Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Culture is just hot air...

....well, a gas actually

Culture is like a gas, a reactive gas such as O2.
Gases always expand to fit the container they are in, and if oxygen comes into contact with another reactive substance, it will react and become something else.
It is therefore unstable, dynamic, constantly changing and unpredictable.

Culture is in the same way dynamic, constantly changing. Whenever you interact with someone, you create a culture – a way of defining the commonly understood rules of behaviour, etiquette, power distribution and face strategies that will govern that interaction.

Let’s break that down a bit.

When you talk to someone it is very very rare (rare enough to put to oneside for the moment) that you start by intending to offend them. We have an intuitive need to maintain our own face (our public identity, how we are viewed by those around us) and a desire to maintain the face of those we are communicating with. Each of us has slightly different expectations of how we perceive that our face should be maintained, and more importantly our expectations differ greatly depending on the context we are in.

To take a simplistic example, a Captain in the army expects subordinates to stand to attention, salute, and use “sir” (or “ma’am”) when speaking. When the same Captain comes home, she will certainly not expect the same attitude and deference from her children. In most familiar circumstances we instinctively know how to behave at a job interview, in a pub with our friends, in the office, in a client meeting etc etc. In each circumstance I portray a different identity, which is nonetheless still “me”.

The difficulty comes when we are in an unfamiliar environment, or meeting people whom we do not know, and cannot immediately guess their relative power status in relation to ourselves. In our familiar environments, we know how to be polite, to be deferential, to be humourous, to demonstrate authority. When a woman introduces her new partner to her circle of close friends, he is initially unsure of himself: firstly the woman is torn between two identities – that of best friend to her girlfriends, and that of partner. But more importantly the man is as yet unaware of the rules governing the group of friends – do they kiss on greeting each other for example – if the assumption is yes, and it is wrong, embarrassment and confusion will ensue. The group of close friends have a shared resource pool that they will index partially without repeating all the details. For the newcomer, a statement such as, “What an awful meal we had last week” will mean nothing. The “we” will be understood by the in-group, it will be clear what meal they are talking about and the group will continue with the details “taken as read” – for the outsider to the group, they need further explanation, even to the extent of whether it is appropriate to challenge the speaker.

In this kind of relaxed informal context mistakes are relatively easy to mend and rarely have longer lasting consequences. However if we take the same issues into the context of major international business meetings we suddenly have serious consequences riding on the outcome of being able to decide almost instantaneously which strategies are appropriate to what context.

One of the first negotiations to take place concerns power – who takes the lead in the meeting. If we follow a common assumption that whoever sends round the agenda or calls the meeting is the lead, can we be sure that that is always the case? Well, actually, no, we can’t.

A supplier may well request a meeting with an important client to discuss invoicing terms. This immediately upsets the established “culture” of interactions between the representatives of the two companies. One might normally expect the supplier to be deferential to such a big client, and to hand over the lead in a meeting to their representative. But in this instance they need to draw attention to the fact that several large invoices are outstanding, and they want to resolve the issue urgently, so they request the meeting, send round an agenda and nominally chair the meeting. However they don’t want to lose potential future business from this client, so it is clear that the power is renegotiated here, tacitly, and without anyone really noticing, but nevertheless it still happens.

For those who speak Russian, I have another analogy. My Russian teacher, Dr Gotteri (of Sheffield University fame) explained aspect in Russian verbs as like cricket balls and jelly. The perfective aspect – loosely related to the perfect forms of English tenses (have done, will have done, had done etc) - is the cricket ball: it’s stable, firm, no arguing. The imperfective aspect, which again, very loosely conforms to the continuous forms of English verbs (is doing, was doing, will be doing) is jelly – amorphous, unstable, readily mixes with other bits of jelly.

In my analogy this cricket ball is the now outdated view of culture that wants to limit us to defining ourselves by immutable, static groups with exclusive memberships – you can’t have two cricket balls occupying the same space at the same time. However it is becoming clear that we need a model that more resembles jelly – undefined, constantly adapting to its surrounds. The best bit is that it actually makes it easier for us. If we take the cricket ball approach to culture, we need to learn a set of rules and “culture scores” for each national/ethnic group we meet, and hope that the individuals conform to the rules. But the jelly approach means that we merely need to be aware that our assumptions and expectations may (or may not) be different from anyone else’s whatever their background and it is up to us to negotiate the rules of the encounter as we go along – which we do anyway.

Does this mean the end of intercultural training? Not at all, in fact it makes it much more interesting, because we can look at the strategies and ways we negotiate power and face, how we “do” politeness, and we can not only improve communication, but because we know how it is done, we can move to take control and give ourselves the advantage. More importantly, these lessons won’t be restricted to one country, but will have a universal applicability