Do national cultures matter?

National Culture and Stereotypes

I once facilitated a cross-cultural seminar to a group of partners in a global consulting firm that was headquartered in the USA where I observed national culture stereotyping first hand.  The American partners in the session would start their presentations with a joke and then get down to business in a confident, self-assured manner (I didn’t expect anything different).  One of the partners was Japanese (I’ll call him Wantanabe-san), and he had never met other members of the group before, although he had worked with some of them virtually.

Wantanabe-san started his presentation with an apology for not being prepared (I didn’t expect anything different).  I could hear the confused mutterings among the American partners.  Looking through an American cultural lens, a presentation that started with an apology communicated a terrible lack of self-confidence, and not being prepared, well . . . how did he get to become a partner in this firm?

The Americans knew Wantanabe-san to be an expert in his field, but they were stunned by his seeming ‘unprofessionalism’.  Their mistake was to look at Wantanabe-san simply as an individual without understanding his ‘Japaneseness’ – his Japanese cultural context.  Generally, in Japan, the group tends to be valued over the individual – no individual should place him or herself above the group and so modesty is highly valued. Saying that he was not prepared would allow him to save some ‘face’ (self-respect) if the presentation was not well received.

There are, of course, variations to cultural generalizations in Japan, as there are in any culture.  That doesn’t make high level generalizations about national culture ‘false’ or render them useless for practical guidance.  In my own international career, I would have been utterly baffled and ineffective if I hadn’t had any insights into what I might expect in different countries.  Would it have made any sense for me to have approached every individual in Japan as if they were a cultural blank slate?  I know individual identities are very complex being made up of multiple influences like race, class, gender, region, and organization, but national culture also has significance.  I know when I’m in Japan or France or Germany, and I know when I’m encountering a variation from the general culture; those variations are wonderful opportunities to expand and deepen understanding.

Cultural Identity

Who am I?  A very tough question to answer.  I know that I have individual life experiences that make me somewhat unique in the world.  But you cannot know me well without understanding the groups that have had a profound influence on how I see and act in the world, including my English origins.

The American partners in my session could only see Wantanabe-san as a culture-free individual.  They also saw their own individual behaviors as being culture-free, which of course they weren’t.  The American partner’s attitudes and behaviors were profoundly ‘American’, as was the dominant organizational culture.  Through their cultural lens, they saw Wantanabe-san’s approach to making a presentation as ‘unprofessional’ – a label they found hard to let go of even after I explained Wantanabe-san’s Japanese cultural background; biased first impressions can be hard to give up even with increased knowledge.

Cultural stereotypes vs. cultural tendencies

All of us in the cross-cultural field want to avoid reinforcing national stereotypes; treated in a crude fashion they can have devastating consequences.  We cannot, however, refuse to deny the reality of national culture and tendencies.  It impoverishes our understanding of others, as well as defy our experiences in the multicultural world.  If we deny national cultural tendencies out of a fear of being politically incorrect, we need to examine our fears.  Are we disrespecting others by not being willing to explore all the factors that make us who we are? 

One final word.  As a consultant trying to help people work and do business across cultural borders, my goal is to provide practical guidance to working with differences.  I try to be as sophisticated as I can in doing that, by exploring cultural tendencies rather than reinforcing stereotypes. A fuller understanding of ourselves and others becomes increasingly important as so many of our human interactions are mediated by impersonal technologies; it is so much easier now to become de-contextualized, shells of people.

While I can learn a great deal from the academic studies of culture, my goal is somewhat different.  I am not searching for ‘objective truth’ per se, but a ‘practical truth’ that offers guidance to people working together across international borders.  In that endeavor, national culture does matter, and will for some time to come.

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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