Cultural differences, real & imagined

“We would love to see an Arabic edition,” he wrote, in response to the upcoming German version of Working Out Loud. “This book is a life changing one. My goal is to spread the word when I go back home to Saudi Arabia.”

“Really?” I thought. “Why? And what about the cultural differences?”

I’ve had several European Circles tell me certain exercises are “too American.” I’ve had people tell me that Japanese and Chinese cultures might reject WOL entirely. (“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” “The bird which doesn’t hide itself gets shot.”) Yet there are many Circles in all of those places.

Sultan, an engineer in the Saudi Armed Forces, educated me about his culture in the comments.

Sultan: “We highly value networks and relationships and they are ingrained in the society, and the reason is that the Middle East and specifically my home country Saudi Arabia is a tribal society where people based their strength on family, clan  and tribe size. On the other hand we like our privacy and we don't show vulnerability because it's a sign of weakness.”  

Me: “Interesting. The Chinese concept of guanxi is similar if I understand it properly. “Working in networks” is common, though those networks tend to be closed and reciprocal. (e.g., I do business with you and you with me). It’s not bad, but it can be limiting. WOL can help with discovery and greater access.”

Sultan: “Spot on.” 

I was thinking of this exchange today as I spoke with a company in the middle of a difficult merger. The cultures are different, they said, and the sense of “Us and Them” has been hard to change.

Is there such a thing as cultural differences? Of course. But we consistently see that such barriers can be overcome. Circles of strangers, for example, often describe themselves as friends by the end of their time together. The Circle helps them discover that even strangers from around the world have much more in common than they may have ever imagined. 

In companies, the Circles help build “human bridges” that span traditional boundaries: locations and departments, even gender and generations. The greater the connectivity in the organization, the more that colleagues see each other as individuals instead of labels, the more “Us and Them” becomes “Us.”

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