Friday, August 01, 2008

Cultural Differences III: Messages Society Sends

On the way back from our romantic road trip, we sat in a train car with another pair of cyclists. My Kindle battery had drained, and we were in the mood for conversation anyway.

The husband, Hans, was quite an entrepreneur (unusual for Germany), having started several companies, and despite recent retirement, still sat on the boards of several companies. We got to discussing companies, behavior, and I mentioned how difficult it seemed to be to get people to switch jobs.

With the air of a man who was used to making speeches, Hans smiled and said, "What is the value of a life in society? In American society, the value is very clear --- commercial success is how everything is measured. When you look at German society, the messages are more mixed. For instance, when you look at the young people who are at the heart of the environmental movement here in Germany --- they've effected massive changes in German society. Most of them did not gain commercial success by these endeavors, but they were nevertheless very successful in their own way. Here, your friends are mostly defined outside work, and you don't socialize mostly with co-workers, the way Americans and American companies do. When I ran a company, I made sure that new employees were required to spend time on overseas assignment, perhaps a year or two. Many of them grew to enjoy the autonomy you get from being away from the head office."

Obviously, it would be a mistake to say that Hans is representative of his country, any more than I am a representative of mine (it would be very difficult to say which country I would represent, anyway). Yet many of his observations ring true to me. By and large, American society places a high value on individual success, and especially commercial success. While you do get the Ralph Nader or Julia Butterfly Hill, it is not clear that large enough groups of people are motivated sufficiently to join them in effecting large scale changes in American society, the way the environmental movement has done in Germany. Perhaps American society is too fragmented for such cohesive movements to spread. Perhaps race plays too great a role (as Paul Krugman's latest book points out), retarding any progressive movement's success.

Of course, the flip side is also true --- there's no other country that has managed to replicate Silicon Valley, and people like me wouldn't get to make observations like these without the dynamism of the American economy. But perhaps the price of this dynamism is high, and from an individual point of view, income mobility in the US is lower than that of Scandinavian countries, and the same as that of class-conscious Britain.

I doubt if the coming elections will give us a good debate about what kind of society Americans would like to have --- and that's a pity.
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