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 Culture Matters

Every Cloud Has What?


By Craig Storti

C
Consider the fol- things aren’t very good, doesn’t interest Americans; they
lowing exchange between prefer to see things the way they could be. If optimism is
an American and a German: your starting point in life—always looking on the bright
SUSAN: Did you see the fourth side, the glass is half full, and every cloud has a silver lin-
quarter sales figures yet? ing—then naturally people like Horst, who are merely
HORST: Yes. Rather bad; down realistic, will come across to you as pessimistic. And true
a third from last year. pessimists will no doubt strike you as downright cynics.
SUSAN: We really took a beating. Let’s consider how Americans got this way. A good
HORST: Yes. We did very poorly. part of the explanation deals with a concept we have
SUSAN: Oh, well. We might discussed earlier in this space, locus of control. Locus
as well look on the bright side; of control deals with issues of cause and effect and who
things can only go up from here. or what is ultimately responsible for what happens in
HORST: I’m not so sure; the figures could go either way. life. Cultures, for a variety of reasons, tend to fall into
SUSAN: Sure, but no point in being gloomy though, one of two camps on this issue: the internalists and the
is there? externalists. Some typical sentiments of these two camps
HORST: What do you mean? are laid out below:
Horst is taken aback by being
called “gloomy,” since there is clearly
INTERNALIST EXTERNALIST
no basis in fact —or in the figures—
for that characterization. Gloomy Activism, interventionism. What happens Fatalism, stoicism. Some things are just
in life is primarily up to you; the individual not meant to be, no matter how hard you
would mean he’s being negative, look-
is in control in most cases; things happen try. The individual can influence/control
ing at the situation as worse than it is. because you “make” them happen, and if they many situations, but there are other things
But he’s not. are not happening, then you “do something” you can’t do anything about and must just
The situation isn’t very good— about the situation; there is never any real accept. Sometimes failure is unavoidable
Susan herself says “We really took a excuse for why something can’t be done in spite of your efforts; some limits are real
beating”—and both speakers agree (except laziness or you just gave up). The only and not self-imposed; sometimes your luck
limits to what you can achieve are internal, is good, sometimes not; some problems do
the figures could go either way. The
those you impose on yourself; failure means not have a solution; that’s just how it is.
only fair reading of this exchange, you didn’t try hard enough; there’s no such Possibilities are circumscribed; you don’t
then, is to say Horst is being realistic, thing as luck; you make your own luck. Fate always get another chance. Life is in part
objective—describing the situation as and destiny can be transcended by individual what happens to you.
neither better nor worse than the fig- will and determination. Life is what I do.
ures suggest. If you’re going to accuse
Horst of something, you could accuse
him of being a realist, but you can’t accuse him of being a While individuals in a particular culture can end up
pessimist, which is why he’s surprised to be labeled gloomy. anywhere along the continuum, it is possible to plot the
Although there are no facts to support Susan, most position of national cultures. I have asked people from
American readers would probably agree with her, for one all over the world in training events to do just that for
very simple reason: Americans are not realists. In fact, their society in general, and the results have been remark-
they’re unabashed and unapologetic optimists. There’s ably consistent. Typically, the cultures of the Middle
nothing wrong with being an optimist, of course, but East, southern Europe, and Latin America tend to be
optimists should never be relied upon to see things the medium to strong externalists, while North Americans
way they are. The truth is the way things are, especially if and most northern Europeans tend to be medium to

10 Pro f iles in D iversit y Journa l M A R C H / A P R I L 2 0 11


strong internalists. If you informed an American that a massive asteroid was
The Luck Factor
The Germans, hurtling toward earth at 125,000 miles an hour and that
In their book The Seven Cultures of such as our friend in twelve weeks the planet would be blown to smithereens,
Capitalism, Trompenaars and Hampden-
Turner report on a survey wherein respon-
Horst, usually fall he would say: ‘Really? In that case, I suppose I’d better
dents were asked whether they agreed with somewhere in the sign up for that Mediterranean cooking class now.’”*
statement A. or B. in the following pairs: middle. Back to Susan and Horst. Germans tend to be a com-
A. It is not always wise to plan too far If you read the bination of internalist and externalist which makes them
ahead because many things turn out to internalist para- neither especially optimistic nor pessimistic. They believe
be a matter of good or bad fortune. graph closely, it’s it’s very important to be objective, analyzing all aspects of
B. When I make plans, I am almost
certain I can make them work.
easy to see why a situation with cool detachment and a generous dash of
these folks would skepticism to be on the safe side, since things are almost
A. Many times I feel that I have little tend toward op- never as good as they look. And voila: Horst the Gloomy.
influence over the things that happen timism. If what In the American workplace, realists don’t fare all that
to me. happens in life well; they’re “negative,” “skeptical,” “defeatist,” they “bring
B. It is impossible for me to believe that is basically up to everybody down.” They’re always looking at why some-
chance or luck plays an important role in
my life.
you, and if you can thing won’t work instead of figuring out how it could
always do some- work. Go to an American boss with a problem, and she’ll
A. Most people don’t realize the extent thing even about ask you what the solution is. And if you don’t have one,
to which their lives are controlled by those things that you’ll be made to feel foolish. In many business cultures,
accidental happenings. are not up to you, identifying a problem is a significant contribution to the
B. There really is no such thing as “luck.” then there is no enterprise, whether or not you’ve got a solution.
Out of the 12 countries surveyed*, more
excuse not to be But in a can-do culture like America, we actually don’t
Americans (68 percent) agreed with state- positive and opti- have problems; rather, we have opportunities, challenges,
ment B than any other nationality. mistic. If anything and issues. A problem sounds too much like something
unfortunate hap- intractable, a situation that can’t be resolved and just has
*Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, pens, then just do to be accepted.
Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, something about So what are the implications of all this for today’s
Singapore, Sweden, United Kingdom, USA.
it. Indeed, people workplaces? Just this: People are judged by the prevailing
Hampden-Turner, Charles and Trompenaars, who don’t do any- norms. If you work in an environment where the prevail-
Alfons. 1993. The Seven Cultures of thing about their ing norm is to be optimistic, such as many U.S. worksites,
Capitalism. New York: Doubleday, p. 65. unfortunate cir- and you happen to be a realist, be prepared for taking
cumstances, who some flack and even being branded as defeatist or nega-
simply lament, are tive. If you work in an environment where the prevailing
widely regarded as whiners, people who would rather norm is to be realistic and you’re an optimistic American,
complain than act, and they get very little sympathy you may not be seen as trustworthy, and your views may
from most Americans. If you are ultimately in control of be discounted. PDJ
your destiny and you don’t like the destiny you’ve landed
in, then take matters into your own hands.
“The American attitude to life,” Bill Bryson has ob- Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural
communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India,
served, “is remarkably upbeat and lacking in negativity.
describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together
with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at:
* Bill Bryson, 1999. I’m A Stranger Here Myself. New York: Broadway Books. pp287-88 craig@craigstorti.com or learn more at his website: craigstorti.com.

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