Business culture


The grammatical method

The grammatical method is helpful in structuring the long list of cultural differences. There is quite a body of literature on intercultural management and cultural differences, often called dimensions of culture. They are framed in different ways and contain an increasing number of cultural differences as the debate on culture and business develops. The grammatical method of Rosenstock-Huessy, however, makes it possible to bring some order in this proliferation of dimensions and values. That is brought about by a simple method, which he claims is as old as human history. At least it is as old as the grammar of language. That is because grammar and its different moods articulates four different types of experiences and relationships. These are the following:

  1. Future/imperative: in the grammatical mood of the imperative the experience is articulated of being called upon and having to embark upon an uncertain future. Often there is a problem, but nobody is taking care of it. A responsibility is left vacant. It is striking that in many languages the imperative is the shortest form of the verb. It is also striking that in the imperative no subject is mentioned. It seems as if grammar itself indicates that there is a vacant responsibility in search of its subject. It is calling upon you to fill that empty spot! Therefore we can call it the you-experience.
  2. Inside/subjunctive: the subjunctive mood is in English expressed in words like “would”, as in “would you please …”. It is a request, it tries to convince, and invite. It suggests and proposes an option for common action, which you might turn down or support. This is the true dialogue between me and you about actions to be taken. It is the experience of taking initiative and proposing solutions and trying to find partners: I. Therefore we can call it the I experience. If partners are found a community is built by mutual understanding. People now have the same spirit and move in the same room. Being present to each other means living as contemporaries with the same understanding. Present and inside covers each other: we are contemporaries and for that reason inside the same community now.
  3. Past/participative: this is the experience of already sharing a history and having found common agreement: We. We participate in the same tradition. We are already part of this group. That is the we experience.
  4. Outside/indicative: in the indicative mood we point at facts in the world outside. It is the mood of analysis and conceptualization. It is also the mood of institutionalization. Everybody drives at the same side of the road, for instance. That is not only an agreement, it is also a matter of fact. The indicative also refers to the experience of functioning as a cog in the machine. After all I am also a body in space: It. We can call this the it experience.

Traditional or static societies are strong in communitarianism and in hierarchy. Dynamic and changing societies will score higher on addressing vacant responsibilities/innovation and egalitarianism/individualism.

Against this background six parameters can be summarized on the basis of which companies, organizations in general, can be evaluated and given scores.

  1. Communitarianism versus individualism: “we” versus being singled out by a vacant responsibility as “you!”. If I am participating in a common past, in a sense I am not an individual, but absorbed in a “we”. If I enter upon an unknown future, I’m singled out, because I will be often on my own. If that what I have to do is really new, often I will be only one entering that future. It should be noted, that this sort of individualism, being singled out, the “you” experience, is different from the “I” experience. As called upon, as “you!”, I’m a bit overwhelmed. As “I”, I am taking initiative already, trying to bring about change, finding a practical way forward. As “I” of course I’m also an individual, but in a different mood.
  2. Hierarchy versus egalitarianism: as individual subject and in open communication. In a dialogue I am on an equal footing, even if it is in a dialogue with my boss. At the same time, at different moments, hierarchical orders may tell me what to do and put me in a functional relationship of just doing as I am told. All of us shift from the one mood to the other quite easily and often. If hierarchy prevails too much, the employees feel bossed around and they do not internalize responsibility and will not display a professional attitude – which is more important in as much the business is more high tech.
  3. Voluntarism versus fatalism/traditionalism/uncertainty avoidance: this refers to the subjunctive mood (taking initiative) versus tradition/past (collectivism, traditionalism, fatalism, or more positively, shared history). Voluntarism means taking initiative in order to bridge the gap between past and future. No entrepreneurship is possible without initiative. This also covers the category of “uncertainty avoidance” as coined by Hofstede. Uncertainty avoidance entails anguish or fear for the change that should take place. Initiative always targets at change. Otherwise I could continue copying the past. An initiative is always in the subjunctive mood, because it is meant to find partners and followers.
  4. Synchronic versus sequential: sequential means to plan, doing things systematically after one another. Planning is what we do if we want to bring about change, because only then we need to make a division of a number of steps in order to reach the objective. Otherwise we don’t get there. Planning means that I subject the time that I have to the future I want to reach. Because from that moment onwards I start to treat my time in an instrumental way as a mere “it” that I can use as a tool. Everything comes with a price: too much planning means that I cannot live fully in the present, not have full attention to the other person that crosses my way. Therefore it is said that Africans have time and Westerners have a watch but no time.
  5. Status by position or by achievement/labor: status by position means status as a family head or as part of some other sort of tradition. Achievement means: achieved by my own effort. This involves labor. Labor is either forced (or at least externally motivated) labor in a hierarchical system and as part of one’s function, or it is motivated from the inside in that in order to reach a new future I subject my body and use it in an instrumental way to reach a future goal. If labor is not instrumental to reaching out to a new future, it always becomes boring and therefore “laborious”. The last mentioned three cultural distinctions or values are all related to the subject, and to the future: initiative, planning, status by achievement/labor. Only when a subject is future oriented, it becomes important to take initiative, to execute the labor that has been planned, and to derive status from it when the work is done. These values or virtues are also related to the social institution of a civil society in that egalitarian dialogue, initiative, planning and labor belong to and are part of this sphere of free exchange. A voluntary commitment and a professional attitude as well (because professionalism requires commitment) is a characteristic of a civil society. A civil society is characterized by voluntary cooperation apart from state authority and apart from family/clan loyalties. It is often claimed that large-scale organizations turn their employees into mere functionaries. In a professional organization the opposite is true. Large-scale organizations will soon become dysfunctional if the employees behave like mere robots. The top management cannot know everything and many issues need to be solved on the shop floor. That takes a professional attitude, it takes initiative and feedback loops from the bottom to the top (egalitarianism/criticism), it takes the courage to take an individual stance (instead of going with the flow and adapting to the group), in short, it takes individual judgment combined with a cooperative attitude.
  6. Universalism versus particularism: universalism means to stick to the rules, without granting privileges. It means creating equal access (for instance as workers to the managers, or as civilians to the state bureaucracy etc.). Particularism means privilege and patronage (friends and relationships). These are not merely internal values and attitudes, but here clearly the institutional environment is involved. It is difficult to maintain a universalistic attitude in an environment characterized by patronage. If you have to show loyalty to the boss, keep dependents satisfied etc., because otherwise you lose your job there is no equal treatment and equal access. In a situation where people treat each other universalistically and use planning and large-scale cooperation, also other cultural values play a role like neutrality (versus affectionate) and a specific attitude (versus diffuse/high context). Neutrality means that affections, positive or negative, do not dominate the relationship. High context means that first you need to know people personally in order to trust them. High context relationships are often necessary to establish trust if there is no anonymous trust. And often there is no anonymous trust, if the state doesn’t provide sufficient legal protection. In this list I do not pay much attention to these two cultural dimensions/values in order to reduce the list to the minimum. We can also consider these values as secondary, in the sense of derived from the list provided.

These six parameters are a tool for mapping a particular business culture. In general, if there is a strict hierarchy, strong collectivism, no initiative and no planning, no commitment to labor and if loyalty to the boss is more important than performance, the company will probably not produce much, unless the workers are under constant surveillance. And even then many mistakes can show up in the production process, because there is no internal commitment to the job. This type of research has been conducted in my book on cross-cultural entrepreneurship – details see below.

Kroesen, J. Otto, Darson, R., Ndegwah J. David, 2020. Cross-cultural Entrepreneurship and Social transformation: Innovative Capacity in the Global South, Lambert, Saarbrücken, 331pp. The book is available at