Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Typical Ethnocentrism

Last week in W. Africa I was visiting with some cross-cultural workers, a French guy and his wife, who is Korean.  I was on my way to the airport and just wanted to stop by and say farewell before my journey.  The French guy asked me to sit and have coffee.  I told him I couldn’t but needed to get on with my journey.  He kind of laughed and said, “Typical American.  Always in hurry.”

For some reason that comment stung a bit.  He is a wonderful guy and I know he said it in jest, but as I drove away I thought to myself, “What does he mean when he said I was a ‘typical American’?”  My mind wandered a bit, contemplating the meaning behind the word “typical.”

Stereotyping is a common thing; we all do it.  Using the word “typical” can be a positive thing like saying, “They are typically generous,” or “typically efficient.”  I thought of that when I landed in the states and went through immigration.  Everything was clean and orderly, “typically American,” I said to myself.  However, many times the word “typical” can be used in a pejorative sense.  They are “typically lazy” or they are “typically rude.”  I am as guilty as anyone when stereotyping people…people who live in the eastern part of the U.S. or “she acts like a typical liberal woman.” 

While characteristics do seem to have a thread in the behavior of people, that’s not to say that everyone can be lumped into the same pot.  Not everything in America is typically efficient.  Not every politician (in any country) is typically corrupt.  To stereotype people is often another form of ethnocentrism; that my culture is a bit superior to any other culture.  So, when you use the word typical, use it in the most positive way less we harbor the spirit of ethnocentrism.  


Thursday, May 02, 2013

Greetings: Learn The Rules, Bill

Did you know that one of the first things they teach new recruits in the Army is how to salute properly?   The first day I was in uniform, before they taught me how to march or shoot they taught me the proper way to address an officer.   What is it about leaders in business, politics and even celebrities that they don’t even know how to greet people?

The latest high profile offense was Bill Gates meeting the President Park of South Korea.  Slouched, with one hand in his pocket, the computer genius didn’t know how to show common courtesy or respect to the leader of his host country.  I guess if you’re one of the richest people in the world you feel like that humility is not what you display publicly but how much you give to your own charities. 

President Obama could use a few lesson on greetings as well.  Bowing is a sign of respect in Asian cultures, but bowing so low that you might skin your forehead is a bit much and inappropriate.

Teaching a business class in Russia several years back, I was illustrating the proper way to greet in Korea, right hand extended, left hand lightly touching your right arm.  In almost unison the class gasped, some yelling “no, no.”  Surprised I asked what was wrong at which time they told me I just made an obscene gesture.  Even a teacher in cross-cultural communication makes mistakes.

My definition of culture is, “The rules by which the game of life is played.”  Learn the rules and you can play the game…on their terms.  If a poor guy like me can make time to learn the rules on how to greet people, the rich and famous surely can hire someone to help them learn the rules before they stand on the world stage.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Crisis Taxi Driver

Our taxi driver in Hong Kong knows how to multi-task.  With 7 or 8 cell phones (probably left behind in his cab by his clients) our 30 minute commute was non-stop talking to callers.  There is no way a taxi driver could do this in Delhi.  In Hong Kong they have driving lanes.  Of course there are lanes in Delhi, but two lanes are usually occupied with four or five cars or motorcycles.

Another positive thing about traveling in Asia was the airports.  When we boarded our flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong there actually was a system where people boarded when they were suppose to (unlike Amsterdam or Nairobi).  We had a quick turn around in Seoul to catch the flight to Detroit.  The  airline staff came and moved me and three other guys to the front of the plane 10 minutes before we landed and then guided us through security, got us on the transfer train and walked us to the gate.  That's customer service!

Non- Crisis people solve a problem only when it becomes a problem.  Crisis people solve a problem before it becomes a problem.  What a wonderful experience to be a part of a crisis oriented culture for a while.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Importance of Knowing Culture in Business

“I think I saw you at the Delhi airport,” I said to the woman sitting next to me on the flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. After confirming that she, indeed, was making the air-o-than of nine hours from DEL to AMS; nine hours from AMS to MSP, she told me that it was her first trip to the sub-continent. When she learned I taught cultural anthropology and had visited India often, she had a lot of questions.

Working for a large multi-national corporation, this trip took her to Chennai to visit engineers. She was in the country less than a week, though she said she found the India interesting and her experience positive, there were some cultural issues that had her confused.

“There was one engineer in the company in Chennai that was clearly smart and had great potential for advancement. We pressed the manager of the company to allow this junior employee to get additional training to enhance his skills, but the manager never granted permission for such training.


“We were told , by another employee, that it would not look if a junior employee had more advanced training than the manager.”

There is nothing more important in India than status and role. Status is often due to caste ranking. Ascribed status is seldom coupled with achievement, and to have an employee of lower status to rise in the ranks though achievement is a cultural impossibility.

“Another thing we could not figure out,’ she continued was their ‘head wagging.’ My colleague from the U.S. was really upset with this behavior and complained that he thought the Indians were ‘blowing me off,’ with their head wagging.”

I smiled and told her that’s the way south Indians show agreement. They weren’t disagreeing with the American, they were actually showing they were understanding and agreeing with what he had to say.

She laughed when I explained the meaning of the Indian head bobble and said, “I can’t wait to tell my colleague as he was really upset with the whole experience.”

“Doesn’t your company not offer any cross-cultural training for your employee’s?”

“Some,” she answered, “but not much.”

I did a bit of a head wobble myself as I got off the plane, but not in agreement, with my travel companion, but in dismay. With all the money multi-nationals spend for global business, it looks like they would spend a little time and money teaching their employees how to communicate and understand people of other cultures. Cultural anthropology is not important for people going to work with tribals in the jungles of Africa but for multi-nationals companies seeking ways to enhance their business in a global working environment.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ethnocentrism and World View

By far the most popular post on this blog is one written five years ago on "Ethnocentrism and Business." It's natural for all of us to be proud of our nationality and ethnicity. The map below is a light hearted, but interesting, way many Americans see the world. See if you agree.

I shared the map above with my students in India. They didn't get it. Then I flashed the map below on the screen and they howled. We all see the world and the world of other people a bit differently. Sometimes it's ethoncentrism, sometimes it's just funny.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Timing a Decision

About this time last year my 90-year old father was becoming a physical challenge for my 86-year old mother. They lived in an apartment and with each passing day dad’s ability to walk, feed and bathe himself was declining. Some members of the family wanted to immediately move dad into a nursing home, but since I was given the charge to determine their medical decisions I was reluctant to move him into a full care facility. Why? My mother was not ready to be separated from dad and, being a very proud man, dad would have resented such a move.

Visibly angry I was taken to task by one member of the family who told me in no uncertain terms that, “No decision IS a decision.” I’ve thought a lot about the statement over the past year. Is no decision a decision? I have come to the conclusion that the decision was not the issue, but the timing of the decision. The decision was a predetermined conclusion. There indeed would be a time when mom could no longer take care of dad and he would need full time care. But the issue was when, not what and the conflict rose because of timing, not substance. One person wanted immediate action, the other person, me, wanted to wait.

The hallmark of American business people is their quick decisions. I’ve heard most of my life that the characteristic of a leader is one who makes quick and decisive decisions. It is actually a flaw in character, perceived by some, that if someone does not make a decision that somehow they are weak or cowardice. No decision IS a decision, they are told. But is that true?

“If you love me you will marry me now,” a boy says to the girl. She does indeed love him and, yes would like to marry him, but now? If she says let's wait awhile is she making a decision on marriage or timing?

In many of the countries I have worked decisions are often a slow process for two reasons. One is consensus, the bringing on board as many people as possible before a decision is made. Consensus drives American leaders crazy. “Just do it, for heavens sake,” they scream. “You don’t have to take a poll, just make a decision.” What these “deciders” don’t realize is that making independent decisions in their context is rude, arrogant and self-serving.

The other reason for going slow in making a decision in other cultures is because of family considerations. Whether it is making the decision in marriage, where to go to school or a business deal the family structure is often so tight that individual decision making is unheard of. As one Korean leader stated recently, “Americans focus on projects rather than people.” That’s being kind. In many situations American leaders believe that the project is more important than people, regardless of family concerns.

Though often a laborious process, if one is working in an egalitarian or hierarchal social environment it’s best that the foreign leader learn the rules of decision making before going in and making a demand for a ruling. To be a decider may make you feel efficient, but in the process you may well destroy your legitimacy.

Dad fell ill a few weeks after the family confrontation, which required he be hospitalized. It was at that time I made the decision for dad to be transferred into a nursing facility. The timing was perfect as mom was able to recognize her inabilities to take care of dad and, for dad, his transfer from the VA hospital to the Veterans home was almost seamless and he was able to accept the decision. The decision was never the issue and we all knew it would be a tough decision. Waiting for the proper time may not have been “efficient” for some, but it was the right decision at the right time.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Market, Fashion, Consumption and Piety

In a recent article in the American Ethnologist (2010:617-637), Materializing piety: Gendered anxieties about faithful consumption in contemporary urban Indonesia, author Carla Jones writes about piety among Muslim women and the wearing of the jibab (scarf and floor length dress). Jones describes the tension within a devout Muslim society and modernization, fashion and piety.

Since the events of 9/11/2001 Muslims throughout the world have been more aware of the symbols of their religion, not only within their own culture but also to the non-Muslim world. There was a time when young women considered wearing the jibab as something that was a necessary devotion to piety, sometimes forced upon them, most of the time merely an expectation by the norms of religious practice. Today the jibab and other symbols of Islamic religion is giving way to the market as entrepreneurs capitalize on the yield toward fashion and consumption while at the same time promoting fashion symbols as a means for piety.

“The Islamic lifestyle and the Islamic market segment encompass an almost limitless variety of goods and services. From CD’s and MP3 recordings of sermons, halal fast food and the Islamic finance to hajj packages, hajj gold, religious ringtones, themed weddings, gated Islamic housing communities, and even fesyen Islami (Islamic fashion, including socks, gloves and makeup), what one might generally gloss as religiously identified commercial offerings cover the spectrum from high to low consumer culture” (617).

One advertising company estimates that the halal (permissible/lawful) consumer market is at 1.8 billion people in 57 countries and worth $2.1 trillion in annual sales, $560 million of which is spent on cosmetics.

Piety consumption is certainly not only an Islamic market phenomenon. Hindus, Buddhist and most certainly Christians integrate commerce and faith as well. Go to the average Bible book store and you will see nearly as many trinkets (pictures, plagues, CD’s, DVD’s, wrist bands and bumper stickers) as there are books. Christians are more verbal with their faith than outward attire, but where there is faith there will be someone who can manipulate devotion into profit.

Manufacturing is the engine for economic growth, but so, too, are goods and services. If there were no religion, the world would still build and produce products. But, thanks to faith, there is, as Marx suggested, a link to religion, materialism, capitalism and consumption. The jibab, the plastic idol of Ganesh, yoga books and classes, the gold crucifix or the porcelain image of Mary; the edifices of the giant Mosques, Golden Temples and Cathedrals, all point to a capitalist transubstantiation to the Divine. Perhaps Jesus had no place to lay His head; Buddha may have renounced all human impulses and the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, may have rejected all creature comforts, including clothing. Nevertheless, the faithful still pay big bucks, yen, rupees and pesos to be fashionably pious.