Let’s just put it to you straight. The Dutch couldn’t care less about authority and that is why students in our country are allowed to engage in straightforward verbal counterattacks against their lecturers, they have a preference for an agreeable work climate and don’t feel the need to excel or to outshine their neighbour and it is also the reason why Dutch students are satisfied with a mediocre grade, as long as they pass their tests, they are individualistic and are not too keen on too many rules. Who says so? Hofstede says so, a big name, a canon even, from the 1970s who still dominates the cross-cultural debate in the eyes of too many people.
Do I think what Hofstede has to say is nonsense? Of course not, but he has his followers and his followers don’t have any hesitations whatsoever to stereotype entire cultures based on just a few variables. These people believe that all it takes for the transnational manager to be able to control the cultural factor at his new business destination, is simply leafing through Hofstede’s scores on the plane journey to this destination. This is, of course, an exaggeration, but in this Associate Professorship we would really like to do something about this kind of simplicity in cross-cultural contexts. We want to put the complexity of cultures back on the agenda again.
Acknowledging complexity also means promoting respect for the well-considered ways in which people from other cultural backgrounds think, even though you don’t agree with it. Let me give you a random example. In the summer holiday, a court in the Netherlands ruled about the case of whether a Muslim female teacher didn’t have to shake hands with the men she met in her job. It was the umpteenth manifestation of the fact that everywhere in this ‘global village’, we have come to be faced with new relational realities. In Thailand, in Cameroon, in Colombia and in the Netherlands: cultures affect each other everywhere, in a more intensive manner than we were used to. All over the world, diversity is on the rise and we can no longer take for granted what we once considered common-place. And when this happens, people start to wonder why systems are the way they are, what used to be taken for granted is now called into question. As far as I know, shaking someone’ hand or not has never been an issue of public debate in the Netherlands before.
But why should we not allow a woman with a different religious belief to refuse to shake hands with men? After all, in the Netherlands we have a rich tradition of open-mindedness when it comes to allowing room for different religious beliefs, when it comes to, for instance, a university calling itself a Vrije Universiteit (‘Free University’, referring to freedom from state and church interference), Catholic University, or University for Humanistics.
Catholic and Reformed primary schools have been practising a variety of customs for many years, which would be banned if our country had a strict separation of religion and public life. That is why it was possible in France for the topic of wearing a headscarf in public positions to become such a heated topic of public debate, unlike in our country. Because is it not a democratic achievement, as the Frenchman thinks, that everyone in the public domain is treated in the same manner? The law does not distinguish between people. All people in public positions are subject to the same rules. No full-sized crucifix statues outside, so no headscarves either. But then, in the Netherlands we have such a long tradition of tolerating different religious practices, even in education.
We also know that we don’t take this matter all that seriously, because after all, what does it mean nowadays when a primary school is of Catholic signature? The fact that a practising Catholic teacher stands a greater chance of finding a job in a Catholic school, and has the same chance of finding a job in a public school as an atheistic teacher, is something we are prepared to put up with. Because meanwhile we allow headscarves in public and accept that a woman has every right to, based on her religious beliefs, refuse to shake hands with men, even in a work setting. What’s there to worry about, is a frequently heard, typically Dutch reaction. In public discussions we have a long tradition of being very practical, and as a result, a little less focused on our principles.
I am going to put an end to this discussion, which has become rather complicated by now, ladies and gentlemen. Not because it is uninteresting. There are a great many questions attached to it. Questions about the typically Dutch tolerance, for instance, which is also referred to as ‘gedogen’ (which roughly translates as ‘turning a blind eye’). Or as the Britons put it, ‘conformist nonchalance’. Or questions about the diversity in the perception of the Muslim religion and how, based on this diversity, people take different views towards headscarves and women who don’t shake hands with men. How is a man, who witnessed so many emancipation struggles in the past decades and who is also preparing himself now to be tolerant towards a new group of Muslim people, still in the process of emancipation, supposed to respond to a female refusal of shaking his extended hand? To what extent is the Dutch reaction truly different from that of the French? Why is it precisely that this woman won’t shake my extended hand?
You will understand, ladies and gentlemen, that I can continue along these lines for a while longer. You probably think that I am blowing this minor incident out of proportion. And I will certainly not deny that too much energy is put – in vain – into the discussion of the multicultural society (if we even really are a multicultural society). As a matter of fact, I prefer the term inclusive society, because that means you don’t merely accept differences, but also let them sink in and involve them in developing your own thoughts. And this is precisely why I don’t shy away from blowing such futile incidents, such as shaking someone’s hand or not, out of proportion. This also has everything to do with the right to exist of a Associate Professorship in Cross-Cultural Understanding, the way we see it.
If we want to understand and fathom a diverse society, in which social, cultural, ethnic and other differences are playing an ever invasive role, it is crystal-clear that we have many questions to ask. Questions, arising from the context itself, are attached to every single incident in a cross-cultural setting – which I define as a setting which is primarily characterized by the crossing of cultural boundaries. ‘Not shaking a person’s hand’ is something that cannot be understood as an isolated phenomenon. The term ‘context’ is crucial to every cross-cultural understanding and a first task for this Associate Professorship is therefore to find out how to access information hidden in contexts in the most sensible manner. This information is often hidden, sometimes ‘frozen in time’ – just think of the heritage of colonialism or the consequences after many years of oppression – and mostly only accessible in an indirect way. You have to make an effort in order to get to it. In terms of the Associate Professorship, you need to become creative in developing methods to raise hidden information to the surface.
And in this respect we would like to make a difference as opposed to a too simplistic view à la Hofstede’s followers. Contextual information is often extraordinarily complex information which requires going through a great deal of trouble in order to understand it. Just a few variables simply won’t do. Inclusive thinking is the way forward here too.
Vincent Platenkamp, The Global and the Local: Thinking Inclusively About Cultures in Breda and the Rest of the World. De rede van Platenkamp kunt u hier bestellen.