Sunday, March 23, 2014

A thought about cultural differences and working internationally

Homo sapiens are a single species, as we have proven by enthusiastically interbreeding. Most people all over the world can pretty much interpret each others facial expressions.  We seem to have the same organs, the same senses. As a species we have a rather narrow genetic variation, consistent with have been few in numbers a couple of hundred thousand years ago.

On the other hand, we are culturally diverse. We speak thousands of different (native) languages. We dress differently, have different food preferences, different kinds of houses, different religions, different ways of governing ourselves, different ways of organizing our economies, etc.

I just read this article that indicates how much of Social Science is based on studies of subjects from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Developed (WEIRD) populations. Indeed, a large portion of the research published in social science journals seems to be based on American college students, and most of them in psychology courses. The problem noted in the article is that the WEIRD population is an cultural outlier yet many of the results observed in WEIRD populations are assumed to be representative of universal human behavior.

The article gives an example of "the ultimatum game". Here is the Wikipedia description:
The ultimatum game is a game often played in economic experiments in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between the two players, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal. The game is played only once so that reciprocation is not an issue.
Extensive form representation of a two proposal ultimatum game. Player 1 can offer a fair (F) or unfair (U) proposal; player 2 can accept (A) or reject (R).

  • People in industrialized societies tend to make offers to split the money fairly evenly and to reject offers that keep most of the money for the offerer.
  • People in small scale societies with only face to face transactions tend to offer small portions of the money, and to accept small portions of the money.
  • In some societies, those where gift giving typically involves reciprocal responsibility to return favors with future favors, large portions of the money were often offered and often rejected.

At one time it was assumed that the response of people in industrialized societies was a universal response. It now appears that the response is culturally determined.

  • In industrialized societies, economic transactions are formalized by the economic institutions which in turn depend on high levels of trust. People from those societies apparently act in accordingly.
  • In the small scale societies, offerers realize that they can keep most of the money since almost any offer will be accepted; recipients choose to accept whatever is offered on the basis that something is better than nothing.
  • In societies with institutionalized reciprocal giving, offerers apparently assume that by giving a lot they can expect a lot in return; recipients choose to reject even generous offers assuming apparently preferring to avoid the burden of some future unspecified reciprocal gift.
I note that on one level, the behavior of the offerers and recipients in the ultimatum game is culture dependent, as described. However, at another level it seems to be common -- people in each culture seem to make decisions that are rational given the institutional framework of their own culture, and the way that they expect others to act.

So What

I have worked in more than 35 countries. In some of those I have lived for years and gained some intuitive feel for the ways of the culture. Moreover, I worked a long time in Latin America, and there are some similarities among the cultures of the Latin American nations. However, in others I had only the most limited understanding of culture, perhaps based on a bit of reading.

Some places I think I have pretty good intuition as to how people will make their decisions most of the time; in other places, not so much. The problem is to know in which kind of place one is working at the moment.

I suppose the lesson of that experience is "don't assume", be humble, and be polite.

I tend to feel that there will be common grounds -- that people will prefer health to sickness, will avoid pain and hunger. But even those ideas may not hold up everywhere; there are even times and places where parents will prefer the death to the survival of normal infants.

Thus it is important to recognize that in other cultures, values may be different than one's own. Slavery is still with us, as are prejudice and war. In some cultures, corruption is all but universal where it is possible. For the international worker, I suppose the key is to maintain one's own important values, recognizing that they may not be shared by those with whom one is working.

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