Your reaction to this experience might tell you something about your own culture.
Please forgive my stereotyping: did your American gut say "Hey, the rules are for everybody - get in line, pal!" when reading it? Or are you,
say, an Italian who just burst out in laughter about those funny Germans and their merciless insistence on rules and procedures? Overall, how
'orderly' do you expect things to be?
If there's one thing people all over the world can agree on, it is that Germans
have a strong, some say 'excessive,' need for structure and order. Ample evidence supports this notion. And yet, did you ever watch Germans
driving on the Autobahn, speeding, tailgating, headlight-flashing, out-of-the-way-pushing? Or observe German football fans at a game? How about
locals lining up, or rather piling up, at a bus stop or train station platform? There's not much order to be found in any of these settings
Everybody everywhere in the world sometimes breaks rules. It's the degree to
which this is done where individuals, as well as collective cultural groups, differ.
In fact, the need for order varies within and across all cultures, depending
on situation and context. Italians tend to be rather lax about crossing red traffic lights, but not about dress codes. The English, generally
quite forgiving when it comes to business etiquette, nearly ostracize you for trying to jump a line at the airport. Americans tolerate a wide
range of business styles, but don't ever try to do something that could be perceived as 'bad faith negotiating.'
Such contrasts are not a Western phenomenon. Examples of seemingly, at least
to the outsider, inconsequential behaviors like these are found anywhere in the world. The only 'order' inherent to all this is that some
rules are happily bent while others are strictly enforced.
How does culture influence which rules we follow obediently and which ones we
might largely ignore?
Surprisingly, intercultural researchers don't offer much of an answer. Beyond
pointing to the obvious, individual preferences, you might hear them mumbling something about 'historical influences' or 'local circumstances,'
neither of which they can formulate in any systematic fashion. One of the founders of the field, Dutch professor Geert Hofstede, defined a
characteristic he called 'Uncertainty Avoidance,' but it subsequently proved too fuzzy to add much value here. The only model bearing some
relevance to our question comes from another Dutchman, Frans Trompenaars. In his research, he identified a cultural characteristic that is
influential to the ways we make decisions:
Universalism versus Particularism
How do we weigh objective facts against the specific aspects of a situation?
Trompenaars describes a spectrum along which different cultures can be placed. In this model, members of strongly universalistic cultures
prefer to follow established rules and practices when making decisions. They dislike making exceptions, even if several facts speak in favor.
As an extreme example, there's the anecdote about a German waiting for a pedestrians' light to turn green at 3am. The rule saying that you
cannot cross the street if the light is red weighs more strongly here than the fact that there are no cars around whatsoever. Americans,
Australians, the British, Canadians, the Dutch, Germans, Northern Europeans, and the Swiss are predominantly universalistic.
In strongly particularistic cultures, people usually focus on specific
situations and the people involved in them when making decisions. They tend not to believe in absolute truths, therefore not trusting rules
and procedures. To varying degrees, this group includes most Asian and Arab cultures, as well as France, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Russia,
Spain, Turkey, all of Latin America, and many other countries.
Far from conclusively explaining why rules apply so 'unevenly' in each
culture, Trompenaars' model offers great guidance to those working across cultures.
You'll want to be clear about your own personal preferences to make this
meaningful. Is order important to you? If so, it won't suffice that you follow the rules; you'll likely expect everyone around you to
follow them, too. That might make you a great leader and role model when working with universalistic cultures, but you're bound to have a
much harder time elsewhere, where people might consider you finicky and impersonal. A similar challenge exists the other way around.
As always, finding out about the individual preferences of those you're
working with is a great start - but don't forget to pay attention to collective ones, either.