Monday, 30 July 2007

Reflections on Yemeni culture

Ten days of teaching Organisational Behaviour in Yemen provided me with a lot of impressions that were in some way related to 'Arab' or 'Yemeni' culture. If we look at Hofstede's dimensions, the Arab world is often seen as
- high power distance
- low individualism
- high uncertainty avoiding
- rather masculin.

These easy labels do not tell too much about the culture though. China, for example, has comparable scores. Yet, teaching in Yemen was much easier for me than in China. Why?

There are at least two reasons. First, Chinese culture and Arab culture differ on dimensions not accounted for in the Hofstede model. Second, the same dimension means different things in different cultures, so similarity of scores does not tell us the whole story.

Let us begin with a dimension that we do not see in Hofstede's model, expressive versus reserved, also called neutral versus emotional or affective versus neutral. Looking at the data of Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, we see Muslim countries like Kuwait and Egypt at the extreme end: people show their emotions quite easily, or one could also say: find it hard to conceal them. China is at the other extreme. Holland is somewhere in the middle, but on the reserved side. I think the affective dimension of Yemeni culture made life easy for me: I could easily see how people felt and my experience in Italy in the past provided me with a model of how to deal with this affective culture. A complication in Yemen is the strict role division between men and women. I could only show my emotions directly to men, even touch them in conversations if needed.

Let's now come to the dimensions of Hofstede. High power distance, high uncertainty avoidance and low individualism lead to patterns of behaviour that are generally difficult for someone from an egalitarian, democratic, individualist country with somewhat more tolerance for uncertainty like the Netherlands. Also in the classroom you must expect the effect of these dimensions. Students will ask a lot of clarity and certainty from the teacher, depend on his guidance and show respect, at least in public. They will find it difficult to take responsibility for their own work, take initiative, criticise the teacher or even ask questions. That is the pattern I was quite used to by teaching in China. In Yemen it was different. The uncertainty avoidance was the same as in China: people need a lot of clear instructions to feel comfortable with the task. However, asking questions was much less of a problem here. Maybe this had to do with the quality of the students - these Yemeni students were quite good, certainly better than the MBA students I had taught in China - , but I suspect there is a different cultural attitude towards discussion and dialogue behind these differences. Knowledge has high authority in the Muslim world. This authority seems to be less personal than in China, where the teacher has a very high status. In the end, authority is derived from the authority of the text. The Qur'an (Koran) is the model. The text itself, directly communicated by God to the Prophet, has the authority, and not those who read the text. This emphasis on 'the word' which the Islam shares with the Jews and the Christians (especially Protestants), makes discussion on the correct interpretation of the word important. What I witnessed in class, seems to support this interpretation. The knowledge, not the teacher is at the center of the learning process and this makes it easier for me to teach in such an environment.
Nevertheless, high power distances are a reality in Yemeni society. In the family and clan based social structures of the Arab world, power relations seem to be relatively unstable, however, and constantly shifting. The idea of changing coalitions is central to the Arab view of power, which is quite different from the Confucian ideal of harmony in society by vertically structured roles and stable relationships. This well-known quote, often used in the Arab world expresses this idea of shifting alliances very well:

"I against my brother
I and my brother against our cousin
I, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors
All of us against the foreigner. "

The last sentence could be Confucian, but the first three sentences gives this its specific Arab flavour. In the Arab world, we do not find this emphasis on long hierarchies we find in China, but also in the Roman Catholic world. Instead the unstable nature of power struggles gets much attention. My experiences in Yemen confirm this image, although as an outsider I have not really experienced this aspect of society very directly.

Anyway, power distance as abstract variable refers to different realities. The same is true for uncertainty avoidance. We had interesting discussions about this concept in class. Yemeni people seem to accept a lot of risk and uncertainty in areas where we would panic. Take the traffic, where people do not drive according to the formal rules, but engage in an interactive game, in which the strongest often win, but everyone seems to accept the chaos as given. Likewise, the frequent black-outs in the electricity supply is accepted without much complaining. The typical word here is of course 'inshallah': if God permits. Some students saw this as uncertainty acceptance. I tend to see it as another dimension, which Hofstede does not mention: fatalism. Fatalism often goes together with a high degree of conservatism, a conviction that society will not change, whatever we do. The Islamic world seems to be high on this kind of conservatism, which is perfectly compatible with high uncertainty avoidance. I saw this uncertainty avoidance in class, in combination with the high power distance: students want to have unambiguous instructions, so that there wil be no surprises in the exam.

What the abstract dimensions do not catch is, of course, the content of the culture. Even if we are very different in terms of the Hofstede dimensions, the Protestant culture of Northern Europe and the Muslim culture of Yemen share many elements. First of all, we share the emphasis on the word, on text. Second, our religions have many concepts, stories and prophets in common. Based on the texts we share, we have a comparable monotheistc view of reality, allowing for only one set of values, quite differently from East Asian cultures in which multiple realities are accepted, like Yin-Yang thinking or different Gods in Hinduism. Of course, our histories have since long grown very far apart. Nevertheless, the commom roots make cross-cultural communication easy for whom takes the effort to see them.