An iceberg, overlapping bell curves and the beginning of a new series about other people’s wisdom

I’ve always found it a bit amusing that there is something like APAC (Asia Pacific) as a region. After all, APAC is really half the planet. China, India, Indonesia are huge, obviously. Vietnam had more inhabitants than Germany last time I checked. So talking about ‘Asia’ as this one block always feels a bit weird to me, and – I guess – even more so talking about one ‘Asian’ culture.

I’m still in the very beginning of understanding all of this better, but I’ve always been very interested in intercultural communication and more broadly the impact of culture on human behavior and cognition. Before I went to study at the UBC in Vancouver for a term a few years ago, we had to take a mandatory course in intercultural competence, to understand why hockey is huge and all. We learned concepts of intercultural theory, like Hofsteede’s cultural dimensions (e.g. ‘cultures’ being more individualistic or collectivistic, Uncertainty Avoidence etc.) or what a high or low context culture is. And I learned that Austrians are more like coconuts while Americans and Canadians are more like peaches. (Interesting, eh?)

I’ve always taken those concepts with a grain of salt. To take all those different, messy things are done around a place up to a very general level and come up with dimensions of how a certain culture ‘is’ is a bit too much pseudo-scientific bollocks for my taste.

As is brilliantly stated in an old review of another book, dealing with cultural differences, The Geography of Thought:

Nisbett seems to think this is a minor issue. At the beginning of the book he ”apologizes” to those readers who might be ”upset” to see ”billions of people labeled with the single term ‘East Asian’ and treated as if they are identical.” But it is not a matter of being upset. It is a matter of wondering whether the differences within these absurdly large categories aren’t at least as large and important as the differences between them. It is in fact a question about the scientific validity of the enterprise.

It’s all a bit more complicated than 5 dimensions as well. And even if you’re interacting with somebody from a different background you still have to acknowledge this:

Taken from:

The fact that you’re also dealing with one person that might be quite different to the ‘average’. I quite liked one of the models, though, the iceberg metaphor. While it’s still, in the perfect sense of the word, monolithic, it puts emphasis on everything we don’t know, things hidden in plain sight. All the things that are there, right in front of us, but never really consciously reflected, because they just are how things are done around here. (That also leaves out things that we’re just doing because we’re plainly copying others without much reason, but I’m sure Mark will be ok with me ignoring this for now.)

I’m not only writing this to sound clever and at least use the stuff I’ve been exposed to at university once. (That, too…). – Embarking on this Singapore adventure, and thinking about living and working there really had me think about this and about how I could prepare myself better for what’s to come. After all, as planners we are partly paid to be insightful and get other people to be empathetic with the people that our clients want to sell stuff too.

Anyways, as I finished a few books about Asia and got to know more people working in the region, as I followed more sources on twitter and decided to move to Singapore, and as I’m obviously not fully engaged in packing up the mess that is our flat, I had a look at that iceberg and wanted to do something that could be useful for planners in the region but also – egoistical as I am – for myself.

So I decided to ask junior and senior planning/ad people in the region and some other people there about one book, essay, documentary, novel, movie, painting or whatever cultural artefact they want each that helped them understand one specific thing about the region they work and live in better. Slow or fast moving, recent or old, I don’t care. Simply a couple of sentences description of what it is or was and why it matters.

I really think this could be great to 1) collect and offer resources but also 2) communicate the diversity and beauty of culture(s) beyond the usual “everything is so, so different”.

So I put this idea forward to Rob, who’s always promoted a more nuanced view of ‘Asian’ culture and asked him for a contribution. It pointed me towards a little issue:

I have a slight problem with this idea.

It’s not that I don’t think it has value or that you would approach it in a lazy way – it’s the fact I believe too many folk would look at whatever list you create and think that makes them ‘an expert’.

I see it now and I don’t want to contribute to that myopic view.

That said, I’m happy to help you – so you should read Lonely Planet, which to me offers far more insight than 99% of any ad book.

I got the point. I’m not a fan of lists either. Especially if they promise something like expert status. It won’t come from reading a list of books, for sure.

So as a little disclaimer ahead and agreeing with Rob, I don’t want to approach this as a list. And none of us will become an expert about the region by reading this. None will read everything anyways, which is why I’d like to put more emphasis on the story behind the object.

What I want is more a diverse and open repository of stuff about a vast and diverse region. A bricolage of insights and hints to sources and stuff rather than a definite thing. So besides all the planners and ad people I’ll be pestering, I’m also asking some friends and acquaintances that have nothing to do with advertising and other people to contribute what they’d find useful.

So with Rob’s caveat in mind, this is supposed to be the start of a little or probably longer series here. If you’d like to contribute, please email me (wagner.thomas1 # gmail ! com) a short story about a critical incident or whatever you read, watched, heard or whatever that made you, upon reflection (or without reflection), realize something about the culture you’re living in.

Not even a week until we get there.


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