WARNING: The following are bits and pieces - elements and notes - relating to discussions on cross cultural issues. Some notes are accompanied by some commentaries I have made on the spot. I have made no attempt to construct any internal coherence of the following text. The only coherence to be found is that of the unity of the theme.
WARNING: The following are bits and pieces – elements and notes – relating to discussions on cross cultural issues. Some notes are accompanied by some commentaries I have made on the spot. I have made no attempt to construct any internal coherence of the following text. The only coherence to be found is that of the unity of the theme.
There are two purposes for posting such a document (i) to keep track of our discussions and (ii) to help new participants have a feel of what our meetings are about.
One of the difficulties some people have understanding other cultures is their own expectations. They expect the rest of the world to be like their own. Differences are experienced as deviations from a natural order. Furthermore, what is in the other culture is compared to what should be in one’s own idealized culture and not always to what it actually is.
Having no expectations may be a problem, too. Many participants declared that they did not have any expectations when they decided to take up the visit to Morocco! To what extent can you not have any expectations when you are planning to visit or work in a foreign country? It seems that one will always have some sort of expectation, but that sometimes, one may not be willing to disclose one’s initial expectations especially when later the test of reality may have proven one wrong. The expression “I didn’t know what to expect” which many participants have used seems to reveal a set of paradoxical expectations which range from confirming the stereotypes and resisting such confirmation.
Stereotypes are reinforced by TV shows and soap operas. On many occasions, American participants burst in laughs when a Moroccan participant revealed that s/he had learned something about Americans in such shows. Likewise, on many occasions, Moroccan participants were astounded at how grown-ups could take for cash what they were told and shown on TV about Islam and Arabs.
One consequence of the stereotyping reinforced in the media is that cultural specificity comes to be seen as an aggression or as an invitation to conflicting relations. An American participant reported that she felt threatened by the sight of the people praying outside the Mosque. The sight reminded her of scenes that accompanied TV programs and reports on terrorism and violence. When many Western TVs report on some terrorist acts associated with Islam, they systematically show pictures of Muslims wearing their traditional clothes praying in the streets. In the imagination of this participant, collective prayer is a prelude to violence.
In the USA, times of political or economic crises with European countries have often been occasions for American intolerance of cultural specificity to be expressed in more or less violent forms. The collective breaking of French wine and French Champagne bottles during the French American disagreement on the Iraq war is a pathetic example of this intolerance. When, like in the case of French fries, nothing could be broken or embargoed, names of commodities are simply changed. French fries become free fries. In fact, while American stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims have recently had more than one occasion to take the form of actual collective behavior, stereotypes of Europeans have been dormant for the last few decades.
A survey of writings analyzing the decision of some European countries not to back the second Iraq war reveals that Americans have rather strong attitudes towards Europeans whom they perceive as essentially “lacking courage,” “too weak to defend themselves,” “self-important cowards who cry for our help whenever they get in trouble and then bitch about what we’re doing to help them,” “stuffy and effeminate,” “defeatists,” “too complacent,” “limp-wristed parasites,” “too compromising, opportunistic,” “stodgy,” “rude and snobby,” “feckless free-loading socialists,” “politically naïve,” etc.. These are but some attributes which I have identified in actual texts by Americans on Europeans, especially on the French.These attitudes are confirmed by American youth who, after a stay in a European country, learn about their own negative stereotyping and how it affects their approach to Europeans.
While words, behavior, gestures may have different cultural tenures in different cultures, people tend to expect everyone to have the same understanding of the same concepts and of the same behaviors. This kind of expectations can make intercultural relations more difficult. In fact, while Intercultural communication may be a major component of the solutions to current intercultural problems, it will not be a possible solution unless a number of objective conditions, among which political will, social and cultural aptitude and economic performance, have been met. In the following notes, I synthesize my own responses to the various issues related to cross or intercultural areas that have been raised in the last year and half in our meetings.
For many people, God seems to be a synthetic image made up of bits and pieces from Holy books, religious teachings, cultural values, child literature, legends, art, movies, cartoon heroes, nightmare figures, etc. Ask a child to draw a picture of God and you will see strange things. These images grow up and take adult forms later.
Saying for instance that Islam is a violent religion because it exhorts Muslims to kill the unfaithful without drawing the attention of your listeners that the verses referred to are close to literal translations from the Torah and the Bible is, at best, an act of unethical intellectual morality. Granted, however, that contrarily to Islam, for instance, the Church has, on many occasions, revisited the Holy Scriptures and made public excuses for some of the violence which it had promoted against peoples of other religions in the past. Furthermore, one would be missing a lot about religion if one tries to explain it only in one-dimensional terms. In fact, in every God, one will find features of other ones. Likewise, in every religion, there are features of other ones.
As to the attitudes of participants towards religion, it seems that many participants, whose background is probably very religious, were experiencing some sort of assessment of their own beliefs and of the foundations of their religions. While this attitude could be only a common feature of all youth going through an emotional and intellectual maturity process, it could also be a fact confirming the general growing trend of Americans objecting to being associated with a religion. In fact, the general tendency of the participants seems to confirm the findings that the number of Americans declaring of no religious obedience has doubled during the last ten years. However, while the participants did not exactly claim not to be of a religious obedience, as the question was never at issue, they did not seem to be comfortable with the idea of being democratic, to believe in the separation of religion from politics and at the same time claim obedience to a religion while religion is being abused for political purposes in their country.
However, while many participants were aware of the use of religious – biblical – discourse in politics, few were aware of the misuses of such discourse to manipulate populations for political purposes. Likewise, while many participants seemed to be aware of the great influence of religious lobbies in the making of political decisions in the USA, beginning with the choice of who will be the president and who will rule what and have which responsibilities, very few saw in such presence an effort of excluding others or an effort at maintaining some economic and financial interests on top of US politics and decision making. In one case, a participant mentioned the relationship between some religious associations and politics on the one hand and between these two and big business, oil companies, show-business and the military industry.
An analysis of the discussions reveals some sense of collective guilt for the actions of the government. In some cases, participants compared themselves / their own government to others that were condemned for awful crimes against humanity. The use of “we” when participants are actually talking of their government is contrasted to the use of the same “we” when they refer to themselves as members of a nation, of a community. The “we” in each case is different from the other. The two are opposed to each other. This dichotomy is felt by the participants who are proud of being American but who feel guilty of what their governments have become responsible for at times and of what they have undertaken in their names.
A feeling which drew my attention as well as that of non US participants, is the perception of others as somehow guilty and deserving some sort of punishment. The participants have, however, never expressed the nature of this guilt of others in quite clear terms which may suggest that it might be not so precise in their minds either. It is a sense of being threatened. This dual feeling of being guilty and of perceiving others as guilty of a potential threat seems to be expressed in terms of responsibilities that have not been assumed and responsibilities that have to be assumed. At the end of the meetings, a consensus usually develops among the participants that their difficulties to grasp, understand and cope with these dichotomies is the result of a biased and poor educational system, a biased, too-powerful and manipulating media network and an ambiguous political system.
The American educational system is said not to train in critical thinking, in opinion formation nor in the skills necessary to learn about the rest of the world and to come to conciliatory attitudes with the differences that make up the various cultures and civilizations of the world. Practically all participants are highly critical of their educational system which, they claim, has concealed realities from them, developed in them an indecent sort of pride and patriotism that become very fast the ground in which thrive hatred and scorn of others. When American youth discover the rest of the world and learn that intelligence, culture, civilization, art, generosity, diversity and tolerance exist elsewhere too; their disappointment with their educational system and with the ideology behind it takes pathological forms.
In some cases, the feeling is further complicated by the awareness that their country is generous and doing good as well. The argument of ignorance, the media are responsible, the educational system is bad, etc. seemed at times to take the form of an apology, a catharsis. In any case, “the USA is after all better than other countries that are completely undemocratic” is a note that seems to balance the opposing poles of the dichotomy.
In some other cases, the American participants who obviously think of themselves as open minded and tolerant, are stunned to hear that for many others, they are not. This discovery is disturbing. But throughout the discussion and certainly as a result of their already rich albeit extremely short experience of cultural difference, both American and Moroccan participants mature up and learn to think in relative terms. Habits and attitudes, they learn very fast, originate in a set of objective limiting factors such as time, income, availability of resources and of energy, mobility, education, information systems, etc.
An example is the independence of Americans which can be/has been perceived as selfishness in some cases. In Morocco, for instance, members of a family and of a community depend on each other for almost everything. They also expect and accept the dependence of others on them. When they meet Americans whose attitudes are more independent, they tend to judge them rather harshly. They understand neither that the Americans do not appreciate others to depend on them nor that they themselves depend on others.
In the past, travel was rather limited among Moroccans compared to the high mobility of American people. Because of this difference, the two people have developed different attitudes towards their social environment and towards other people. Many Moroccans have neighbors for decades, at times for generations. Likewise, many Moroccans never change their jobs and work in the same place all their lives. Many take up their family’s business and work in the same places as have worked their ancestors. The American way of life is different and calls upon people to move more often and to work with more different people. These objective differences in the way of life enhance different attitudes towards people. A Moroccan who moves to a new house expects and is expected to live in it for a long time. The behavior he/she will have with neighbors will necessarily be different from one who has changed homes frequently and who expects to change in the near future. Emotional investment in human relations takes risk into account. It is consented only to the extent that a minimal return over a valid period of time is secured. Comparing the emotional charge of two people living under different conditions would then seem to be inappropriate.
Many Moroccans perceive Americans as being always in a hurry and not available when they want to be with them, etc. The judgments that follow do not usually take into account that the time constraints under which the two cultures work could be different. The concept of advanced scheduling and precise deadlines does not mean the same in both cultures. While an American will tell you “let’s meet Monday at three fifteen”, a Moroccan may tell you “let’s meet at the beginning of the week some time in the afternoon or after three”. Of course, businesses, schools and the administration work with precisely set schedules and deadlines, but the attitudes of many people do not always make it easy to follow the schedules and to meet all deadlines. You will hear ‘we’re running behind schedule’ in more Moroccan conferences than in US conferences. Likewise, you may be more disappointed by the organization procedures of a conference in Morocco than in the USA unless you take it for granted that cultures will operate on different concepts of time, of place, and of deadlines. This, too, does not mean that the conferences organized in Morocco will be necessarily of a lesser quality but only that they may be run with different attitudes given all the objective differences that intervene in their organization.
Another area in which cultural specificity enters into play is the workplace. The issues of teamwork, of leadership, of bottom-up and top-down decision making systems are, for example, all of a cultural nature. History has a lot to do with it. Seeking personal acknowledgement and feeling hurt when one’s name has not been mentioned in association with the success of a team is also a cultural variable. In soccer, many players resist the temptation of scoring themselves even when they play in defense positions. Others will try to score and miss while it would have been more reasonable to pass the ball to a colleague in a better position to shoot. This, too, is an indicator of a cultural feature. Examples can be multiplied from the work place, the management of NGOs, volunteer groups and from sports.
What kind of employee would, for example, top executives recruit in two countries with such cultural differences? One would recruit an employee who swears loyalty to the top executive; the other one who sees himself as a member of team. What if these employees are to be stationed in a country of the other culture in which they would be expected to work with counterparts from the other culture? Would they have to impose their own ways and own values on each other? Would the guest accept and adapt to the values and ways of the host? Will both try to adapt to each other? Which procedures / protocols should be adopted to come to good and efficient working grounds? When one of the parties does not take any of these issues in account, conflict breaks and unnecessary loss of time, energy and opportunities occurs.
In Morocco, there are traditions of teamwork and of collective performance for the community. These traditions, however, do not seem to have migrated with individuals to modern enterprises. In fact, enterprises in Morocco are essentially family organizations run by a powerful father figure who knows it all and who does it all. The management approaches do not adopt any collective or collaborative procedure to decision making. Decisions are made by the boss and any one who dares advise otherwise will be considered as rebellious and will be treated as such be he/she son or daughter. The best employees are the most obedient and the most respectful of the boss’s ideas and choices.
An important feature of the executive culture in Morocco is meetings. People are always in meetings in which they are told about decisions and about how to have things done. After each meeting, other meetings are scheduled to cascade what has been talked about.
Another problem is delegation of powers and authorities. When you do not delegate, you have to do the job yourself. This is exactly what many top executives end up doing. They end up doing everyone’s jobs which means they work long days, over weekends, etc. This is also an easier way for claiming any credit for the success of their missions. In cases of failure, they can always complain that there are no competent collaborators they can rely on.
At the evaluation session of a workshop I had conducted on communication, a participant complained that while participants had come to learn from the professor, the latter ended up learning from them. He did not appreciate that I did not lecture all the time and that participants had to pull into groups to discuss some issues and report on them later to the whole group. As far as he was concerned, all I did was to wait for the participants to present their reports to come in and draw conclusions they already knew. This participant was a few years from retirement; he had made his way up to engineer-ship through a combination of seniority, rigorous implementation of decisions and unfaltering obedience to top management.
After this first reaction to the workshop, another person, perhaps as old, expressed a completely opposite opinion. He felt empowered throughout the workshop and appreciated the learning opportunities which working in multidisciplinary groups provided him with for the two weeks of the workshop. He also perceived the fact that the workshop leader did not lecture in a completely different way. This participant was also an engineer but who went to Moroccan universities as well as to French and American universities. He had also studied management in the United States.
The two opinions were not determined by any absolute quality of the workshop or of the performance of the workshop leader; rather, it was the expectations of each participant of such a communicative event that made the difference.
One of the aspects of the workshop which the first evaluator did not like, and which he did not say at first, was that his own social status as he himself perceived it – age and administrative seniority, was not comforted. He did not expect younger colleagues to discuss his opinions nor to be in a position to learn from them. He also did not appreciate that there was no hierarchy that could impose decisions. It was enough for a decision to have been made at the top of the administrative pyramid to be sound enough and to have to be adhered to. In other words, this participant did not approve of the idea of sharing authorities and of distributing powers among a team of co-workers. Every social function had to remain still. The moment you touch one, the others will be affected. The teacher had to stick to an image; otherwise the image of the students would have to change, too. This is what he did not want.
Sharing authorities and redistributing powers entail not only democratic procedures but also democratic attitudes and capabilities. Accepting democratic rule entails accepting being voted out. As a cultural factor, democracy entails that members of the same community are first of all equal, then that they will resort to some standard procedures for settling their conflicts and for making decisions. Each of these values jeopardizes the status quo in many ways. This means that unless the culture of democracy is well rooted in a society, it would be irrelevant to talk about bottom up procedures, sharing authorities and participating in making decisions at any level or function of that society.
The current discussions of political and anthropological scientists accompanying the negotiations of the Iraqi constitution as well as the ideological debates among the various protagonists inform of the fallacy of positing that negotiation and decision making procedures can travel and apply to all contexts. Concepts, which are historical in nature, acquire sociological momentums which can hardly have for/in the same cultural or political referential in two different societies. The concepts of federalism, for instance, which are at the basis of the strength of some countries evoke weakness to many Iraqis who see in them the attempt to weaken some components of their society as well as the intrigues of some foreign powers to subdue them so as to maintain their hegemony on their country.
Likewise, to what extent can you promote some values in one sector and not in others? Let’s take teamwork. In a community in which leadership is inherited, real political power is centralized and immutable; legislation is enshrined within narrow margins, and interpretation of referential texts is limited to a few, you can hardly start talking of democracy without breaching fundamental laws.
Selection is part of communication. You choose to visit some places, to talk about some issues and to some people. When you do not choose for yourself, others will choose for you and you will have the experience they want you to have. When you choose what to talk about you also choose what not to talk about. Bias finds its more damaging roots in such selection.
Why should I believe a person and not another one? What makes a person talking about a subject or a culture more credible than another one? I need to find answers to these questions. I am sure with a little critical thinking you will understand that there are stakes talking about any subject. So, I need to start by identifying the stakes, the stakeholders, the interests, the competition involved, the conflicts, etc.
I will also understand that some people talk to me better than others and some can get their word to me and others cannot. Not an easy job for me to make up my mind and construct my own opinion about issues. History can be a place to begin with. Then, I cannot be a polyvalent historian; my knowledge cannot be of an encyclopedic nature. Likewise, I also need to be sensitive to the inherent cultural dimensions of every language I speak to other people and they speak to me. It is a dilemma.
The British, for instance, unlike Arabs, use language in such ways that it conceals their emotions and hides their actual purpose. The intention of a British commentator is to be sought not in what he says but in how he says it. What does ‘interesting’ mean when you comment on something saying ‘well , this is quite an interesting idea.’ Does this mean that you wish to follow on it? Does it mean that you think it is irrelevant to your expectations?
Do all the people who have to work together have the same understandings of the social functions they have to assume in their respective positions? Does, for instance, a French manager have the same attitude towards leadership as do her American, British and Chinese counterparts? It seems that they do not. Their judgments of each other are therefore based on references that are not necessarily applicable to the situations of their counterparts. It is because the social functions are not similar that procedures for pursuing and achieving goals are different. This also means that people from different cultures will not judge others from other cultures in the same way. This further difficulty increases the risks of misunderstanding and therefore of misbehaving. In fact, a Moroccan will not judge an Italian the way an American will judge her.
The expectations of Moroccan students from their teachers and professors are not the same as those of Americans from their professors. This is why Moroccan students have difficulties adjusting to US universities and professors and American students who attended classes in Morocco were not comfortable with the whole school environment.
What does one expect from a coach or a human resource manager? In some cultures, the expectation is to help one perform at one’s best. In ideal situations, the coach or the manager would endeavour to reduce the distance between one’s potential and one’s actual performance. In other cultures, the expectation is to be given a job and to be told what to do. Trying to push an employee to unleash his potential will backfire as picking up on him.
A group of people have been enrolled in an in-service training program. Their employer pays for them and has agreed that the training takes place during working hours. The people drop out of the program. They did it for computer, language, communication and management courses. What do you make of this? The error is perhaps in offering such training to all employees without any discrimination on the basis of motivation, potential to learn and grow professionally, identification with the missions of the enterprise, etc. Such waste of energy could have been better used in more productive ways had a preliminary diagnosis been conducted to identify more positive potential.
An employer who cannot promote her employees, nor fire them, nor request any proof of adequate performance from them, is an employer who can hardly motivate her employees. Both employer and employee will develop a working culture that is different from one that is based on performance, gratification and sanction. The kind of relationship that will develop between the two will also be different. When you cannot motivate your employees by making them in some way share the benefits of the success of the enterprise, you will be sure that those whose potential is great will seek to go elsewhere for a more gratifying career. In the Moroccan public service, the authority of a boss over employees is different from that of his/her American counterpart. The result is that the culture and the attitudes towards work, towards performance and towards achieving objectives are different in the two conditions.
Do people really understand each other when they use the same words? When people are talking of a diagnosis and they seem to agree on what the symptoms are, what the remedies should be and which follow ups to pursue, are they really talking about the same things? Not necessarily! People talk of development, of democracy, of communication, of management, of performance, of stock market, etc., do they hear the same words?
It is easy to check. One could start with dictionaries. Even at this very formal level, there are major discrepancies. In Morocco, there seems to be a consensus that the flaws impeding economic performance are the poor quality of the educational system, a faulty judicial system, an underdeveloped communication system, and an inadequate and incompetent management. The difficulty starts when you wish to define what each of these flaws really refers to. You would tell people were speaking different languages. However, in the case of speaking foreign languages, people are more cautious in jumping to conclusions than when they think they are speaking the same language.
In the UK, executive managers are mostly accountants. The annual budget is their major management instrument. When the measures of performance are the same or when they are applied by people with different professional profiles and whose priorities are not the same, communication failures are to be expected.
Furthermore, the differences of the judicial systems make international ventures difficult. A US citizen will claim the same rights and privileges his own courts of law guarantee him and will expect all judicial systems to go by the rules of American courts. The British and American business laws are an interesting case to consider.
To end this section on cultural expectations and on how they fashion attitudes, social organization and behavior, let me frame the question of religion and what it means to different people : in Islam, salvation is by good deeds and faith. Religion is equated to good deeds and good behavior towards others. Justice, equity and consultation are fundamental principles in Islam both at the personal level and at the social and political levels. How do Muslims expect salvation to be achieved in other religions?
 All these attributes can be easily verified through the Internet.
 This is an exaggeration to illustrate a difference in attitude towards time.
The book, Reflections on the formation of Western opinions, stereotypes and attitudes about Islam and Arabs, published in 2005 is based on a series of reports on Cross Culture seminars the author had conducted at LangCom during academic year 2004-2005. Over two hundred participants from various American universities and many Moroccan university students and English language teacher trainees from ENS Rabat took part in these seminars.
The seminars were a rare opportunity for both Moroccan and American participants to exchange ideas, opinions and attitudes about Islam, Arabism, and the various stereotypes that have come to be associated with them especially after the 9/11 aftermath and the two Gulf wars. They have also been an exceptional occasion for the participants to share thoughts and feelings about the various concepts associated with globalization, westernization and the new challenges of the communication era. The chapters are thus to be read as reports of these seminars.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy