Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Culture Dies Hard

By Thomas Kochman - 03.30.2010

The NY Times editorial “President Obama in Kabul” expresses the frustration of the U.S. and the President in trying to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to “clean up his act” which constitutes among other things of a “commitment to eradicating corruption (including among his own family members), improving governance and institutionalizing the rule of law.”

While these goals may serve U.S. goals and interests, we question from a cultural standpoint, whether they are realistically obtainable.

For one “rule by law” or “rule by rule” works only to the extent that people trust that institutional policies and practices will be rationally and impartially administered and applied.

This is a tall order in those places where the social, economic and political structure is built around authoritarian leadership, class membership, tribal affiliation and across-the-board political and personal favoritism.

So what has to happen for that cultural change to happen?

We often ask in our diversity training “If you had to borrow $10,000, would you first go to a bank, or to your family.”

The mainstream U.S. response is, “Go to the bank.”

The more traditional ethnic response is, “Go to your family or friends.”

These answers are rooted in different cultural values and the different social experiences these groups have with public institutions.

Principally it revolves around what or whom you can trust.

Mainstream people’s experience with public institutions is generally positive. So they trust and rely on them, in part, because they can, and, because they value individualism, independence and self-reliance, also so as not to have to rely upon family and friends.

The experience of traditional ethnics with public institutions is often negative (“dollar short, day late”), and, consistent with tribal values of interdependence and reciprocity, they rely upon family and friends, also because they can, and so as not to have to rely upon public institutions.

These differences show up in the ways members of different groups approach and deal with institutions, especially official bureaucracy.

For example, a Mexican woman, who had been adopted, decided that she wanted to locate her birth mother in Mexico and asked her mainstream white woman friend for advice on how she would go about finding that information.

The white woman suggested that she find out what the rules and procedures were at the office that had that information and then simply apply.

The Mexican woman was surprised at the advice. She thought she would either have to find a friend who had a friend who worked there, or, lacking that, offer the appropriate official who worked there a bribe.

I will leave it up to the reader to conjecture on which of the two approaches worked.

And if being able to relate to impersonal institutions is one challenge, so is following impersonal rules.

My own experience on this last point happened when I was flying from Chicago to Detroit.

I was sitting in the aisle seat in first class when a young Arab man came and claimed that he had the aisle seat. We looked at each other’s ticket. He had the A seat and I had the B seat.

I told him, “The B seat is the aisle seat. The A seat is the window seat.” This went on for a while.

Finally, two white men across the aisle said, “The A seat is the window seat the B seat is the aisle seat.”

The Arab man then relented and took the window seat next to me. He then asked me, “Do those men work for you?”

For him, the basis for the white men across the aisle coming to support me had to be rooted in personal relationship.

For me, they were simply supporting the rule, impersonal as it was.

How to get people who rely on people and tribal government to rely on laws, rules and social institutions instead, requires a social and cultural shift of some magnitude.

So when did President Obama say the troop pull-out from Afghanistan was to begin?

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