It was late October in Belgium, Brussels-the leaves had begun to fall creating a crunchy undergrowth as you tramped across the square to the totally glass encased VUB building the students had aptly nicknamed "The Glass Pondera", no doubt a symbol of their attitude towards young budding students. It had been several weeks since my friend Nikki met with her academic adviser who assisted her in creating a well thought out, lucid, cogent cover letter that accompanied her resume, which was dutifully sent out to a publishing company for a possible internship.
The company is the one of the foremost and prestigious companies in the city-and securing an internship within their hallowed halls is a prize many communication students sought to attain. As she is a non-traditional student, she was planning to take summer courses to graduate earlier than her counterparts do, so she is a "spring associate", this does not mean however the competition is any easier. She has good grades, a solid B-plus average and solid extra-curricular activities to present a well-rounded application for an internship. Then the day came in late October that changed everything.
I was standing in the student lounge stirring a cup of hot coffee and talking to my best friend, Nicky-who is Mexican, we were discussing our curriculum options when she noticed her cell phone started to vibrate in her pocket. She recognized the number as being from the publishing company and immediately answered it. I do not recall the details of the conversation she had, I just remember that it was short. After the phone conversation, Nicky told me that she would be joining the company in January as a "spring associate".
I wasted no time in telling everyone in our network of friends the good news, what she was not prepared for was what happened next from one of her competitors. It was a few days after she received the news when another friend of ours and classmate, Silvia appeared in the student lounge. I could tell she was perturbed about something and it did not take her long to divulge just what was causing her such great consternation. After telling her that Nicky was granted a "spring associate" with a publishing company, she looked at Nicky with all degrees of certainty and told her "You know you just got it because you are Mexican". This statement landed like a grenade in the middle of the room. Nicky and I stood there simply stunned as she turned and walked away. In confusion, Nicky said, "Ah, now I remember that I am a Mexican student. Up until this moment I had thought of myself as just another communication student working as hard as I could and being judged on my merits; after all the publishing company did not ask me my ethnicity in the interview. "
This narrative left a profound and deep impression upon me ever since that day. Since then I have always questioned individuals interacting with me in an academic setting. Prior, I had never found myself questioning the opinion of others-I viewed myself as equal but in an institution of higher learning that prided itself on being the penultimate purveyor of "progressive" thought and tolerance that experience left a significantly negative impression. The purpose of this analysis is not to reminisce about a culturally significant moment but rather discuss this incident within the context of cultural paradigms provided by several leading scholars in the field of Intercultural Communications.
These scholars have promulgated various environments that dictate certain logical dynamics that can affect the interpretation of this event and allow for the derivation of various conclusions. This analysis will implement various aspects of this narrative into several intercultural models whose sole premise will be to further the understanding of why the impact of this narrative can render such grossly negative consequences.
Finally, this analysis will surmise the various constructs presented by the various scholars introduced within this analysis and review how each logical paradigm can influence the conclusion derived from the narrative and how this conclusion can influence further cultural interactions.
The first cultural construct that will be discussed in relation to this narrative is the intercultural relationships designed by Hofstede. Hofstede discusses the process people develop in terms of dealing with individuals from other cultures. These processes are found at the universal, collective and individual levels. Hofstede defines culture as "collective programming of the mind"; it manifests itself only in values and these values are not often correct. These values represent and manifest themselves in superficial ways. "This does not mean; of course; that people are programmed the way computers are. A person's behavior is only partially predetermined by her or his mental programs: (s) he has a basic ability to deviate from them, and to react in was which are new, creative, destructive, unexpected "(Hofstede, 2001, p. 5).
These processes dictate that cultural systems are not based on random events but a degree of predictability. This predictability shapes the assumption regarding certain cultural characteristics. These assumptions are predicated on what might be false narratives of how specific cultural groups behavior and furthermore may dictate how individuals perceive these other cultural groups in terms of intelligence and maturity (Hofstede, 2001, p. 6). As "software of the mind", it drives the cultural assumptions others have toward other cultural groups.
The model espoused by Hofstede lends itself quite nicely to the overall narrative described at the outset of this analysis. Perhaps, someone from Silvia's background, which is white, unfairly thought that minorities were only awarded spots in graduate school or within prestigious firms and other businesses simply because of a quota system. In other words, her cultural assumptions may not have allowed for the idea that other minority groups may have worked just as hard or been as intelligent as someone from the majority group is. This process unfairly built into itself several negative and grossly incorrect assumptions that lead to a hasty generalized connotation of members of an ethnic group that possessed different traits and qualities and as a result, these assumptions lead to the negative aspects of the narrative.
The Dutch Culturalist Charles Trompenaar developed a series of cultural factors that can be used to explain the constructs that allow certain cultural to interact with others. Furthermore, these factors can be used to place the narrative of this analysis within an academic framework in order to determine the nature of my colleague's behavior and its implication ("Trompenaar's Cultural Factors", 2010).
These factors include: (1) Universalism v. Particularism. "Universalism is about finding broad and general rules. When no rules fit, it finds the best rule. Particularism is about finding exceptions. When no rules fit, it judges the case on its own merits, rather than trying to force-fit an existing rule" ("Trompenaar's Cultural Factors", 2010). In this sense, Universalism is much like the hasty generalization concept that a "quota" system was responsible for allowing Nicky to secure the position. From a Particularism concept, unfortunately Sylvia did not allow her cultural assumptions to account for exceptions. Another way analyzing this incident is to look from Individualism and Communitariansim perspectives. Clearly, Sylvia's comment toward Nicky demonstrated a communitarian attitude in that there was an inherent assumption that all members of Nicky's ethnic group would have been given positions based solely on ethnic status.
It is clear that Trompenaar's cultural factors lay out the core principle that Sylvia's comment described in the initial narrative fits the logical construct of being an unfair, hasty generalization. This fits with the previous construct derived by Hofstede. Indeed, it could be asserted that both Trompenaar and Hofstede's models intersect on a more general level; Trompenaar and Hofstede's paradigms revolve around an essential core of faulty assumptions being integrated into one's decision-making process regarding how certain cultural groups behave and furthermore these negative assumptions are reliant on predictability and personal judgments. Each of these core competencies for these negative assumptions, when taking Trompenaar and Hofstede together, generates the harsh stereotype that was laid out in the narrative.
Another way of analyzing this narrative is to look at Edward T. Hall's series of cultural factors. These cultural factors are imperative for defining specific interactions among cultural groups. In addition, these factors provide yet another framework within which to place the factors of the narrative within to determine its significance and level of impact.
The most critical of Hall's cultural factors is the High-Context versus Low-Context cultural factors ("Hall's Cultural Factors", 2010). High-Context cultural factors assume there are many cultural contextual elements that help people understand the various "rules" of culture. Low-Context cultural factors assume that very little is taken for granted; this dictates that there is less chance of misunderstanding various cultural aspects of a specific group or society. Hall draws the parallel between the French and American cultures to highlight the difference between High-Context and Low-Context ("Hall's Cultural Factors", 2010).
Hall asserts that French contracts are shorter in page count than American contracts. This is due to the fact that French contracts assume that those entering into the contract are well versed in French culture and will have an inherent understanding about the rule of French contract law and therefore these "assumptions" do not have to be incorporated into the specific language of the contract itself ("Halls Cultural Factors", 2010). Conversely, an American contract is quite longer than its French cousin is. This is due to the fact that American contract law does not assume that individuals are familiar with such cultural assumptions and furthermore it is imperative that all relevant details pertaining to the contract are spelled out in such a manner to ensure that all parties are aware of their expectations under the contract ("Hall's Cultural Factors", 2010).
Once again, this model predicates itself on the idea of making cultural assumptions. Just as the French "assume" that one will incorporate French culture into the body of contract, some individuals "assume" that a culture other than theirs many not place such a heavy emphasis on academic success as another group and therefore their purview on cultural "rule's may allow for them to have a low-context cultural attitude toward members of other cultures. The High-Context versus Low-Context paradigm can be further linked together with Hofstede's processes and Trompenaar's cultural assumptions.
According to a French culturalist, D'Iribarne, increased cultural interaction has led to the development of "rank" within certain societies. Specifically, this "rank" assumes that members of other cultures are not as sophisticated as others. As a result, these lower ranked cultures are viewed as not being able to attain certain levels of achievement compared to more highly ranked cultural group members ("French Strangeness", 2006). This concept of "rank" is unique to D'Iribarne and it lends itself quite well to the overall narrative.
However, this paradigm may be more prevalent than one would like to admit. Individuals engage in some form of "cultural rank" throughout their daily lives, it is just that most individuals consider it "stereotypes" and these "stereotypes" can be both positive and negative. Each ethnic group has their own stereotypes, however it is a question of whether those stereotypes or "cultural ranks" are noted by others .Clearly in this narrative, Sylvia had no problem noting her own preconceived stereotypes and expressing her thoughts regarding where Nicky's culture "ranked" in relation to her own world view. As a result, Sylvia's actions conclusively demonstrated a lack of "freedom" in terms of assuming that those from different cultures were not as sophisticated as her own.
Individuals who normally would not have to concern themselves with interacting with individuals and groups from other cultures and backgrounds now find themselves struggling to accurately define the identity of these individuals within the broader construct of society (Hunsiger, 2006, 104). Often, these definitions are the result of negative assumptions and incorrect analysis predicated on faulty assumptions of group behavior.
Logically deducing, the actions of Sylvia from this narrative represent a faulty definition of cultural identity. Her comment toward Nicky assumed that she had a faulty predilection that individuals from Nicky's cultural background were unable to attain the same level of achievement as members of Sylvia's cultural group had apparently become accustomed to. The question then becomes whether or not Sylvia felt threatened by the fact her worldview had become threatened by the integration of someone from another background.
Moreover, it is very easy for an individual who has preconceived stereotypes regarding certain cultures to develop a level of prejudice involving these same cultural groups. Either those groups that are "perceived" to be different based on race, ethnicity, religion or political views can fit conveniently into the stereotypical group dynamics. However, if an individual feels threatened by those who permeating their cultural matrix, an individual feels distinctly different. These stereotypes may venture into dangerous prejudices that can lead to incidents similar to one described in the narrative, where members of one cultural group falsely and incorrectly assume that members of another are neither as smart nor hard working as members of the so-called "majority".
Numerous cultural contexts can lend themselves to the narrative described at the outset of this analysis. Each of the frameworks presented lend themselves to placing the facts of this narrative within the overall context of each frameworks specific requirements. When all facts are considered, it is uncertain that Sylvia sincerely doubted the intellect and diligence of a fellow colleague of hers who was in the same graduate program as hers. However, Sylvia's comments do underscore the presence of certain aspects of thought prevalent within certain cultural groups regarding the integration of other cultures within overall macro-society.
Furthermore, representations of certain cultural qualities have lead to the manifestation of specific stereotypes that negatively impact all members of a culture. As a direct result, this "representation" may lead to the prevalence of negative prejudices inherent within society as a whole. These prejudices may continue to foster and spawn negative and false assumptions. As Hofstede states in his matrix, "the software of the mind" may be predicated on faulty mental processes and assumptions as to the nature of cultural behavior within certain groups. These faulty assumptions, will for the foreseeable future, dominate the cultural landscape as those who espouse and intend on spreading these false assumptions will make no attempt at taking a step back and engaging in what Hall defines as "universality" taking a broad approach to intercultural dynamics.