I am from Mars, you are from Venus

by bruce on Tuesday, 30 December 2008 Comments
As a student in communication in Taiwan and, moreover, as being part of an international program, I have come to face several times issues of cross-cultural communication, both theoretically and practically. Actually, I am confronted everyday with such issues when I have, for instance, to collaborate with Taiwanese classmates in order to prepare a homework or a presentation for our class. Working with people from another culture, with different codes and sensibilities, has always proven to be very enriching for me, and, to my knowledge, neither me nor my partners have ever encountered any particular difficulty in the completion of any project.

So everything in my past experience of working with people from a different culture had been quite simple and easy to deal with, until the day when I decided to take a class in cross-cultural communication. Then, everything suddenly became complicated: I was taught that Westerners and Asian people had different mindsets, and that they dealt with emotions, conflicts, and more generally with human relationships in completely different ways. To say it in a few words, these classes gave me the impression that I came from Mars, while Asian people came from Venus.

Cross-cultural communication is a relatively young era of scholarship, but it has had a deep influence in the field of organization studies during the last twenty-five years. The main goal of this discipline is to provide international decision-makers tools that can help them dealing with cultural differences inside their organizations: a manager might for instance find here a few recipes that will help him avoiding conflict with his employees, while a businessman will learn there a few tricks in order to gain the confidence of his business partners, avoiding awkward behaviors that might shock or offend them. But might they have some practical value, cross-cultural communication theories are often, in my opinion, over-simplifying.

Take for instance Geert Hofstede’s Culture Consequences (1980), the book that pioneered the field and that has been constantly referred to until today. In this work, Hofstede isolates a series “cultural dimensions”, namely: individualism vs. collectivism, low vs. high power distance, masculinity vs. feminity, and uncertainty avoidance, to refer to the four most famous categories that he created. Then, using statistical data from different countries, Hofstede gives scores to different countries on these dimensions: say, for instance, that the US will get 91 points on the individualism scale, while France will score 71, and Taiwan 17. Such scores might have a practical utility, in that they allow predicting to a certain extent the behavior of people: Americans in general are expected to behave in a more individualistic way than Taiwanese.

However, the mere idea of placing national cultures on numeric scales is, in my opinion, a dangerous process of over-simplification, and that for two reasons. First, cultures are prone to change with time: Asian people are not collectivistic by nature, and social changes as well as personal enrichment produce more and more individualistic behaviors in Asian societies. Second, there is no national basis for culture: in multi-cultural countries such as France, where people from Western Europe, Africa or Asia live together, how can you possibly give a description of the behavior or the mental set of a “typical Frenchman”, since it is precisely the coexistence of different cultures that makes the particular identity of this country? By attaching measures, numbers and scales to different cultures, there is a risk of radicalizing their differences and making such differences appear as insurmountable.

Ironically, the original objective of Hofstede when he started his research on cultural dimensions was to help people better communicate by understanding their differences. However, the dimensions discovered by Hofstede have been simplified over time to such an extent that they do now convey the most simple clichés and stereotypes about cultures. A practical experience of working with people from different cultural backgrounds shows on the other hand that, even when some codes of communication are not shared between collaborators, the willingness to communicate and the existence of common goals are, more than the acknowledgement of essential differences between cultures, efficient ways of overcoming these differences and gaining deeper understanding of the Other.

(Painting by Bendu)
Benoit B. interviewed Kouchouching, a Taiwanese hip-hop band:

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