It is no longer a surprise to me when I travel abroad to find Starbucks or McDonalds, to be able to communicate in English, and to hear popular music or view cable news programs that I am familiar with. We who are from Western cultures can go almost anywhere and feel almost at home. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “global village.” A more technical term is “globalization,” which is the worldwide integration of cultures, ideas, products, and economies. Globalization is caused by and results in worldwide travel and migration, international trade and manufacturing, entertainment and media that crosses cultures, widespread political movements, and more.
While the world has been moving toward greater globalization for a few centuries now, David Brooks suggests that we are currently witnessing its’ decline (See Globalization Is Over. The Global Culture Wars Have Begun. The New York Times, April 8, 2022). Brooks believes that the global village is fragmenting. Instead of reaching out and engaging, more and more people are retreating to their cultural corners.
What I found most interesting about Brooks’ article is the “Western cultural-centrism” (my term) that he acknowledges has been the foundation of globalization. In other words, the mayor, sheriff, and town council of the global village have all been Westerners. The norms for how to interact have been set by these global village leaders. As a result, Western cultural values dominate around the world.
If, in fact, “Western cultural-centrism” is a real phenomenon, then identifying the cultural values of the West is fundamental to understanding this phenomenon. The table below shows us just some of several basic differences between Western and non-Western cultures. Exceptions abound. However, by comparison, the differences listed below are generally true. (Check out my page on Cultural Values for more explanation of these concepts).
|Western Cultures||Non-Western Cultures|
|Identify as an Individual||Identify as part of a Group|
|Focus on the Task||Focus on the Relationship|
|Direct Communication||Indirect Communication|
|Time Orientation||Event Orientation|
|Informal Social Norms||Formal Social Norms|
Back to Brooks: he accurately says, “The problem is that Western values are not the world’s values. We in the West are complete cultural outliers.” Individualism, permissive gender roles, expectations of privacy, material wealth, and other cultural traits that are normal in the West are just plain odd to many cultures around the world. In spite of these differences, it has been necessary to take on the cultural values of the West to be successful in the Global Village. It has often been assumed by Westerners, as Brooks says, “…that nations all around the world would admire the success of the Western democracies and seek to imitate us.”
No matter the intentions, globalization based on cultural superiority is bound to backfire. Why? The bottom line is that people prefer their own culture. They may make adjustments when social or business settings call for it, however, when “push comes to shove,” people tend to gravitate to the values of their homeland. For example, a worldwide study about people’s musical preferences found that:
...people are biased toward the music of their own country and that this bias has increased since the late 1990s. People don’t want to blend into a homogeneous global culture; they want to preserve their own kind. (David Brooks, “Globalization Is Over”, The New York Times, April 8)
Music is among the less consequential examples of the stubbornness of culture. If people resist loving music from another culture as they love their own, how much more do they resist deeper cultural values? As Brooks writes:
…people are driven by moral longings — by their attachment to their own cultural values, by their desire to fiercely defend their values when they seem to be under assault. For the past few decades, globalization has seemed to many people to be exactly this kind of assault. (David Brooks, “Globalization Is Over” The New York Times, April 8)
Do you agree that the global village is in trouble? I think that Brooks is on to something. The pandemic alone has forced isolation, restricted travel, and disrupted international supply chains.
Brooks never mentions CoVID-19 or the pandemic. His argument is that the dis-integration of the global village is a culture war against Western cultural values. This has me thinking about what might be coming: will a new “sheriff” emerge to set new norms for how nations and cultures integrate or, will some kind of “localism” become the new thing? It is difficult to predict these things.
What can we learn from this discussion? Even if we are not in a position to influence the course of geo-politics, two lessons are still clear. First, culture is a powerful force. Multinational businesses and international leaders have underestimated this force. You and I should avoid making the same mistake in our interactions with friends and colleagues of another culture.
Second, assuming cultural superiority over another culture is never the right path to take. All cultures have their strengths and weaknesses and are worth understanding. You and I should be open-minded and appreciate the differences in interactions with people from other cultures. If all people from all cultures would take this view, the global village would be a happier place.