Taiepi, Taiwan 09.17.2016 – When dealing with any issue, it is important to never let yourself focus on the idea of duality. You know, things are black and white or left and right. Contrasting anything this way will always inevitable lead to some kind of conflict insofar as creating ‘us’ and ‘them’ type of thinking. I tend to try and avoid putting the meter stick in the ground and measuring my culture with others. It is the equivalent of teenagers measuring their manhood. Nobody really cares and it means very little (Unless it is little). But, I have to give it to Fons Trompenaars, his model, ‘Seven Dimensions of Culture’ is perhaps the best model I know of for navigating the cultural differences one might face in the world of business, travel or kidnapping.
As I said before, I don’t like the idea of separating people and cultures into two categories. It is too general and ignores a lot of social issues. Trompenaars’ model isn’t perfect, but thus far I haven’t come across any other model that can hold a candle to Trompenaars’ model. What makes his model intriguing is the use of ‘Seven Dimensions’. These dimensions on their own give a small insight into a culture, but again, on their own they are always very bland and offer no real insight other than past the obvious. If you put the seven of them together, you get a real picture of a culture. But before I get into that, it is first important to define what a ‘culture’ is. You might be wondering, why would I bother. True, but think to yourself, what is a culture? It is a very abstract thing and it is very rare that we as people every contextualize it. For me, a culture is the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people. The most important part of that definition is ‘people’. As people, we are prone to creating patterns than can be studied and behaving irrationally. Hence why the social sciences exist.
So what makes Trompenaars’ model special you might be wondering. Well, Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner took the information of 30,000 surveys from all over the world and came to the conclusion that cultures and societies can be divided by seven dimensions. Those dimensions are as follows:
1: Universalism VS Particularism
This dimension can be broken down as follows. The Universalist adheres to the law, while the Particularist adheres to relationships. Simply put, if you were writing a food critic review of a friend’s restaurant and the food was below average, what would you write? Would you lie and write a good review as a Particularist, or would you stick to your guns and write the appropriate article for the magazine as a Universalist. Germans would be deemed to be very Universalistic because they would hold the law to the letter, while the Irish (My own culture), would view the idea of the law as degrees. Unless someone has committed as a terrible crime, they wouldn’t be considered criminals because the perceived notion is that ‘boys will be boys’. It would seem that Taiwan is far more Particularist, although I have seen some evidence of a Nanny state existing here.
2. Individualism VS Communitarianism
This one is a bit more self-explanatory. In most Western countries, the idea of Individualism is intrinsically part of our society. Ireland and Germany are probably two countries which defy this status quo, although this is changing fast with American influence in the last few decades. In Taiwan and most of Asia, Communitarianism is the belief that the community takes precedence over the individual. Though, this is gradually changing and for a lot of the younger generations, they are finding their own voice. With that said, Communitiarism is still very much an important part of society here. In Ireland it is somewhat the same and in many other parts of the West, the Individual reigns champion.
3. Specific VS Diffuse
This dimension has always been a bit tricky for me. Specific in this case means that a person sees a very easily marked line between their work and personal life. Diffuse on the other hand sees no line between work and one’s personal life and the two are quite interchangeable. I have seen it somewhat that Ireland and Taiwan seem somehow in the middle of these two, while that is growing in more countries every year. It is more of a blur with the fact that work is important but it isn’t everything.
4. Neutral VS Emotional
Germans and the Scandinavians are Neutral. They don’t have the same emotional openness as others. It is even joked about that the German don’t have a sense of humour, which I assure you, they do. Irish and Taiwanese both seem quite emotional in the sense that it is something that is needed to be expressed, whether that be through working, writing, drinking or chatting away, it is something important to acknowledge.
5. Achievement VS Ascription
The idea of achievement is something I tend to agree with more. It is the cultural belief that you are what you do. If you do what you do well, that is an achievement and you are successful. I suppose that is why working low-end jobs in Scandinavian countries is seen as no worse than working as a lawyer or accountant. They certainly get paid the same as lawyers and accountants in Ireland. On the other side of the coin, there is Ascription. In these culture’s, people respect who you are and your title and the power that it brings. I’m not sure if this is entrenched in Taiwan as it is elsewhere in Asia, but I hope it isn’t the same here. The idea of someone getting a small amount of power through promotion and it going to their heads is aggravating. All of a sudden these people become Universalists and adhere to procedure.
6. Sequential Time VS Synchronous Time
This is one dimension I particularly love because it is so evident in Ireland. Cultures who hold Sequential Time highly like things to happen in order. If the meeting with the marketing team is to begin at 3 pm, it will begin at 3 pm, no later and no sooner. 3 pm is 3 pm. Synchronous Time is funny. In Ireland I tend to think we run on Irish time and not Greenwich Mean Time. By that I mean, is that is you are going to meet the marketing team, the meeting won’t happen until 3.30 pm or maybe even 4 pm. People might come in a bit later or everyone might get caught up with what happened last weekend. That time spent chatting might seem like a waste of time, but it is essential if you want to have friends or make headway towards getting along with colleagues. If you push for a meeting to start at 3 pm, you could find some resentment.
7. Internal Direction VS Outer Direction
This is perhaps the hardest dimension to come to terms with. I am definitely far more predisposed towards an ‘Internal Direction’. This means that in the work place I prefer to let others foster their own skills and set clear objectives among ourselves. As well as that, conflict isn’t something to avoid, but rather something that is needed to bring problems to a solution. Conflict isn’t anything other than a natural part of how people interact and I respect people who come into conflict with me. Taiwan is far more leaning towards ‘Outer Direction’ in the sense that individuals will be monitored and given feedback constantly. They are helped to foster skills in a group and conflict is to be avoided at all costs. This goes back to the idea of ‘face’. Let me put it this way, if I was working as a consultant engineer on a project and I seen some calculations wrong with a part of a structure, my first reaction would be the find the boss who made the mistake and show him the correction. By doing this, I would embarrass him in front of his work colleagues. What should be done instead is to make up some excuse like, the calculator must be malfunctioning, let me correct it. Everyone knows the guy screwed up, but everyone is too courteous to speak what everyone already knows.
Even with these Dimensions, cultures are still very difficult to navigate. For example, despite Taiwan being far more Particularistic than Universalistic, the country has a serious problem with bureaucracy. I am not exaggerating that either, it can be very inefficient here because people want to stick to filling this form to collect that form to get this stamp on that form that I need a copy of for you to get this form to bring to that station to get this stamp and when you go pass go you get £200. It is almost contradictory to what Trompenaars’ models suggests. Still, I would trust his model because I have yet to have found anything else worth mentioning. Even though bureaucracy is indeed a serious hindrance here, it can be easily overcome by simply knowing the right person anyway. Guess I better get starting to know people.
I think my favourite way to describe the difference in cultural values has always been by using a joke. Imagine, if you will, if there was an Irish-German (Yes Michael Fassbender is one). He is given a project to complete is one week. His German side tells his team “We must complete this project in the allocated time, and all specifications must be up to code and all our equipment must be maintained at all times”. Then this Irish side breaks out “………..but we can start tomorrow.”