Saturday, 27 January 2007

Is Culture a Dangerous Concept?

Culture has become a very popular word. When cooperation is bad, we assume cultural differences. When we feel threatened by the power of others, we emphasise our cultural identity. When business negotiations in China fail, it is their culture that made us lose the deal and problems in mergers between companies are the consequence of a failing cultural integration process. Culture explains everything.

The problem of this popular use of the term 'culture' is its highly defensive nature. By blaming the culture, we do not have to take the responsibilty for the conflicts we engage in, the mistakes we make in negotiations and our inability to merge two companies into a new organisation. Culture is to blame.

But what is culture? Is it some solid thing that obstructs our path? Can it be seen? Can it be destroyed or changed? There are no simple answers to such questions, but it is evident that culture - in the form of concepts, rules, recipes, ideas - does shape what people (are able to) do, whereas what people do with these elements in practical situations is not determined by them. People do have the freedom to interpret and change the rules of the game, but they cannot play without rules that are shared to a considerable extent. Culture is an indispensable resource to shape social interactions, which then also becomes a constraint or even a barrier to innovation. To paraphrase the social psychologist Karl Weick: people are like spiders who get stuck in webs of their own making.

So, culture is not just something in our heads that can be changed by thinking differently. It is a social phenomenon: in order to participate in a society you must use rules, concepts, language and so on in a way that others will understand. Culturally competent people know how to do this. This does not mean, however, they are culturally programmed, like a computer that passively uses the instructions of its software. The shared software of the human mind is constantly being rewritten by those who use it.

This brings us back to the 'reified', defensive idea of culture that is now so popular. This denies these processes of interpretation and redefinition in which people change the culture while they are using it to shape their interactions. It denies the degrees of freedom that people have in filling and expanding their cultural space. This can lead to destructive, even dangerous interpretations, including the inevitability of conflict and the impossibility of dialogue. Stereotypical interactions deny the role that people play in creating the cultural conflicts of which they are part and a view of 'culture as a solid thing' does not help to restore the responsibility of the actors for the situation in which they find themselves.

The failure of the 'multi-cultural society' of countries like the Netherlands seems to be related to this theme. The idea of a society consisting of neatly distinguishable 'cultures' with separate ethnic roots creates an illusion of solidity and permanence and reduces cross-cultural communication to communicating across solid walls which themselves are not debatable. While such a strategy of cultural apartheid could be a useful stage in development, it can lead to a dangerous reification of cultural identities. The same would apply to developing managers in global business: if each culture is seen as solid, unchangeable and distinct, cultural development is excluded.

So, we may conclude that culture can indeed be a dangerous concept, if it is coupled to a reifying view of social reality. Viewed differently, however, culture is a creative concept that can help people to find new productive human relationships and build new organisational forms. People from different cultural backgrounds have access to different bodies of 'cultural knowledge', including different sources of 'wisdom'. These resources can be used to create innovative rules of the game in cooperation in business and society. The focus of this cross-cultural cooperation should not be on cultural differences, but on solving problems of cooperation. Maybe the best way to transcend cultural differences is to stop talking about culture.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Chinezen kijken (Chinese-watching)

Bespreking van

Bettine Vriesekoop, Bij de Chinees: Gewoonten en Gebruiken in China, Amsterdam: Thomas Rap, 2006.

Toen Bettine Vriesekoop in 1981 voor het eerst in China kwam om daar van de Chinezen nog beter te leren tafeltennissen dan zij al deed, viel ze van de ene verbazing in de andere. Vaak voelde zij zich er niet op haar gemak en volledig op zichzelf teruggeworpen. Zij had ontdekt dat China een moeilijk land was voor een Hollander, Europeaan, Westerling. Het land bleef haar echter fascineren. Zij ging Chinees studeren, ging er later als correspondent van NRC-Handelsblad zelfs wonen.

In 'Bij de Chinees' laat ze de lezer delen in het inzicht dat zij inmiddels in het gedrag van de Chinezen heeft ontwikkeld. Daarbij combineert ze haar eigen ervaringen van meer dan twintig jaar geleden met haar recente ervaringen, interviews met Nederlandse zakenlieden en inzichten uit de Chinese filosofie. Deze combinatie, luchtig gestructureerd rondom acht thema's - acht omdat dit in China een geluksgetal is - van de Chinese cultuur en acht hoofdstukken van 'De Kunst van het Oorlogvoeren' van Sunzi, biedt de Nederlandse lezer een speelse introductie in de de Chinese cultuur en maatschappij. Daarbij komt heel veel aan de orde van waar iedere Nederlander vroeg of laat tegenaan loopt: de indirecte stijl van communiceren, het belang van ritueel en gezicht, de schijnbare tegenstrijdigheden in het handelen van de mensen en de eigenaardigheden van de taal.

In die zin is het boekje zeker geslaagd: het geeft de lezer alvast de ervaring die hij zelf ook zal krijgen als hij eenmaal met 'de Chinezen' te maken krijgt: de ergernis, de verwarring, de verwondering en heel soms ook de bewondering voor de vreemde cultuur. Daar ligt dan ook meteen de beperking. Het blijft in de meeste passages van het boek de typisch Hollandse waarneming van het vreemde, het exotische dat 'de Chinees' biedt. De Chinees is daarbij de afwijking van de norm en de (Hollandse) norm blijft een vanzelfsprekendheid. Het leuke van interculturele ontmoetingen is echter dat die ook kunnen aanzetten tot verwondering over de eigen cultuur: wat zijn wij Hollanders toch vreemde mensen! Een stap verder is dat je de stereotypen van 'de Hollander' of 'de Chinees' loslaat en toch weer mensen ziet, in plaats van vertegenwoordigers van een cultuur. Dat punt bereikt Bettine in haar boekje helaas bijna nergens. De pagina's staan vol met uitspraken over 'de Chinezen', en dan overwegend met de bijklank van 'die vreemde Chinezen'. De schaarse passages waar Bettine Vriesekoop over die grens heengaat en over concrete Chinezen schrijft met wie zij een relatie heeft opgebouwd, zijn daardoor meteen een stuk interessanter, zoals waar ze over haar trainster Liu schrijft. Dan gaat het boek over mensen in China, niet over 'de Chinees'.

De interviews met de Nederlandse zakenlieden in China zijn leuk om te lezen, zij het tamelijk oppervlakkig. Waar de auteur de wereld beschrijft die zij zelf bij uitstek kent, de sport, worden beschrijvingen levendiger en interessanter. Vooral de combinatie tussen de behendigheid in het spel, de beheersing van de eigen emoties en de manipulatie van de tegenstander worden overtuigend beschreven. Aan de lezer het oordeel of de toepassing van deze inzichten op andere gebieden, zoals zakelijke onderhandelingen, hout snijdt.



Monday, 1 January 2007

Chinese Culture
















Is China a Collectivist Country?

One of the standard images of the difference between 'Western' culture and 'Chinese' culture is in terms of the dimension collectivism-individualism. The Netherlands would be highly individualistic in these terms and China would be collectivistic. On the basis of this difference it has often been predicted that Chinese will be better team players and cooperate in groups more easily than the Dutch, the Swedes, the Americans. From my own observation, this is not true. (See also http://www.cbiz.cn/NEWS/showarticle.asp?id=2227)
What we often see in Chinese groups - in school, in business - is a very high level of competition between individuals. We also see a a lot of opportunism and low trust. It seems as if each individual person wants to become number one, a process that blocks open communication and cooperation. This very individualistic behaviour seems to be linked to the special type of collectivism in China, sometimes labeled 'vertical collectivism'. In school, in business, in sports, each individual represents his or her own family or group of friends. Loyalty is not primarily to the school, the business or the sports club, but to the own social circle. This pattern is very old: in Imperial China, the impersonal selection system for government jobs created a high degree of competition between families and individuals for the small amount of open positions. In principle, the system was always achievement-based: anyone, poor or rich, could become a civil servant. In practice only those with time to invest in study would have a real chance.

So, is China collectivist? Yes, in a special sense it is, but it combines loyalty to the ingroup with fierce competition and low trust vis-a-vis outsiders, resulting in something Westerners would rather see as individualist, opportunistic behaviour.

So, as Tony Fang from Stockholm university suggests, there are really two contrasting sides of Chinese culture, which are expressed in different contexts, and whose mutual relationship shows a yin-yang logic. On the one hand, there is the Confucian ethic, focusing on harmonious relationships inside the family, inside social groups. On the other hand there are ideas and principles which emphasise personal skill, energy, tactics to deal with opponents, like the Daoist (Taoist) tradition in martial arts, character writing and traditional health practices. Much of the Western literature about China seems to focus on the harmonious, collectivist and 'light' (yang), side of the culture. However, to understand the culture, we must pay attention to the 'dark' (yin) and hidden side of the culture, in personal manoeuvring, tactics and tricks.

A 'monocular' view of China as a collectivist country does not do justice to its 'binocular' culture, where everything can be seen from two points of view.