Culture & Society

Exploring the Origins of Foreign Cultural Values

As businesses go global, it pays to understand the beliefs underpinning behaviors that might seem strange.

August 24, 2018

| by Martin J. Smith


Portraits by contemporary artist JR are displayed on the worksite boarding placed around the dome on the Pantheon. Credit: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Business etiquette, like much outward behavior, is often driven by “centuries-old cultural ethos,” says Scotty McLennan. | Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Scotty McLennan uses an iceberg metaphor when explaining the rationale for his Stanford Graduate School of Business course Global Business: Unspoken Rules of the Game.

When doing business around the world, learning and honoring the way people in other countries greet one another, or give gifts, or even gesture, drink, and speak, is just the tip of a cultural iceberg. But understanding the values that lie beneath those behaviors — the attitudes, beliefs, ideologies, and philosophical or spiritual perspectives — can enable you to negotiate the iceberg rather than plow into it.

“We see things above the surface that look like business etiquette but which underneath are really driven by some centuries-old cultural ethos. And under that there’s this fundamental philosophical and religious environment that something like Confucianism provides in China, or Protestantism provides in the United States, or Islam provides in the United Arab Emirates,” says McLennan, who teaches about the moral and spiritual aspects of business leadership. “To me it’s rather obvious, but it’s not understood by many people.”

McLennan received both his law degree and his master’s in theology from Harvard in 1975, the same year he was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar and ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister. He was the dean for religious life at Stanford from 2001 to 2014 and the chaplain at Tufts University from 1984 until 2000. His books include Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up With Has Lost Its Meaning and Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All.

Worth noting: He also was “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s roommate while an undergraduate at Yale, and is the model for the minister character the Rev. Scot Sloan in Trudeau’s Pulitzer Prize–winning comic strip.

Why is it important to understand underlying values and spiritual perspectives during global business interactions?

As our students go out around the world — one day they’re in China, the next day they’re in Brazil, the next day they’re in the UAE — the question becomes: How do you penetrate those worlds? Obviously, they need to have local colleagues they can work with, but they also need to understand that there is, in fact, this cultural iceberg.

Can you cite a specific example of how that might play out in the real world?

Mexican managers doing business in the U.S. often are quite surprised by a kind of coldness on the part of American managers. For Mexicans it’s very relationship-oriented, getting to know somebody personally, while for U.S. managers it’s much more, “Let’s get down to business.” And, “We need to keep our business and personal lives separate.” Americans have a more individualistic and competitive spirit, a Protestant ethic. Mexican managers have a Catholic ethic. Now these are both Christian subdivisions, but they have a very different orientation. To Mexicans, Americans seem to be clock-obsessed and schedule-oriented and sometimes just downright unfriendly. But if American business people go to Mexico and don’t take the time to establish strong personal relationships, they don’t do as well.

Can you cite an example from outside North America?

Americans sometimes see the Chinese as nepotistic. They seem to be operating too closely with their relatives and families, giving advantages to their families. But from the Chinese perspective, it’s immoral not to prioritize your family members and people who are part of your circle. If you can understand the Confucian world and how it’s structured in relation to hierarchy and leadership, you get a much better understanding of how to do business in China, just as they try to understand the arms-length and rules-based approach of Americans.

Can you name a global company that’s navigating well around the icebergs?

Say you’re Emirates airline in the UAE and you want to buy new airplanes. Do you use Islamic finance instruments, which are not interest bearing, or do you use traditional Western finance? There’s a whole world of Islamic finance that structures loans in a way that do not bear interest. They’re workarounds, but from an Islamic point of view they’re consistent with Koranic principles that do not allow usury and which regard traditional Western loans as usurious. So when Emirates uses Islamic finance methodology, does that help them? I think it does. They still use Western interest to some extent, but I think by Emirates taking seriously and struggling with the financial and cultural realities of Islamic finance, that can make a positive difference in their business success.

Are most people aware how such underlying cultural values affect their behavior?


We see things above the surface that look like business etiquette but which underneath are really driven by some centuries-old cultural ethos.
Scotty McLennan

Any entrepreneur, regardless of which country or culture they come from, has a worldview that has been learned by living in a culture, by being brought up by their parents, by going to schools and mosques and temples and churches, and by the way their business environment has been structured. A lot of that is often unknown to them and a surprise when they begin to work internationally and realize that other worldviews are quite different. Your own perspective and values are going to be operative whether you know it or not, so it really behooves you to know what those are.

How do you teach that kind of awareness?

I often use a framework called the Potter Box, which is a model that Harvard ethicist Ralph Potter put together for making ethical decisions. It explains that any decision has four operative factors: facts, loyalties, values, and worldview. Those four quadrants are always operative, but the one we work with most easily is facts. We’re less conscious of all of the stakeholders our decisions may affect. We’re also probably unaware of the ethical reasoning, which is always used in any decision making. And then behind all of it is a worldview that I describe as the bottom of that cultural iceberg. That worldview often dictates which mode of ethical reasoning you use and which loyalties you’re going to prioritize. It also skews your view of the facts. Values are very much at the core of what an entrepreneur does as he or she sets out to create a new product or service. But a lot of it can be missed. It’s unconscious and unspoken.

You’ve talked about basketball coach Phil Jackson as someone who brought a Zen Buddhist ethos into the world of sports. Are there examples from the world of business where you think a similar approach succeeded?

Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, is a good example. He grew up Jewish, became increasingly agnostic, but then became quite enamored of the Dalai Lama in terms of how to live a joyful and fulfilled life. He has been able to develop an understanding of compassionate business, which he tries to apply in his life and train his employees to use. It’s quite different from what other managers do. His goal is to always keep in the forefront the importance of respect for other people, whether they be colleagues, employees, suppliers, or customers, and to use Buddhist notions of mindfulness. To be fully present in a situation, to understand what’s going on the room, you have to be present to yourself. And then he has a vision of compassion that he thinks LinkedIn can provide worldwide. That creates a different feel for that company.

How can students adapt to inevitable cultural changes?

Literature can help people truly feel their way into another culture. Read good novels and short stories and plays by great authors from those cultures to help you see that culture lived out through families and political structures. The reality is that, at the basic value level, things don’t change that quickly. Even books from the 1950s or ’60s can be helpful.

In 2013 you tweeted a quote: “We can start a culture of peace and tolerance and I believe we need it more than ever before.” How do you feel about that message in 2018?

I’m concerned now about the level of divisiveness we have in American society, but it’s also a worldwide phenomenon. We’re not doing a good job of finding common values anymore that we all hold and can be clear about. In the U.S., we say in the Pledge of Allegiance that we’re all one nation, indivisible, and care about liberty and justice for all, but it’s incredible to me how divisive we have become and how much we’ve destroyed the basic institutions that support those values. So we need tolerance more than ever so we can talk across differences to find the common values that are fundamental to who we are.

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