Monday, November 30, 2015

National Culture: Constraint or Catalyst?

When you speak in public in different countries, you soon learn of a trick used by translators the world over. At the humorous parts of your talk, the translator will say: "The professor is telling a joke. He is still telling the joke. He is still telling the joke. Now the joke is done!" at which point, on cue, everyone laughs hysterically. The problem is not that a joke cannot be translated; it is that humor is often culture specific, and so even a well-translated joke is likely to cause more confusion than enjoyment. Better to just play along with the professor and keep things comfortable.

The translator trick illustrates the power of culture. We'd like to share subtleties of language, but the lens of culture changes meanings, preventing our message from getting through. To see culture's lens in action, look at this picture of some fish:


Using this picture in a series of experiments, social psychologist Michael Morris and his colleagues have found some interesting patterns. When asked about this picture, American subjects typically see the standout fish as a "leader." By contrast, Chinese subjects typically refer to the standout fish as an "outcast." Why? Well, American culture is more individualistic, while Chinese culture is more collectivistic. These cultural differences shape the lenses through which subjects see this picture, and so give very different meanings to the same image.

You're thinking "Barnett is telling me what every college sophomore knows: different cultures are different." Well, yes, that is part of the story. Cultures do differ and those differences matter. But those who stop at this (obvious) fact miss the true power of culture. They see cultural differences as an unchangeable given as in "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." The Internet tells me that this proverbial saying dates back to various saints. Be that as it may, it is a view that treats culture as an unchangeable constraint.

But culture is not unchangeable. In fact, a quick glance at the data shows just the opposite: The cultures of the world are changing dramatically. Take a look at this cultural map showing World Values Survey data from 1981-2015, illustrating shifts on both the "traditional vs. secular/rational" dimension and the "survival vs. self-expression" dimension.



Two facts are worth noting in this map. First, cultures are changing dramatically over time. Second, and most importantly, cultures are not just moving in one direction: there is no simple "convergence" going on. Rather, cultural changes are moving back and forth, often cross-cutting one another.

These cross-cutting changes reflect the struggle that is cultural change: The woman starting her own firm in the Middle East; the bureaucrat resisting pressures for corruption in Africa; the gay couple starting a family in the US. Cultural changes are occurring all around us.

With this in mind, how you look at culture matters a lot. Do you think of culture as a constraint? If so, then when in Rome you do as the Romans do - but that leaves the world unchanged. Instead, do you think of culture as emerging from our own attempts to change the world? In that case, national culture is a catalyst, turning the world in directions that our parents could not have imagined.


An interesting body of work on national culture is by Professor Michael Morris.