Monochromatic and Polychromatic Cultures

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There are several hundred well-documented cultures in the world, most of them belonging to major nation-states – France, Germany, Russia, Japan, etc. Thus we refer to French culture, Italian culture, Chinese culture and so on. We may also talk about cultures with a wider, non-national basis, such as Amazonian Indian, Sub-Saharan, Muslim, Confucian, Pacific-island, etc. However, as major decisions on how people are expected to comport themselves are made at national level, in accordance with historical custom or, indeed, law, it is nation-state cultures which attract most attention, study and comparison.

All cultures differ at national level, though many of them display remarkable similarities to others.  Examples  are German and Dutch, Italian and Spanish, Finnish and Estonian. Cultural experts such as Edward Hall, Hofstede and Trompenaars have gone to great lengths to classify or categorize national cultures, not least in order to facilitate the study of them. It is difficult, probably impossible, for a student of culture to enter convincingly into a hundred or more mindsets.

Edward Hall was an early ‘categorizer’ and in his books promoted a significant classification by dividing humans into two main groups – monochronic and polychronic. Hofstede and other culturalists used these terms frequently and they were certainly well-established by the 1970s. Germans typified the monochronic  group – people who did one thing at a time, usually well, and in a planned order.  Italians were classically polychronic, often attempting many tasks simultaneously, displaying more spontaneity, though less process, than their Teutonic neighbours.

Though a follower of Hall, my own research and experience led me to believe that categorisation of cultures needed to be at least tripartite, as there was clearly a large group of people who fitted neither into the monochronic nor polychronic classifications. These were Asians, to whom I had been extensively exposed during my years in Japan and in neighbouring countries. This group – less decisive than monochronic people, but more focussed than polychronics – rarely initiate action, but prefer first to hear the other side’s position and then react to it at their own tempo.

In the Lewis Model I created three categories: linear-active, multi-active and reactive. The first two match Hall’s monochronic and polychronic. I felt the terms linear-active and multi-active afforded a fuller description of the two types, not being linked only to time. Asians I classified as reactive. This model has in the last 20 years been adopted by a large number of universities and commercial enterprises around the world and has been used extensively by the World Bank for training and team building since 2004. It was also accepted as a paper in the International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management in 2009 – “Use of the Lewis Model to analyse multicultural teams and improve performance by the World Bank: a case study.”

Linear-active (monochronic) and multi-active (polychronic) cultures are diametrically opposed in nearly all that matters – punctuality v unpunctuality, calm v emotion, logic v intuition, facts v feelings, scientific v flexible truth, loquacity v taciturnity, restrained v unrestrained body language.  Almost all areas of activity clash with or irritate exponents of the other category. In global business, these differences are frequently sources of profound misunderstanding and there is little doubt that linear-active ‘powers’ (albeit with 50% of global GDP) often lose customers among the 5 billion multi-actives and reactives who are the major markets of the future.

Linear-active sense of superiority

Linear-active behaviour is an Anglo-Germanic phenomenon originating in north-western Europe and rolling out through colonisation to North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Among non-Germanic peoples, only Finns have joined this category and even they are partly reactive. Two continents – North America (minus Mexico) and Australasia – are completely linear-active. The strikingly different destinies of North and South America (the latter colonized by multi-active Spaniards and Portuguese) are an indication of the yawning behavioural gap between the two categories. How history would have been different if Columbus had continued on a north-westerly course to Florida or if the Pilgrim Fathers had been blown off course (like Cabral) and settled North-eastern Brazil!

It is important to note that, through a quirk of fate or historical accident, the Anglo-Germanic bloc from the 18th century onwards began to regard itself as superior in efficiency, both in commerce and ability to rule, than other cultural categories. This conviction of superiority, with its accompanying drive, may have had its roots in cold climate competence and energy, Protestant reforming zeal or German thoroughness. It certainly blossomed subsequent to the English Industrial Revolution, the rapid development of British and American manufacturing (fuelled by abundance of coal) and the continuous existence of democratic institutions in the Anglo and Nordic communities. However this may be, the linear-active “powers” leading up to and after the two world wars, emerged with de facto world leadership based on military might and, even more significantly, over 50% of global GDP.

This sense of pre-eminence, particularly in the English-speaking world, but also shared in no small measure by Germans, Dutch, Swiss and Nordics, has not yet subsided. The BRIC quartet are showing rapid gains in manufacturing, technology, financial muscle, access to commodities, and market share (China the star performer), but Western complacency has not yet been eroded. There is still a lingering notion among the linear-active countries that our systems of governance, our concepts of justice, our attitude to human rights, our intellectually vibrant societies, our cocktail of work and leisure, our right to lead and instruct others, our business methods and our ability to maintain our levels of production and high living standards are viable in the future. We may be right about everything but the last two or three. We are content with our way of life and world view. We feel we have got it right, the others not yet.

Cultural seduction

It is worthy of note that members of linear-active or monochronic cultures, though often complacently retaining a sense of playing leading roles in world affairs, are periodically seduced by multi-active or polychronic cultures. We live and work in our own countries with their comforting assets – democratic society, reliable institutions, sturdy housing and sanitation, punctual transport, steady jobs, pensions, health schemes, insurance, regular electricity and so on. Yet we look to other, shakier countries for pleasure, excitement, romance. We admire the efficiency of Germany, the tidiness of the Netherlands, the safety of Scandinavia, the probity of the United Kingdom, but we succumb to the allure of colourful Spain or Mexico, exuberant Brazil, the beaches of Portugal, the Argentinian pampas.

Do we go for our holidays in Birmingham, Sunderland, Dortmund, Eindhoven or Antwerp – or, perhaps Venice, Rome, Marbella, Macchu Pichu, Montenegro, Santorini, Rio de Janeiro or the Maldives? Do we prefer a foreign posting in Warsaw or Lisbon? Retirement in Oslo or the Dordogne? It is not the polychronic nature of these locations that attracts us (often that is seen as a drawback or irritation). A better description would be polychromatic. Germany, Holland, the UK and Northern France are not only monochronic, but they are monochromatic. The terms ‘monochromatic’ and ‘polychromatic’ have to do with colour but not just the colour absorbed by our retinas or the constituents into which light can be separated as in a spectrum or rainbow. In this sense, Mexico, India and Greece are colourful countries, but other cultures are polychromatic for different reasons.

In the case of the South of France, the Canary Islands and Costa Rica the allure is primarily climatological. We are drawn to other cultures by their sound (Spanish flamenco, Argentinian tango, African drums). We love Italy for many reasons; food is not the least of them.  Breathtaking scenery in Switzerland and South America leaves us enthralled; in Paris, Granada and Accra we are wooed by the architecture (Tour Eiffel, Alhambra, Taj Mahal). Quaint customs and folkloric traditions attract us (carnival in Rio, Spanish bull fights, Japan’s matsuri, cherry blossoms in Kyoto, fishermen’s coloured boats in Nazare).  Some countries attract us by their very light – Greece for painters, Venice with its translucence and iridescence, a dappled city, tremulous and flickering, where sunlight shimmers gently beneath the bridges.

To summarize, most linear-active (monochronic) people live in cold, grey climates (except Australia) for most of the year, work hard at material pursuits and inhabit what we might term monochromatic cultures. As a release, they are periodically tempted to transfer to polychromatic cultures, seduced by better climates, tastier food, exciting sounds and movement, light, colour and texture, exquisite architecture, spectacular scenery and sensual environments.

The major linear-active (most monochronic) cultures of the world are: USA, Germany, UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, the Baltic States, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Northern France and North Russia. Of these cultures only the United States and Switzerland could be called polychromatic.

The major multi-active (polychronic) cultures are: Spain, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Portugal, Peru, Indonesia, Romania and Dalmatia (Croatia, Montenegro). For a variety of reasons, they all qualify as polychromatic cultures. To these could be added a large number of smaller countries and locations such as Guatemala, Bolivia, Panama, Tahiti, Maldives, Costa Rica, etc.

The seduction of members of the monochromatic cultures by polychromatic locations is borne out by tourism statistics. In these statistics the preponderance of the United States, in both attracting visitors and ‘escaping’ themselves is evident, on account of their size and opulence.  With the Americans, the top ten tourist spenders per capita (‘escapers’) are: Germans, Britons, French, Canadians, Swedes, Norwegians, Russians, Dutch and Koreans. The top ten countries in tourist receipts per capita (2011) were: France, Spain, Italy, Thailand, Greece, UK, USA, Mexico, Switzerland and Malaysia (all polychromatic cultures except UK).

These figures vary little from year to year. France, Spain, Italy and the United States are easy winners, annually, though China attracts more visitors on a steady basis. The UK attracts many tourists on account of its strategic location between the US and Europe (also Scotland – in a way polychromatic – must take credit). The USA, though essentially monochronic in structure and inclination is irresistibly polychromatic with its staggering scenery, traditions of entertainment and variety of climate.

Is the (annual) exodus one-way? Are polychromatic cultures seduced by monochromatic environments? The answer is largely negative. Multi-actives flock to the US or the UK for purposes of immigration, education or work experience. Apart from the immigrants, they usually return home to what they consider more congenial environments. The great majority of French people visit England once or twice. Britons head to France (often on the way to Italy or Spain) regularly.

If linear-active cultures are principally monochromatic and multi-active cultures polychromatic, where do reactive cultures fit in? Interestingly, the East Asian cultures, as well as partly-reactive ones such as Canada, Finland and Turkey, seem to merit a separate chromatic classification. I am tempted to call them pastel-shade cultures. Canada is the United States in pastel shades. China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines certainly attract seekers of leisure, but are less vividly colourful than Mexico or Brazil, less persistently seductive than France, Spain and Italy. Grim industrial areas in China, Japan and Korea lessen their allure. Only Burma and Cambodia among reactive cultures are thrillingly polychromatic.

Just as all cultures are innately hybrid – Indonesia, the US and Russia are good examples – the chromatic appeal of some countries varies greatly according to area or district (Kyoto v. Kawasaki, Rio de Janeiro v. São Paulo, Lille v. St. Tropez, Milan v. Capri). Even Venice has its Marghera. It may also vary according to the individual. The temples of Angkor Wat and Mandalay attract a different type of human than do the beaches of southern Spain. A third type revels in polychromatic Antarctica!

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2 Responses

  1. Charlotte Leenders says:

    Very interesting article. Thank you very much.
    A nice example to add this article: when I lived in Jordan (a polychronic culture)the owner of my local supermarket new that I was from The Netherlands and never assisted any other customers when he was assisting me with my groceries. This went, of course, completely against his own cultural habits but he knew that I would appreciate it when he only paid attention to me. The question I often asked myself was: Who’s adjusting to who here?

  2. Thank you for your fabulous article. I query is more on, “What factors have caused us to become mono or polychromatic? You mentioned weather as one; are there more?

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