Australia in context: the cross-cultural imperative

In its recent political past, events in Australia have served  to remind us of the dangers inherent in cultural "encapsulation", to borrow a phrase from Wrenn (1985), a state of mind which prevents people from becoming sensitive to cultural variations among individuals and from accepting the legitimacy of other world views. Wrenn's description of encapsulation applies with terrifying accuracy to the now infamous former member for Oxley, Pauline Hanson:

"Such a person holds unreasoned assumptions which are accepted without proof and protected without regard to rationality, and may favour professional roles which further contribute to and preserve the encapsulation... Without the possibility of evaluating other viewpoints, the culturally encapsulated person bears no responsibility to accommodate or interpret the behaviour of others except through self-reference criteria."

Scrutiny of Wrenn's aptly named "self-reference  criteria", filters through which the external world is examined and understood, soon reveals how common is the tendency to generalise, even universalise, from the standpoint of one's own experience.  While this may just pass muster in more homogeneous societies, it fails to cope with the complexity of highly diverse societies like Australia.

The first imperative of cross-cultural training is therefore to ensure a way of understanding diversity and its impacts in a wide variety of social situations, not to defend diversity per se.

Judging by a single example, the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal cultures  in the face of modernity, diversity is here to stay.  Whether it is A  Good Thing or not appears to depend on which radio station you listen to. I was always fond  of saying that multiculturalism was an acknowledgement in public policy terms of the diversity that had always been Australia.  What we are seeing now is the withdrawal of that acknowledgement accompanied by a subtle change of rhetoric, and, some fear, with a change in public policy to follow. The fact of diversity remains incontrovertible, though attempts to deny it through heavy emphasis on the so-called mainstream are a feature of the current controversy. To understand the nature of the change in rhetoric, look at how the word mainstream is being used, and by whom.

The emphasis on the mainstream is eerily reminiscent of the guiding principle of the White Australia policy, that "social harmony could be preserved provided that in the longer term, ethnic differences could be erased."  The longer term is now, but the differences remain, all attempts to erase them having failed.  This was predictable because assimilation is the third of three pseudo-solutions to an issue conceptualised as a problem: the problem of inter-ethnic conflict.

1. Eliminate the people - genocide

2. Eliminate the contact - apartheid

3. Eliminate the differences - assimilation

Assimilation is attractive because its promise is dramatically to simplify the tasks all Australians, whatever their background,  now face in accommodating and communicating with the diversity of people and views  they meet daily in  Australian schools, law courts, industry, commerce and tourism.

So the second imperative is that, in the interests of the efficient and effective functioning of all sectors of society, if not in the name of commonsense and humanity, Australians all develop and expand a repertoire of skills, including communicative competencies which are cross-culturally viable, which allow you to understand and be understood, and, crucially to identify and build upon what is held in common, not what is different.

Assumptions that what is different divides, is divisive, have recently resurfaced.  This may well be one outcome of the widespread adoption of a "cultural differences" framework for  cross-cultural training in the 20-odd years since multiculturalism was first promoted in the late 1970s.  This framework accompanied the promotion of the simple pluralist model of culture, which emphasised the enrichment of Australia by the addition of different peoples to the society and exotic foods to the national diet.  Attractive at first glance in its encouragement of pride in one's identity, in its celebration of the diversity of Australia for its own sake, it soon degenerated into a "feel good" philosophy, and still failed to address the contribution to nation building of generations of immigrants, the status and sovereignty of Aborigines, and underlying structural issues of access to the society and equity of outcome.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to identify what is left once the exotic becomes the everyday, and people tire of having diversity per se served up as something worthwhile: the same old views of mainstream and minority which were there at the start, with minor adjustments to language which themselves are under attack as instances of political correctness (window dressing) when the underlying views remain unchanged.

I attribute my own sadness at present, and that of so many others in the field of cross-cultural education, to the fact that we are belatedly confronting how little may actually have  changed since the early 1970s; that people may actually have been mouthing social niceties in public which caused tooth-gnashing disquiet in private.

While much cross-cultural education still rests on the "cultural differences" approach, it also rests on a narrow view of culture, often espoused unknowingly,  its adherents  blissfully ignorant of its  implications for maintaining the status quo in power terms.  "If culture refers exclusively to narrowly defined specific categories such as nationality or ethnicity then culture be considered a method of analysis.  The cultural method can (then) be applied to the encounter of specific groups with one another while emphasizing the specific characteristics of each group." (Pedersen, 1991)

My own view has long been that the simple pluralist model of culture with its "cultural differences" training agenda was never viable in the Australian setting and has now quite definitely had its day, and it gives me no joy or cause for gloating to look at the present controversy and say "I told you so."

I have long espoused Pedersen's view that "cultural relations are complex (but) not chaotic.  These cultural patterns provide meaning to our behaviors and the behaviors of others.... The cultural perspective seeks to provide a conceptual framework that recognizes the complex diversity of a plural society while at the same time suggesting bridges of shared concern which bind culturally different persons to one another. During the last twenty years, culture has become recognized as a powerful force, not just for understanding "exotic" groups but for understanding ourselves, and those with whom we work ."  This is Pedersen's broad view of culture, one particularly relevant to the Australian scene.

The third imperative, our task as exponents of cross-cultural understandings and skills, is to work with others to facilitate access to that range of meanings, and the fourth to encourage learners to begin the cross-cultural exchange by looking first at themselves, not at the exotic other.

For the sake of clarity, I began about ten years ago to draw a distinction between cross-cultural and intercultural interactions, a distinction not universally  acknowledged since the terms are often used interchangeably.

I did so to differentiate between the less perceptible cross-cultural exchanges which take place daily in society  and the far more obvious exchanges people experience as travellers or visitors abroad.

The former I called cross-cultural exchanges and the latter, intercultural.  I define them as follows:

The CROSS-CULTURAL defines an interaction between people of different

backgrounds living in long-term open-ended contact with one another in the

same society, where that society's commitment is to multiculturalism, biculturalism or equality.

(Canada, Australia, New Zealand, USA)

The INTERCULTURAL is contact between people of different backgrounds  where one enters the other's society for a time-defined stay, for a defined purpose.

I was worried about the wholesale application to the home front of the traveller's "when in Rome" approach, a simple list of "do's and don't's" long assumed to be the guarantee of intercultural  acceptance.  This solution to travellers' needs to manage basic transactions in the society in which they are strangers is premised on the notion of temporariness and the accepted fact that the traveller does not belong, is a sojourner with no rights  whose sole desire is to fit in so as to make the stay bearable.  Is that the secret desire of the proponents of assimilation?

Unlike the old West Germany which offered only guestworker (Gastarbeiter) status, Australia  held out the promise of citizenship, of belonging, to new immigrants.  It is ironic that particular disapproval, in this and previous controversies about the composition of Australia, is reserved for those who do not become citizens and fail to declare their allegiance to Australia, while those immigrants who have long since become citizens are required somehow to stand back and cease exerting their influence. Yet their inevitable presence and participation in the society, and the impact of that participation, are part of the daily, imperceptible cross-cultural  exchange that Australia has undergone and continues to undergo.

Unlike temporary visitors, the indigenous people of the land together with the more and less recently arrived among us actually make up the society, and together determine the way forward by participating in elections and the many other institutions that constitute Australian society. That in itself is a  challenge requiring cross-cultural  competence, and underpins the fifth imperative: to assist in the establishment of a national cross-cultural dialogue.

Countering the suggestion that only some have a right to shape the national agenda depends on one's understanding of an unwritten law, one I have called "the law of prior arrival".

It supposedly confers on those who have been here longer than you the power and the right to decide - so long as those who have been here the longest don't get any silly ideas. If it existed at all, the law of prior arrival would be weighted in favour of Aborigines.  Ironically, it is not.   Australia abounds in such ironies, and  understanding them may well be the sixth imperative.

The long attempt to maintain the doctrine of terra nullius in the face of all evidence to the contrary is the key  to the encapsulation of the  former Member for Oxley and her camp followers. Such encapsulation was once encouraged and supported by the law of the land, and the only possible joy that could be had from the present controversy is that we are at last watching the death rattle of one version of Australia's past.  Having finally seen the corpse, those who long denied  it was dead are grieving publicly, and even displaying the anger so characteristic of the stages of grief.  That may be the good news...

Against this backdrop, we run cross-cultural training and education.  It does not pay to be naive: those who always resented such "education" now have carte blanche to call it political indoctrination; those who resisted the need to switch off automatic pilot and learn new skills have never gone away.

As trainers, let's head for the first imperative and focus on understanding the impact of diversity in the particular circumstances of the learners, rather than defend diversity per se.  That probably means doing away with potted histories of migration to Australia on the basis that information alone does not change attitudes, and may even confirm existing prejudices.

Whatever their views on the subjects of migration and diversity, participants in training programs have one thing in common: the pragmatic need to deal with the results of migration, in the form of teaching, managing or providing services to a diverse clientele, via an equally diverse workforce.

In these circumstances, the focus of training must be on the development of cross-cultural  skills in negotiation, decision making, dispute resolution. Awareness is imply not enough.  It is possible to be aware, but still unskilled....

The race controversy raging at present, has, I believe, re-ordered the priorities of those of us engaged in this field: our prime goal must be to promote cross-cultural understanding.  Nothing less will do.  It is probably the first imperative, but for now, it's the seventh.

Having jettisoned the simple pluralist model and training agenda, we look outwards to the literature for guidance and inspiration.  There many of us have found the work of Geert Hofstede, and a set of analytical tools to add to the kit.

I first came across his Four Dimensions of National Culture in an article on the cross-cultural viability of American management theories.  (Hofstede, 1980) As a management consultant I am frequently told how frustrating it is that they  (usually categorised as a multicultural workforce) do not accept modern management theories and techniques, whose universal applicability and benefit are  uncritically accepted by their fans in management.  So Geert Hofstede's painstaking analysis has allowed me to venture the opinion that perhaps certain Japanese management practices work better and feel different in Japan than they do in Australia - an animal in its natural habitat, so to speak.

Why so, I am then asked?  The insights provided by the Four Dimensions have allowed me to understand that among 40 countries studied in depth, Australia is comparatively individualist and masculine, with small power distance and weak uncertainty avoidance, while Japan is comparatively collectivist and masculine, with large power distance and strong uncertainty avoidance. Aha!  So I can now say with conviction that not everyone is the same.  For a variety of reasons of which culture is one, people don't see or experience the same practices and policies as "good" or "useful" or "valuable".  Those are constructs with a strong cultural overlay, although culture is not the only mediating factor.  Class, gender, age and individual differences all play their role.

The attempt to introduce into an Australian workplace a particular American or Japanese management technique, an intercultural phenomenon in my terms, without regard to its cross-cultural ramifications, can create conflict and division often expressed as deeply held values.  What then, managers ask... and the mediators are called in.  What confronts us is rarely conflict at a personal or inter-ethnic level, although that is what is so often assumed, but structural conflict, generated by the differential impact the same practice has on different groups.

To suggest that one group "may just have to get used to it" is assimilationist, based upon notions of change being one way.  It is far more palatable dressed up as modern management theory, and therefore "good for you".

To do anything else requires a dialogue between managers and staff, to identify culturally inclusive options,  a real manifestation of industrial democracy.

Viewed in this light, the number and complexity of culture-bound options is an advantage in the process of seeking an acceptable outcome, not the impediment it is usually portrayed to be.

"Culture provides a unique perspective where two persons can disagree without one being right and the other being wrong...when their arguments are based on culturally different assumptions." (Pedersen)

I must admit to having taken the liberty of applying Hofstede's Four Dimensions to social situations other than the workplace, although I acknowledge Hofstede's results were gained from workplace data.  The results are interesting - and provide useful insights, bases for intervention or choice of approach.

Take assertiveness, assumed in Australia to be universally beneficial and needing only training to be activated.  It was assumed by many well-meaning feminists that such training could help you assert rights to autonomy by training you to say "no", for instance to a request to take care of someone else's child when you really didn't want to.  What we overlooked was the Australian context: a highly individualistic society, second only to America on Hofstede's analysis, and one in which women socialised to individualism could exercise choices.  Our mistake as trainers was to project the ability to make those choices on to certain other women, often immigrants, and then to wonder at their (our) failure.

Why were they so unassertive and intent on remaining so?  Without a cross-cultural perspective, it is a proposition answerable only by speculation as to their downtrodden state, naturally leading to equally unassertive behaviour outside as inside the home: a kind of learned helplessness.  Seen through Hofstede's lens, the situation is much clearer, and simultaneously more complex.

By contrast to the individualist, the collectivist notion is of "a tight social framework in which people distinguish between in-groups and out-groups; they expect their in-group (relatives, clan, organizations) to look after them, and in exchange for that they feel they owe absolute loyalty to it." (Hofstede)  What if the woman in question is socialised in a collectivist culture, but is living in Australia without clan or relatives?  One possibility is that she tries by her behaviour  (in this case, by not refusing to care for the child, despite her personal inclinations)  to re-establish a social framework of mutual concern and reciprocity.

"Behavior is not data until and unless the behavior is understood in the context of the person's culturally learned expectations." (Pedersen)

The scope for cross-cultural misunderstanding of the gesture is great, and has consequences for both parties.  Without intending to reciprocate, the individualist woman may genuinely read the other's "yes" as willing acquiescence, especially where she herself would feel free to say "no" if it inconvenienced her.

The other's hopes of  re-establishing networks of trust may be dashed when there is no reciprocity, especially where her expectation is that to say "yes" in difficult circumstances is in pursuit of a higher goal, and ought to be obvious.  The "unassertive" woman is disappointed, whether or not the other woman attributes to her the same rights as herself to refuse freely.  According to Pedersen, "(s)imilar behaviors can have different meanings and different behaviors may have the same meaning." When the meaning underlying the behaviours is clarified (made explicit), each can appreciate the other's motives and concerns, some or all of which may be shared.

My experience as a mediator has provided many more examples of cross-cultural "unpacking": there the application of insights into strong or weak uncertainty avoidance show up as conflicts over process - not so much what  was done as how.

A typical cry is that "this is not the way things are done", and the objection - often taken as a deeply personal insult - is to the other's behaviour, labelled as rude, off-hand, uncaring, overbearing.  Hofstede tells us that national cultures where uncertainty avoidance is comparatively weak are less rule-bound.  So  individuals at  business functions take the risk of doing  the rounds of the room, introducing themselves to others and establishing who's who.  For those from societies with comparatively strong uncertainty avoidance, such social situations are more likely to be governed by rules: you wait to be introduced, to be seated, etc.  To do otherwise is to invite censure and disapproval.

Little wonder, then, that encounters between white and Aboriginal Australia, between Pakeha and Maori, are so strained.  Maori and Aboriginal cultures, even in their most ritualised, vestigial form, are based on strong uncertainty avoidance principles, and there remains even in urban settings a deep respect for what non-indigenous people would call due process, although they observe it  largely if not exclusively in formal legal settings.

I purposely draw on the analogy of "due process" or protocol to describe Maori or Aboriginal customs.  I do so because I have observed that customs are dismissed as "quaint" or "old-fashioned", as cultural practices needing to give way to more modern processes.  ( I can't bring myself to say "civilised".)

The eighth imperative is to use analogy deliberately so as to close gaps in cross-cultural understanding, and to assist those we work with to reach beyond their frame of reference for an analogy meaningful to both (all).

People identify shared features of their cultures as they try to project more accurately the force of a particular idea or expectation, and expand the range of possible meanings perceptible cross-culturally.  To those who resent the possibility of no longer being allowed by traditional owners to scale Uluru, I ask what they think of the likelihood of their being granted permission to abseil down Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame...

If the ninth imperative is to embrace Pedersen's broad view of culture, the tenth is to ensure that all participants in cross-cultural training leave knowing that culture is not a replacement phenomenon, but an additive one.

You don't somehow stop being Greek and start being Australian, you add behaviours appropriate to an ever increasing range of situations to your repertoire, and you do so both consciously and unconsciously.  And you remain an individual because, Hofstede reminds us, " characterizing a national culture does not, of course, mean that every person in the nation has all the characteristics asssigned to that culture... (In describing national culture,) we are not describing individuals."

Individuals are not on cultural automatic pilot, so that their every action can be explained by reference to culture.  Other saliences make us all many people in one.  The assumption that every behaviour, every act, is referable to culture may well produce the distortions that pass for cultural awareness.


Joanna Kalowski

Paper  delivered at Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission seminar

8 November 1996





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