Universal Truths?

Who are you?

Is it your star sign? Is it your Myers Briggs label? Is it your Blood Type?

Who are your work colleagues?

How do you know them? And their future behavior?

The final blog, of this triptych on simplicity, concerns the challenges of leading and managing across cultural boundaries. The understanding and analysis of the differences in personality and culture, started well before the historical musings of the Greeks and Romans and continued all the way up to the great British travel writers. In the early 1980’s the social scientists took over, and we had the IBM-assisted notions of Geert Hofstede and others, to the keep us perplexed and amused for 20 years or so. Thankfully, recent advances in natural science have enabled a paradigm shift in our understanding of what makes us unique, and what binds us together.

My interest in this subject is very personal, as I have been subjected to a battery of absurd assessments over my years working as an engineer. I have been fortunate that my work allows me to travel around our little world and have the opportunity to test the theories against practical evidence. For example, I have just returned from a pan Asia trip that included stops in Dubai, Bangalore, Mumbai, KL, Tokyo and Hong Kong. At times the diversity and contradictions were hard to manage, never mind observe and study. I reached out to local philosophies and religions from various colleagues and friends in an amateur attempt to come to a single framework to understand these various cultures. I learned about Rama, Vishnu and Shiva, about rice pickers and potato pickers, about blood types, numerology and star-signs but alas nothing seemed to work in all the locations. I was also amazed by the physical differences that had developed in these isolated regions.  Those differences ranged from the heights of the Khalifa tower in Dubai to the slums of Mumbai. From the chaos of Bangalore traffic to the calmness of the white gloved taxi drivers of Tokyo. And even from the politeness of Japanese waiters to the bustling of the crowd at the horse racing at Happy Valley. And don’t ask me to explain intricacies of Pachinko or baseball.

And so I offer you my own brief analysis of cultural differences. In seeking to have a common framework I started with a very useful guide developed by Jonathan Haidt of UCLA. He called these ‘5 fundamental moral values’:

  1. Care for others –  protect them from harm.
  2. Fairness –  treat others equally.
  3. Loyalty  –  to your group, family, nation.
  4. Respect  – for tradition and legitimate authority.
  5. Purity –  Sanctity.

As you might expect from his analysis, these factors were observed in pretty much the same grouping in all countries and cultures I visited. However, he made an interesting observation about the USA. He noted that the first 2 (Care and Fairness) were equally valued by Republicans and Democrats. However the last 3 (Loyalty, Respect, Purity) were valued higher by Republicans – an interesting note to watch during this election year.

My travels have taken me to almost 50 countries and I have taught over 10,000 students. It has given me a tremendous opportunity to quiz and observe the students in each location. I did see many local flavours that were definitely not universal, but were not cultural either. This leads me to the development of a table to represent, in a light hearted way, what I believe is important to some countries. We all use ‘shortcuts’ when dealing with groups and categories, and I wanted to explore the absurdity of this human failing.


And so it goes like this (please add or correct as appropriate).


What Really Matters to the locals

Germany Be clear
England Know your place
Ireland Don’t make a fuss
India Go with the flow
Japan Don’t cause offence
USA Be successful
Italy Look well
France Live well
Finland Be independent
Australia Be funny
Papua New Guinea Stay connected
Brazil Be relaxed
Colombia Be polite

The point of this tongue-in-cheek exercise is to get you thinking about how you judge others, and how they might judge you too. We need to explore the latest findings in science, or perhaps travel a bit more and learn from those experiences.

My last bit of advice in this series –

To know your colleague you need to walk more than a mile in his shoes. You need to spend at least a winter in his country too”.


2 thoughts on “Universal Truths?”

  1. User Avatar

    Thank you, Frank, for a refreshing debunking of cultural stereotypes and absurd assessments! I, too, have worked with people from over 50 different countries, and just finished a week facilitating a senior global leadership program for executives from Dubai, the USA, Japan, Germany, Singapore, the UK and Hong Kong. When people ask me “What are people from the US like?” I ask “Which one?” Same goes for every country, I believe. Yes, there do seem to be certain tendencies, but I’ve found judging individuals by models developed to describe averages always does an injustice to the individual. As I often rant “My head’s in the oven and my feet are in the freezer, but on AVERAGE I feel fine!”

    My favorite guide to understanding cultures is the “Island Model”, in which the visible culture is the island visible above the water level. Below the water the various islands appear separate, and represents the distinct cultural drivers of the visible signs. But below the surface at the bottom of the ocean these apparently distinct islands are connected by the commonality of human-being-ness. After traveling outside the US pretty much every month for the past 7 years, I’m convinced we human beings are more alike than different. I appreciate the difference and then focus on what we share. My “big insight”? Love (maybe what Jonathan Haidt of UCLA called “caring for others”) is the most powerful tool in the business world. This has been the biggest surprise of my life! Way more powerful than Microsoft Project.

    Thanks for a great article! I love your “scrappy” tone!

    – Kimberly Wiefling, Author, Scrappy Project Management

    1. User Avatar

      Kimberley – great comments – I love the metaphor of the islands. Did you realize the allusion you created to Charles Darwins expedition to the Galapagos Islands? The slight physical differences between the finches beaks etc? In 150 years we have moved on and are beginning to examine the minor behavioral differences between those of us from different ‘islands’. A wise man one told me all cultures arise out of ‘Climate and Geography’ only – all the rest is commentary. A Japanese friend pushed it further one day to say that we (Irish/Americans) are potato pickers and they (Japanese) are rice pickers and that is all you need to know. I will look at being more ‘scrappy’ in the future – Thanks again – Frank Ryle

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