Issue 190: 2019 02 21: Ignore Culture

21 February 2019

Ignore Culture

At your peril.

By Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

Why don’t we take culture seriously?  By “culture” I mean what we think of when we talk about cross-cultural differences between immigrants and natives or between the people of one country and another. Is it because we think it is absurd to believe that all 83 million Germans, say, behave in one way, which is somehow significantly different from the way all their 67 million French neighbours behave?  It is indeed absurd to think this.  But surely it is not wrong to believe that a large, sometimes very large, group of people are held together by a common set of values and by a behavioural code.  Such a group is seldom contained solely or wholly within the borders of one country.  After all, the nation state is a very modern construct and the set of values which can bind people together will have developed over centuries.  Even so, we need labels when describing the world.  Hence, I have found it useful during a career spent working internationally to find out what seem to be the causes for why so many (but by no means all) people of one nationality think or behave in a certain way.  Yet so many people I know simply refuse to accept that culture is important when conducting business across borders.  I can point to contracts that colleagues and I have won largely because we knew how to negotiate in a way which made the people on the other side of the table trust us.  Similarly, I can think of business lost because our competitors handled our partners in a more culturally appropriate way.  This is not about cultural etiquette.  Frankly, knowing that in Japan it is considered disgusting to blow your nose on a handkerchief which you then put back in your pocket, or that in Saudi Arabia you had better not show the soles of your feet, is not going to help you much.  But knowing in both countries when, where, how and to whom to give bad news, to disagree or to reject a proposal can be crucial to whether you leave with a deal or without one.  And your chances of success are even greater if you have tried to find out why the people you are negotiating with think and operate the way they do.  You can then anticipate their likely reaction to your own attitudes and behaviour.

Two things that have happened to me in the last month prompted me to ask myself once again why so few people take culture seriously.  One concerned the reaction of a British friend to something I wrote in an article in Shaw Sheet on 17th January.  The second was after reading an article of 11 February by the BBC’s Simon Stone on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United’s caretaker manager.

In my Shaw Sheet article, I had tried to show that French society is not nearly as unequal as the French themselves, notably the gilets jaunes, think it is.  I said this:

“INSEE, France’s Statistics Institute, recently showed that France has one of the lowest levels of inequality in Europe.  Only in Sweden is the gap between the richest and the poorest narrower.  The gross income of the richest 10% in France is 22 times that of the bottom 10%.  But the net income of the richest French, i.e. after taking into account all direct taxes and benefits, is only 6 times that of the poorest.  Both the Swedes and the French pay high taxes (and both complain endlessly that they do) but only the Swedes, it seems, appreciate that they get so many State-paid benefits as a result.  There is a significant cultural difference between the two peoples which may explain why most French are convinced that their richer compatriots are much richer than they actually are.  Woe betide any rich Swede who flaunts their wealth.  Contrast that with the rich Parisian who is only too keen for you to imagine that their bank account is stuffed with euros.”

I regret adding this suggestion as to why most Swedes accept that there is not much inequality in their society when most French don’t.  I now realise that my British friend simply did not want to believe INSEE’s statistics.  They did not conform with his view of the French, one which reckons the national motto – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité –merely shows the utter hypocrisy of France’s Paris-based elite.  But rather than question the statistics, he tried to undermine my argument by doubting that rich Swedes are constrained by society from showing off their wealth.  I let him finish, pointed out that he did not appear to disagree with my comment on rich Parisians, and then told him about Jante Law.

No, Jante is not Jude’s brother.  It’s the name of a fictitious town in Denmark.  In 1933, Danish author Aksel Sandemose published a satirical novel – A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks.  Jante – the imaginary small Danish port featured in his novel – was based on his home town.  Jante’s inhabitants live by their own version of the Ten Commandments.  Sandemose called this Jante Law, which include:

You shall not think you are special;

You shall not think you are cleverer than us;

You shall not think you can teach us anything.

Sandemose was attacking an unwritten egalitarian social code which had existed for centuries in all three Scandinavian countries and survives to this day.  Few young Swedes, Danes or Norwegians I have asked have read Sandemose’s book.  But nearly all know of Jante Law and can list some of its ten admonishments.  Swedes in particular, I have found, will refer to it when trying to explain their culture to foreigners like me.  Sandemose himself, fed up with a code he perceived as stifling and demotivating, had already moved from Denmark to Norway when he wrote the novel.  I have always found this strange, as he cannot have found the attitudes much different across the Skagerrak strait; perhaps it was because his mother had come from Norway.  Linked to the Norwegian Resistance during World War Two, he fled to Sweden, returning to Norway later.  He died in Denmark and is buried in Norway.  A Scandinavian indeed.

Scandinavians have learned that to survive and prosper they must both be independent-minded and yet work closely with others in their community.  Most are individualists who love nothing better than doing activities on their own – hunting, skiing, fishing and sailing.  Yet they are taught from an early age that they need to work constructively with others if community or national projects are going to succeed.  Strong individualism and a consultative approach are common traits.

But being an individualist and standing up for yourself does not mean you should boast of your expertise or knowledge.  Never.  Scandinavians tend to feel instinctively suspicious of people who push themselves forward, behave extravagantly, or boast about their achievements.  Modesty is the personal quality that they seem to value above all else; and if you describe one of them as ordinary, they will probably regard it as a compliment.

For nine years up to the end of 2017 I was a visiting lecturer at the Stockholm School of Economics at its campus in Riga, an island of Swedishness in Latvia.  A Brit, living in France, I had to remind myself on each visit how best to work with the Swedish faculty and administrators – listen to and consider all ideas, however silly; consult with everyone, however junior, before making a proposal or taking a decision; be modest when claiming knowledge or expertise.

I first learned of the importance of Jante Law in Swedish culture in the early 1980s.  I was teaching presentation skills to five Swedish engineers at Ericsson’s Head Office in Stockholm.  When the participants had finished preparing their first short presentation, I asked each of them in turn to stand up in front of the group and deliver their talk.  “Anders, why don’t you go first?”  Anders smiled, turned to the others and said something to them in Swedish.  I didn’t understand a word of the short discussion which followed.  But I noticed that everyone contributed to it.  Anders then turned to me, smiled again and said:  “Actually, Richard, we think Erik should go first.”  During the coffee break, I asked the group why they had been so surprised when I asked Anders to go first.  They explained that in Sweden, teachers were always careful not to do anything that would make them appear authoritarian.  “You see,” said Anders,  “I couldn’t possibly go first without consulting the others.  I would have felt that I was pushing myself forward.   And that kind of behaviour is totally unacceptable in Sweden.”

If you are a follower of English Premier League football, you may now realise why I am going to turn to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.  The former Manchester United player and coach was asked in December by the club to temporarily leave his management position at Molde in his home country, Norway, and take over as manager from the self-styled Special One, the Portuguese José Mourinho.  It now looks ever more likely that Solskjaer won’t be returning to Norway to work any time soon.  In the thirteen games that he has been in charge, Manchester United have only lost once.  Simon Stone, in his BBC article, asked how Solskjaer had managed to do what no other United manager had done, not even his mentor, the great Sir Alex Ferguson.  He started with recalling Solskjaer’s time as a player:

“When he went home to Norway, he would always come back with chocolate bars to give to those staff members whose hard work at the club largely goes unseen.  So, when Solskjaer turned up on Thursday, 20 December, he repeated the gesture.  Receptionist Kath Phipps, who has worked at United for over half a century, was the first recipient.  But there were others.  This was not a show of extravagance – Solskjaer was doing what came naturally.”

Indeed.  He was behaving as one would expect a Norwegian to behave.  Stone went on to describe how Solskjaer insisted that he went to the United staff party that same evening and, unannounced, sat with some 500 people, not one of them a footballer, and took questions.  Later on, Stone wrote this:

“Solskjaer has made it his business to talk with every section of the club, whether moving around the tables at a Unicef dinner at Old Trafford or visiting the Manchester United age-group women’s teams in training and posing for photos in the rain with as many girls and parents as possible.  Some of those watching didn’t even recognise the discreet Old Trafford boss.”

The contrast with the mercurial, pugnacious Special One could not be greater.  Mourinho is a great manager.  He has won 25 major titles.  But his time with United must be considered a blotch on his record.

Stone does not seem to consider Solskjaer’s national culture to be a factor in explaining why he has proved so successful since his return to Manchester United.  Perhaps it did not occur to him.  I am quite sure neither the American owners of the club, the Glazers, nor those who run it day-to-day, Ed Woodward and Richard Arnold, will have thought it relevant either.  Yet Solskjaer is doing what, as Stone says, he does naturally.  He’s following Jante Law.  And it seems to fit with the culture of the club.  Unlike Mourinho’s style.

What do you think of “You shall not think you are special”, José?

If only United’s owners and administrators had taken culture seriously, they might never have appointed Mourinho in the first place.  Ignoring culture can seriously damage your wealth.


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