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What do you really think about rules?

Last year I wrote about cultural differences that can be difficult to adapt to – focusing at that time on the differences in Power and Status. 

Another area that can cause difficulty is attitudes to Rules and Laws and how we think they should - or shouldn't - apply.

I first came across this cultural difference in the work of Fons Trompenaars where he and Charles Hampden-Turner speak about the idea of Universalism and Particularism. 

Universalist societies prefer to work with the protection of rules and laws, while Particularist societies prefer to work with special relationships and the protection that a strong relationship provides in difficult circumstances. 

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner measured this belief by creating the dilemma of the car accident.  In this situation, your best friend hit a pedestrian while speeding, with you beside them in the car.  Trompenaars' question is – ‘what right does your friend have to expect your protection?’  You can read more about this in Charles Handy’s BBC  guide to the gurus.

If you have come from a Universalist culture you may be surprised (or even shocked and dismayed) to discover how many societies would feel comfortable ‘shading’ their evidence to support a friend.  

On the other hand, if you come from a Particularist culture you may be surprised (or even shocked and dismayed) to discover how many societies would NOT feel comfortable ‘shading’ their evidence to support a friend.

As Fons said in a presentation to an AHRI conference I attended.  “Universalists will say of Particularists –‘You just can’t trust them – they will always help their friends.’  While Particularists will say of Universalists – ‘You just can’t trust them – they won’t even help their friends’!”

To this end, Universalist cultures place a strong emphasis on contracts, lawyers, rights and legal process, while Particularist cultures place great importance on relationships and expect the relationship to adapt and support in different circumstances and situations.   

This is a complex value difference and one that creates many situations of potential conflicts. 

From my work in Australia I’ve noticed conflict around perceptions and expectations. 

Many people moving to Australian have a perception of Australia (and Australians) as laid back, relaxed, not bothering that much about rules and regulations. You may have noticed in the map in the link above that Australia always comes up as Universalist in belief.  So when newcomers arrive –expecting laid back, larrikins – and instead see lock-out laws in Sydney restricting alcohol intake, no-hat-no-play rules in school grounds, tight restrictions on where smokers can smoke, and the bicycle helmet rules that apply to your child riding a bike in the park, it can create some confusion or frustration!

Newcomers learn that even though Australians will criticise the ‘nanny-state’; when pushed many Australians agree with these laws and see it as the duty of the state to create such laws that we all should abide by to protect us and the rest of society.

So how can we help people as they adapt to this Universalist society? 

Again, knowing your own personal values is a great first step, as is understanding how others may think differently.  Sometimes those differences may cause frustration or bemusement –that’s when it helps to have a cultural mentor / coach / good friend who will listen and understand and help you to reflect on your thoughts, your responses and your next steps in building relationships within your new culture.


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