Friday, August 13, 2010

Culture is Destiny: Bonn

Very much honorable Sigmund Freud once said that anatomy is destiny. If we paraphrase that, culture is destiny as well. You can travel a lot, learn various languages and consider yourself a citizen of the world, but deep down in your brain and other places (you even suspect exist in your body) you still belong to your primary culture. That culture, at the end of the day, shapes your mental models, has a major input on your behavioral patterns and significantly impacts your values system.

Earlier this week I went to Bonn in Germany for an assessment center with DHL for my internship in winter. I have got the job and I am going to write about my assessment experiences a bit later, so in this particular post I wish to talk about Bonn and the German culture in general.

When you are walking around the "village" of Bonn, it is difficult to believe that it used to be the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany in the good old days. The flow of life is so uninterrupted and "sticky" that the entire city (particularly after arriving from Madrid) feels like a shrine. It is metered, measured, mowed and manicured: even the rubbish bins are trying to deny any relationship to trash whatsoever. Cyclists get indignant with you if you are walking on the bike route. Pedestrians stand waiting for the green light even if the street is empty and dead as a cemetery. Overall, I think that we can make a comparison between the German culture and food: plain, unimaginative, hearty and satiating. In short, nothing fancy but true and solid. Do you think that an idea like an "open bookcase" work in the countries in the south of Europe, for instance? People bring and exchange books in public "bookcases" located around the city. Those are not locked, there is nobody supervising, and surprisingly enough - they are full of books: people really bring and exchange, not only take and forget.

Now, when we are all up for integration and vereinigte Europe, what role does culture play in the process? When Germans, Spaniards, Italians and Greeks (for example) need to work together, what mental models are going to clash? My take on this would be - all of those. In Italy there is a political party called Lega Nord, advocating for splitting the country into two - North and South as they feel that people in the Northern Italy work harder, thus they should enjoy more privileges. How do you think Germans feel about it? :)

Culture defines the way you see this world. Combined with the ideas of Sapir and Whorf, we have a powerful destructive (or constructive) mix, which can facilitate or destroy an intercultural dialogue. We cannot be competent in a culture other than our own, but we can be aware of it. That is the ultimate flaw of all the intercultural training programs. Shifting the focus from building the skills to cope in a certain culture to the skill to adapt quickly to whatever culture or cultural elements should be the key.

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