Belgium — Philippines — India
What I learnt about cultural sensitivities and how it is rewiring me as a person
Part 1: The Intro
In the last 5 years, my work has taken me across 13 countries, working with youth leadership development. This gave me an exposure to cross cultural understanding in the formative years of my adulthood. I had the opportunity to work with people from all across the globe in the world’s largest youth led NGO — AIESEC.
Having been established after the second world war (in 1940s), the inception of AIESEC was to enable cross cultural understanding between the youth — in the belief that this was essential in preventing conflicts between nations in the future.
I am working in Brussels (which I always wanted to one day) in a team with 10 highly driven young people from 10 different countries; being a part of the national board of this youth led NGO here in Belgium.
I worked and lived in Manila, with 13 others (all between 20–25) in the national board of AIESEC in Philippines and managed the youth network with around 1000 students from across the country.
My role in the last 5 years here has basically been that of a partnership and business developer.
What does this mean?
I either build upon pre-existing relationships between AIESEC and the external organizations ranging from companies /businesses— MNCs, SMEs, Startups or NGOs, NPOs or even governmental institutions sometimes.
OR, explore and spark new collaborations between the my organization and the ones mentioned above.
As cross cultural exchange is one of the primary goals of my organization, I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and working with highly driven, passionate young people from more than 100 countries across the world. And having had one of the best roles within the organization (to bridge the internal and the external world) it put me in situations to better understand the common business practices in the area.
Before this, having grown up 20+ years in India — raised and educated in Bangalore (in a religious Hindu setting), I was exposed to the rich cultural & historical heritage that are in my roots as an Indian. The multitude of cultural flavors (not just in the food) of my amazing country set me up to embrace diversity in the future without judgement.
India — Philippines — Belgium.
South Asia — South East Asia — Western Europe.
After this diverse transition of people, weather, food, geography, history, architecture and everything else; some questions that sparked in me (courtesy of all the challenging experiences I faced)
What is “culture”?
What makes a culture, what it is?
What differentiates one culture from another?
How have key historical events shaped the culture?
And many more. The first question alone, is a book by itself.
So what is this post about?
Some of the very interesting (to say the least) socio-cultural behaviors I have seen in the last 4–5 years; and my pursuit in to understand why these behaviors exist.
Okay, let’s dive into this!
Part 2: The Meat
One the coolest tools I have bumped into (courtesy of a dear friend — Gaurav Sathe) called the Hofstede Model. This is perhaps one of the most comprehensive studies of how workplace values and behaviors are affected by one’s culture. And when such heavy statements are made, it needs backing up with massive research and evidence (which you can find more info here).
“The collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others”
-Culture as defined by Dr Geert Hofstede
According to this research, there are 6 cultural dimensions that culturally distinguishes one country from another.
Now that you have seen these 6 dimensions as made your own meanings of it,
If you were one of those who spent sometime looking at these numbers and making your own interpretations, agreements and disagreements (because I was one of too), let me throw out a few disclaimers right now since culture can be a sensitive topic.
Read this — https://geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html before moving ahead to better understand what the dimensions mean in a stand alone context (esp “About The Research”). The data for this was collected between 1967 and 1973.
- Each culture is unique and different. Respect it.
- Different is just different. Not bad or good. That is up to one’s interpretation and opinion.
- All of what is posted below is from personal experiences.
- We all can learn something (if not a lot) from other cultures.
So, let’s begin!
#1. Power Distance:
This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
This is how hierarchy (or perceived hierarchy I must say) has manifested in existence and operation.
1a. India (77/100) on Power Distance
It is customary to be questioned by your boss/superior on your weekly activities and progress of your projects. On the other hand, it is unacceptably audacious or even arrogant (depending on perspective) if I were to question my boss/superior on his activities and progress of his projects especially in front of your peers.
It is not usual to question authority and this can be seen from home to school to a work setting. This I can tell you from personal experience; you will bump into some interesting material, just google “questioning authority in India”; actually let me do it for you — just click this.
1b. Philippines (94/100)
The offices of some of the biggest companies in Philippines that I have visited, the senior executives (VPs, President, CEO, division heads) have their personal offices in the more top floors of the building/office.
All of the status and privilege is something that is earnt with time as one moves up the ranks proving seniority. Seniority within an organization too, is affected by age. After a lot of meetings with experienced leaders and business heads I was told (and at some point evident) that age will affect one’s chances in a negotiation.
A very hierarchical society where each member of society has a specific place to stay and role to play. And this is accepted.
1c. Belgium (65/100)
Relatively lower on the scale. It is okay to question your superiors/managers at work. It is fair that authority or power is given — at the expense of the responsibility that comes with the ranks which can be, and in fact is held accountable.
I have seen and myself experienced leaders/power being openly questioned (and it is accepted). This act of questioning comes from the core motive of being accountable to one’s responsibility.
Inequalities across hierarchical rungs are accepted; but strive to equalize the distribution of power so as to justify the inequalities.
#2. Individualism vs Collectivism:
The high side, called individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families.
Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
2a. India (48/100)
Sort of mid range when compared to Belgium or Philippines. When I was growing up, I was taught the importance of societal & family living. Family comes first — I have heard this ever so often when in the early years of my life, that it is the norm.
The balancing out due to the stress on individual actions for the greater good. India exhibits a very interesting duality between the two.
2b. Philippines (32/100)
Super family driven culture. Filipino culture is one of the most hospitable, inclusive family culture I have experienced.
A clear example of this was when I was adopted into a Filipino family for their Christmas (immensely special season for them due to their strong religious bonds) celebrations, and I was taken care as one of their own.
I also saw this when I was in social groups, deciding on which bar/restaurant to go to. If there difference in personal choice, there is ready sacrifice of personal interest for the greater interest of the group so that you go out together and have a good time together.
Loyalty and tight bonds are very intrinsic to the friendships and social circles.
2c. Belgium (75/100)
Individual opinion matters, and better be heard. My guess is that it is connected to the power distance as there is not much of a hierarchical separation between the layers.
It is completely okay, accepted and normal to have and act on your personal opinion albeit different from the other members of the tribe.
#3. Masculinity vs Femininity:
Before going all sexist about this, let’s see the definition:
The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.
Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.
3a. India (56/100)
Age old traditions, Indian epics and historic tales are embedded with masculine displays of success, power and heroism.
There is also a high competitive element in the current society where being the best is becoming a necessity especially in education and employment.
Work (or kaarya in Sanskrit) is abundantly spoken of in one of our religious books — The Bhagavad Gita.
And having grown up in a religious Hindu setting — “work” (definition is subjective) is a very important aspect of life which defines me.
3b. Philippines (64/100)
A very work driven society.
Where did I see this?
In their education system (of course I would say that) where you need to be crème de la crème in the entrance exams to enter the top university (very similar to India). Getting into UP Diliman which is the top university (top universities list - here) in Philippines, is quite an achievement by itself considering the amount of competition that exists.
In the one year I was there, I have seen some of the hardest working people here and I feel lucky to have known them.
The best part is this hard work and sacrifice comes without any complaint.
3c. Belgium (54/100)
“Society at large is more consensus oriented”
Here, arguments are more non Win-Lose style, which means that achieving common ground through discussion and compromise is more prevalent.
This results in decisions taking longer than usual since each point of a discussion is carefully examined and debated upon.
Where have I seen this?
Personally, having worked in different geographical regions and cultures within AIESEC; I have seen the same discussions being approached and debated in completely different directions. In the end if the result was same or similar, the conditions of the discussions were dissimilar.
#4. Uncertainty Avoidance:
The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
4a. India (40/100)
Woah. Where do I begin?
Personally, having grown up in the beautiful controlled chaos that is India, I feel equipped to face uncertainty in general. Uncertainty is very inherent to me as an Indian, and dealing with it is of natural behavior most of the times.
“Figure it out bro!” or in Hindi “Thoda adjust karle bhai” (Adjust a little, brother) is a phrase I grew up with throughout school and university.
And boy, I am glad I did!
In India, we are very good at “Jugaad”. What is it? See the pictures below.
Still need explanation? Wikipedia!
A. We are good at frugal innovation. We do not mind bending the rules.
B. We are so good and comfortable at going around set rules, that it is almost natural and acceptable to us.
Government offices, transportation in most cities, universities, traffic rules to how we deal with deadlines, how we deal with cops/police; almost all areas of life — I have at some point circumvented rules to come to a solution.
My only fear with this is that, as adaptable as this might seem; this might also be the reason for the existing chaos that my country is associated with.
4b. Philippines (44/100)
Closely following India, it was not as much of a culture shock for me getting set to this environment in Manila. It is okay to have changes along the way as there is a quick coping mechanism that helps them adapt.
Where did I see this?
The best example of this was when I was working to organize the Asia Pacific Youth Exchange Program APYE 2016 (http://apye.org/) with the core team consisting of young people from South Korea, Philippines and Vietnam.
It was a 14 day youth exchange program for almost 150 people. Whilst organizing it, we encountered multiple foreseen and unforeseen challenges with speakers, venue, logistics, etc. In this we had no option but to adapt to these challenges and come up with solutions.
And through this experience and my learning from the team, I saw how being super versatile and solution oriented is a very key skill to have.
4c. Belgium (94/100)
94 Looks like a test score I used to dream of in my engineering days.
Oh boy. For an Indian (who thrived in the “last minute” & “jugaad” environment) to move to such a country was an interesting experience.
This uncertainty/risk avoidance is much more deep rooted in the culture than I had imagined.
Where is this seen?
[a] Consumer buying and spending patterns: people/companies are not going to buy your product/service if they haven’t seen previous successes with it. Early adoption rate is lesser than an average Indian.
[b] How meetings take place in work settings: with agenda to have been sent out much before, so that the attendees know what they are getting into; where presentations to be prepared well in advance with a lot of facts, figures, detailed plan so as to know everything about a certain topic.
[c] Transport: where if the app tells you that the bus arrives in 6 minutes, it will arrive in 6 minutes. This might not seem big if you are someone from around this region of the world.
There is much calculation of future consequence of each action that is/will be taken. This risk aversion extrapolates into other cultural dimensions as you will see later.
After having reached so far with many opinions (some of which you might or might not agree) being presented, the last two have been recently included in the list of cultural dimensions
- Long Term Orientation in 1991
- Indulgence in 2010
#5. Long Term Orientation:
Every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future.
Societies who score low on this dimension, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those which scores high, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.
5a. India (51/100)
Being in the mid-range, we again are a duality (love this word!). Although we have a very strong set of core beliefs, it is okay to bend around these in an agreeable frame to adjust to the reality and the future.
Where is this seen?
Our education systems are adopting emerging technologies to match global standards, our students (and families more importantly) are now more brave in investments especially in education with going abroad for further studies to be more globally competitive for future employability, etc.
5b. Philippines (27/100)
This is one score that I am not as opinionated on, since either I did not observe enough to see a pattern or I did not interact with enough people to understand this behavior better.
From my observations, some behaviors I have seen with the people around me which back this high score are: good future planning, long term financial saving where students begin saving up from their very first salaries, being very careful with their “big” spending, etc.
It is also backed up by the immense history that Belgium has, as a nation in this region which was also rebuilt after massive aftermath of the World Wars.
Planning for generations ahead — done well here, definitely something my city of Bangalore needs.
#6. Indulgent vs Restraint:
Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun.
Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.
Being so low in this scale, now looking back in the last 20 years of my life, I can totally connect with this.
Our religion, our historical teachings, going back to instances from my childhood where verses of the great book — The Bhagavad Gita and other quotes from Hindu scripture comes back into my head. Lust, greed and desires — giving into these is a deviation when you are en route to true spiritual fulfillment.
In connection with the previous dimension, where work is worship, and it comes above all; doing our duty without expecting the fruits is but the norm. Now having been conditioned with such a mindset while growing up, indulgences is something that you deserve only after having gone through pain. Personally I have asked myself (and I have heard some of my closest friends say), when I am having too much fun and not experienced any difficulty — “what have I done to deserve this?”.
And almost feel guilty for it.
Another factor which plays in my environment is the societal acceptance and approval of indulgence in your desires. This plays more heavily on my parent’s generation, not my own, but I will still value ithighly because it matters to my parents (connection to the collectivism dimension and family).
Part 3: In The End, It All Adds Up
Now why did I choose to throw all this info out in a long post (at least one of the longest I have written) like this?
- It began with me wanting to summarize and see what I have learnt personally in the last 2 years of this crazy diverse experience.
It resulted into this.
- Personal task I gave myself to read, observe and learn more about culture after having worked more than 5 years in an organization whose very foundation was built on cross cultural learning experiences.
Thought it was the least I could do in my capacity
- To help some people (like me) to realize something new about cross cultural understanding.
There is a RAPID rate at which we are globalizing (and you know it). It is not even funny, really.
- With work becoming more remote (thank you, Internet)
- Global mobility of talent becoming an increasing necessity to solve global issues
- Tourism and travel contributing a whopping $7.17 trillion (yes, trillion) to the global economy
Crossing borders or coming in contact with people from different countries is not a far fetched proposition as it was 40–50 years ago. Cross cultural communication and behavior (may be this will be a stand alone blog topic soon) is something that I personally was not taught in school.
And I know for a fact, it isn’t being taught in most schools in my city today.
Part 4: The Quote
Basic respect and acceptance of another culture, without judgement, can come only through understanding and empathy.
So I wanted to take an active step to not fall into this human judgement trap that our beloved social media is leading us to these days.
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