No such thing as ‘Society’

Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, once said: “There is no such thing as Society, there are individual men and women and there are families” ….’and then there is the law (state)’. In Continental Europe people were perplexed; this because the modern perspective of life is that our being basically revolves around the individual person interacting with Society. The family as such has a more recreational role. But Mrs. Thatcher ruled an outdated class divided country without much mobility up and down in society.

Strange it may sound, but meanwhile Thatcher’s statement would immediately be endorsed by the oriental (Chinese) culture. In this perspective of life everything starts and ends with The Extended Family.


Confusion and knowledge
When talking with many Scandinavians, both business people and private, the confusion and even anger regarding these cultural differences show up fast: ‘In closing a business deal I’m not only dealing with an individual, I’m also dealing with his father, uncle, sister and brother in-law’ or the foreign boss: ‘My staff work and work but they cannot think for themselves, they refuse to take any decisions’.

In order to understand what is going on and act in a more professional way it is profitable to ‘lift up’ the understanding of the two ways of looking at life: The individualistic (Western) and the collectivistic (Eastern) perspective on life.

The Individualistic family is small. The individuals are drawn with a solid line and the family with a dotted line to show the characteristics of this perspective; the individual human being is the focus, the entity to be supported and backed. This will be introduced from early childhood. The family members are interacting heavily with society from Nursery to University, working life and eventually Social Welfare Office, therefore the dotted line. This regime is under stress in times of economic down-turns. The families don’t have the resources to take over.

The Collectivist family is large. All the members, from toddlers to widowed grandmothers, cousins and other next of kin, interact heavily with each other. Hence the dotted line around the single person. The family as such is the highest unit recognized, hence the solid line. The family is the castle -or the fortress if you like. There is a problematic relation to the rest of what we call society and state, sometimes characterized by exploitation of the common good. The collectivist family with an omniscient know-all head is under stress, also because of IT and the digital revolution.


The Norms
From the early childhood all of us wherever we live are taught norms, the way we believe important factors and happenings in our life should be met, handled and dealt with. A few characteristics:

The real tricky thing about norms is that we, for so many reasons, are drilled even coded to see them as the truth, but we learn from history that that is not the case. When I was young, although long ago and far away, homosexuals were sick perverts, now they get married in the church. They are not seen as a threat anymore and we have found other scapegoats, for example those few on social welfare.


From our side of the table
The most important factor to understand, both for Western business people and for travelers, is that the norms we bring with us are relative and don’t carry the weight of eternal truth about what is right or wrong, for example regarding pedagogical methods during upbringing. The more we can hold our own norms out at arm’s length and look at them, the more we will be able to understand, but not necessarily embrace, the norms of other cultures. But we will also be able to see through these other norms, even penetrate them – in order to get things done.

In the Western culture, children are drilled into individual thinking, taking more and more complicated decisions by themselves, here and now! Then the child must also stand up for criticism if the decision proves to have unwanted effects -a lonely position. In the Eastern culture, the child will rely on the head of the family being the decision maker. The first obligation of the child is to obey, do what he is told, and don’t question the decisions. Doing so the child is free of the burden of responsibility.

When these two children grow up into young adults and meet with the intention of doing business, complications are to be foreseen. We have a whole industry dealing with ‘Cross-cultural Communication’, they are mostly just scratching the surface with commonplaces and their efforts will not help much. It all starts with the individual’s capacity to accept that he/she was ‘brainwashed’ from early childhood. No need to quit the norms –the brainwashing- but understand them as relative.

Realize that when you meet your counterpart, you meet the young front office man in the family, but he of course wants to show that he is of importance and that can eventually trick you. Nevertheless, behind him is the back office man, and behind him again, the real players. If you then know and accept, by looking hard at your own norms, that you shouldn’t expect a deal ‘here and now’, you are on the right track. It is not sure that you will ever meet the ‘Big Boss’ but you will meet his spirit in the form of the front office fellow. Can make you a bit paranoid, unless you realize the presence of the big man’s spirit and acknowledge the fact.


Leader lead!
-Foreign boss / Thai staff
If you are manager in a company with Thai staff, you will maybe notice that the staff work hard but regarding decisions and actions they will typically wait for you, you are the boss, you are expected to tell them what to do and eventually how to do it. Many young Thais are well aware that this is a problem in a modern digitalized world, but they, often in despair, exclaims: ‘But we never learnt to think out of the box’.

The silliest thing you can do is to regard your Thai staff as stupid, they are not, they are children of their cultural norms. I have two adopted Thai sons. It has been a job for their mother and me to ‘lift’ them up to some thinking ‘out of the box’; they absolutely haven’t learned that in school. Take the motorcycle taxi drivers; they are extremely fast and smart but hopelessly underused. Your most profitable option as employer is to handle your staff with patience and care. That becomes easier if you can laugh a bit, looking at yourself, your norms and your belly!

I know well that all this is not new to some old hands in this country, but I also know, from so many talks in confidence, that the young ones and the newcomers don’t see what is going on right under their nose, but just wonder why their counterparts are not reacting in a proper (read Western) manner.

The author has working and research experience from the Sudan, Zambia, Portugal and Thailand.


Thanks to Claus Gundersen for valuable comments and proofreading.

The icons are designed by Liu Young, born in China – educated in Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *