The Vienna Review Lecture Monitor Dec. 2012
"It’s just a culture thing" is a common maxim for explaining why things simply don’t translate. As educated global citizens, we generally brush off cultural misunderstandings when we work with people of other nationalities. However, for researchers like Michael Gates, culture is quantifiable, and can be analysed to improve communication and co-operation.
The International Christian School of Vienna hosted the seminar, "Engaging the Cross-Cultural Generation," on 15 November, to explore the importance of supporting integration among young people of cross-cultural backgrounds.
Gates, Associate Fellow of the Saïd Business School at Oxford and Vice Chairman of Richard Lewis Communications (RLC), explored the intricacies, incongruities, and the science of culture.
"Our background [at RLC] was in language originally," Gates said, "but what happened is some clients came to us and said they were very interested in the language and that it’s very useful, but felt that it wasn’t enough. [They wanted me] to help them cross-culturally as well." Originally, Gates’ work was based on particular countries, but over time, he began to see patterns and came up with a theory.
The company surveyed 50,000 individuals worldwide and was able to determine cultural traits of various nationalities and people from different geographic locations. Then, they developed a theory of profiling and categorising individuals into three types of culture, based on how they problem-solve, interact and cooperate.
"Multi-active" cultures are made up of people who focus on family, hierarchy, relationships, emotion, eloquence, persuasion and loyalty, and are more likely found in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
"Linear-active" cultures are those in which people rely on facts, planning, timelines, word-deed correlation, institutions and law. They are generally areas with Germanic influence, but also pronounced in the British Commonwealth countries and the United States.
Finally, "reactive cultures" are characterised by individuals who give importance to institutions, courtesy, networking, common obligations, collective harmony, and which emphasise maintaining face.
Gates then encouraged dialogue among attendees who discussed their own children’s humility, ability to bridge differences and their skill at mitigating conflicts. The exchange also highlighted the benefits of cross-culturalism that encouraged children to learn from practical experience.
Even after a 17-year career, South African Ambassador Xolisa Mabhongo, felt he had learned something.
"I think it gave me much more insight into cross-cultural communication and some of the advantages of cross-culturalism," Mabhongo mused, "and also, from the debate, about how we can try to help cross-cultural kids to navigate and mitigate their environment."
As liaison for the International Christian School of Vienna, Pearl Williams said students often gravitate toward cliques, but emphasised her hope that the seminar would inspire parents to talk with their children about finding ways of connecting with their peers. "We hope that people focus more on the commonalities than on the differences in culture," she said.
Despite the importance of being cross-culturally adept, Gates urged people not to neglect their own culture – especially with children.