Setting the Tone

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Friday, January 03, 2014

Talking of Culture: A Personal Note

In my work, I often act as an interpreter, not of the linguistic kind but of culture. Because the two sides of my working equation are my Western colleagues, partners and collaborators, and my Asian clients, students and customers. The fault lines of cultural cross-overs are therefore very real for me. Besides, I often get to play the role of a reluctant India expert, because of my origins, and very regularly the apologist for the country, when various not-so-encouraging stories hit the press.

This could be quite an enjoyable learning experience: With more than fifteen years spent outside India, I am getting used to seeing the country and its quirks from outside. Though I still don't think the way my British or American colleagues would do, I have gotten used to see their point of view. I loved my time in Southeast Asia, and always feel more comfortable dealing with people in that region. So, in a way, this role of go-between is the best I can get, which makes my work, love and play, the trinity of successful life according to Erik Erikson, merge seamlessly. 

However, it is not pleasant, as anyone with similar experience would probably agree. Because, despite our knowledge of different customs, most people can't help but judge when they see something different. Even the kindest often take different as weird, and most people deal with the difference with a range of emotions from amusement to disgust. 

Particularly infuriating for me is the commonplace discussion in the Western Academic circles about the 'Asian student', stereotyped as a polite individual used to rote learning. While I acknowledge the fact that most classrooms in Asia operate in a certain manner which would appear to a Western observer to be learning by rote, I am also aware of the social and cultural realities of this Asian student, being one myself. To me, the equation of this 'learning style' with 'rote learning', primarily because that is the only equivalent format available in the repertoire of an Western observer, is the mistake: That is why judgement seeps in - as is in most other cases of interpretation of culture.

Over time, I have become deeply familiar to various cultural models, including those of Hosftede, Lewis, Trompenaars and of GLOBE studies, and found them useful. I have also met and interacted with academicians who are trying to employ these models in Asian countries to interpret regional differences. I am not a cross-cultural trainer, but my day job demanded that I discuss these models and realities persistently and reflectively in my work and with my colleagues, so that all of us can move toward a better understanding collectively. And, in doing so, I have faced myself, and witnessed others facing what one would call the 'imposter' feeling, wherein by conforming to host culture one feels out of sorts with one's own personality and deeply held beliefs. Andy Molinsky looked into this in his useful and practical 'Global Dexterity', which seeks to enable an individual deal with cultural diversity without having to 'fake' it. 

However, useful as they are, I feel that most cultural models miss the point that socio-cultural upbringings may indeed create different minds, rather than just different value systems. Intuitive as this may be, Hofstede's neat pyramid stacking up Universal Human Nature, Culture and Personality undermines the depth of the cultural conditioning, as alluded to by many other observers, most notably by Richard Nisbett (and in the mystic art of the business gurus such as Clotaire Rapaille).

In the talk about culture, the 'deep' diversity is often missed, which, I shall contend, leads to the various judgemental positions. Because after we accept an universal human nature, the model rather logically extends into ideas of 'desirable behaviours'. Hence, Max Weber's models of civilisations on twin values of rationality and activity (and his convenient formulation that Christianity is rational and active, the Confucianism is rational but inactive, the Islam is irrational but active and the Hinduism is both irrational and inactive - a model which can help justify imperialism but may neither stand the test of historical analysis or scientific reasoning as to why this may be so) is based on the assumption that rationality and activity are desirable values for humans. We have already learnt, most notably from feminist discourses, that the 'desirable values' theories hide more than they explain: Take, for example, Kohlberg's stages of moral development, which, frighteningly, still underpins the Corporate Governance curriculum of many Business Schools, but only consist of traditional male values, such as independence of action, and overlook the feminine value systems, such as nurturing relationships and care for others. Somewhat similarly, the cultural models leads to framing of diversity in terms of universally desirable behaviours, and seek to reject alternative possibilities.

Some of my correspondents indeed contend that success of a certain model, in this case, Western, prove that even if we have different starting points, success will still require adoption of certain behaviour patterns. Translated into plain language, this means because modern business is an Western institution, success in business may necessarily require the adoption of a Western mindset. Anachronistic as this may sound in today's politically correct workplaces, they would usually support this view citing anecdotal evidences, most commonly the lack of punctuality among certain nations (which include, for the record, both Western and non-Western). The fact that different people may have different concepts of time may not be handy as a business principle, where the guiding principle for success is about delivering projects within agreed parameters, most notably a timeframe. This view may be popular and appeal to common sense, but there are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, the most obvious, this displays a deep historical ignorance about 'success' of the Western models: Western businesses came to dominate the world not just because of a superior cultural model (similar mistakes were made with the obsession with Japanese management practices in the 80s), but because of a complex of different reasons. Ignoring these reasons and solely focusing on a culturally superior model is the sure road to hubris and disaster. Second, following on from the fallacy of cultural superiority, no culture may actually be complete in itself: values such as independence may require de-emphasizing other values such as interdependence, and yet, in different social and economic contexts, different values stand to serve the companies and the society better. While the so-called Western values may have served a certain kind of business at a certain economic period, one may need a different set of values when the social and cultural context changes. 

Surely, while this 'superior culture' view is nonsense, this does not mean that one should not try and seek to better one's own cultural practice. In fact, we already know this from the natural world: Diversity and assimilation are keys to progress. Once we are done with the prejudices such as racial and cultural superiority, which were proclaimed to have reflected natural laws from time to time, we may gain sight of one natural law that may apply to the cultural sphere: That it is the most adaptable that survives. I am invariably reminded of a conversation with an English colleague who boasted that his children do not need to learn another language because the world has come to learn English: My immediate feeling was that the power in the world always belonged to the curious, and the success of western imperial powers depended less on the taken-for-granted cultural superiority and more on the enterprise of its merchants and seamen, who sought to go to and understand (and indeed conquer) different lands. [Industrial and Scientific revolutions through the Nineteenth century (which happened partly because of the capital accumulation from various imperial enterprises) bestowed a great technical advantage to certain nations (notably the English) and created this impression of the superiority of the mind, which in turn, led to decline.]

My practice at the fault lines of culture, bringing together Asian students and Western curriculum and academics, make me see the issue of 'rote learning' from a close quarter. In my visits to China and India, I do observe the classrooms with the teacher as the master, mostly lecturing to the students who hardly ever dispute his teachings publicly. With an Western paradigm, one may indeed think that while there is teaching going on, no learning is happening. However, from interacting with the students, I know these students are as capable as constructing an intelligent, personal view of what is being taught. They may not be standing up and doing presentations as often as they would in an western classroom, because for them, the meaning of being in the classroom is to form a different relationship with knowledge and experts than it would be in a Western classroom. They may even do less groupwork, though they would be deeply embedded in their own groups for most of the time outside the classroom. And, they may form a deep and personal relationship with their tutors, one based on respect and gratitude, which is quite different from the collegial relationship one sees in the Western institutions. While the differences are clear, none of this constitutes rote learning. 

The problems often come when we try to judge the student on the scale of a set of externally dictated 'desirable values', such as initiative. It is indeed common in American classrooms to judge a student by class participation, roughly estimating how many times a student has spoken up. This is indeed important in the context of a masculine, individualist society, where showing off one's expertise is needed: However, in the context of a society which value respect, relationships and obedience, speaking up in the class is a less reliable measure of the students' ability to contribute than understanding the teachers' values and motivations through observation and reflection. Besides, in a legalistic and written culture, participation and collaboration have different manifestations: In an Asian classroom, a silent student is not detached, but just merely expressive through other means.

Finally, one other observation, which, whenever I make it, appear deeply anachronistic to my Western interlocutors.  This is an Indian view of things, but have some resonance with other Asian cultures. In India, indebtedness is a fundamental aspect of existence. Indeed, in Hindu texts, life is seen as a gift, and therefore, living itself is construed as a debt to one's ancestors, and to nature. The acts of life are therefore all towards redemption, paying back the debt: The final redemption, freedom, finally happening only in death. I am not implying that one is informed by scriptures in Indian workplaces, but this approach to life is so fundamental that it pervades almost all rituals, relationships and rules of an Indian cultural life (this system is Hindu, but have seeped through in Islamic culture of South and South-East Asia, and somewhat conveyed through Buddhism to farther afield). David Graeber discusses the economic implications of such a view in his 'Debt: The First 5,000 Years' (concluding, somewhat abruptly, that this view is irrational), but this view affects everything, as this 'debt' is not financial, but spiritual in nature. Applied to the context of my practice, learning for Indian students, deep down, is about incurring a new debt, that of knowledge, to their teachers, and an obligation of redemption through performance of that knowledge. This sets a different mechanism of 'power' in the classroom, and a different pedagogical reality,  which needs a different lens than just observing the lack of activities and performance.

To sum up, then, what I do is this: Negotiate the issues of culture in business and in learning, and hence combat stereotypes and try to develop new conceptions of work, learning and relationships. This is possibly one of my deep skills, that I use in my various other performance activities, forging partnerships, designing programmes and communicating with others. This is one field where there is no final answer, but just ongoing experiences to be learnt from. Indeed, this could keep me busy for a lifetime.        

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