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Digital culture in the world today

Although this article by Polly Plat was written in 2001 the cultural elements remain as valid today as then.

The world, we're told, is about to become one big, digitally linked space. With everyone connected to the World Wide Web, differences in culture, language, custom, and time zones will no longer keep us apart. Or will they?

Digital culture is taking root at different rates all over the world. For example, in southern Europe digital automation is prevalent in certain sectors--big time. With the globalization of financial markets, banking in these Mediterranean countries is state of the art, attuned to Wall Street and the world via the Internet. Banks are aggressively online. Banking transactions are now handled with smart cards (France's Roland Moreno invented smart cards' built-in microprocessor). Accounting standards are international.

However, when it comes to tapping into commercial markets on the Web, establishing business Web sites, or even owning a computer with Internet access at home, it's quite a different story in the sunny countries along the Mediterranean.

According to a study published in 2000 by Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting), Finland has almost 90 Web sites per 1,000 inhabitants, Norway 65, and Sweden over 40 (compared with 60 per 1,000 inhabitants in the U.S.), France has 8, and Spain and Italy 5. The study found that the number of household computers in the U.K. and Scandinavia, as compared with France, Italy, and Spain, is roughly 2 to 1 (3 to 1 for the U.S., and 1.5 to 1 for Germany).

Why are so few French, Italians, and Spaniards online? The answer may lie in 2,000 years of culture.

High- and Low-Context Cultures

Edward T. Hall, an American social anthropologist and author of The Silent Language (Doubleday, 1959), The Hidden Dimension (Doubleday, 1966), and Beyond Culture (Anchor Press, 1976), made a communications leap of Einsteinian proportions when he perceived, from his studies of a number of cultures, two fundamentally different ways of experiencing the world. Hall claimed that cultures are either "high context" or "low context," and have widely variant perceptions of time. Whether a culture is "high" or "low" context can go a long way to determining how digitally attuned it will be--or how fast, it might embrace the wired world.

Low-context cultures--most of the Germanic and English-speaking cultures, which are mostly Northern and Protestant in background--are explicit: direct, linear, verbal. Channels of communication are clear. Working teams share information, cooperate among themselves, and support one another. Information and goods are easy to obtain. If you see something advertised in a catalogue in the U.S., you phone the number indicated. Someone will answer. After your order and credit-card number are taken, the transaction has ended. End of contact. The context--the who and why, of a business transaction--doesn't matter. What does matter is getting a job done, going forward, and making money, not trying to familiarize yourself with people before you trade or communicate extensively with them. Not surprisingly, the cultures that embrace linear transactions, the U.S. being the most notable among them, are the ones rapidly embracing the wired world, with its anonymity and speed of communication.

Low-context cultures can generally be classified as achievement cultures, and they're always, as Hall termed them, "monochronic," viewing time as sequential and highly scheduled. To them, time is an absolute. But, Hall observed, time is not a social absolute; like space, it is culturally variable and programmed. Hall found that countries having the same sense of "when" also share various other perceptions and behavior codes. They have similar mechanisms--management principles, procedures, habits of work, agendas, and attitudes toward a task to be accomplished. Monochronics build in mechanisms to feel in control; one of them is adhering to the task, another is improving machines.

While Americans, Canadians, Britons, Germans, and Swedes grow up assuming that their perception of "on time" and "lateness" is universally valid and as incontestable as the movement of the planets, the fact is that only the northern, industrialized, business-oriented countries have similar definitions. (Japan has rigorously adopted this time sense, although it is in most other ways high context.) To a citizen of one of these countries, "late" for a business appointment means not "on the dot" of the scheduled time and may affect the outcome of the meeting. There are only slight variations in the toll for each accumulated minute of lateness.

For these nations, time is sequential and rigorously scheduled along an endless ribbon of appointments and obligations. People live in a kind of temporal straitjacket, bullied by a schedule they can change only at the cost of their credibility, and by their religion of punctuality that equates lateness with original sin or lunacy. Time is quantified ("wasted," "saved," "killed"). The appointment and the project often have priority over everything, including urgent demands on a person's time by family or friends.

In contrast, for the overwhelming majority of humanity, being alive doesn't necessarily mean being "on time." Numerous cultures have a more indulgent or elastic view of "lateness," if indeed they have a word for it, at all. Hall called these cultures--Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Slavic, Central European, Latin American--polychronic. The world of the polychronics is abuzz with people. Projects get completed because of the vast network of people. And people come first. Time is more like a balloon that swells and deflates according to what's going on, who's present. The more people around all the time and the more things happening at once the better. Appointments are for giving a general idea--they're easily postponed or canceled, with no ill effect.

High-context cultures are affiliation cultures. Much of the interaction of high-context people is implicit: coded, circular, indirect. The message is in the body language, the setting, the relationship between the people involved. They have their own private networks for information, which they keep to themselves, and they are constantly updating these so they won't need much background information. They prefer not to do business on the phone, except with people they know.

The relationships of high-context people, once established, are for keeps. They don't need contracts, except to set a general direction, which will evolve. And-bottom line--their relationships, honor, and face are more important than business. In many of these cultures, power may also come before business. Often a businessperson in a high-context culture has chosen to lose a deal rather than a portion of his or her power.

High-context cultures don't view time as being segmented. People in those countries will be on time if some greater priority doesn't come up in the meantime. Their schedules are flexible. But they keep time according to their own system, and "on time" for them might be a half-hour, an hour, a week, or a month "late" for you, depending on the culture.

More Time In the Shade

Many cultures are a combination of varying context and sense-of-time traits. Australia is low context but polychronic. France has a Germanic monochronic, low-context culture in Alsace and to a much lesser extent in the north, but otherwise a strong Latin, polychronic, high-context culture. With this richness goes unpredictability. I call the French quarkochronics because, like quarks (subatomic particles that split at lightning speeds), you can't pin them down. There is no way to tell if French people will be on time, like monochronics, or late (although they generally won't show up more than 45 minutes after the appointed time).

For the polychronics, life is to be taken as is--if possible, enjoyed--and, above all, spent with other people. The Italians explain it with a story: An Italian fisherman is lying with his wife and some friends on the beach in the shade of his overturned boat. An Englishman sees him and says, "You shouldn't be lying in the shade, you should be catching more fish."

The Italian asks why.

"If you worked hard and caught lots of fish, you could have a string of boats, hire lots of others to fish for you, and get very rich."

"And what would I do then?" asks the fisherman.

"Well, you could lie in the shade on a beach."

The fisherman laughs. "Which is just what I'm doing--without all the fuss."

However, while southern Europeans and other high-context, polychronic cultures still treasure their time in the shade, the increased pace and stress of a computerized world is beginning to impact them.

In Spain, stores in Catalonia now rarely follow the traditional summer schedule of 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. Fewer and fewer companies close at lunch for two hours, and siestas are disappearing.

Italy, including Milan, the commercial capital of the country, is still very undercomputerized, but the pace of life is faster and the vacations shorter. "When I'm driving in the Milan rush hour," says Bruno Ronchetti, director of Accenture's technology competency group for Italy and Greece, "I see all the other drivers talking on their phones as they attack traffic, and I realize the stress level is much higher than it used to be."

Nevertheless, that type of "noisy" stress is still acceptable to Italians. In the southern-European countries, where clans and relationships are paramount, mobile phones put people in closer touch with one another, which goes along cultural norms. But Internet surfing and computer games are considered isolation activities. Those solitary, silent pursuits appeal to monochronic cultures much more than to their polychronic, high-context counterparts.

Task-driven electronic activity has speeded up most noticeably in France, of all the European polychronic countries. On trains and airplanes, Frenchmen are working on their laptops. Businesses and government activities have Web sites and e-mail addresses. Two-hour lunches are out, except with valuable clients. Sandwiches have been known to appear on office desks. The traditional five-week vacation is staggered throughout the year; now just two or three weeks are taken in August. A totally new concept of mixing business and private life has emerged--office work is carried along to the vacation spot.

Philippe Berend, a financial consultant and former chair of Interspiro, which makes respiratory equipment, finds that the newly aggressive business mores have changed Paris, and French life, dramatically.

"I've seen a huge cultural adjustment of my large French industrial clients to the American style of deadlines, transparency, and budgets," says David Freedman, an American attorney with Baker and McKenzie, an eminent international law firm in Paris. "All the multinational companies have done what they needed to do to compete in the globalized market. For the PMEs (small- and medium-sized companies) it is also changing, but at a slower pace because they're family-owned or family-dominated."

Again, it's the culture, according to Morocco-born Professor Hamid Bouchikhi of ESSEC, the French business school.

"There are two kinds of transactions," he says. "One is context-free, when all the information you need is verbal--the price. The French are very good at this, as fast as the Americans or the English. And then there is context-contingent information. For the French, this takes time.

"For the Americans, time is money. In France, time is power, trust, confidence, and decision," Bouchikhi notes.

Power, because the boss in France makes the decision, although employees are often consulted and asked for input. The boss also has to consider the unions and the comité d'entreprise (the workers' union inside the company). Time is trust, because French managers don't monitor their employees' progress on a project as closely as do American executives; in fact, projections and update meetings are almost nonexistent. The French upper level of management just has to trust the people with whom it does business.

"Relationships are like a pipe," Bouchikhi says. "When the pipe is built, you can put anything you like in it, and the pipe is more important than what you put through it. In France, once you have built that pipe--and this takes time--it is easy to deal with that same person in anything."

Time yields confidence. The French like to exhaust a topic, go all around an issue. "And time is decision," adds Bouchikhi. "Let the time pass. Don't make the decision too fast. Il faut donner du temps au temps ['You have to give time to time']." Bouchikhi could have been talking about Italy. Decision time is perhaps shorter in France, but building the "pipeline" for relationships is the same. Joining the Wired World According to Lapo Mazzei, former president of the bank Cassa di Risparmio in Florence, while businesses are computerized internally in Italy, most Italians have very limited Internet access from home. On the other hand, they have strong reasons to be wary: Is the Web secure? Is it safe to give out all that information to the world? In short, aren't there risks? And why deal with people you don't know? "Most businesses in Italy are small or medium sized," he says. "They are very interested in world markets, but they go about dealing with them with someone they know. In each country they will have a contact they trust who will help them."

Accenture's study, Your Choice: How E-Commerce Could Impact Europe's Future, warns that the Latin, polychronic cultures may let too much time pass before they join the wired world and find that the world has left them behind. Its conclusion after interviews with hundreds of European executives is that Europe is at a crucial crossroads. One road leads to what the study calls a dead end, with executives sticking to their wait-and-see attitude and governments opting for restrictive regulations, while wealthy and adventurous young Europeans roam the global electronic marketplace to buy cheaper U.S. and Asian goods there. With this choice, Europeans lose their market share--and jobs--permanently.

The other road is recognizing the strategic potential of electronic commerce, capitalizing on European pockets of technology excellence (e.g., the Electronic Data Interchange [EDI] system, the smart card, screen phones) and the continent's diverse cultural and historical links to expand its trade to the rest of the world with the euro.

Rosemary O'Mahony, the Accenture partner who led the study and is in charge of e-commerce for Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and India, feels that France, with its long history of superior technology, should take the leadership position in pushing southern Europeans to e-commerce. "With the Minitel, the French already have this e-commerce culture. Now, with the euro launched, is the time for them to change over.

"The main French concern is security," O'Mahony continues. "It's a psychological issue with them. They hate giving away any kind of information. It's true that in the beginning, when scientists and academics went online, it was to share information, so naturally there were holes in security. But these have been taken care of."

Jean-Claude Guez, the French partner of Accenture in charge of the study's content in France, sees e-commerce now driven in the U.S. by businesses to individual consumers, but in Europe by businesses to businesses (e.g., manufacturers and suppliers) -- for the time being, at least, perpetuating the separation of private life and business which persists in most of southern Europe.

Guez notes, "This study is fantastic proof of the weight of our cultural parameters--our time concept, our religion, our aversion to risk, and our need for human contacts."

Nelson Lees, director of business marketing for Cincinnati Bell, has lived in various parts of South America and recently completed a two-year assignment in Paris. He is well aware of the tenacity of cultural programming and the importance of Professor Bouchikhi's "pipe" for polychronic countries. "Even high-level stock analysts have to get inside information from a member of a company's board."

Nevertheless, an increasing number of French yuppies are impatient with the weight of bureaucratic regulations and social-welfare taxes, in addition to the scarcity of venture capital. Within the last few years, 40,000 young French professionals have been leaving annually for the U.K. and Silicon Valley--unheard of in a country where it has historically been impossible to persuade a Frenchman to change towns, let alone be an expatriate.

And this from Antoine Rimbault, a shoe manufacturer who has chosen to stay in France: "Do we have a sense of urgency? Yes! We are more and more aware of the cost of time. Yes, time is money for us now. As we get more automated at home and at the office, there is less leisure and obviously more stress. I have a big Web site. I use the Internet to get clients. I also use it for conversing with my friends. It's fast, inexpensive, and asynchronous."

It doesn't sound like giving time to time. But this Frenchman's mother is Swedish ...