In July, 2013 Asiana flight 214 crashed in San Francisco. As the initial phase of the investigation into the crash honed in on pilot error, I was not surprised to hear Korean culture mentioned as a possible cause. Korean airlines from the 70’s to late 90’s had a series crashes blamed on pilot error that experts said were linked to its culture. In these crashes, Korea’s cultural hierarchy prevented subordinates from directly challenging captains even when they were clearly screwing up. In fact, Korean Air was nearly banned from flying in the US until it addressed pilot training in this regard. (For an excellently-written but incorrect and factually flawed article arguing against the role of culture in these plane crashes, check out Ask a Korean)
Regardless of the outcome of the Asiana investigation, there is something to be learned about culture and how it can be made to change that is well-demonstrated by the history of Korean airlines. This is that culture can be controlled by economic forces just like a business. Furthermore, these economic forces are moving every culture in the world in the same direction which is to say it’s moving them towards a more universal culture with an ever growing number of universal standards and norms.
In the case of the Korean airlines, safety was deemed to outweigh Korea’s interest in maintaining their cultural practices, in the cockpit at least, and the Korean airlines found it necessary to change their cultural practices by demanding underlings speak up to superiors in English and without regard for overly wordy, formal politeness that typifies Korean language because it could save precious seconds in an emergency.
Another example of market forces working on culture can be seen with China. These days, it’s often jokingly said that children in the West should start learning Chinese. To this I say, “Not so fast!” China, no matter how powerful and wealthy it becomes, will never be able to export its language on the scale English has been exported. Why? Simple. It’s too difficult to learn, or in economic terms, it’s too inefficient. The Chinese alphabet has over 30,000 characters, a basic fluency in Chinese requires a person to learn 3,000 of them and that takes about 10 years of study, and that’s for someone who grows up speaking Chinese. While English is by no means the easiest language on Earth, it takes less than half the time to learn as Chinese. It also has the advantage of having a huge head start on moving around the world thanks to business, movies and TV. It’s also the language the internet is written in. Some argue this last one is actually what seals the deal on English becoming the universal language: kind of a right time right place kind of thing. So once again we see economic forces shaping what a universal culture will look like.
The first two examples, I think, are clear cases of economic necessities (safety and efficiency) objectively showing how culture will be shaped. However, what I really want to talk about are the more day-to-day elements of culture that don’t have any clear economic forces being exerted on them. Examples of this can be seen in certain cultural stereotypes we’re all familiar with: loud Americans, rude French, drunken Brits, and terribly dressed Germans. Just name a country and surely, somewhere, someone will have a derogatory thing to say about it as a means of generalizing its people. I’m sure even the Fins have something bad to say about their sexy, sexy neighbors in Sweden (What that could possibly be, I have no clue. Swedes are great). So what becomes of these cultural traits that are more accurately viewed as preferences than issues of safety or efficiency? What force of economics will shape them and move the outliers in the direction of a more universal standard? What culture can be made to change when the choices between one behavior or another, say shaking hands verses bowing, can be seemingly as unimportant as choosing between Coke and Pepsi?
Well, to answer this question you have to start by making an important observation and that is that every culture has a few behaviors, values or beliefs that cause them to stand out, some more than others. People don’t tend to notice how we’re similar. We notice how we’re different. So that some cultures stand out in ways that many other cultures notice means that culture is actually deviating from an unspoken norm. So, for example, if most cultures think Americans truly are loud, that means a lot of cultures are in some kind of agreement about what an acceptable speaking volume is.
Bringing this back to economics, what this could all mean is that a Cultural Free Market could develop in the world in which either the majority sets the standard or where the best idea wins, just like in a Capitalist Free Market. So, just like shoppers in a store go through whatever economic analysis they go through in order to decide which one of several similar products to buy, so too might people who travel and encounter different cultural practices start picking which cultural traits they would like to acquire and practice.
Remember, culture is not a collection of inherent traits, but rather learned behaviors, values and beliefs. Since it is learned, any particular cultural trait can be willingly unlearned and replaced with a behavior someone feels benefits them more. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but there’s no reason it can’t be done. And yes, I understand that the idea of a Cultural Free Market picking certain cultural traits as winners and losers flies in the face of cultural relativity; however, there are just some ways of doing things that are better than others. Period. The end. Go to a place where people wait in well-organized lines to buy things and then go to place where people cut lines, and push and shove, and tell me it’s all relative. Not only that, but I’ll bet good money that most people from a culture where pushing is OK will prefer the cultural practice of waiting in lines if given the chance to experience it.
One recent example of one culture encountering another’s norms and preferring some of them was mentioned in an article I recently read. It was about the increasingly notorious reputation of China’s international tourists, who now travel more and spend more money overseas than any other country. As people who have traveled to China may know, some commonly seen sights in China would not fly anywhere else in the world, cultural relativity and piles of tourist dollars be damned.
In this article, the Chinese Prime Minister called on Chinese tourists to stop doing certain things that are arguably common practices in China. Specifically he addressed spitting while eating in restaurants, speaking loudly, and crossing streets while traffic lights are still red. The article also mentioned one Chinese practice that could offend even the most understanding cultural relativist, which is tourists allowing their children to defecate pretty much anywhere, including in restaurants, which is something I have seen firsthand while in China. The PM’s remarks could be a case of one culture caving to already established – though unofficial – international norms, or it could be Chinese who have seen both ways of doing things preferring the new way (Personally, I think once you realize you don’t have to put up with kids shitting in a restaurant, there’s no going back).
Now, I don’t say all this to pick on China, it’s just one of the easiest examples to use to show economic forces acting on culture, and, historically, this makes sense. Many Asian countries, and especially China, have been extremely isolated and have developed very differently over the past several thousand years as a result. In fact, it is only in the last two centuries that this situation of extreme isolation has even begun to change. However, while places like China are only just now starting to integrate with the rest of the world, the rest of the world has been more deeply engaged in this process for a much longer period of time than most people realize and have, as a result, already bridged many gaps. What? You think half the world started covering their mouths when they sneeze by coincidence? As the world keeps moving more and more together, we’re all going to continue to find things our own culture does poorly relative to another and will, over time, adjust our learned behaviors towards ways of doing things that are more beneficial, pleasing ,easier, healthier, efficient, etc.
However, this Cultural Free Market has the power to affect much, much more than just our concept of manners. It can affect some much bigger problems. For example, objectively speaking, Arab culture treats women horribly, no way around it. Earlier this year an Islamic cleric in Saudi Arabia argued that women should be barred from using the AC while their husbands aren’t home – and just in time for their 120 degree summers! Why the ban? Because it might signal to a man passing by that the woman is home alone and might “invite immoral behavior.” But, in the coming decades, and as the world continues to integrate, Arab culture and many other cultures whose treatment of women is severely behind modern standards are going to find themselves competing more and more against men from cultures who treat women better. Furthermore, to go back to my Free Market metaphor, women, who are increasingly underrepresented in many populations (China and India, and countries that are already losing women to cultures that treat them better), are going to have more options in picking men. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the more options women have in picking a partner, the more leverage they’ll have to demand better treatment, more independence, and more rights. Women’s rights, it can be said, is an example of where the Cultural Free Market will overcome the majority’s norm – the poor treatment of women – and replace with a new standard – gender equality. Women, will increasingly get to vote on how they are treated by when they get married and who they choose to be their partner, and this will replace the old standard with a new, better and more universal one.
Sidebar: Obviously this is a broad topic and this piece does not do it justice. This was just my first attempt to explain something that’s been in my head for a long time. If people have issues with something I’ve said, see a weakness in my argument or want to hear more about it, leave comments. I’d be happy to respond to critiques and/or expand on an explanation where necessary.