Different Languages, Different Worlds
For a German and a Finn, the truth is the truth. In Japan and Britain it is all right if it doesn't rock the boat. In China there is no absolute truth. In Italy it is negotiable.
Comparisons of national cultures often begin by highlighting differences in social behavior. The Japanese do not like shaking hands, bow when greeting each other and do not blow their nose in public. Brazilians form unruly bus lines, prefer brown shoes to black and arrive two hours late at cocktail parties. Greeks stare you in the eye, nod their heads when they mean no and occasionally smash plates against walls in restaurants. The French wipe their plates clean with a piece of bread, throw pastry into their coffee and offer handshakes to strangers in bistros. Brits tip their soup bowls away from them, eat peas with their forks upside down and play golf in the rain.
Appearance and Reality
These various manners and mannerisms cause us great amusement. We smile at foreign eccentricity, congratulating ourselves on our normality. And yet we are aware that these idiosyncrasies are largely superficial. If we stay in France a while, we are sooner or later happy to dunk our croissants and make a mess; we discover the unhurried delight of turning up outrageously late in Brazil; we throw vodka glasses over our shoulders with abandon in St. Petersburg. Such adaptation of our behavior leaves no scars on our psyche. We join strangers in their social ways partly to conform and partly for fun. We can become French or Greek for an evening, we can sit on tatami with Japanese colleagues and eat legs of lamb with one hand among Arabs. But what goes on in our heads remains a private, well-protected constant. We may put on a show for others, but all the while we follow our own silent program.
Concepts and Notions
Part of the superficial public behavior cited here is cultural in origin, and yet we can adopt these manners without prejudice to our own core beliefs. Actions are not difficult to emulate, and even different varieties of speech can be imitated to some extent. Thought is a different matter. We cannot see it; we cannot hear it; it may be revealed to us with reluctance, simulation or cunning. Cross-cultural problems arise not so much on account of our unfamiliarity with a bow, a Gallic shrug or chopsticks. Neither do they crop up because of certain concepts, because many of these concepts are shared by other cultures. We can teach a Spaniard nothing about honor; the Japanese are masters of courtesy. Swedes, Brits and Germans are all convinced of their own honesty; honor, duty, love, justice, gratitude and revenge are basic tenets of the German, Chinese, Arab and Polynesian alike. A Tasmanian knows his or her duty as clearly as a Greenlander does. Given the size of the world, its long history and immeasurable variety, it is remarkable how many common concepts are rooted so firmly in a similar manner in very different societies. What we often overlook is the fact that everyone has different notions of these concepts that appeal to so many cultures. Romantic love is seen differently in France and Finland, and the English notion of revenge bears little similarity to the Sicilian.
We readily accept that cultural diversity is vast and formidable. If we take an extreme example, the barriers against communication or mutual comprehension between an Inuit hunter and a Nigerian herdsman might prove insurmountable. Given their different backgrounds, what could they talk about? They probably would be completely unaware of the structure or politics of each other's society; it is hardly likely that they could imagine the opposite extremity of climate; their religions, taboos, values, aspirations, disappointments and lifestyle would be in stark contrast. Available subjects of conversation (if they had some mode of communication) would be minimal, approaching zero.
The wildly differing notions of time, space, life after death, nature and reality held by isolated societies will have little impact on international business (although they may contribute usefully to our morals or philosophy). The Navahos with their nuclear concept of speech, the Zulus with their 39 colors of green, the aborigines with their dreamtime, the Inuit with their 42 types of snow and the Lapps with their eight seasons provide us with striking insights and unique thought and speech processes that intrigue and fascinate those of us who have time to study them. We can observe, learn about and sometimes understand some of these groups' worldviews, but deceived we are not. We know, more or less, where we stand with these people. They live in their worlds and we live in ours.
Closer to Home
In our world, there are others who are more like us. They have modern civilizations, political parties, industrial complexes and stocks and shares. Their clothes resemble ours. We appear to have similar concepts and values. Yet for some reason, the French and Germans don't always get on. In Belgium half of society dislikes the other. The Chinese and Japanese are wary of each other, to say the least; neighborly Swedes and Norwegians snipe at each other, and the mutual exasperation that British and American cousins experience is only too well documented.
The concepts are shining and clear; our notions of them are different. The German notion is that truth, absolute honest truth, even if somewhat unpalatable, will allow participants to achieve a successful outcome to a business meeting. "Die Wahrheit ist die Wahrheit," say the Germans. Not so, the Chinese would argue — there is no absolute truth. These two conflicting views may both be correct. Many Americans, Norwegians and Finns would agree with the Germans; most Asians and many Italians would agree with the Chinese.
In Germany, Sweden and Finland, where people are generally concerned about what the neighbors think, the drive toward conformity imposes checks and constraints on a person's ability to refashion veracity. The French, Italians and other Latins are not famous for their candor, which might interfere with the smooth social intercourse they are so fond of. In Japan, where no one must face exposure, be confronted or lose face, truth is a dangerous concept. In Asia, Africa and South America, strict adherence to the truth would destroy the harmony of the relationships between individuals, companies and entire segments of society. Only in Australia is a spade called a spade continent wide, and even there truth often occasions dismay and leads to fistfights.
Contracts and Ethics
As the globalization of business brings executives more frequently together, there is a growing realization that if we examine concepts and values, we can take almost nothing for granted. The word contract translates easily from language to language, but like truth, it has many interpretations. To a Swiss, Scandinavian, American or Brit, a contract is a formal document that has been signed and should be adhered to. Signatures give it a sense of finality. But a Japanese businessperson regards a contract as a starting document to be rewritten and modified as circumstances require. A South American sees it as an ideal that is unlikely to be achieved but that is signed to avoid argument.
Members of most cultures see themselves as ethical, but ethics can be turned upside down. The American calls the Japanese unethical if the latter breaks a contract. The Japanese says it is unethical for the American to apply the terms of the contract if things have changed. Italians have very flexible views on what is ethical and what is not, which sometimes causes Northern Europeans to question their honesty. When Italians bend the rules or "get around" some laws or regulations, they consider they are less ideal-bound than, say, the Swiss, and cut actually closer to reality. They do not consider themselves corrupt or immoral, nor do they admit to illegality. There are many gray areas where "shortcuts" are, in Italian eyes, the only intelligent course of action. In a country where excessive bureaucracy can hold up business for months, currying favor with an official is a matter of common sense.
The very term common sense has to be treated carefully, for it is not as common as it seems. British dictionaries define it as "judgment gained from experience rather than study"; the American lexicon describes it as "judgment that is sound but unsophisticated." Academics are uncomfortable with common sense, which tends to pre-empt their research by coming to the same conclusion months earlier. But we must not think that this rough-and-ready wisdom will unite our mix of nationalities. Common sense, although basic and unsophisticated, cannot be neutral. It is derived from experience, but experience is culture-bound. It is common sense in Germany and Sweden to form an orderly bus line. In Naples and Rio it is common sense to get on the bus before anyone else. It would seem common sense for the Japanese to have discarded the Chinese writing system, which does not suit their language and which takes ten years for Japanese children to learn, but they have not done so.
Gossip has negative connotations in the Nordic countries and hardly a good name in the Anglo-Saxon world. Yet gossip proves far more important to us than we would at first admit. It is a vital source of information in business circles in many countries. In Spain, Italy, Brazil and Japan, gossip quickly updates and bypasses facts and statistics, provides political background to commercial decisions and facilitates invaluable debate between people who do not meet officially. The cafés of Madrid and Lisbon overflow with businesspeople, and the whole of Central and South America "networks" merrily until one or two in the morning.
The corridors of power in Brussels, where European business and political legislation are inevitably intertwined, reverberate with gossip. Countries that do not have access to this hot-house exchange of information will be severely disadvantaged.
Another positive aspect of gossip is that it appears to be good for us — that is to say, in line with our natural evolution. Professor Robin Dunbar of University College London points out that humans live in much larger groups than other primates and that language may have evolved as a form of social glue to hold us together. While some animals obviously communicate well in small groups, it is hardly likely that they can gossip about third parties. This ability enables us to form large social or working groups of up to approximately 150 members. This number holds true for ancient "clans," military fighting units (a company) and even modern firms. Once a commercial enterprise swells well beyond that magic number, it has to be organized into divisions or it becomes less manageable. Intense interest in what other people are doing, finding out from our "group" the latest news about third parties, enables us to network on a large scale and calculate our positions and reactions accordingly. So the Latins, Greeks, and Arabs have got it right after all!
Silence can be interpreted in different ways. A silent reaction to a business proposal would seem negative to American, German, French, Southern European and Arab executives. In countries as dissimilar as the United States, Peru and Kuwait, conversation is a two-way process, where one partner takes up when the other one leaves off. The intervening silence is two or three seconds in Britain and Germany, less than that in Greece and Kuwait and hardly noticeable in France, Italy and the U.S. However, East Asians and Finns find nothing wrong with silence as a response. "Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know," says an old Chinese proverb. In these countries silence is not equated with failure to communicate, but is an integral part of social interaction. What is not said is regarded as important, and lulls in conversation are considered restful, friendly and appropriate. Silence means that you listen and learn; talking a lot merely expresses your cleverness, perhaps egoism and arrogance. Silence protects your individualism and privacy; it also shows respect for the individualism of others. In Finland and Japan it is considered impolite to force one's opinions on others — it is more appropriate to nod in agreement, smile quietly, avoid opinionated argument or discord.
Powerful Mental Blocks
As international trade and scientific and political exchange intensify, there is a growing effort on the part of academics, multinational organizations and even nations and governments to improve communication and dialogue. It is becoming increasingly apparent that in pursuit of this goal it is desirable not only to learn foreign languages on a much wider scale but to show a sympathetic understanding of other peoples' customs, societies and culture. Many binational and international bodies have been created to further this aim, and the personnel and training departments of many large companies have invested substantial sums of money in cross-cultural and internationalization programs and briefings for those staff members who will represent them abroad.
The question I would like to raise is whether or not cross-cultural training and a willingness to adapt will achieve anything at the end of the day, in view of the interlocking nature of our own language and thought. I am not necessarily suggesting that cross-cultural training might eventually be seen to be in vain — I believe the contrary to be true — but I would like to play devil's advocate for a little while and consider how powerful mental blocks may hinder our ability to change our attitudes or adopt new approaches. From infancy we are conditioned by various factors and influences — not least by the behavior and guidance of our parents, teachers and society. But they and we are subjected at every turn to that dominating and pervasive "conditioner"— our common language.
Many linguists adhere to anthropologist Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis, which states that the language we speak largely determines our way of thinking, as distinct from merely expressing it. In other words, Germans and Japanese behave in a certain manner because the way they think is governed by the language in which they think. A Spaniard and a Briton see the world in different ways because one is thinking in Spanish and the other in English. People in the British Isles act and live in a certain way because their thoughts are channeled along Anglo-Saxon grooves which are different from neo-Latin, Japanese or Chinese grooves.
The Briton, the German and the Inuit may share a common experience, but it appears to each as a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions that has to be organized by the mind. The mind does this largely by means of language. Thus the three individuals end up seeing three different things. What is fair play to the Briton may be something else to the German, who needs to translate the concept into different words, and it may mean nothing at all in a society where there are no organized games.
English and Zulu
If you think the notion of fair play is rather abstract, let us go to another instance where a very basic concept is seen in completely different ways by two people of diverse origins. My example involves an Englishman and a Zulu. While the cultural chasm is clear, it is the linguistic factor that dominates this instance.
As mentioned earlier, the Zulu language has 39 words for green. I was interested in how the Zulus could build up 39 one-word concepts for green, while English has only one, and discussed this at length with a former Zulu chief who had earned a doctorate in philology at Oxford. He began by explaining why Zulus needed 39 words for green. In the days before automotive transport and national highways, the Zulu people would often make long treks across their savannah grasslands. There were no signposts or maps and lengthy journeys had to be described by those who had traveled the route before. The language adapted itself to the requirements of its speakers. English copes with concepts such as contract deadlines and stock futures, but our tongue is seen as poverty stricken and inadequately descriptive by Africans and Native Americans, whose languages abound in finely wrought, beautifully logical descriptions of nature, causation, repetition, duration and result.
"Give me some examples of different green-words," I said to my Zulu friend.
He picked up a leaf. "What color is this?" he asked.
"Green," I replied.
The sun was shining. He waited until a cloud intervened. "What color is the leaf now?" he asked.
"Green," I answered, already sensing my inadequacy.
"It isn't the same green, is it?" "No, it isn't."
"We have a different word in Zulu." He dipped the leaf in water and held it out again. "Has the color changed?" "Yes."
"In Zulu we have a word for green shining wet."