Backpacks, Moral Reasoning and Culture
You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences. What right does your friend have to expect you to protect him? And what do you think you would do in view of the obligations of a sworn witness and obligation to your friend?
This dilemma was posed to people in 50+ countries around the world by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner* and the results have become part of the canon of intercultural understanding.
My mind jumped to this study this week when I read about the three college friends of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, arrested for allegedly trying to destroy evidence of Tsarnaev’s involvement in the blasts. Let me be clear – I am no apologist for the crime. It happened just two miles from my home and I’m as shaken and dismayed as anyone; the drone of helicopters overhead has only recently stopped its continual reminder of the tragedy.
But can we use our intercultural knowledge to understand these college boys’ actions? Here’s what Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner found: Across the globe, people responded to the driver/pedestrian dilemma very differently. In countries they labeled “universalist” (because they make decisions based on universal standards), people said that the friend had no right to expect protection and/or that the friend might have some right to expect it but even so, they wouldn’t lie under oath to protect him. In countries they labeled “particularist” (because they make decisions based on obligations to particular people they know), people were more likely to say they would testify to the lower figure to protect their friend.
The US, Canada, Australia and virtually all of northern Europe all scored strongly in the universalist direction – 87% or more of the participants from these countries (93% in the US) said they would not lie in court to help their friend. But in other parts of the world, more than 50% of the participants said they would testify to the lower figure. Why? Out of their obligation to a close friend and/or to protect the friend from what they feared would be unfair treatment by the police.
And there’s more: For universalists, the worse the pedestrian injury, the more likely they were to say they would tell the truth in court. But for particularists, the worse the injury, the more likely they were to protect their friend. Everyone’s moral reasoning was deeply shaped by their notion of competing loyalties to relationships vs. abstract principles.
I witnessed this myself one time during a training, when a co-trainer from a particularist culture (who, by the way, was the participants’ minister) virtually led his trainees (from his own culture) to conclude that protecting the close friend by lying in court was the right thing to do. Universalists say, “I wouldn’t trust a particularist – he’ll always help his friend first.” Particularists say, “I wouldn’t trust a universalist – he wouldn’t even help his friend.”
It’s this turn-the-world-upside-down perspective-taking that is the crux of the intercultural training we do.
Back to Boston: Two kids from Kazakhstan and one from the US figure out that their close friend was involved in the bombings and they set out to help him by throwing away incriminating evidence. Under police questioning, the Kazakhs tell the truth (perhaps because they mis-understand how egregious their conduct will be considered in universalist America) but the American compounds his crime by lying to the police about this involvement (perhaps understanding quite accurately how he will be judged).
In our discussion of how to explain the behavior these young men, I hope we can use our cultural understanding as a lens for focusing on some of the roots of this otherwise inexplicable act.
* Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998) Riding the Waves of Culture. McGraw-Hill.
Pictures and Stories
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool quantitative researcher, by training and temperament. I love tables of numbers brightened up with the occasional chart or regression analysis. Nothing’s more fun to me than curling up by the fire with a glass of wine and the latest census figures.
But I understand that’s a bit, well, odd, and so I have a growing collection of tools to convey intercultural concepts in formats and media that are more engaging to normal people. Here are a few tools I use to supplement my training discussions about the concept of individualism and collectivism:
An anecdote described by a Japanese mother living in the US, about the way she has learned to respond to compliments in the US vs. in Japan. It’s in these kinds of family moments that children learn their values.*
Here we can actually see that family training in action: a 30-second capture of a big brother taking care of his little sister’s need. This could happen in any culture, of course, but I don’t think it’s a surprise that these two siblings appear to be from [collectivist] Asia, where one’s loyalty and obligation to family are taught at an early age.
Five minutes from the film Fountainhead, a quintessential depiction of raw individualism – sure to get a discussion going.
One of a set of 100 photos chosen to depict various aspects of intercultural transition. There are a few images that especially draw out thoughts about individualism.
If you want to stick a little closer to the academic description of the concept, here’s a nice visual depiction of individualism and collectivism, from a series of 3-minute youtube clips on intercultural concepts. I think the dots make a strong visual impact and the narration is a succinct way to convey the concept.
How about a song? Here’s Fred Astaire singing and dancing to “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free”). OK, this one’s a bit of a stretch. Use it in your training after lunch when people are snoozy…
I include these vivid illustrations in my cross-cultural training workshops and make them available as part of my training of trainers course, Crossing Cultures with Competence, too. I’m always eager for more tools – if you send me your favorites, I’ll post them on line for all to share.
No one is surprised when it’s hard to move to a new city that is very different in language, history, geography, culture or economics. Chennai to Chicago? Nairobi to Nanking? Riyadh to Rio? People making those moves are braced for the challenges, and prepare with language and cross-cultural training, books and local support. When they stand out, or interpret the world differently, or are treated as strangers, at least they know why. While it’s hard on one level, their differentness explains their separateness in a way that makes sense to them.
But what happens when people move to a place that is quite similar – at least on the surface? Salzburg to Stuttgart? Taipei to Shanghai? Tampa to Toronto? George Bernard Shaw called the US and England “two countries separated by a common language” and how right he was. Challenges of a different sort take these transferees by surprise.
I’m collaborating with Dwellworks on a new research project on this interesting topic – for now, we are focusing on the experiences of people who move between Canada and the US (either direction). We’ve already gotten some interesting results, which I’ll share with you when the study is over.
For now, I’m asking for your help – could you please forward this email or these links to anyone who has made a move (for 6 months or longer) from the US to Canada or Canada to the US? The anonymous survey takes 10-15 minutes to complete.
For Canadians who have moved to the US
For US Americans who have moved to Canada
Participants tell us they have found answering the questions thought-provoking and interesting, reward in itself. Still, as a way of saying thanks, we’re offering the chance to win a $50 amazon gift card to anyone who completes the survey – we’ll give away one gift card for every 100 surveys completed. Thanks – watch this space for our findings.
You're Wearing That??
I’m happy to announce that our latest research study, “What to Wear Where: Mishaps in the Presentation of Identity Across Cultures,” is now available. In it, we explore an important mode of non-verbal communication: our physical appearance and the messages we send about our identity, both knowingly and unknowingly, when we get up in the morning, fix our hair, slip on our shoes, pick out our jacket and walk out the door.
People transmit signals about who they are in countless ways – including fashion and physical appearance. Bright colors vs. black, neatly trimmed hair vs. scruffy-chic, modest vs. revealing clothing – all of these choices send a message about the kind of person we are, at least within our own culture. But what happens when we move to a new land?
Drawing on the participation of 152 men and women who spanned a range of nationalities and ages, all of whom had lived in a country other than their own, this study first confirmed the fundamental hypothesis that people make assumptions about others based on their physical appearance. When asked about their first impressions of six photographed models, there was a striking consistency among the participants in their assumptions about the models’ personality, interests and skills.
When crossing cultures, however, physical appearance signals can get misinterpreted. The message received may differ from the message that was intended. Losing this non-verbal mode of communicating identity can be unsettling, especially when it takes one by surprise. “What to Wear Where” seeks to quantify this issue and highlight its importance both for those living an expatriate life and those seeking to support them.
When asked what they were trying to convey through their appearance, the participants from 32 countries around the world most often reported the desire to project an air of elegance, competence, and beauty, but recounted many stories about how their appearance had been mis-interpreted when in a new country. The suit that felt chic to the wearer was met with disdain by co-workers in a new country who saw it as inappropriate for the workplace. The casual shorts and T-shirt, comfort clothing to some, were met with jeers by neighbors in a different culture.
Cultural values clearly play an important role here. Respondents judged the appropriateness of others’ outfits more leniently if they were from cultures that value individual freedom and emphasize egalitarian relationships with peers and superiors. For participants from collectivist, communitarian cultures, clothing was an inherent aspect of identity, to be protected and defended, whereas, for those from individualistic cultures, clothing was less connected to their core identity.
Read our Executive Summary of this report now, or download the full 25-page research report, including a description of research methods, a detailed discussion of findings, and summary of participant responses.
By the way, this issue is one I cover in my Crossing Cultures with Competence training of trainers workshop, where we go beneath the surface and ask why it can be so challenging to move to a new country and how we can help others do so more successfully. Next offerings: January 24-25 in Boston, February 5-6 in London, April 8-9 in New York.