Sunday, April 03, 2005

Cultural Value System Translator

Just like we need a language translator when speaking to someone from another culture, we need a values filter to really understand them. Now people may speak the same language, in the work place or other contexts, but they do not have the same value systems, and may not even perceive that the other(s) has a different value system, much less what that might be.

Take lying for example, it is completely acceptable to lie at certain times but not at other times in nearly every culture. When it is acceptable and not acceptable is completely different for Westerners, Asians and Arabs. How can inter-cultural groups build trust, a prerequisite for successful interaction, when they may not be aware that others' values are different?

Even recognizing that there are different fundamental value systems at work in today's increasingly global and integrated interaction space, the hard next step is developing models to work with differing value systems. Language translation is about a different label for the same thing, with some cultural nuances, but value systems are deeply cultural. Is a compromise between the two appropriate, both sides meeting half-way or in practice both sides perceiving they are stretching 75-100% to the other side? Would a compromise even work?

For Americans, the traditional comparison was about differences in European and American attitudes towards working and living; that Americans live to work while Europeans work to live. Expanding the scope to focus globally, it is at a higher level than different attitudes towards activities and about the cultural definition of qualities like love, trust, loyalty, honesty and compassion for others. Of course some of the cultural differences may be rooted in religion. For example, it seems that a compassion for others, even/especially strangers is assumed in Western culture and this may have come from old Judeo-Christian religious traditions. Not that it exists and is exuded by everyone at all times but that compassion for others is a cultural default. It is not clear that this is the case in other cultures. And actually, really examined in the Western sense, compassion may not extend for those that are not "like" oneself, however narrowly some may wish to define that.

Cultures may have a hierarchical sort on certain values, so they will generally sort on efficiency first, or workmanship, or honesty. In the garment industry for example, the Italian manufactures sort on quality and workmanship, while Asian manufactures sort on efficiency. Different products hit the world market, a cheaper lower quality version that is available quickly and a higher quality more expensive one that takes longer to arrive.

The next idea would be to explore how to bridge these gaps. We have recognized things are different in different cultures or products and ways of interacting with different cultures. Right now we're at the stage of increasing the granularity of our perceptions and defining and discussing the differences and challenges. We need to move into the solution space.