to say that Indians do not give a negative response; merely, that they do so in an extremely indirect manner that is often not understood by foreigners. Indian communication is meant to preserve harmony more than to relay information.
4. Indians have a more relaxed view of time than westerners. Like many Asian cultures, Indians see time as circular or cyclical. They believe time adjusts to account for what must be done. Life is comprised of many unpredictable things. As such, deadlines are viewed as more fluid than they are in cultures that believe time can be controlled.
A westerner faints in a crowded Shanghai subway car, and as the train pulls into the next station, hundreds of passengers nearly trample one another as they make a frantic exodus. Everyone was afraid to help him.
The incident described above, originally reported by Chinese news site, Netease (translated by ChinaSMACK, here) was captured on security cameras just last month and has prompted questions from both Chinese nationals and foreigners. As millions have now seen the video, more people have started to explore what incidents like this say about Chinese culture.
Chinese culture is strongly relationship-oriented and defined by a sense of close-knit communities and traditional kinship ties. This means that there is a strong in-group/out-group distinction, which divides people into two categories — those you know, and those you don’t. A recent piece by NPR explores the deeper cultural meaning behind the actions of a couple hundred fleeing passengers.
The answer lies primarily in fear – fear of violence, disease, or being taken advantage of. “Nobody wants to be dragged into things that aren’t their business,” said one Chinese male. He explains, “People want to trust, but given what’s happened in the past, they have no choice but to be skeptical.” What he’s referring to is an occasional scam, where a person collapses in public, only to accuse the person who tries to help of knocking them down, and then demanding money.
Given China’s immense population, this scam is not common. The Chinese government however has issued a warning encouraging those who want to help someone in distress to first find a witness so the victim may not attempt extortion. Yunxian Yan, a UCLA anthropologist, interviewed by NPR, has studied this phenomenon and believes that risk-aversion is reflected in the traditional way that Chinese people view relationships. “How to treat strangers nicely is one of the biggest challenges in contemporary Chinese society. A person may treat other people in the…social group very, very nicely,” he explains. “But turn around, when facing to a stranger and [one tends] to be very suspicious.”
Fear of diseases is another contributing factor to why some Chinese people hesitate to help others – particularly foreigners. “The fact that this foreigner fainted and nobody helped was [no] accident,” offers one Chinese woman. People suspected the foreigner had that African illness [such as Ebola].”
What experience do you have with this kind of strong insider / outsider division? How has this impacted your dealings in China?
As the undisputed “World’s Most Popular Sport”, association football (or soccer) comes steeped in cultural implications as diverse as its estimated global fan base of more than 3 billion. For World Cup viewers around the world, it quickly becomes apparent that for many, the tournament represents much more than a game – it’s a de facto symbol of the national character of each team’s country.
According to The Washington Post, as the World Cup continues, we’ll likely hear many references to the different playing styles of national teams and how fans believe they relate to the cultural characteristics of each country. Both sports analysts and fans alike often cite the “Gallic flair “of the French, the “samba-like” movement of the Brazilian team, and the “clinical and effective” playing style of the Germans.
While it may seem to be an obvious connection, the author of the WP piece (German studies scholar, Andrei Markovitz) argues that cultural characteristics do not adequately explain a particular team’s playing style. Using Germany’s transformation from a militant superpower during WWI and II to one of Europe’s most peace-seeking countries, he claims that “national character” cannot even be proven to exist and that if it did, it wouldn’t manifest itself in something like on-field sportsmanship.
Markovitz may say that cultural explanations of team play are too “facile and convenient” but even the German-born US coach Jurgen Klinsmann sees a connection. Recently, he made public his plans to create a truly “American Style” of playing soccer, which would be immediately recognizable to viewers around the world and leverage the perceived strengths of US culture. “Americans are proactive,” he explains. “You want to be world leaders in everything you do. So, on the field, you shouldn’t just sit back and wait.”
Do you agree more with Markovitz or Klinsmann? How reflective of national culture do you think a team’s playing is? What cultural qualities of your own nation (if any) do you see in your own regional soccer teams?
The World Cup is still a buzz. And, as with any endeavor of such scale and ambition, there are controversies to go along with it. Questions surround the Brazilian government’s use of funds, the security presence in the favelas, and players who moonlight as vampires (Uruguay’s Luis Suarez). In the midst of these controversies, and the general madness and passion that accompanies the World Cup, Japanese fans have stood out for their conscientiousness and good sportsmanship.
After watching their team lose to the Cote D’Ivoire, 1-2, in Group C, Japanese fans stayed after the game to clean up their section of the stadium. Photos of their actions went viral on social media, and the global response was hugely positive, saying the Japanese fans are, the “most respectful” and “best fans at the World Cup.”
Japanese fans repeated their thoughtful gesture of community and respect after the Samurai Blue’s showdown with Greece ended in a scoreless draw.
An article on JapanToday.com covered social media’s positive reaction to Japan’s fans. It references the hanami season, when thousands of people descend on public parks to eat, drink and have fun. During that season of public events, there are rarely trash bins provided, but there is no mess left behind at the end of the day because people bring along rubbish bags to carry out their waste.
Japanese conscientiousness is also reflected in business and personal interactions. The concept of “face” is hugely important, wherein it is possible to give, lose, or save face. It is essential to consider how your behavior may impact others because causing someone to lose face can potentially make that person difficult to work with in any future transactions. Why? It may significantly de-rail the building of mutual trust and respect. By acting politely and conscientiously, the Japanese are showing respect to their hosts, and in the case of the post-game clean-up, to their opponents. By not becoming emotional and/or rude in the wake of their loss, the Japanese avoid loss of face.
Face also intersects with the Japanese value for hierarchy. For example, not all compliments qualify as “giving face”. The CultureWizard online learning platform provides examples of how to navigate the concept of face effectively:
1) In the presence of a supervisor, do not praise a subordinate for their talent. The boss should always be seen as ultimately responsible for their employees. Praising the subordinate makes the supervisor lose face. Instead, praise a supervisor for his or her ability to build and maintain such an effective team.Or, address the team directly for their good work. Singling out individuals in front of others violates strong collectivist norms.
2) Do not refuse someone’s willingness to pay for a meal or insist on splitting the bill. The Japanese prefer to take on the role of host when in their country. They also gain face by paying. As a customer or client, you will always be seen as the
“guest” by your Japanese vendors or suppliers, even if they are visiting you.
3) Understand the implications of hierarchy when interacting with Japanese, especially in meetings. Who contributes and who doesn’t contribute has a lot to do with the way hierarchy impacts meeting behaviors. Failure to consider this can easily violate deep cultural norms that may cause individuals to lose face, including yourself.
Do you have any experiences with receiving, giving, or losing face in a business setting? Share your stories and observations in the comments section below.
Despite being a global superpower, China isn’t known for its soccer prowess. Undeterred by their World Cup disqualification in 2011, it seems nothing can stop the nation of over a billion from enjoying the World Cup with enough passion to inspire even the most hardened non-sports fan.
The problem for many Chinese fans is that the majority of matches take place after midnight, which according to the WantChinaTimes, has led many workers to buy fake doctor’s notes online to allow them to stay up late and skip work the next day. While searches for “sick leave notes” are technically banned from China’s largest online shopping platform, Taobao, a quick search for “hospital registration service” often yields the same results, with prices varying depending on the length of leave and what type of imaginary affliction one chooses.
Peddlers of fake doctor’s notes aren’t the only ones cashing in on Chinese World Cup fever – insurance companies are now offering “nightbird insurance” for soccer fans who have died whilst staying up to watch the games (at least three so far, according to WantChinaTimes). This includes packages for “drunk insurance” targeted to those suffering from alcoholism.
While it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause of China’s World Cup fever, it may have something to do with the group-oriented nature of Chinese culture. Choosing a country to support, donning the respective jersey and gear, and cheering for ‘their’ team with as much passion as a native. Collective celebration of a team’s winning (or lamenting over loss) and partaking in a truly global event may be at the heart of one of the strongest Chinese cultural values. Some avid game-watchers don’t consider themselves “fans” on a regular basis, but are excited for the opportunity to witness, perhaps some for the first time, a game that people around the world are also watching at the exact same time. The IB Times posits that the large number of expats and foreign diplomats living in China have brought their love of the game with them, thus spreading the phenomenon to their Chinese counterparts.
Are you watching the tournament from China? Why do you think Chinese are so crazy for the World Cup? How do you think culture plays into the China’s love of the World Cup?