What if nothing in your life ever changed? What if your life was just like your parent’s life and their parent’s and their parent’s as far back as time goes? Everyone works on the farm, using their hands, no tractors, no reapers. No one goes to college. No one moves up the ladder. There is no ladder. There is no new i-Product every six months. Just the same old thing and the same old life all the time.
In the US, if a young boy grows up in an environment in which crime is rampant—his father spends time in prison, his brother and cousins are in gangs, drug-dealing and guns are regular features in his neighborhood—we aren’t surprised when that boy becomes a gang member , criminal, and inmate. He simply couldn’t escape the environment in which he lived.
No change means you don’t know how to create change
The same holds true for people who never see change. If nothing ever changes people have no reason to contemplate change and therefore don’t believe in change or understand how to bring it about. Thinking patterns associated with change, like anticipating change (foresight, planning, etc.) or causing change (initiative, being proactive), or envisioning change (creativity, innovativeness) are all underdeveloped because people simply don’t have reason or circumstances to develop these mental habits and abilities.
Working in a place like China reveals cultural differences
I lived and worked in China for more than 10 years, mostly in remote, less advanced places, including managing a joint venture where I was the only foreigner in a town of 500,000 people. When you are working with people—not just observing or living amongst them but actually leading, managing, cooperating and trying to achieve a common goal with them—you can’t help but experience their attitudes and behaviors relative to attributes like foresight, initiative and creativity. I know firsthand that the Chinese are very different from Americans and those from other developed countries where I have experience (Canada, Europe, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.) in regard to these cultural attributes.
Static vs. Dynamic View of the World
The cultural differences start with change but don’t end there. I would describe it as follows. In developed countries, we believe man can control his fate and shape the world. In less developed countries, this mindset has yet to develop. Change never happens so, as opposed to thinking they can shape the future, people in less developed countries are simply resigned to accepting whatever happens in the future. We could say that advanced countries live in a “dynamic” world full of change, while less developed countries live in “static” world where nothing changes. The difference emanate from there.
Advanced countries have a relatively high degree of social mobility. Less developed countries are socially rigid, or what is called “hierarchical.” Those on top stay on top and those on the bottom stay on the bottom. Leadership is accountable and more egalitarian in advanced societies—if you don’t earn your spot, you won’t keep it. In less developed countries, leadership is unaccountable and authoritarian—once you get your spot you keep it no matter what so you can do what you want. The rule of law is strong in advanced countries, again because accountability is strong. In less developed countries, the rule of law is weak, in part because leaders are not bound by rules. Then there are the differences, as mentioned above, relative to foresight, initiative, planning, etc.
Scholars coming to the same conclusion about culture
While my interest in culture started with my own experiences, it didn’t end there. When I talked to people who worked in other developing countries, such India, Kenya, South Africa, and Russia, they would report the same experiences and the same patterns as I had seen. I started to do some reading on the subject and found scholars discussing concepts that matched my experience. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress is a great book published by Harvard with contributions from more than a dozen scholars. I was fascinated to see that scholars commenting on Latin America and Africa cited the same cultural issues that I found in China. (Underdevelopment is a State of Mind is another great book on this subject.)
Data points to the Developed vs. Developing Cultural Divide
Lastly there is the World Values Survey (WVS), a group of social scientists that has been conducting cultural surveys in 150 countries around the world for 40 years. In his book Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy, Ronald Inglehart, co-founder of the WVS, outlines three of the main conclusions of his research. First, Inglehart says there is definitely a cultural divide between developed and developing countries. Not that the US, Germany, and Japan are exactly the same or China, Russia, and India are exactly the same. But the US, Germany, and Japan actually have a fair amount in common and so do China, Russia, and India. But the two groups don’t have much in common with each other. Secondly, Inglehart says WVS’s research demonstrates that cultures change as countries develop, moving from the less developed mindset to the developed mindset. Finally, Inglehart says that, for democracy to take root in any country, cultural change must take place and it is economic development that drives the cultural change. In other words, no economic development, no real democracy.
We need to pay more attention to culture
We tend to think of culture as a minor factor in world events. It is actually much, much more than that. We tend to think of each country having its own distinct culture, unique in its own right. There is some truth in that. But the fact is that the differences between the US and France are minor compared to the differences between the US and France on the one hand and Russia, China, and India on the other. Those are the differences we really need to understand. Lastly, we tend to think of cultures as being permanent—American culture is American culture, Chinese culture is Chinese culture. In fact, while cultural ideals might be rigid, actual cultures change all the time. That change is a critical part of any country becoming prosperous and democratic.