The previous four posts (beginning here) sought to confirm that Nations do indeed have a Culture (a question somehow not yet resolved by either sociologists or historians) by looking at historical events, behaviors, and cultural sources for two not so random cases: Russia and the US. While the behavioral examples were seemingly more negative than not (that is, Practiced Behavior did not match Professed Behavior), the exercise did support two important points:
First, that Nations Do Indeed Have a Culture, and we human beings are strongly shaped by these cultural and moral values and norms (the unwritten rules), called Behavioral Continuity.
And second, it confirmed both Fundamental Principle 13: A small promotion (increase of importance) of Self over other Values drives a much more significant negative change in behavior, and
Fundamental Principle 14: There Are Consequences To One’s Behavior (including nations).
However, there are many additional Practiced Behaviors of national cultures that are more often humorous if not entertaining (from a distance, I suppose), even though they still have significant and observable consequences for people nearby.
Let us first take diplomats in New York City and parking tickets (to which they are immune by the nature of being a diplomat). This is no doubt an issue that you may have heard alluded to, but unless you live in New York or travel there and try to find a parking place it may not mean much. The reality is that not all diplomats rack up parking tickets at the same rates.
According to an economic study by Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, diplomats from nations (and cultures) that rank high on the Transparency International Corruption Index pile up huge numbers of unpaid tickets, while diplomats from nations that rank low on the index barely get any at all.
Between 1997 and 2002, the U.N. Mission of Kuwait picked up 246 parking violations per diplomat. Disregarding weekends, when presumably they are off having fun in America, this works out to one per day! Other nations whose diplomats had large numbers of violations included Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Syria.
At the same time, not a single parking violation was recorded by any diplomats from Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Israel, Norway, or Canada.
There is a moral here, somewhere, I am sure. One certainly is that Regression to Cultural Means is at work. And perhaps, “When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans (and obey their laws).” Or, “You can take it with you (your own cultural norms).”
Springing off of these thoughts, in a recent book by Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, the author writes (pardon the long but marvelously pertinent quote), “I think it is fairly safe to say that in the rest of the world the Scandinavian countries are broadly perceived as democratic, meritocratic, egalitarian and classless, populated by vaguely outdoorsy, blond, liberal, bicycle-riding folks who live in tastefully lit middle-class homes with Bang & Olufsen TVs in their living rooms, mid-range German estate cars in their driveways, who vacation in Spain and slip a couple of notes in a Red Cross envelope every month” (full and enjoyable review can be found here).
Booth is British, married to a Danish woman and for quite a while living in Denmark. Being an outsider, he is fully aware of cultural differences, one of which he described as “social conformity” (which sounds remarkably like Regression to the Cultural Mean) and took pains to investigate various aspects of the five nations’ cultures. One unique instance was testing to see if Finnish men are as untalkative being naked in a sauna as they are outside of it (according to Booth, they are).
Bottom line in this very enjoyable book is that despite strong, shared similarities, the five nations each have their own character (culture) that strongly influences their communal and individual behavior.
The Japanese are very conservative people. In fact, they turn out to be the most conservative culture on earth, and not just in the choice of their investments in the stock market where the general view is that the market only goes down. This latter view is perhaps reinforced by what has been termed The Lost Decade (1990s) of the Japanese economy.
The culture suffers from a play-it-safe mentality that pervades much of their daily life, from regulators holding up approval of vaccines that had been approved decades earlier in other countries, why few Japanese students choose to study abroad, and why 844 trillion yen, nearly twice the country’s yearly economic output, sits idle in cash at home or in savings accounts yielding an average of 0.02% annually (Businessweek, 2012).
This seems to reveal real life circumstances that resonate and reinforce a general risk-adverse hereditary trait (that pesky gene that seems to be more dominant in the US, see a previous post). Economists speculate that this no doubt will continue to make for a much more difficult Japanese economic recovery.
France is a marvelous country. Every July I immensely enjoy watching the Tour de France for a variety of unrelated reasons: countryside, cathedrals, clowns, cycling and commentators immediately come to mind. France is also the crossroads where much of western civilization’s history took place. Perspectives on that history sometimes can take very large swings.
For one instance, the French are very proud of the fact that France was the home to one of if not the greatest monarchy on earth, that of King Louis XIV, the Sun King (1638-1715). His was the longest reign of any European monarchy, and during it France was the leading European power. Clearly something to be proud of.
They are also extremely proud of the fact that one of if not the greatest revolution, The French Revolution, was also theirs (1789-1799) (not withstanding it was heavily influence by the American Revolution, in turn heavily influenced the Bolshevik Revolution, and, despite its cultural symbol of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, managed to execute or summarily dispose of nearly 40,000 of its own citizens just in nine months between 1793-1794).
But, they seem to be either clueless or unwilling to admit that the latter historical milestone completely obliterated all that was great about the former one. And that is what we call a Cultural Lens. Perhaps more markedly than elsewhere, this particular lens has other influences as well.
We have had the opportunity to visit Paris a number of times and experience first hand some of French cultural norms. The first was when we were living in The Netherlands and had our college aged sons and one girl friend visiting us. In looking for something cultural to do, we received a flyer advertising a bus excursion to Paris for 12 hours. Since Paris is about 6 hours by bus from where we were living, this meant meeting the bus at the train station at 3:00 am to begin a number of collecting stops for other passengers, arriving at about noon after which we were on our own. Departure was at midnight, so we had a good 12 hours to “see Paris.” Not speaking French, we had experiences similar to what many other Americans had shared: not many English speaking people around, and not many others willing to engage in what they thought was combat with an American trying to speak French. We did manage to walk through Montmartre, eat lunch at the Moulin Rouge (expensive), see the Louvre (from a distance), see the Eiffel Tower (also from a distance as it was closed off, unbeknownst to us and we were unable to get an understandable explanation), and sightsee up and down the Champs-Elysee. We did manage to get tickets for a boat ride on the Seine after dinner. Only then, with fireworks going off at 9:00 pm and in conversation with other tourists on the boat, did we learn that it was the 100th anniversary celebration of the Eiffel Tower (1989), with Regan and Mitterand doing the honors. And there we were, right in the middle of the Seine with front row seats. Occasionally, some of my habitual American family ‘flash mob’ adventures turn up golden. But we didn’t get much help from the locals.
The second experience was when we were traveling to Kenya to visit family and took a more elaborate but much less expensive itinerary that was by train from our home in the east of The Netherlands to Paris, transfer by local train to the airport, and then fly to Nairobi. The only leg that could not be arranged beforehand was the transfer by local train. In purchasing our three tickets at the kiosk, there was a flash of rapid hand movements while I tried to simultaneously count change in a bunch of odd-looking coin (this was B€, before Euro). Later I realized that rather than change that should include 3 French francs, I had 1 franc and 2 centimes, FF1.2, because the centime, 1/10th of a franc, was nearly identical to the untrained eye to the bimetal franc but slightly smaller in size. I presumed I had been had, once again, by the ‘American in Paris’ syndrome.
By our third visit years later, I had been able to confirm a suspicion learned after living in The Netherlands for some time. In The Netherlands, while there are only about 15 million people, there are about 250 language dialects, and since most people do not relocate either for work or for home location, it is quite common for people who live separated by only 30 km away to not be able to understand each other. Thus, I discovered my own set of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Had we been able to stay longer and explore France better, we would have discovered that Parisians are not specifically rude to Americans trying to speak what they think is French, they are rude to any other Frenchman who lives more than 50 km outside of Paris who speaks fluently what they think is French.
This, then, is a French Cultural Mean, the importance of the purity of their language, purity so important that four centuries ago, Cardinal Richelieu established French linguistic policy that since then has maintained an intentional approach to “keep French French,” generally under the oversight of the French Academy. In the beginning it was more intent to get control over the multitude of dialects spread around a country of mostly immobile citizens, but more recently its task has morphed into resisting the incursion of English words that would harm the ‘Frenchiness’ of French. (In 1975 the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language act was passed).
This has now, in recent decades, begun to change (“Mon Dieu!”) with the explosion of English technology terms. The debate now seems more over do they accept “hashtag” or insist on the more French “mot-dièse”? You can access more about the #FrenchProblem here.
All this in my mind simply confirms that there are Cultures of Nations, and, like human beings, these cultures reflect those highly prized values that directly influence our behaviors.
Which then raises some very import philosophical, if not political (or even politically incorrect) and possibly rhetorical questions:
If we identify a particularly prevalent behavior that expresses a people group’s consciously chosen Cultural Mean, are we really “stereotyping” them?
Or, is it only “stereotyping” if we take an “outlier,” a behavior way outside their Cultural Mean, and apply this to the people group as a whole?
Next: The Effects of the Culture of Nations