Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Crime at the intersection of cultures

This post is republished here with the permission of Anne Copeland, Executive Director of the Interchange Institute.  I had the pleasure of taking Dr. Copeland's cross-cultural training course in Boston.
Consider this:

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences. What right does your friend have to expect you to protect him? And what do you think you would do in view of the obligations of a sworn witness and obligation to your friend?

This dilemma was posed to people in 50+ countries around the world by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner* and the results have become part of the canon of intercultural understanding.

My mind jumped to this study this week when I read about the three college friends of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, arrested for allegedly trying to destroy evidence of Tsarnaev’s involvement in the blasts. Let me be clear – I am no apologist for the crime. It happened just two miles from my home and I’m as shaken and dismayed as anyone; the drone of helicopters overhead has only recently stopped its continual reminder of the tragedy.

But can we use our intercultural knowledge to understand these college boys’ actions?  Here’s what Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner found: Across the globe, people responded to the driver/pedestrian dilemma very differently. In countries they labeled “universalist” (because they make decisions based on universal standards), people said that the friend had no right to expect protection and/or that the friend might have some right to expect it but even so, they wouldn’t lie under oath to protect him. In countries they labeled “particularist” (because they make decisions based on obligations to particular people they know), people were more likely to say they would testify to the lower figure to protect their friend.

The US, Canada, Australia and virtually all of northern Europe all scored strongly in the universalist direction – 87% or more of the participants from these countries (93% in the US) said they would not lie in court to help their friend. But in other parts of the world, more than 50% of the participants said they would testify to the lower figure. Why? Out of their obligation to a close friend and/or to protect the friend from what they feared would be unfair treatment by the police.

And there’s more: For universalists, the worse the pedestrian injury, the more likely they were to say they would tell the truth in court. But for particularists, the worse the injury, the more likely they were to protect their friend. Everyone’s moral reasoning was deeply shaped by their notion of competing loyalties to relationships vs. abstract principles.

I witnessed this myself one time during a training, when a co-trainer from a particularist culture (who, by the way, was the participants’ minister) virtually led his trainees (from his own culture) to conclude that protecting the close friend by lying in court was the right thing to do. Universalists say, “I wouldn’t trust a particularist – he’ll always help his friend first.” Particularists say, “I wouldn’t trust a universalist – he wouldn’t even help his friend.”

It’s this turn-the-world-upside-down perspective-taking that is the crux of the intercultural training we do.

Back to Boston: Two kids from Kazakhstan and one from the US figure out that their close friend was involved in the bombings and they set out to help him by throwing away incriminating evidence. Under police questioning, the Kazakhs tell the truth (perhaps because they misunderstand how egregious their conduct will be considered in universalist America) but the American compounds his crime by lying to the police about this involvement (perhaps understanding quite accurately how he will be judged).

In our discussion of how to explain the behavior these young men, I hope we can use our cultural understanding as a lens for focusing on some of the roots of this otherwise inexplicable act.


* Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998) Riding the Waves of Culture. McGraw-Hill.

Anne P. Copeland, PhD

Executive Director, The Interchange Institute

Crossing Cultures with Competence  Training of Trainers, Levels One and Two

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