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End cultural arrogance, develop 'beginner's mind'


A Dutch doctor managing a company clinic has a "frank discussion" with a Chinese subordinate, who has some readily correctable shortcomings. The Chinese doctor, who sees his boss as a "father figure," takes the criticism as "a savage indictment" -- and commits suicide. The problem, according to Dutch business consultant Fons Trompenaars: "American and Dutch managers . . . do not understand the principle of losing face."

Trompenaars' book, "Riding the Waves of Culture," is a masterpiece. Based on meticulous quantitative research, as well some 900 seminars presented in 18 countries, it claims that most American management theorizing, by the likes of Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, is next to useless.

Echoing Deborah Tannen's views on men vs. women ("You Just Don't Understand"), Trompenaars begins, "It is my belief that you can never understand other cultures. . . . [Thus] I started wondering if any of the American management techniques I was brainwashed with in eight years of the best business education money could buy would apply in the Netherlands, where I came from, or indeed in the rest of the world."

The heart of the book is seven anecdote- and statistic-filled chapters dealing with fundamental premises that make up a culture. Trompenaars begins with the "universalist" vs. the "particularist" schism.

Universalists (e.g., at the extreme, Americans, Canadians, Australians and Swiss) believe in "one best way," a set of rules that applies in any setting. Particularists (South Koreans, Chinese and Malaysians, at the other extreme) focus on the peculiar nature of any given situation.

Suppose you're riding with a close friend who has an accident in which a third party is injured. You're the only witness, and he asks you to falsely testify about his driving speed. Universalists won't lie for him. Particularists will. The difference becomes even more pronounced if the injury is severe. That causes the universalist to take his belief in the rules even more seriously. But the bigger problem increases the particularist's sense of obligation to his buddy, and thence his willingness to tell a whopper.

(Trompenaars acknowledges that within a country attachment to any given cultural trait varies widely. Nonetheless, the quantitative differences among nations are profound: In the case of the accident, for example, 74 percent of South Koreans would stick up for their pal and lie, compared to just 5 percent of Americans.)

At the end of each chapter, Trompenaars provides a yeasty summary (worth the price of the book by itself). Universalists doing business with particularists should, for example, "be prepared for . . . 'meandering' or 'irrelevancies' that do not seem to be going anywhere"; moreover, we should not "take . . . 'get to know you' chatter as small talk" -- it's the main event to particularists! Particularists doing business with universalists should "be prepared for 'rational' and 'professional' arguments and presentations" ad nauseum, and should "not take . . . 'get down to business' attitudes as rude."

Then there's the "collectivist" (group-oriented) vs. "individualist" frame of mind. The United States and Canada are again extremists -- individualists, natch. Egypt and France are at the other end. Cutting to the chase, collectivists dealing with individualists in, say, contract negotiations should be prepared "for quick decisions" and a negotiator who makes commitments that he's "reluctant to go back on."

Individualists working with collectivists must tolerate "time taken . . . consult" and negotiators who "can only agree tentatively and may withdraw an [offer] after consulting with superiors."

The difference between those who show their feelings (e.g., Italians) and those who hide them (no surprise, the Japanese) is also profound.

Trompenaars' advice to the taciturn: "Do not be put off your stride when [emotional people] create scenes and get histrionic." Fat chance.

Other distinctions include how we accord status (through achievement vs. through ascription, i.e., based on family, age, etc.) and how we manage time (past vs. future orientation). Add it all up and you despair by the time you finish this dense, 176-page treatise. Trompenaars' solution: "We need a certain amount of humility and a sense of humor to discover cultures other than our own; a readiness to enter a room in the dark and stumble over unfamiliar furniture until the pain in our shins reminds us of where things are."

I think such a sense of playfulness is on target. My experience says it's OK to make even big blunders in other cultures. What's not OK is cultural arrogance. If you come to another's turf with sensitivity and open ears -- what the Zen teachers call "beginner's mind" -- you're halfway home. Moreover, I think Trompenaars is correct when he says we'll never master anybody else's culture. That means keeping a beginner's mind in perpetuity is a must for successful -- and less stressful -- dealings throughout the emergent global village.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200.

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