The World From 30,000 Feet: A High-Level View of Some Lowest Common Denominators

Himalayas

I'm on a 747 heading from Hong Kong to London, and find myself looking out the window at the peaks of central China, just south of Lanzhou. These mountains, and their bigger cousins the Himalayas, are some of the things that kept the Chinese civilization (and those of many of its East Asian neighbours) separate from outside influence for millennia. They help explain why the gaps in language and customs are so much wider between Europe and East Asia than they are across the nations of either region alone.

It's much the same anywhere in the world—just look at a map and, with a little historical context (like imagining no motorized travel, no telephone, and no Internet) it's easy to understand why separate cultures developed and where. Any schoolchild who has studied geography learns this (or at least used to). But in an era when travel and communications span pretty much any geographic borders, it's worth asking how all those long-separate cultures are coming together. By my observation, the answer is by increasingly moving not toward one another, but toward some very basic common methods of interchange—some lowest common denominators, if you will.

I see at least three elements to this "LCD" phenomenon, in three very different spheres: language, commerce, and ethics. In each of these, I submit that the coming together of cultures has brought down the overall standard—or rather, the separate high standards to which many cultures had become accustomed. It may be unavoidable that common ground is located on the open plains of expedience rather than the high peaks of excellence, but it does bear some reflection.

What does LCD look like? Well, take my adopted country, Switzerland, for example. It's a little unusual—but far from unique—in that it has four regions with four different languages. Perhaps my sample is less than representative, but I've found that when people from one part of Switzerland (German-speaking, for example) travel to another (say, Italian-speaking), they will communicate with their hosts neither in Swiss German nor in Italian but in—you guessed it—English. The same is true nearly everywhere cultures intersect today.

Now English is hardly a language reflective of Europe, or of Asia for that matter. It doesn't really represent a bridging of cultures (unless you go back to the Saxons and the Gauls). It's relatively simple, having fewer cases, though perhaps more idioms, than many others, and a pronunciation scheme that pretty much follows the letters as you read them. What it has become, originally through the influence of US-based companies and media and now for nearly all global enterprises, wherever they are based—and tourists, wherever they go—is the language of international contact.

I don't want to suggest that English as the language of Shakespeare is some kind of lowest common denominator. But look at what international English looks like. As you'd imagine, it's very simple: No apostrophes; limited punctuation. Interchangeable homophone spellings. Extremely limited vocabulary, often misused (see www.Engrish.com for an extensive collection of examples). Little colour, little feeling. It's a kind of LCD English, and that, at least partly, by necessity.

This is not a rant against abuse of my native language (though I reserve the right to do so when it's native speakers who are perpetrating it). This is about what happens when cultures and peoples with no blueprint for how to interact, have to figure out how to do so. It's the next step in a kind of cultural evolution that has been going on a long time. My concern is, does it represent progress? Does it really bring people together or does it merely give them a means for maintaining their separation except in the most transactional of ways?

Let's consider another LCD phenomenon—the basic idea of cross-cultural commerce. In my experience, the most telling example of what happens here concerns global brands. These typically start in a particular part of the world, with a product line based on innovation and quality. Then, as they begin to spread, their value propositions become more and more about status and positioning—people want the brand not for the sake of having quality, but for the sake of having the brand and for what it implies not about the product but about them.

So far so good—marketers will rightly ask, what's wrong with a brand achieving widely-perceived value? Still, today in any airport or upscale shopping mall in the world you see many of the same brands, often in their own retail establishments: Sony, Prada, Chanel, Apple, Luis Vuitton, Hugo Boss, Shiseido, Armani. Notably, the product line in each of these locations is exactly the same, and the prices vary little—thus, a global elite (or an aspiring one) seems to have bought into the idea that these successful brands have also succeeded in bringing the world (or at least, their world) closer together. In the fashion industry in particular, it seems essential that on shop windows, stationery, and shopping bags, the brand's name is followed by a list of major cities around the world where it has retail locations. For the Swiss watch industry, the Swiss "brand" itself is (very much by design) the draw—and the fact that the products are exported to all corners of the globe has nothing to do with any appreciation of Swiss culture and everything to do with the impression of quality and status that goes with the label. (For my part, I waited five years to buy a Swiss watch, and it failed within a week—though I would hope my experience is not representative.)

Yes, I am saying most so-called upscale brands are, or eventually become, lowest common denominators. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I don't believe I'm alone in seeing them as independent of—indeed, sometimes ignorant of—culture rather than complementary to it, and I bridle at the idea that one of the most successful bridges across cultures should be no more than an attempt to sell something by somehow impressing it into some status-seeking global consciousness. The desire to acquire, to spend, and to show oneself as better than others may be universal, but it's hardly reason to celebrate becoming "one world," much less a worthy means of bringing this about.

While in Hong Kong, I had dinner with an old friend of mine, a business economist who has lived in the region for many years. He pointed out to me one of the biggest hazards of a purely commercial approach to crossing cultures, one that is very much in evidence in the immediate vicinity of that wonderful city and the highly-developed manufacturing area (the Pearl River Delta) that adjoins it. "There is no concept of ethics in this part of the world," he explained. "It's pure pragmatism. Whatever works, you do."

I don't think my friend was casting aspersions. I think he was simply reflecting an approach to life, and to social interaction, that has been characteristic of human nature since time immemorial. "Do what works" is the third of the Lowest Common Denominators I've seen over many years of observing cross-cultural interactions. Every culture has its rules of behaviour—some more than others—but in the no-man's land between, absent any significant presence of international law (or rather, global rules enforced on a human scale), who is to say what rules apply? And if ethics, as some would say, are based not on transactional reciprocity but on trust, including an assumption of long-term, generalised reciprocity, how can we expect to see them in places of deep difference, where trust is the exception rather than the rule?

So, the third LCD is all about getting yours—surviving, thriving, getting ahead—in particular where we have little in common with the other parties with whom we interact. These are basic animal drivers from deep in our evolutionary history. Their predominance suggests not so much that the global system for cooperation and collaboration is breaking down, but rather that there never was much of a system in the first place, and that attempts to create one may be doomed to fail (look no further than the G20 talks in Seoul last week).

Below me now, the Gobi desert. Vast and devoid of life: Brown sand and black rock stretching hundreds of miles in every direction. Another barrier, and perhaps a signal. If the place at the nexus of cultures takes only the most basic from each, providing merely a level playing field for exchange (and this is still a stretch, given the failure of the Doha Round and the re-emergence of retaliatory trade sanctions), it will be a barren landscape indeed.

What one hopes for, of course, is not so much either an integration or a "neutral ground" as, rather, an appreciation of difference, an approaching of other cultures with a confidence that disagreements will be settled not only amicably but constructively, with a view toward a multi-cultural, multilateral future. It is a hope that seems alternately far away, at best, and far-fetched, at worst. But it is real, and, at least in the absence of deep deprivation, real for many. Is it a hope that can be realized, despite all that we observe so often happens at the intersection of cultures?

I was in Hong Kong this past week to run a leadership course—an intensive, deeply personal programme in which people's failures, feelings and fears were all put on the table, learned from, and developed. One of the key concepts of the programme is bonding—the forming of ties with other people. We explored, among other things, how the human brain is wired for this in a way no other species—even other primates—is.

The programme had 47 participants—executives from throughout Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia, (even one each from North and South America). The diversity of languages and cultures was as great as any I have seen. But the connections made were broad and deep—well above the kind of interaction usually achieved even by people from within the same culture. Of course, the programme was designed to do this. Everyone involved was reasonably well-educated and had some international experience, and all of them were dedicated to a process of building trust and willing, in a reasonably safe environment, to take some risks.

So it's as the researchers say—mindful, purposeful action to bridge differences works. A few elites, like those executives on the programme last week and many others from their organizations, do practice this. The best diplomats have long done so. Whether the other 99% of humanity will ever have the need, the tools, and the will, remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Lowest Common Denominators remain the default mode of global interaction.

Outside now, the Tibetan Plateau. The roof of the world. Traditional sanctuary and place of peace, in recent decades even this high ground has been a place of strife, of disputes between cultures. Yet somehow it still stands above and apart, the unrivalled peaks urging us to look further, higher, and across.

When I look at the intersection of cultures, I see the LCDs. When I look at the faces of individuals, I see the potential—the hope of real connection and synergy. Something of that higher view exists, I think, in all of us. I don't know whether it's enough to change the course of integration of our world. But I'll take it as a good place to start.

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