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Culture is not like Personality

By Milton J. Bennett posted 07/11/2013

To paraphrase H.L.Menken, For every question there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. The question "what is culture?" is particularly conducive to producing such answers. In an earlier blog I suggested that the iceberg metaphor (simile) was one of those: beloved, intuitively sensible, and, at best, inaccurate. In this second installment of the "Culture is not like..." series, I want to take on the grandparent of such similes, "culture is like personality."

Culture is like personality in that both are products of systematic observation or measurement. In the case of personality, individuals are attributed qualities according to consistencies of observation within certain conceptual categories. The observational categories might be bodily humors such as "phlegmatic" or "sanguine," or more abstract categories such as "open-mindedness" or "extroversion." But whether they derive from ancient Greek medicine or modern psychological measurement, the qualities ascribed to people are necessarily attributes of our own systematic observation. Descriptions of culture are also products of observation, and the qualities we attribute to groups such as "collectivism" or "individualism" are similarly products of observational categories.

Culture is not like personality in that groups of people cannot be effectively described in the same terms as the individual members of groups. To do so is to confuse levels of abstraction. At an individual level of abstraction, it may be useful to describe people in personality terms such as extroversion or to analyze interpersonal interaction with terms such as jealousy, esteem, hate, or love. But groups are not extroverted or introverted, they are not jealous, and they do not love or hate other groups. Simply put, individuals have personalities, but cultures do not.

That's because groups are defined at a higher level of abstraction. Descriptions of group behavior are not like descriptions of individuals; instead, they are statements about individuals. In the case of cultural descriptions, the statements are about how individual members of the culture coordinate meaning and organize action within some boundary such as a national society, a tribal group, or a corporation. At a cultural level of abstraction, collections of people could be usefully described as being more collectivist and hierarchical or more egalitarian and individualistic. These are not descriptions of individual personality, but statements about how individuals organize themselves.

Distinctions among levels of abstraction and analysis tend to be blurred by the "culture is like personality" simile. On the eve of World War II, with cultural relativism all the rage in anthropology, U.S. American military planners thought they could achieve advantage by understanding the personality, or "character," of the enemy. Many anthropologists and several elite American universities were enlisted in the effort. The purpose of such understanding was not, of course, to further productive intercultural relations, but rather to conduct psychological warfare - to find exploitable weaknesses in enemy societies and guard against their strengths. By assuming that groups of people were like individual people, the national character of Germans was determined to be "disciplined" and that of Japanese to be "conformist."

In modern terms, this idea of national character is simplistic and stereotypical, right? Not so fast. In fact, this rendering of culture is alive and well, particularly in the business-as-warfare contexts of many MBA programs. Characterizing a national group as "high masculinity" or as "linear active" may also be simplistic and stereotypical, no matter how couched the descriptions might be in complex quantitative or taxonomic rhetoric. Granted, current research on national cultures is more nuanced than the 20th century conjectures, and acknowledgment is given to the existence of variation within cultures, but this added sophistication is usually lost in application. For instance, I have observed interculturalists routinely using the same term (e.g. "high context") to describe both individuals ("she uses a high-context style") and groups ("it is a high-context society"). So do cultures have a "style"? Or is a culture simply the aggregate of individuals' styles? Or do individuals somehow represent the style? I have heard interculturalists say that personality determines culture, that culture determines personality, or that culture is simply a statement about "modal personality." (This last statement is actually a fairly common position in cross-cultural psychology).

If we interculturalists want to be both perceived as and actually be effective in our specialty, we need to have a clear understanding of our unique conceptual focus and analytical strategy. Our focus is on the group (cultural) level of abstraction, and our analytic strategy is intercultural communication. Professionally, we are not specialists in personality, and we should avoid claiming that cultural knowledge is translatable into personality terms. Conversely, we should resist the idea that specialists in psychological personality are ipso facto specialists in culture.


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John Stewart wrote on 07/11/2013 at 16.30

The blog post's main point is well-taken, and I wholly appreciate the constructivist orientation that animates it. I'd also appreciate your unpacking the statement, "our analytic strategy is intercultural communication." Communication of any sort implicates what could be called an analytic strategy AND it is inescapably praxical and tactical--i.e., it involves specific "moves," if that term can be understood as neutral--length of pauses, eye behavior, word choice, etc. So I wonder if this statement stops where it does for convenience and coherence, or what's assumed about the relationship between "analytic strategy" and praxical tactics?

Ton van Rheenen wrote on 10/11/2013 at 10.14

It is usefull to highlights some ways the concept "culture" is explained by 'wrong' analogies, showing the elementary mistake of the fallcay of the wrong level. 'Culture' as a concept on the level of society, it is inherently a social concept. Just what the concept tries to explain in this social world is a different problem altogether; how can we seperate the concept of 'culture' from the concept of'society' which special social practice does culture tries to signify, what is "not culture"? Or is 'culture' really 'the worst concept ever developed(Luhmann)?.
If the concept of culture is a useful concept in analysing the social world then 'communication'is its object, because everything social is (based on) communication. And if the development of intercultural competences is our aim one of the important issues then is how 'intracultural communication'differs from 'intercultural communication'.

Renata Bohomoletz wrote on 21/02/2015 at 03.06

Before doing my comment - trying to make it as possible - I need to mention on my backgroung: corporate manager for multicultural teams. And as na independente research since 2009 I have only to congralate you for the comments done.
There's no clear definition in the theories available, and when trying to justify companies cultures, even worst.
So, I wish I could have read this 5 years ago, before start to have so many headeaches when trying to find out these so differents concepts and applications available. Congrats!
Renata Bohomoleta

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