SR article

2. Values at the crossroads: past, future, inside and outside


In intercultural communication literature distinctions are prevalent like hierarchy versus egalitarianism, communitarianism versus individualism, sequential time management (planning) over against synchronic (at random), status by position or achievement and many more. Usually on the basis of questionnaires a society is characterized along the lines of such cultural value orientations in percentages, say 70% hierarchical versus 30% egalitarian, etc. That doesn’t exclude that individuals within one and the same society can differ widely. In that sense generalizing comes with distortions and they should never make a person pre-judgmental. In addition, every society is on the move, like it or not. Within each society there are struggles and discussions about its future course. Engineers working on projects across the lines of cultures should have an understanding of all that.

Often engineers have a self understanding that is characterized by science: they analyze and they make models. That is also what the engineer in the Bangladeshi example in the first lesson thought he was doing: make a model of a cheap gear for rickshaw pullers. But actually he was already doing more than that: he made a design! He designed a solution in response to a felt imperative. This brings in the time perspective in engineering. An engineer is not merely analyzing, but he also makes dead matter subservient to future imperatives. He makes things work. Work for you! A beautiful definition of engineering is the following: “to integrate dead matter into the processes of life” (Rosenstock-Huessy). Or, with another citation of his: “matter shouldn’t matter”. Engineers participate in world creation: they participate in creating the world future generations will have to live in.

In the Cartesian model of science this time perspective is lacking. Scientists analyze and make models according to the laws of physics and technology means implementing these designs in the reality outside by means of technological hardware etc. If we once again take the engineer in Bangladesh as an example, he was so focused on the technology that he only by accident discovered that his invention did not work within the institutional framework of the society. If he would have had an understanding of society as evolving through time, changing in sometimes revolutionary ways, he might not have stopped there. He would have posed the question: how can I responsibly participate in social change?

This question brings a paradigm shift in the methods of science. A deep understanding of the laws of physics should now be integrated into a broad understanding of social change. But by what method? We should not change at random. We should only change when it is necessary: here the imperative mood comes in as initiating change: you are appealed to, challenged, you feel lost, because you see an overwhelming problem and nobody doing anything about it. You have to stand out over against the group you are part of, if you want to put the new problem on the agenda. At the second stage you and others start talking with each other, discuss with each other, propose on an equal footing in order to sort out what to do. This is reflected in the subjunctive mood of grammar: “shouldn’t we…?” You are proposing, not only coming with a proposal, but also proposing like a lover does, asking for voluntary consent. Debates, propositions, continue until finally a group is formed that functions as a support base for change: that may take a lot of time and effort. In the end the world outside can be ordered anew so that new procedures or technology are becoming a functional part of it. Often then the cycle starts again, because mostly when we have found the solution for one pressing problem, another problem and imperative pops up.

Any and every culture or company has to deal with these four fronts of reality: future and change, past and tradition, creating agreement inside, institutionalizing the results in the world outside. But any and every culture and company also tends to specialize in one of these four roads. We are constantly at the crossroads and we have to deal with different priorities.

My proposition here is this: we should understand societies and cultures not in a static way, but as temporary attempts to deal with these different claims in a path dependent way, seeking a way forward towards the next solution. Each social innovation will probably also bring with it a specialization of this society. Each achievement is of lasting value only if it solved a real problem. As a consequence societies and enterprises should not decide whether they are egalitarian or hierarchical, collectivist or individualist, but how much they need from each of these values at any moment. And in what mix and order. Even as a single person we always alternate between different values, sometimes obedient, sometimes shy, sometimes daring and innovating.

Concluding we can say that intercultural business ethics has to deal with two tasks:

  1. It should help to understand the other and to communicate with each other respectfully and tactically.
  2. It should establish the right priorities and right mix of opposing values in order to make an      organization function effectively.


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