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|Icebergs and Rorschach Blots: A Multicultural Reflection|
|22 October 2001|
Everybody knows that we live in a multicultural and increasingly globalized world and that ex-pats living and working in a foreign country - perhaps especially a developing one - have their work cut out for them. Here in the Philippines, that awareness is reflected in readily available handy dandy "how to adapt" resources, ranging from Lonely Planet guides to the American Chamber's useful Living in the Philippines to "cultural adaptation for dummies" brochures provided by consulting and relocation firms to their multinational clients. Indeed, I myself occasionally earn some of my daily bread by conducting multicultural briefings for incoming international executives who need a quick and dirty intro to what they'll be facing in this unfamiliar cultural terrain. For an overview of the topics covered in such forums, you may wish to refer to a couple of earlier Pearls (Filipino Business Norms and Etiquette and Filipino Business World 101 in particular).|
However - and here's the rub - a lot of the information featured in such sources is oversimplistic, hackneyed, outdated, and even silly. Sure, it's useful to understand such basic cultural concepts as pakikisama and utang na loob or to know that Filipinos place priority on avoiding overt conflict and point by pursing their lips. But ultimately such cultural sound bites are superficial and not that much help for the foreigner living and working in the Philippines.
So, at the risk of being politically incorrect and being e-lambasted with flaming e-mails (heck, it's happened before), allow me to free associate a bit and go a bit deeper. Caveat: The following more-or-less random observations reflect my own idiosyncracies and unusual 20-year love-hate relationship with Filipino culture. Also note that I am a long-time workaholic and borderline Type A who has learned to stifle perfectionistic tendencies in order to maintain little things like sanity.
I have worked hard to project a positive image of the Philippines in these Pearls, indeed bending over backwards to find silver linings even in the darkest hours. Unless I'm mistaken, Clouds and Silver Linings was one of the few relatively positive pieces written about this country during the Erap-unravelling melodrama. And hopefully some of my more atmospheric Pearls such as Eva from Cebu and Leaving on a Jet Plane have provided some off-the-beaten-track insights into the often unappreciated strengths of the Filipino people. (BTW, thanks to the readers out there who have taken the time to send supportive e-mails!).
However - and here's where truth rears its pointed little head - all has not been a bed of roses in my efforts to reach Big Rock Candy Mountain Philippines style. Make no mistake about it: Doing business here is hard. Whether you are a denizen of a multinational executive suite, a businessperson negotiating a distribution agreement, or a freelance hustler pursuing elusive gold in Makati high rises and glittery five-star lobbies, you are likely to encounter a variety of unfamiliar and unsettling experiences. For instance...
Things take forever. Period. Doing business in the Philippines is sort of like swimming in quicksand. Which in itself might not be so bad, except that it's so easy to be deceived and sucked into a syndrome of thinking you're closing a deal when in fact you're still on the outside looking in.
A corollary is that nothing is final till it's final. Never think you've got the cat in the bag until you have cash in hand and the project is proceeding with observable and measurable activities. Having a handshake is not final. Having a signed contract is not final. Having a check in hand is not even final. Cash the damn thing!
Ex-pat double standard/superhero in cape syndrome. One of the things that bothers me about Filipinos and that I still don't quite understand is a strange sort of cultural inferiority complex. Perhaps we could call it "Little Brown Brother residual damage"? (William Howard Taft coined that nasty term, and Leon Wollff wrote a book with that title in 1960; his fairly objective portrayal of how we exploited the Philippines was completely ignored by most, certainly by American decision-makers).
In practical terms, this cultural inferiority complex takes many forms. In the business world, there is a certain "aura of invincibility" associated with a white face, something that allows two-bit charlatans to come to Manila, make a killing, and split. I plead guilty to benefiting in some ways; I can't count the number of Filipino professionals who have asked me to partner with them at least in part because of my color and culture. Being American here carries a certain cachet, whether or not it should. Even little things like not being frisked entering a mall when the guy in front of you just about got strip searched are a bit twilight zone-ish.
Organizational culture conflicts in multicultural settings. The above dynamics play out in strange ways in multinational organizations; here I am referring largely to my own experiences working with and in various development agencies. Manila has a large development community (USAID, ADB, WHO, UNICEF, UNDP, et al.), and all have similar staffing: Ex-pat professionals on the one hand, local professionals on the other. In most such organizations, the locals provide the long-term continuity, while the ex-pats come and go. The locals don't give themselves enough credit, defer to ex-pats on most decisions even if they know more than their bosses do, and make substantially less money. All of which are a shame.
I am fascinated by the psychology of international development work and this complex intercultural interaction. The local professionals are highly educated and have absorbed the mindset and vocabulary of international development. However, I know that my own perspective on development is fundamentally different (as it must be given my status as outsider looking in). The fact that I was educated about development issues in a leading American graduate school at a highly abstract level has something to do with it, although many of the local professionals also share that background. Indeed, I myself trained development folks from the Philippines at Cornell way back when. So that in itself doesn't explain the cultural chasm. I suspect it has more to do with the cowboy orientation and having grown up in an achievement-oriented society where problems could always be solved.
As a red-blooded American operating over here, I do sometimes get frustrated. When I analyze myself, I can see the cultural origins pretty clearly, namely in two major aspects of my own upbringing:
Americans also have fundamentally different attitudes about personal criticism. While Filipinos often take direct criticism personally, constructive criticism is considered acceptable and even welcomed by most Americans. That explains why many Filipino professionals have an adverse reaction when exposed to Western organizational cultures in which confrontation is the norm. In meetings, people show their feelings, glare at one another and gesticulate, openly criticize, and sometimes yell one another. But - hey, no hard feelings - they end up going out for a drink after work or watching a ball game together that weekend. Try that in a Filipino organization and see what happens!
What we're talking about, of course, is cultural mindsets and the fact that the way we experience things is shaped by the cultural lenses through which we view the world. One good analogy is that of the Rorschach ink blot test, that old staple of the shrink toolkit. Ink blots are carefully designed to have no particular meaning. They are more or less symmetrical and have random shapes. It is up to the subject to attribute some meaning to that ambiguity. What do they see? What they are prepared to see. The meaning attributed is a function of the individual's psyche, ways of thinking, and (perhaps most importantly) his or her cultural programming.
So what does this cultural programming really consist of? We could get academic and cite various definitions of culture, to wit:
There's a well-worn metaphor about culture being like an iceberg - you can see just the 10% jutting above the waves, but it's the 90% below that sank the Titanic. Our cultural values come from our socialization - from family values and expectations, from school experiences, from watching television, from wherever. Those values are the part of the iceberg below the water line. They are also the values that create the "lenses" through which we view the world around us.
The professional striving to be effective in a multicultural business environment must develop an alternative set of lenses that allows him/her to understand more than the superficial 10% above the water. I myself deal with this constantly as an Americano consultant here. Even though I have studied Philippines history and culture for many years, and even though I make a conscious effort to do things more or less the Filipino way, I never quite learn enough. Indeed, I am always amazed by the many things I have yet to learn.
The bottom line? You have to give priority to enhancing your multicultural communications skills, which are essential for persuading others to do what you want. The Global Village is upon us, and you just won't be able to achieve your goals in a multicultural setting like today's Philippines unless you learn to speak both "Eastern" and "Western" style and always keep those alternative cultural lenses handy.
|...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas|
|Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines|
|Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo.||
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|See also Clarence Henderson's Philippines Capsule and Prospect Reviews at Asia Market Research dot Com|
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