Tag Archives: ethics

The British in a Nutshell

Continuing the theme from last week about how playing to stereotype can sometimes be advantageous, I will summarise how the English (and it is the English that foreigners mean when they discuss the ‘Brits’ more generally) are perceived by those new to the country.  If you are English and disagree with this perception, please comment (as you should know by now I am not a big fan of stereotypes).  If you have moved to the UK from elsewhere and can confirm or add to these perceptions, please do so.

I should add that yesterday I heard a cross-cultural coach, Katherine Barton http://www.bartoninsights.com/  speak at the Oxford Summit of Leaders conference http://www.ebaoxford.co.uk/index.html about the cultural challenges of doing business in the UK.  Katherine had the unenviable task of condensing thousands of years of development of national character into 20 brief minutes, but she mentioned three key elements to understanding the English:

1) Being reserved, ill at ease socially, which is not the same as being cold or unfeeling.  However, displaying emotions is feared and widely regarded as unprofessional.

2) Desire to avoid confrontation and fear of giving offence can lead to excessive politeness and vagueness.  For instance, ‘a little bit of a problem’ probably signifies quite a major disaster.

3) Quite structured and planned, scheduling everything far ahead and sticking to the agenda, the English can be inflexible once they have planned their workload and are not keen on surprise interruptions.

Some other key characteristics that spring to mind (and were mentioned by some of the other speakers at the conference) are:

4) Honesty and integrity in business dealings, incorruptible legal system, keeping their promises, sticking to deadines

5) Democratic, fair, transparent systems that favour personal merit over personal connections

Interestingly enough, each of the characteristics above can be reversed once you delve a little deeper into the national psyche (without even taking into account regional or class differences).  For example:

1) Mass display of grief and outrage at the death of Diana, kidnapping of Madeleine McCann etc.

2) British managers viewed as too blunt in their feedback in Latin American and Asian countries.

3) Big building projects are rarely completed on time and within budget.

4) MP expenses scandal

5) Old boys’ network still alive and kicking

So what is the truth, other than considerably more complex than the stereotypes? Is this because business culture is quite different from the ‘mass culture’?  Or are we focusing too much on exceptions rather than the norm?  Or is the national character changing?

All of the above, in some way.  I also believe that perceptions of another culture invariably tell us more about the ‘assessor’,rather than about the people being assessed.  The British are punctual, honest, incorruptible, professional and polite to most East European countries, for example, because that is what we aspire to be.  And an excellent starting point for discussion, mutual understanding and collaboration.

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Can the global markets be moral?

There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about ‘happiness economics’ (James Naughtie on Radio 4, Professor Michael Sandel presenting the set of Reith Lectures).  When I first heard the term I thought: ‘ Oh, no, this is another of those hip-hip-hurrah movements of the you’ve-got-the-right-to-and-should-be-happy-all-the-time type!’  But actually, this does not refer to the supposed happiness you will feel once you have consumed, acquired, possessed or done whatever the advertisers want to sell you.  Instead, this is about something that has become deeply unfashionable in recent years, namely thinking about other people and their general well-being.

It’s also about reintroducing the concept of ethics and values into the marketplace.  It’s about putting paid to the myth that markets are pure mechanisms that have no effect on the people and goods with which they operate.  It’s about acknowledging that prosperity and consumption may not make us as happy as perceived fairness and equality.

I never thought I would catch myself saying this.  I come from Romania and have spent a large chunk of my childhood under Communism, so I certainly embraced the ‘free market economy’ with gusto when it became available to us.  Ah, the freedom to be selfish, to operate in a world where self-interest and self-development is admired rather than regarded with suspicion!  So much better than to be a socialist do-gooder!  Admittedly, how could anyone take socialist ideals seriously while living in a society where they were trumpeted in every publication yet being cynically trampled underfoot in practice?

I am not convinced that Denmark is quite the perfect model of contentment and of a just, egalitarian society (and Naughtie does point out some of his concerns in that respect, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8166000/8166798.stm ).  Even if it were, is it a model that poorer, more diverse, less ‘obedient’  countries can truly emulate?

  I liked Michael Sandel’s comment at


 that it is all too easy to settle for efficiency when it comes to markets, because it is the sort of thing that will offend no one.  However, what we should be having, he argues, are robust debates and moral arguments, welcoming all sorts of new and previously marginalised voices.  It’s time to address some of the big ethical questions about globalisation, instead of relying on the markets to muddle through.

Is it possible to make markets more moral?  Is it possible to make bankers more aware of the effect they are having on individual people?  Can we harness greed and self-interest for the common good?

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