Many words for culture
I’ll be honest, I am not a big fan of the term culture wishy-washy touchy-feely. I like the term national culture. It’s more robust. It’s more accurate. It’s more true. But there are many words we can use: logic, tradition, hard-wiring, dna, method, process, approach, self-understanding, beliefs, belief system, mentality, character, character traits, national character.
These are all synonyms different words with the same meaning. But what is national culture? The answer is very clear, very straightforward. National culture is how we think and how we act.
People in boxes
I know, I understand, you can’t put people in boxes everybody is an individual you can’t generalize. But, that’s wrong. We can put people in boxes. We can generalize. Let’s think about it. Two very sophisticated societies. United States. Germany. They couldn’t function if their people didn’t have a shared understanding in those areas which are essential to their society working.
Now what do we mean with a shared understanding? We mean a common, or near-common, belief system. But, not a least-common denominator not a watered-down belief instead shared at the deepest level not in all of the details but in the main points. These are the beliefs which define a culture which hold it together. That’s what we do at CI. We try to identify those beliefs. We can put people in boxes. The boxes are called cultures.
About them. About us.
Whenever we think about another culture we’re thinking about our own culture. Every conversation about another culture is a conversation about our own culture. It can’t be any other way. Every person is from a national culture. “From” meaning at home in, embedded in, coming from. And so, we all see other cultures through the eyes of our own culture.
We don’t have any other eyes. I see Germans and Germany with American eyes. The Germans see Americans and America with German eyes. None of us is floating way up in the stratosphere detached from the world, from their culture, from their home looking down at other cultures as if from some neutral perspective.
Why is this important? We can’t work well together, unless we understand each other. We can’t understand each other without understanding ourselves. Understand yourself. Understand the other. They go hand-in-hand. They complement each other. Depend on each other. Cannot work without each other. That’s the beauty of it. We need each other.
People always say to me: “Wait, John, aren’t there differences not only between, but also within cultures?” My answer is always the same: “Well of course there are. Lots of differences.” America is diverse. Germany is diverse. Humankind is diverse. East Coast. West Coast. Northern Germany. Southern Germany.
Christians. Jews. Muslims. Non-believers. Female. Male. Young. Old. Extroverted. Introverted. From a big family. From a small family. Grew up in the city. Grew up in the country. Trained in the natural sciences, engineering, medicine, law, business, economics, humanities. Working in marketing, manufacturing, supply chain, sales human resources, service, general management. Diverse.
But, consider this: capable Americans, capable Germans can switch at any time from one company to another company within their national culture, within their national business culture without a problem. How is this possible? They have common – or near common – beliefs. Beliefs which are critical to the stability of their societies and critical to the stability of the companies companies which are rooted in their societies.
But, here’s the difference when Germans and Americans collaborate two sets of belief systems come together. So, we’re interested not so much in the diversity within the U.S. or within Germany we’re interested not so much in the distribution along the respective bell curves. We’re interested in the gaps between the two bell curves.
North. South. East. West.
We all know what a compass does? It provides orientation. We begin with: North. South. East. West. Then we get more accurate, more precise. North by northwest. South by southeast. Another image: first we see a field, then a stream, a bit further a wooded area. We enter into the wooded area we see different kinds of trees. Field. Stream. Wooded area. Trees.
When we discuss cultural differences we begin with the general then, over time, we become familiar with the specifics. We become more accurate, more precise. We get to know each other in order to work together. Think of Google Earth. Zoom in. Zoom out. First in 30,000 feet. 3,000 feet. 300 feet. 3 feet. Then out 3 feet. 300 feet. 3,000 feet. 30,000 feet. In. Out. General. Specific.
Capable. Proud. Strong-willed.
Germany. The United States. Germans. Americans. Two successful societies. Two successful national economies. Nation. Economy. Companies with successful approaches. Both peoples are capable, proud, and strong-willed.
Both peoples are determined to have the say, to “run the show”, to “be in the driver’s seat.” Whenever we discuss the German or the American approach, we’re talking about approaches which are proven, which work. Whenever we discuss how we do things, we’re talking about what leads to success. Both approaches lead to success.
Differences. Not Commonalities.
I get asked all the time:”John, why do you focus only on the differences? What about the commonalities?” I always have the same answer. Commonalities work for you. There’s no need to discuss them. Differences, on the other hand, are far more important and far more valuable. I know that sounds like a paradox. But it’s not.
For two reasons. First Differences can lead to serious problems. People working against, instead of with and for each other. And these problems can be very painful. Second Differences offer tremendous potential. Imagine what could be accomplished if national cultures understood each other then combined their inherent strengths?