Power distance in the cultural clusters model

I blogged yesterday about David Livermore’s ten cultural clusters and the dimensions used for the “cluster analysis”.

Mrs. Arbel raised an eyebrow about the concept of “power distance”(PD). In his model, a culture with low PD is one with little hierarchy, where people at all levels are involved in decision making, and where there is little social distance.

That Latin American and Arab cultures have very high power distance comes as little surprise. That Nordic culture with its aggressive egalitarianism — “Jante law” (basically: don’t think you’re better than us and don’t make yourself out to be) — would qualify at the other extreme comes as little surprise either.

But Anglo culture? Sure, the USA, Canada, and Australia have a strong egalitarian streak in different ways — but old-school Britain was notoriously class-conscious, and to some degree still is. (In fact, I have argued that in recent years we’re seeing the emergence of a caste system in the USA itself, and that Trumpian populism is to some degree a reaction against a Brahmandarin [sic] elite perceived to be as overbearing as it is incompetent.)

Or how does Germany fit into low power distance? In old-school Germany, titles were almost sacred — to this day, I get addressed as “Herr Doktor” when I travel there on business, except by people with whom I am on a first-name basis, or as they say there “wir dutzen uns” (i.e., we use the informal second person form “du” to address each other rather than the formal “Sie” – like “se tutoyer” In French.) And let’s not even get into high military rank or the German word “Kadavergehorsam” (Freely: blind obedience to orders) — even as this is something of a caricature, as any serious student of military history knows.

Tellingly, however, the respect accorded credentials and rank goes together with a distaste for ostentation on the part of the credentialed and ranking. Salary gaps will be comparatively small, and even very senior officials will live comparatively modest lifestyles. And merely being born in the right family does not get you very far, unlike in Latin America, say. (Historically, there was of course the hereditary nobility, whose privileges were formally abolished under the Weimar Republic. But even they were expected to pull their weight, e.g., in the military.)

And what about Latin-European society, which is ranked as having “moderate power distance”? Livermore classifies both France and Israel as Latin-European, but while credentials do grant you deference in France, Israelis will address almost anyone by their first names by default — pupils will address school teachers thus, and even senior professors will be addressed as “Chaim” or even a nickname, rather than “Dr. Yankel” or “Prof. Yankel”. Ordinary citizens will think nothing of accosting even government ministers and speaking their minds to them. In fact, it is hard to think of a society with less power distance than Israel! — and it is an outlier in other ways as well, in particular being much less risk-averse than the rest of the Latin-European cluster. (Can you imagine Portugal or Belgium as “Startup Nation”? Yeah, right.)

In a sense, German society’s low power distance expresses itself in a way that’s orthogonal to how that goes in some parts of the USA. Americans (outside the Scandinavian-influenced parts of the Midwest) are fairly tolerant of garish and ostentatious lifestyles than Germans or especially Scandinavians, but generally not of standoffish behavior — I have heard more than one European express irritation at “phoney informality” on the part of Americans. As Israel grows more prosperous, I see it evolve more in the US than in the European direction of low power distance.

As ever with human relations, one can reduce a complex reality to a model that is simple, elegant, and has significant predictive power — but one needs to be aware of its limitations. A model is not a theory – “Ceci n’est pas une réalité”

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Intercultural communication and the ten cultural clusters

Editor and college lecturer Matthew Bowman drew our attention to the work of David Livermore on intercultural communication, specifically this online course.

Matt was speaking primarily in terms of an application Dr. Livermore surely had not thought of — creating realistic characters in fiction.

Building on earlier work by, e.g., Simcha Ronen and Oded Shenkar, Livermore considers the following ten “cultural value dimensions”:

  1. Identity: Individualist vs. Collectivist
  2. Authority: Low vs. high “power distance”
  3. Risk: Low vs. high “uncertainty avoidance”/risk averseness
  4. Achievement: cooperative vs. competitive
  5. Time orientation: short-term vs. long-term
  6. Communication: direct/explicit vs. indirect/contextual
  7. Lifestyle: being vs. doing
  8. Attitude to rules: universalist vs. particularist
  9. Expressiveness: affective vs. neutral
  10. Social norms: tight vs. loose

 

According to these dimensions, the cultures of the world mostly cluster into the following groups:
  1. Nordic European (Scandinavia)
  2. Anglo (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand,…)
  3. Germanic (including Switzerland, and with the Netherlands as a semi-outlier)
  4. Eastern European & Central Asian
  5. Latin European: not just the “vulgar Latin”-speaking countries, but also Belgium (including its Dutch-speaking northern half, Flanders) and… Israel
  6. Latin American
  7. Confucian Asian (primarily CJK=China-Japan-Korea)
  8. South Asian (Indian subcontinent plus SE Asia)
  9. Sub-Saharan Africa
  10. Arab world

For instance, he describes Germanic culture as follows (in a sample chapter of one of his books):

  • individual goals are important, but not as paramount as in Anglo culture. [There is, however, the inconvenient truth that Germany gave birth to not just one but two forms of totalitarian collectivism.]
  • power distance is small. Even the most powerful officials lead fairly modest personal lives. Consider Angela Merkel — whatever you may think of her politics — and her husband, a chemistry professor who flies budget airlines to join her on vacations.
  • Germanic societies are definitely competitive
  • Punctuality is demanded and respected. Until digital watches came along, these cultures were literally watchmakers to the world.
  • “Ordnung muss sein” (there must be order/rules) is a prevailing norm, though the Netherlands is the more liberal odd duck in the gaggle
  • Directness in communication is valued. Expressions like “To explain something in good German” (auf gutes Deutsch) and “to make something Dutch to somebody” (iemand iets Diets maken) speak for themselves. [“Diets” is an archaic word for the Dutch language, which presently calls itself “Nederlands”.]
  • Getting things done is definitely high on the list of priorities, particularly in Germany and Switzerland.

There is variability within the cluster, of course: Austrians are much less punctual than the Swiss, and the Dutch even more direct than the others.

 

The inclusion of Israel with the Latin-European cluster may seem counterintuitive, but it does ring true to this blogger, who substantially grew up in Europe and presently lives in Israel. Again, there is intra-cluster variability, for example between the notoriously risk-averse Belgians and the Israeli “start-up nation”, or between the “dugri” [blunt, no beating around the bush] ways of Israelis and the more suave ways of some Latin countries — but I know from experience that of all the major immigrant groups to Israel, the French have much less of a culture shock than, say, Americans or Russians.

One must keep the limitations of this model in mind — it is a model, after all, not a theory—but it does offer a useful framework for making head or tail of the different cultures in the world.

Meeting of the spirits

 

By accident, I stumbled on the YouTube channel “Fredneck” of the guitarist of a fusion jazz cover band named General Zod. In the following video, they offer a worthy tribute to one of my all-time classics in the genre, “Meeting of the Spirits” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The intro (which is a bit distorted on my CD of the original) begins with a rather strange chord progression based on minor-major chords: C#add#9 — Dadd#9/C# — C#add#9 (another voicing) — Cmadd#9/B — C#9#11/G — F/E — G/F — G/A — F/G.

The main section is a modal 6:4 jam in the F# Phrygian mode (i.e. the 3rd mode of the D major scale). The riff is a based on arpeggiating a mutant version of the familiar Phrygian i-IImaj7 progression: F#m is “jazzed up” to F#b9 without the 3rd (the individual notes are F#2 F#3 C#4 G3 E4) and Gmaj7 is spiced up to. Gmaj7b5add6 (individual notes G2 F#3 C#4 B3 E4). In a 6:4 meter, the arpeggiation follows a 5-5-2 pattern. The repeated riff is most easily played using the thumb to fret the bass note.

The “spirits” that meet are guitar, keys, and violin. I literally never tire of this progression for jamming over. Enjoy!

 

 

Of art, craft, and acquired tastes

A friend who is an art historian lamented that even his most attentive students could not share his enthusiasm for modern art and that even those who understand the context in which it arose still dislike it.

One of the issues I have with much of what passes for modern “art” is that it is 99% concept (the more pretentious and preachy, the better) and 1% about execution. I am reminded of how in Dutch, “kunst” (art) comes from the same root as “kunde” (ability, skill, knowledge). It’s hard to see any “kunde” in making cans labeled “Merde d’Artiste” [sh-t of artist/sh-tty artist] (Piero Manzoni); in displaying one’s unmade bed as an art installation; dripping paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock); making stains of various bodily fluids (Andres Serrano — this work of “art” was used by Metallica for two album covers); and the like. Richard Bledsoe of the Remodern Review has been blogging up a storm about this poseurism, and the neo-figurative “Stuckist”  and “Remodern” movement that arose against this “stuck on stupid”.

What much of modern “art” really amounts to is a rejection of “craft” in favor of “concept”. I cannot help being reminded of a similar trend in literature.

Now you could call me an artistic philistine who is stuck on Renoir, and maybe you have a point — but I’m much more conversant with music than with any visual art, and yet we see something similar there: contemporary classical music has, for the most part, become a sterile exercise in intellectual and ideological peacocking by academic musicians for academic musicians and snobbish hangers-on.

Another friend asked in response whether this was a matter of acquired taste. After all, people who are not chocoholics or wine connoisseurs cannot truly appreciate “the good stuff” for how good it is?

Perhaps, but here’s the thing: even the person who would like the cheap chocolate from the dollar store as well as the rare gourmet stuff still has no trouble recognizing the latter as chocolate — they just would miss the added value. To use a musical analogy: consider listening to a Bach fugue.  Knowing formal counterpoint will make you realize just how much of a genius Bach was to do what he did, but you don’t need to know any music theory to hear it’s music — and if it’s well played, an attentive listener — even without any formal training — will realize it’s a tapestry of independent voices in a harmonious conversation, even if you don’t know any of the “rules of order” that govern it (which is what classical counterpoint really is, a “Roberts’ Rules” for polyphonic music).

 

Chesterton’s parable of the fence

The British writer G. K. Chesterton is probably best known to the general public as the author of the “Father Brown” series of mysteries. Among English-speaking Catholics, he is also well known as an apologist for their faith. Agree or disagree with his views, friend and foe recognized his intellect.

In one of his apologetic works (“The Thing”, quoted here, and discussed here from a different religious perspective) he coined an interesting parable:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Meaning no disrespect to Chesterton’s splendid prose, allow me to paraphrase and elaborate in plain(er) contemporary English.

Suppose you are walking along a road and see it blocked by a fence. Is your first impulse: “this fence is oppression! We must tear it down!” Chances are you are a left-liberal “progressive” — especially if you flip 180 degrees to “we must keep the fence, and saying otherwise is hate speech!” after being told that the fence was erected by or at the behest of one of your mascot groups.

Is your first impulse rather, on seeing or suspecting that the fence was erected by the state: “down with the state! down with the fence!” Then, if told that the fence was erected because there was a cliff behind it, or quicksand: “it is my dog-given right to drive off a cliff or into quicksand if I choose to do so, and the state has no business making such a fence!” Chances are you’re a doctrinaire big-L Libertarian. (A more sensible libertarian might advocate tearing down the fence but putting up warning signs, saying “proceed at your own risk”.)

Or is your first impulse that the fence is sacred just because it has always been there, and we must not question why? Chances are you are a reactionary.

Or, finally, is your first thought: “Hmm, that fence wasn’t put there overnight by leprechauns. We must find out how that fence came to be and why. It’s quite possible that the fence was built for reasons that are no longer relevant, and that we can safely tear it down; it’s also possible that the fence is still sorely needed. Until we have a straight answer to this question, let’s not mess with it.” That is what it means to be a conservative. Not to be afraid of anything new, not to oppose reform or evolution —  but to go about it cautiously and thoughtfully, and mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  A conservative with libertarian sympathies (like myself) may err on the side of allowing people to make their own mistakes rather than “protecting them against themselves” — but still would not tear down the fence unthinkingly. I might be more rash, if I were alone on a desert island. But in the immortal words of John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 

 

 

On dieting, weight, and reductionist fallacies

 

Sandra Aamodt, the former editor of Nature Neuroscience, presents a TED talk where she explains something counterintuitive: not only do most diets fail to achieve permanent weight loss, but in some cases the rebound actually overshoots, and the diet actually causes a weight gain in the long run.

As she describes it: the hypothalamus of the brain acts as a kind of ‘weight thermostat’ (that would be a barostat? :)) that tries to adjust body weight to within about 10-15 lb of a set weight by sending chemical signals that up- or down-regulate appetite, that speed up or slow down metabolism, etc. If weight drops “too” far below the set point, signals to increase food intake are sent out, and if no food intake ensues (because no food is available, or because the person is dieting), then metabolism is slowed down to reduce the base metabolic rate (i.e., the number of calories your body needs to keep basic functions going at rest). Unfortunately, the “set point” can be ratcheted up but not trivially ratcheted down.

People who think it is all about the pounds (or about the BMI) will find this a depressing message. But this is a classic example of the “reductionist fallacy”: weight or BMI are but. one metric of health among many. There are many others that matter, such as percentage muscle mass, blood sugar at rest, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood oxygen levels,… A person who is technically overweight (i.e., BMI between 25 and 30) but eats healthily, exercises at least 3 times a week, does not smoke, and only drinks in moderation actually has a better health prognosis than somebody who has an “ideal” weight (BMI around 20) but smokes and drinks heavily and never does any exercise.

To be sure, she shows that among people who do not have any of these four healthy habits, an obese person (BMI=30 or higher) has seven times the mortality risk of somebody with an ideal BMI=20.oo. However, for those who do observe all four healthy habits, the mortality risks with normal, overweight, and obese patient differ only by statistical uncertainty.

Does that mean that a morbidly obese person who cannot fit in an airplane seat does not need to go on a diet? Of course, it doesn’t — that is a straw man, and “set point” normally don’t go that high unless pushed there by unhealthy habits or regular binge eating.

But somebody who, well, has a naturally zaftig built is probably better off making a fixed habit of exercise, and to eat ‘smart’, than to go on some extreme low-carb diet. (Full disclosure: I do restrict my carbohydrate intake, but not all the way down to “ketogenic”.)

There is an additional factor here: in recent years we are increasingly aware of the role the microbiome (“gut bacteria”) plays in food absorption, and particularly in sugar absorption. For instance, in this very recent paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2017.05.002

ABSTRACT: Bread is consumed daily by billions of people, yet evidence regarding its clinical effects is contradicting. Here, we performed a randomized crossover trial of two 1-week-long dietary interventions comprising consumption of either traditionally made sourdough- leavened whole-grain bread or industrially made white bread. We found no significant differential effects of bread type on multiple clinical parameters. The gut microbiota composition remained person specific throughout this trial and was generally resilient to the intervention. We demonstrate statistically significant interpersonal variability in the glycemic response to different bread types, suggesting that the lack of phenotypic difference between the bread types stems from a person-specific effect. We further show that the type of bread that induces the lower glycemic response in each person can be predicted based solely on microbiome data prior to the intervention. Together, we present marked personalization in both bread metabolism and the gut microbiome, suggesting that understanding dietary effects requires integration of person-specific factors.

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We are only beginning to understand how human digestion, food absorption, metabolism, and the microbiome interact. Eventually, genome analysis combined with microbiomics will bring us into the personalized nutrition era.

 

UPDATE: from the same team, a 2014 paper showing that artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the microbiome.  NATURE’s editorial summary in lay language:

We have been using non-caloric artificial sweeteners for more than a century. Today the food industry is using them in ever-greater quantities in ‘diet’ foodstuffs and they are recommended for weight loss and for individuals with glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Eran Elinav and colleagues show that consumption of the three most commonly used non-caloric artificial sweeteners saccharin, sucralose and aspartame directly induces a propensity for obesity and glucose intolerance in mice. These effects are mediated by changes in the composition and function of the intestinal microbiota; deleterious metabolic effects can be transferred to germ-free mice by faecal transplantation and can be abrogated by antibiotic treatment. The authors demonstrate that artificial sweeteners can induce dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in healthy human subjects, and suggest that it may be necessary to develop new nutritional strategies tailored to the individual and to variations in the gut microbiota.

New year and Novy God in Israel

 

I was asked a number of times by FB and IRL friends abroad whether there was any sign of Christmas or (Gregorian) New Year’s celebrations in Israel.

Now while there is a nontrivially large Christian community in Israel, the largest denominations (the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem among the Arabs, and the Russian Orthodox Church among non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU) are both “Old Calendarist” — they use the Julian calendar for religious purposes. (I have blogged previously about how the ancient Roman calendar evolved via the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one that has literally been made an international standard through ISO 8601.) At present, the Julian calendar runs 13 days behind the Gregorian, so Russian Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7. The largest group in Israel to observe December 25 may well be foreign workers (typically in-house caregivers) from the Philippines, who tend to be either Roman Catholic or sometimes Protestant.

However, there is another celebration that one sees on January 1, particularly in cities with a large Russian community: Novy God. Because it often involves accouterments that have become associated with Christmas/Yuletide in the West (such as the red caps and decorated trees, as well as a Ded Moroz/”Father Frost” figure akin to Santa Claus), some Jewish Israelis actually mistake it for a Christmas celebration.

In fact, of course, Novy God (Новый Год) is simply Russian for “New Year”. Tsarist Russia had hung on to the Julian calendar for civil purposes as well: hence the “October Revolution” actually took place on (Gregorian) November 7, 1917. The new regime almost immediately switched to the Gregorian calendar (and skipped the dates February 1-13, 1918 to catch up). Religious celebrations of any kind quickly became suspect (both because of associations with the old regime and because the godless religion of communism does not suffer competitors). However, nostalgia for winter celebrations associated with Christmas remained, and many Russian yuletide traditions were informally transferred to the nearby January 1. This practice acquired some official sanction following a December 28, 1935 op-ed in the Pravda by a party functionary, and in 1947 Novy God was even made a national holiday. [*]

After the fall of communism, the celebration as a generic/nondenominational winter holiday continued—in Russia, the week from Novy God to Russian Orthodox Christmas is now a winter holiday week. In Israel, it is not unusual to see secular Jews of Russian origin mark Novy God, although Orthodox Jews of similar background tend to eschew the celebration, saying Jews already have a winter holiday of their own (Chanukah). There is also something surrealistic about holiday traditions involving snow and frost in Israel’s coastal plain (where one is lucky to see actual snow once in 50 years) — but the same of course applies to Christmas celebrations in the Southern Hemisphere…

Happy New Year! 2017 was the year of Kek, the Egyptian idol of chaos. Will 2018 tell 2017, “Hold my beer”? At any rate, may it be a year of joy, health, and fulfillment for you all. “Praise G-d! The old year is at an end.”

[*] As a footnote: the author of the “New Year trees” letter, Kiev party secretary Pavel Postyshev, is considered one of the architects of the Holodomor/”Harvest of Sorrow” in Ukraine. Hence, Ukrainian nationalists understandably want nothing to do with the celebration. Four years later, Postyshev himself fell prey to the Great Purges—one might see a measure of karmic justice in this.