Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Informal culture in a formal setting

Nothing is more revelatory of culture than the trivial, especially when the circumstances are untrivial. Bush's lunchtime banter made the headlines yesterday because it contained what is considered to be an "unprintable" word, "shit". (The New York Times calls it "a vulgarity"). Interestingly, CNN played the video + audio over and over again with full subtitles, including the forbidden word, but the website spelled it "sh_t" (actually, they cleverly turned it into a pun "the sh_t heard round the world"*). Apparently, we're allowed to hear it and read it as a subtitle that appears and disappears, but cannot print it on a page, where it might be duplicated, circulated or simply meditated. What set of implicit (or for that matter explicit) cultural rules does this practice suggest?

More to the point are other clues about culture (and the lack thereof) in the substance of what Bush said. For example, he said he “felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad, make something happen” and in the "vulgar" passage said, “See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over,” What better illustration of the logic of sequential instrumentality than this "get x to get y to do...". This also reveals the curious use of "irony" in U.S. culture (it tends to designate any statement that appears to be mildly unexpected). I sincerely believe that one of the "dimensions" -- or differentiators -- of culture forgotten by Hall, Hofstede and Trompenaars is the status and meaning of irony. Perhaps someon would like to run a statistical study of it and then develop a marketable theory based on the spectrum of strongly ironic to weakly ironic cultures.

Bush's instrumental view of problem-solving -- which helps to explain the "reasoning" behind the Iraq war -- appears almost as a parody of the language of a top manager in a Hollywood film about Wall Street (or maybe the Sopranos). Bush's culture -- and much of U.S. culture -- is one of getting things done by giving orders and establishing deadlines. It's also one where results are definitive; throw a stone in the water and there will be a splash but no one need pay attention to the ripples. "Stop doing this shit and it's over" he tells Blair. This should remind us of Bush's remarks in the buildup to the Iraq war ("game over!") and its immediate aftermath: "Mission accomplished". If he still doesn't understand that social and political problems cannot be resolved definitively by simple authoritarian decision-making and subsequent action (what a famous fictional Dane once called "taking arms against a sea of troubles"), it may reflect not only his own incapacity to learn from experience but also some of the reflexes inherited from his culture. As I myself am a product of U.S. culture, I prefer to think there's more of the former than the latter. But I have to recognize that this corresponds to a certain well-established mythology in U.S. culture: if the whale is tormenting you, take a boatload of people and a healthy supply of harpoons and go out and kill it (achieving quietus with a bare bodkin, to quote the Dane again). Melville had already made observations similar to mine about the values of his countrymen.

The NY Times has this description of the event:

"The microphone caught him discussing global trade talks, his impatience with long speeches, even his preference for Diet Coke. For four minutes, the world was given an unscripted look at how he does business with his international counterparts, especially Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who, apparently alert to the peril, brought the episode to a conclusion by turning the microphone off."
All reports noticed his impatience with anything but the nitty-gritty and his insistence on respecting timing, which shouldn't surprise anyone. “I’m not going to talk too damn long like the rest of them. Some of these guys talk too long.” Complaining about the behaviour of "the rest of them" is always a clear indicator of cultural isolation. (By the way, "damn" used to be "vulgar" but has clearly changed status over the past 30 or 40 years and has become eminently printable, possibly because it doesn't refer to a bodily function).It's interesting to note that Blair was much more discreet and showed some good English pragmatism by turning the microphone off.

The episode on geography could have been scripted by a Middle School student:

But Mr. Bush sighs, and explains, “Gotta go home, got something to do.”

Then, more likely to Mr. Hu, he asks: “Where you going? Home? This is your neighborhood; it won’t take you long to get home.”

The response cannot be heard, but Mr. Bush exclaims, “You get home in 8 hours? Me too! Russia is a big country, and you’re a big country.

China and Russia are apparently in the same "neighborhood" because they are both far from Texas! Since Bush had never travelled outside the U.S. before becoming president, this is perhaps understandable.

But the most delightful is certainly the moment when the most powerful politician on the planet explains why he must leave the seven next most powerful politicians, “Gotta go home, got something to do.”

There are many other observations that could be made about this episode, but they range from the cultural to the political to the psychoanalytical. In the end -- just like the current problems in the Middle East -- it's just a little too much for any one person (or eight leaders, for that matter) to handle.

* For those who are not familiar with "the shot heard round the world", it refers to the opening salvo of the American War of Independence (in a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem).

Monday, July 17, 2006

Accenture opens our eyes

Last week Accenture released a study of intercultural issues for U.S. companies that have outsourced business processes. It demonstrates what should be obvious to most of us but has been insufficiently documented: a growing awareness of the economic interest of improved intercultural communication. This is the kind of study the profession has been waiting for: something to convince decision-makers of the strategic importance of intercultural skills. The fact that it concerns critical business processes should be counted a major breakthrough since management has traditionally considered intercultural issues to be an HR problem and little more. A report on the report can be found here.

Here are some examples of the findings:

  • Executives believe adopting cross-cultural communication training programs can increase productivity by 26 percent, on average. This is consistent with the productivity increases of 30 percent.
  • reported by executives whose companies already provide training in this area.
  • Two thirds (66 percent) of all respondents said they had experienced miscommunication issues within their global sourcing operations.
  • "The soft issues, particularly cross-cultural communication, will continue to present the main challenges to realizing global sourcing's full potential for the foreseeable future."
It's interesting that the productivity gap between companies that provide intercultural training and those that don't is only 12%, with 60% (as opposed to 72%) of those companies still experiencing communication problems. This can be interpreted in two ways:
  1. Training helps because it reduces problems by 12%.
  2. Training doesn't help very much! (because it fails to provide solutions to 60% of the cases).
The statistics are probably fairly meaningless as they are based on subjective appreciation, but gaps always tells us something. I would suggest that -- based only on the first impressions gleaned from the Yahoo article -- we could draw two tentative conclusions:
  1. The training currently proposed is probably inadequate or badly targeted (e.g. focusing on intercultural theory rather than psychology and personality) and therefore we are faced with the challenge of re-inventing intercultural training.
  2. We should be thinking in terms other than simple training (pre-defined courses) and looking at how an intercultural culture can be developed and maintained.
These are just random thoughts about the findings of a report I haven't seen. If anyone consulting this blog has information about the report, access to it or feedback from other professionals, it might develop into a productive thread.