Culture and the Bell Curve

Before we get deeper into the nuts-and-bolts of culture and behavior, let’s examine the bell curve as it relates to culture.

I’ve got two disclaimers: first, cross-cultural communication is not about painting groups of people with a single brush. Natural human variation exists in any culture.

The other disclaimer is that just because a given culture values an ideal, it doesn’t mean its members always walk the talk. Japanese culture values harmony, for example, but Japanese people are not always harmonious. Western culture values “truth”, but Westerners have more than their fair share of liars. Values are simply what a society feels its members ought to do, and in this sense, values might best be characterized as the concept of “oughtness”.

But in any society there will always be folks who just do what they ought not do. And there will always be a gap between the ideal and reality. It’s all about tendencies, and the oddballs and exceptions on the outer fringes of the bell curve merely prove the cultural tendency.

Let’s start with the assumption that any given population of people is distributed across a bell-curve. Indeed, the bell curve provides a nice visual representation of natural human variation.

Visualize in your head a wide flat bell curve, and you’ve got America, an open, free culture of extremes. Now visualize a tighter, steeper bell curve and you’ve got Japan, a society built on harmony and conformity.

Just for fun let’s theoretically distribute Americans across the bell curve based on “intellectual achievement”. On the extreme far right would be our Nobel Prize winners and Einsteins, the cream-of-the-cream in the Western World. And on the extreme left would be a segment of society technically known as our “dumb asses”. (And we can thank our dumb-asses for pulling down the American average.)

Now mentally superimpose the tight, steep Japanese bell curve on top of the wide, flat American bell curve. The right flank of the Japanese bell curve (that would be the “high end”) doesn’t reach as far as America’s, because the nail that sticks up in Japanese society gets hammered down. Yes, society wants you to be good, but not too good. So if you happen to be a Japanese Einstein, society expects you to downplay your genius and be a team player.

Now lets take a look at the left side of the Japanese bell curve. It doesn’t extend as far left as America’s. Why? Because Japanese society pulls up their “dumb-asses”, and in the process raises the average. The average in Japan (such as teamwork, math scores, ability to play a musical instrument, information retention, etc.) tends to be higher than in America.

This is not about which culture is smarter. It’s a conceptual way to explain different degrees of variation between Japan and America. The bell curve of any group is shaped by the expectations, demands, freedoms and limitations that society places on its members from childhood.

So the question is, why aren’t Japanese and American bell curves shaped the same?

The obvious reason is that America is a diverse culture with different religions, races, and ethnicities. This reality makes variation inevitable. Another influential dimension of America’s cultural foundation is the sacred values of freedom and individuality, a powerful combination that further exacerbates the bell-curve spread. Suffice it to say that when you mix freedom and individualism, you create a society where individuals are encouraged to stretch the limits of the bell curve in both directions. In practical terms, it means that when Americans are good we’re really good; but when we’re bad, we’re really bad!

A less obvious but influential reason for the contrasting levels of variation between our cultures is the differences in our education systems.

The American education system is about as decentralized as any you’ll find in the world. The purpose of decentralizing anything is to put power in the hands of local stakeholders, in this case, local school boards.

The intention was noble, but the decision had some unintended consequences. One positive consequence is that the U.S. government doesn’t write America’s textbooks and brainwash our children; the bad news is that the U.S. Public School System has a total lack of standards. Indeed, few Americans can claim to have had identical educations–even Americans who attended the same schools. It’s not inconceivable that two people could take the same course in the same school, but if they had different teachers the content of the curriculum would be different.

Hence, America is a good example of what cultural anthropologists call a “low-context” culture. Taken collectively our heads are all over the place. Variation of content in our schools creates a social reality where each American has a unique, personal “database” of information in his or her own head. This not only drives variation in thought, but it creates gaps among fellow Americans.

The Japanese school system, on the other hand, is centralized with clear, detailed standards on curriculum, pace, even teaching methods. The Japanese public education system is so standardized today, that it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that on any given Friday morning at 9:30 am, every Japanese second-grader is on the same page of the same book. In this sense, the whole country is singing from the same hymnbook.

Hence, the Japanese are a “high-context” culture, swimming in the same ocean of information. Most Japanese have virtually identical educations through high school, and all share a common database of information. The shared database makes group dynamics (teamwork, communication, etc) much easier to manage.

The Japanese media is about as centralized as the school system, but with the emerging popularity of blogging and the numerous media sources available on the internet, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Japanese media evolve. At this juncture, the language barrier continues to insulate most of Japan from the rest of the world.

Variation notwithstanding, cultural patterns of behavior are real. My job is to identify these patterns, while acknowledging and respecting the uniqueness of all individuals regardless of culture.

So here’s my promise: no stereotyping of groups in this blog. We’ll stick to the business of observing tendencies and analyzing the cultural dynamics behind them.


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