In analyzing cross-cultural communications I have noticed that there are two systems of culture that, despite some areas of overlap, remain distinct. I have adopted the terms “situational and relational” to identify these two cultural types.
One of the most difficult gaps to bridge in cross-cultural communications is the chasm between situational and relational cultures. In a situational culture, actions are the most important thing. In a relational culture, the defining factor is who you are. In other words, cross-cultural communication has to bridge the gap between what you know and who you know. This gap is rarely recognized; but it is a major factor in how people see themselves, how they experience others and the way relationships are structured.
Understanding the difference between the two kinds of societies is essential as they become more intertwined. The attempt by countries that largely have situational societies to develop a central government in Afghanistan, a highly relational culture, is one of the most dramatic examples of the clash of systems. Afghanistan needs to move away from being a strictly relational society or else there is little chance that corruption will ever end and that power will ever be held by entities other than families and tribes. It was well said of President Hamid Karzai’s difficulties in establishing a national government in Afghanistan and multiple allegations of corruption that “Karzai is not incompetent. He is acting according to his own priorities – his family, his tribe, his nation, in that order”.
That was Joe Klein, quoting an unnamed Western diplomat in “Time” magazine, but the same could be said for many other societies, East or West. Situationalism and relationalism are not strictly geographic in nature, nor are they Western or Eastern habits or predilections. Italy is a case in point. Its economic stagnation is a result of its business culture, which is largely defined by deep-seated mistrust of anyone who isn’t part of the immediate family. (David Segal, NY Times, July 31, 2010.)
No society is strictly situational or relational, but each can be placed on a continuum between the extremes. For example, Saudi Arabia is close to a purely relational society. There, what is important is a person’s relationship to the royal family. Professional titles provide little real information; what is important is the person’s closeness to the royal family and corresponding relationship to power. Given that Saudi Arabia’s wealth was not created by any particular effort and is more an accident of geology, individual wealth, too, is not necessarily the result of ability but is rather bestowed on a person on account of membership of, or access to, the royal family. What a Saudi man does may or may not be inconsequential. A man with one – or several – important corporate titles may have very little influence and may not even be particularly wealthy. Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, the converse may also be true. People with seemingly inconsequential titles may actually have tremendous influence and wealth as result of their relationship to the royal family or because they are close to an influential royal family member. This is not to say that Saudis with ability are not successful; it is just that ability is not as important an element of success in Riyadh as in a less relational society.
In the Western example, Italy’s relational business culture is thought to be a hangover from its past, which had little to do with being a nation and everything to do with being part of a clan until well after World War II. Even today, most Italians live less than a mile or two from their parents and most entrepreneurs’ primary goal is not growth so much as keeping the business in the family. This is why Italian companies prefer to remain artisanal rather than masters of the universe. “The prevailing management style in this country is built around loyalty, not performance,” said Tito Boeri, scientific director at Fondazione Rodolfo Debenedetti, who has written about Italy’s dynastic capitalism.
In Saudi Arabia, many essential jobs are performed by non-Saudis, but they rarely have any real influence. A Pakistani physician in Riyadh once explained to me that even though he had been the personal doctor to many important members of the royal family and worked there most of his adult life, he would not want to stay in Saudi Arabia after he retired because he could not buy property and had few, if any, Saudi friends. He had no relationship with any Saudis nor would he expect these to develop no matter how long he stayed.
One element of a relational society is that the culture defines the relationships that are recognized. If a relationship is not recognized, it is generally not held to exist. This helps explain the Arab folk saying: “Me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; the tribe against the world.”
The quote is generally taken literally. There is no mechanism for bestowing familial status on outsiders. You are either born a brother, a cousin or clansman or you are not. There is not a great deal of room for changing one’s status in a relational society, except by developing a relationship with the ruling elite, but there are limits there too. For instance, one can never – except by marriage – become a member of the ruling family; at best, one can become a well-rewarded retainer.
Close to the other end of the spectrum are immigrant societies such as Canada, the U.S. and Australia, where people are first be asked “What do you do?” as opposed to “Who is your father?” Relational societies usually inquire about a stranger’s origins and antecedents, or in a more colloquial way “Who are you from home?”
In a situational society, titles are usually pretty accurate indicators of what people do, along with their income and societal position. Success in a situational society is more the result of performance and less on account of relationships, though, of course, no society can ever be entirely situational. This is why there is the English expression: “It is not what you know, but who you know.” Even so, it is important to note the wording, “who you know” rather than “who you’re related to.”
It is difficult have successful cross-cultural communications between relational and situational cultures for a number of reasons. Most of us are unaware of the way our culture determines how we experience the world and particularly the way it structures our relationships. Most are convinced that what we believe is universal or at least superior to other value systems and consequently, when we meet people from other cultures we may expect them to be foundationally like us. I have often heard comments such as “They may dress differently, speak another language and cook different foods, but everybody loves their families, believes in their country and we all share a basic sense of right and wrong.” This is just not true, especially across the situational-relational spectrum. In reality, people do not relate to their families in the same way; not everyone has identical allegiance to his or her country, and right and wrong can have very different meanings from place to place.
Indians, for instance, often criticize Americans for neglecting their parents: How could you let them live in a retirement home? But Americans are puzzled, if not appalled, at the thought of arranged marriages: How could you let your family pick your spouse? The different value systems merely mean that most Americans would not want to live with their children and most Indians trust the people who know them best, i.e. their parents and families, to find them a suitable life partner. In India, maintaining familial relations is often more important than individual happiness. Even the concept of individualization is relatively new in Indian culture and restricted to a small but growing middle class.
In a relational society, family is more important than any connection with society at large. It is a moral imperative that one does everything one can for the family. This translates into acceptance of what a situational society would describe as corruption. In a relational society every position needs to be exploited to obtain maximum benefit for the family. A policeman takes money in lieu of the traffic ticket he was meant to write in order to better provide for his family, a judge accepts money to delay a case in order to send his children to a better school and politicians charge for access in order to build a bigger and better home. Those who pay up understand the motivation and support the system because they know they would do the same if they had influence to sell. Dissonance is created when someone from outside the system enters it. From the outside, bribery and corruption seem immoral, but for those within the system it is immoral not to take advantage of their position of influence because the relational society requires everyone to do everything possible for one’s family.
The lack of community disapproval means that even though there may be some protests about corruption in a relational system, little is actually done about it. This is why a society may be said to have a ‘cultural’ acceptance of corruption. India is a case in point. The argument that corruption is a by-product of poverty is challenged by the high levels of corruption among wealthy Indians. There are instances of the wealthiest taking the most from the system, including senior Indian politicians whose assets are publicly self-acknowledged to be wildly disproportionate to their earnings as political executives.
The distinction between the two systems helps one to understand the continuing existence of large black markets in predominantly relational societies, estimated to be 25% of GNP in Italy and 50% in India. In a relational system, one pays for access and for the establishment and maintenance of relationships in order to accomplish things. This requires a fairly large amount of unregistered cash, coupled with a lack of identification with government institutions, which sustains a large black market. Politicians in these systems are in office for the good of their families and relations and are unlikely to support any reforms that would limit family incomes.
One argument to justify corruption in countries like India is that it is a residual effect of colonialism: people do not identify with an occupying government and develop a coping mechanism that includes non-compliance with laws made by the colonial government. The colonial experience certainly contributes to corruption but only in the sense that foreign occupation only strengthened familial ties because people did not expect their interests to be provided for by a government that is not indigenous. But relational structures are not created by colonialism. They usually predate occupation and continue past the colonial period.
When people from a situational society begin to interact with a relational society they are often flatteringly adopted into families and addressed as “brother”, “uncle”, “auntie”, etc. The adoptee may consider this a great honor, but for the adopting family it may all too often be no more than a necessity because relational societies require some semblance of a familial relationship to be established in order to conduct business. Interestingly, the expectations of both parties are very different, with the adopting family expecting the adoptee to feel obliged to do whatever they can for their new family:obtain visas, deal exclusively with the ‘family’ in business, pay school tuition and provide gifts, for example. If there is an income disparity, which is often the case, the adopting family may expect the adoptee to help equalize earnings.
Each system provides certain benefits and imposes costs on its members. Relational societies provide security for families. This means that individuals are generally provided for as long as the family can support them. It also means families find it harder than in situational societies to develop capital. In many relational societies, family boundaries are very porous. There is no end to the demands made on family resources. For example, I once asked a West African retiree from an international development organization if he was comfortable with his pension. He said that it would more than adequate if he were not constantly asked to provide for nieces, nephews, cousins, and a seemingly limitless number of relatives in need of school fees, clothing, books, food, etc. He said he was always on the edge of destitution but the demands could not be refused. To do so would be to go against the family, which was simply unimaginable.
The security provided by families can be fairly essential in societies where governments rarely provide basic services and clan links are necessary for physical or economic security. Afghanistan, historically, has never known a strong central government capable of providing services or developing a national infrastructure. This means that each family is left to provide for its own. That is why one still sees walled family compounds, the boundaries of which are patrolled by armed family members throughout the night.
Dependence on family resources defines public morality. One example is the acceptance of corruption as discussed above. Another is compliance or non-compliance with tax laws. Most people complain about taxes, but in situational societies there is a relatively high level of compliance. Any resistance to levels of taxation or anything else is usually done by attempting to change the law through legitimate political process. In a relational society, in which families are dependent on their own resources, taxes are not only disliked, but the individual is obliged to do everything possible to avoid paying them in order to conserve family resources. The result is not only a low level of tax compliance but also a low level of tax enforcement. Malta in the late 1990s had few people declaring themselves high net worth individuals, but its harbors were chock-full of locally registered yachts.
Another key difference between these two kinds of societies is the culture of shame and. guilt. In relational societies, shame is the great motivator. A family is justified in any action that is perceived as protecting the family honor. Parents will kill children, brothers their sisters and cousins their cousins if they are deemed to have brought dishonor on the family. Honor killings are rarely prosecuted because they are considered justified in some way, even if in technical violation of the law. Most honor “codes” are unwritten, which results in them being more rigid than if they had been codified because they are perceived as ancient and unchanging. This phenomenon was detailed by Daniel Boorstin in The Americans: The Democratic Experience, in which he describes the honor code of the antebellum American South, “The rules of the Code of Honor, too, being habitual, could not be really be taught or learned, much less comprehended in the pages of a book…they had to be inherited, or absorbed from the atmosphere.” (The Americans, The National Experience; Daniel J. Boorstin, Vintage February 12, 1967, ISBN-10: 0394703588) And being unwritten, honor codes are very difficult to change. This is another cause of misunderstanding between relational and situational societies.
This is why customary behavior even survives major shifts in cultural foundations. A community’s religious faith may change, but if it remains a relational system, traditional behavior easily survives the transition. One example of this is the continuing use of daughters to pay debts in some Central Asian communities. This has survived centuries after those communities converted to Islam, which condemns such behavior. The carrying over of traditional behavior into modern political systems helps explain the continuation of ‘honor’ killings among Jat communities in Northern India. Families may kill their children for marrying within the same gotra or sub-caste even though there is no sanguinity.
According to cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, shame is a violation of cultural or social values while feelings of guilt arise from violations of one’s internal values. Thus, it is possible to feel ashamed of a thought or behavior that no one knows about and to feel guilty about actions that gain the approval of others. Fossum and Mason say in their book Facing Shame that “while guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.”(Fossum, Merle A.; Mason, Marilyn J. (1986), Facing Shame: Families in Recovery, W.W. Norton, p. 5, ISBN 0-393-30581-3) Following this line of reasoning, Psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman concludes that “shame is an acutely self-conscious state in which the self is ‘split,’ imagining the self in the eyes of the other; by contrast, in guilt the self is unified.” [Herman, Judith Lewis (2007), “Shattered Shame States and their Repair”, The John Bowlby Memorial Lecture.]
This is one of the apparent paradoxes when comparing relational societies with situational societies. Relational societies are often held out as providing greater stability for its members, while situational societies are seen as alienating. This is contradicted by situational societies providing more support for the development of deeper individual confidence and greater ability to adapt to change, which counters alienation. There is also a sense that relational societies are less selfish because of their focus on family and community but this may be yet another paradox because these cultures insist on members complying with societal norms, at times on pain of death. This places tremendous pressure on people, inhibits creativity and the development of individual talent. Ultimately, this kind of pressure is alienating and inhibiting and can lead to the disintegration of a society, particularly when faced with change.
The difference between the two societies also presents serious challenges for the practice of public diplomacy. In many ways it is a similar challenge to that of communicating between different languages. In order to communicate, it is necessary to translate one perspective into a very different world view. This is even the case when the two parties speak the same language but mean different things even while making the same sounds. It gets much more difficult when a language difference is added to the process.
Concepts like freedom, human rights, and democracy can have different meanings, and even if there is a common understanding of the meaning of a term, different societies may place very different values on it. For example, stability may be of much greater value than democracy or freedom of expression in one society, such that no matter how often it is exhorted or pressured to accept a more democratic system or grant greater freedom of speech it will resist it if has the perception that either change may result in instability. This resistance is likely to be misunderstood by a society that cherishes democracy or freedom of expression. A society that holds familial integrity as more important than compliance with national laws will be confused by foreign negative reactions to violence committed in the name of preserving the family in apparent violation of local law.
Communicating across these kinds of societal barriers takes a clear understanding of both sides. This is true in the choice of cultural presentation. In a country where dance is mostly seen as a vehicle for the preservation of cultural symbols and ritual, free-form improvisational dance is likely to be misunderstood if not reviled. A revered sports figure from one country will be a poor spokesperson in another country in which the sport is rarely played and barely understood. An exchange program for young women entrepreneurs from rural backgrounds targeted at a country that expects women to begin a family before a business is almost sure to fail. These may seem to be painfully obvious misjudgments, but I have seen examples of almost all of them and their poor results. The right cultural tool has to be used to transmit the right message to the target audience.
This is why it is important to understand a country’s position on the situational/relational continuum when developing strategic and long-term plans. A relational society would require programs that promote the development of a relationship with members of the target audience. In relational countries, cultural centers and libraries are extremely important, not so much because of the information that is disseminated but because they provide a welcoming experience. This is why the comfort and hospitality of the library is as important as what is found on the shelves. It is also important that young people are encouraged to use the library, as it establishes a relationship that will continue to affect how the sponsoring country is viewed through the rest of the student’s life. These are the considerations when a foreign embassy from a situational society considers establishing, or funding a successful cultural center in a relational society. It needs to be welcoming, comfortable and offer a wide variety of programs. It needs to be hospitable, but according to the parameters defined by the host country. If every event in the host country includes food and drink, every event hosted by a cultural center representing a situational society needs to offer something like that as part of each event. It does not have to be the local food and drink; in fact, it may be better if a foreign cultural center offers visitor a taste of the sponsoring country.
Exchange programs are an essential part of public diplomacy programs, but how they are conducted and whom they target varies depending on the type of culture for which the program is meant. Exchange programs designed for a relational society should recruit young participants: student leaders, academic high-achievers, the elite of tomorrow. The content of the program is no more important than opportunities for home stays, attendance and traditional cultural events, (rodeos, church suppers, high school musicals, 4th of July celebrations) that provide the experience of inclusion, being part of a family/community. That’s why visits to small towns and neighborhoods with a distinct identity are so important to the success of those programs. Exchange programs for a more situational audience require more focus on subject matter in order to match people up with hosts who have similar professional and educational backgrounds. These programs can be targeted to older participants because they define themselves by their profession and will be more influenced by encounters with people with whom they share a definition.
Even the choice of media to deliver the message is influenced by a culture being situational or relational. The print media are more effective in a culture that encourages brand loyalty – a relationship – with one’s paper. And even though print may have limited reach when compared to television, the credibility of print in the eyes of loyal readers probably overcomes that limit. Radio is more useful in relational societies because it has an element of intimacy. In this century, social media offer new ways to establish relationships, and for that reason, the use of tools such as Facebook and Twitter is particularly effective in relational societies. A point to note, though, for communicating with situational cultures is that topic-specific blogs are more useful because they are content oriented rather then emotive.
Relational societies targeting public diplomacy programs at situational societies should be aware of the importance of building ties to institutions, not just individuals. For example, it is important to build ties to universities rather than individual faculty. Individuals may change focus or even professions, but universities continue to teach and research the same subjects regardless of who is on the staff. The same is true for think tanks and even government. Members of parliaments and constituent assemblies come and go, but the institutions remain. The distinction is also important to be aware of when advocating for a change in policy. In a situational society it is more likely that an institution will make the decision; i.e., the system determines the decision and there is less flexibility, the rules determine the outcome. In a relational society there is often more room for individual decisions. The outcome is more dependent on the decider than the applicable rules. That is why relational societies’ members are less likely to accept no as an answer to a request and will keep working their way up the chain of seniority, believing that if they just ask the highest person they will achieve the result that they want. Generally, a situational society member will accept no as an answer, even if a yes might have been possible had they asked someone senior.
Of course, no country is purely situational or relational. It is a given that all cultures change, and as a result they often move along that continuum, becoming more or less one or the other. Knowing where a culture lies between the two extremes can be immensely useful for both strategic and tactical public diplomacy planning. It should never be the only consideration, but it is an important one. If ignored, the situational-relational dissonance could result in ineffectual programs, or even counter productive ones.
The writer is a diplomat who has served in many of the countries mentioned. The views expressed in this article are personal.