Reflect for a moment on the meaning of work in different cultures and please join the discussion around the closing questions. Remember that within each culture there are exceptions to the general rule.
Also, if you have a different opinion to the one I expressed I would love to hear your point of view.
Work in the USA
At your typical social occasion in the USA what is one of the first questions people ask you? Is it not “What do you do?” Have you thought for a moment why that is so? Why is it so important for others to know what job you have?
The answer to this question is at the heart of the culture of work in the United States.
“What do you do?” is really tantamount to asking, “Who are you? What is your identity?” “How important are you?”
In addition, the position one has and the money one earns is a measure of how important one is.
Meaning of Work in the USA: Identity/Importance
Work in Mexico
In Mexico (where I live right now), work is the means by which a person helps his or her family to get ahead; Mexicans work to advance the education of their children and to advance their collective national aspirations as a developing nation. They also work in order to have more free time with their family and friends.
Work has such family implications to a Mexican that he/she expects the workplace to have a home-like atmosphere.
(Comment: I was informed that this verdict about the place of work in the lives of Mexicans does not apply in all cases like in the industrialized Northern area of the country)
Meaning of Work in Mexico: For the family: With my family
Work in France
In France work is valued for the pleasure it provides the individual both in and out of the workplace. The French don’t see any point in spending 12 hours/day at the office; they will tell you that after six hours, you become increasingly unproductive. So, from the French point of view, why not focus on being highly productive for six hours and spend the rest of the time doing all the other things you enjoy?
Meaning of Work in France: Facilitate Pleasure
This posting was written by Roger Hoffmann
In most Western cultures, the maxim “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is understood to mean that one is motivated to act upon one’s individual needs, e.g. if I need to accomplish something I must actively speak up, make my request known and persevere until I obtain the resources I need to be successful, even if that means confronting other colleagues.
In Japan, a common maxim is “the nail that sticks out will be hammered down”. In Japanese culture and many other Asian cultures, the group is far more important than the individual. If you stand out in terms of your opinions or desires, you will be ostracised by the group (family, or work colleagues). Maintaining an atmosphere of harmony and cooperation is more important than any one individual’s success. Uniformity of appearance and thought for the greater good of the group is far more important than the needs or desires of any one member.
The Japanese term “wa” 和 is often translated as harmony, or peace, with a connotation of a continuous flow, having no disruptions or breaks. Within the martial arts, wa is evidenced as the requirement of physical harmony of one’s body and posture and with one’s opponent in order to effectively execute a technique.
In business, wa has come to mean the cohesiveness of the team unit. Decisions to be made are discussed among the team members one on one, ideas are circulated, feedback solicited informally to ensure no feelings will be hurt, no egos offended. Only once a unanimous and unified front has been established, will a meeting be called to rubber stamp the decision. All attendees will already know the issue and be in agreement. A meeting is not a place for disagreement, argument or debate since that would endanger the wa of the group.
As important as it is to obtain consensus and a solution, this must not come at the expense of disturbing the peace. For impatient Westerners, the process can appear to be a waste of time, however when decisions are made with wa in mind, they tend to stick and all stakeholders become true supporters instead of simply paying lip service to the decision.
Meaning of Work in Japan: For the group: In harmony.
Roger Hoffmann lived and worked in Osaka, Japan from 1994 to 2000. Teaching business English at Berlitz provided him with many opportunities to discuss business and culture with Japanese businessmen and women. He also taught at a public senior high school for 5 years, giving him insight into how the educational system in Japan operates. Roger is a student of the Japanese martial art of Aikido, currently holding a rank of first degree black belt. He is also an avid student of the ancient board game of Go, which has many strategic principles that are applicable to business and life in general. Roger currently resides in the Los Angeles area where he works in the technology industry.
Questions for Discussion
1. What is the meaning of work in your culture?
2. What is the downside (upside) of your culture’s perspective on work?
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