Culture Resource Centre

Rules are Rules, Right?

Rules are rules right

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About the question if the same Rules Apply across Cultures

Just in case you thought that rules, morals and laws were universal… think again. Different cultures can have very different ideas as to how rules, morals, and laws should be applied causing much cross-cultural surprise, confusion and frustration.

Societies that value uniformity, also feel that rules, morals and laws should apply to everyone. There seems to be a belief that what is good or true can be discovered, defined, and applied to every situation. We call these societies universalist cultures. Cultures that don’t value uniformity believe that rules, morals, and laws may or may not apply, depending on mitigating circumstances, relationships and friendships. These people look at relationships and circumstances in a specific situation to decide what is right. We call these societies particularist cultures. Both universalist and particularist cultures feel strongly that their way is the ‘right’ way: it can often cause a lot of misunderstandings when representatives of both cultures meet and work together.

A Classic dilemma – Trompenaars’ Pedestrian

An almost classic example to explain universalist and particularist cultures comes from the business consultant Trompenaars (1): You are in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 60 km per hour in an area where the maximum allowed speed is 40 km per hour. You are the only witness. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 40 km per hour, you will save him from serious consequences.

The dilemma that Trompenaars wants to address is: What right has your friend to expect you to protect him? The question he asks is: What do you think you would do in view of the obligations of a sworn witness and the obligation to your friend? Do you A. Testify that he was doing 40 km per hour, or B. Not testify that he was doing 40 km per hour because he is your friend. Of the countries surveyed, respondents in for example Australia, USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, and the USA selected that it is more important to follow the law than to protect a friend. Respondents in Brazil, Cuba, France, Spain, Poland, Mexico, and Venezuela selected that it is more important to help a friend than to uphold a law when a choice must be made. Those in China, Indonesia, India, South Korea, China, Japan and Singapore are even more inclined to defend a friendship than uphold the law.

So Does This Apply To Work Situations?

Consider the following situation: a recruitment manager hires a relative or friend because of their close relationship. The friend is chosen outside of the formal recruitment process, regardless of their abilities – and ahead of a more qualified non-relative. Universalist cultures would probably interpret this negatively and call it nepotism or in the case of public office, cronyism. Particularist cultures would probably interpret it as common sense – of course you would choose a friend, someone you know and trust …

Or imagine a different situation where an IT specialist finds that a direct colleague and friend from his team has made a serious mistake because he did not follow procedures. This resulted in substantial financial costs for the client. When questioned by the manager, the IT specialist claimed he has no knowledge of what his colleague had done – supporting and possibly clearing his colleague by not saying what he had witnessed…

Australians, like Americans, the English, and Nordic and Germanic Europeans, have a universalist approach to business. They will often rely on a contract to communicate the terms of an agreement and to define the relationship between relevant parties. Strong universalist cultures use the court to mediate conflicts: The USA has significantly more lawyers per head of population than any other country. The more universalist a country is, the greater the need to protect the truth over harmony. In particularist cultures such as the Chinese countries, or countries in Southern Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa, the legal contract communicates a starting point for an agreement. As circumstances changes, so do the terms of the agreement. In these cultures, legal contracts are not necessarily binding just because something is written down on paper. The situation and individuals involved often define the business relationship. The approach is based on logic of the heart, harmony and human friendship rather than paper contracts.

When universalist business people agree on a contract relating to a high value deal there are usually lawyers involved to ensure that every detail is protected. What impact do these practices have in countries where relationships and building trust is often more important than the written contract? If, when working internationally, we sense for example that the terms of a contract or an agreement are not being followed, perhaps we need to consider and agree which rules do apply, the universalist or the particularist.

1. Trompenaars, Hampden-Turner (1997). Riding the Waves of Culture, Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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