Tony Alexander

Economic Commentaries

Western versus Eastern Culture

Wednesday July 31st 2013

Tony Smale gives some excellent insight into differences between the way people in the West and East see things – in terms of classifications as universalists versus particularists.

This article has been written by Tony Smale for our upcoming Brain Gain publication but as it is so relevant to issues involving China we have included it here as well.

When it comes to engaging with other people, no dimension of national culture has a more fundamental impact than Universalism-Particularism. In simple terms, the Universalist approach is somewhat black and white. What is good and right, or bad and wrong can always be defined, applies in all circumstances and can be codified in rules, regulations and contracts.

Contracts are absolutely sacrosanct and obligations are related to contracts and rules and regulations. Particularists by contrast pay far greater attention to the uniqueness of circumstances and to the obligations of relationships. They believe that what is right or wrong, good or bad depends upon circumstances.

Anglo-Saxon Kiwis are Universalists. The French, Asians, most South Americans and Maori are much more particularist. When our engagements were largely with people from similar cultures to ourselves we got by, but as we engage more and more with quite dissimilar people the challenges escalate.

As Kiwis our universalism causes us to expect that our business engagements and transactions will be governed by rules and conventions familiar to us – not because we are wittingly deterministic but because that is the very nature of being Universalistic. By contrast, Particularists expect that the rules and conventions that apply will vary according to context. In a sports analogy they anticipate that the game plan will constantly change.

The Universalist-Particularist divide has deep implications. We “think for our customers”, assuming that what we believe is important and what we take for granted will be the same as for our customers. We thus miss the opportunity to align our offerings as closely as possible with our customers’ needs. Quite contrary to what we expect, we are viewed as dis-interested in our customers’ needs and conventions and as having a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach that undermines the value we harvest. It’s not that we are not capable, it’s just that we don’t think how we engage is as important as do our customers.

When Universalists find in a Particularist context that a business employs the children, nieces and nephews of the owners, we are suspicious, making the assumption that they have been chosen for nepotism reasons. Yet the Particularists choose those people specifically because of their special obligations to look after the family’s business interests. “Who could you trust more than your own nephew?”

Universalists working with Particularists will look at them and ask “How can you possibly do business with them – everywhere you look is nepotism?” Conversely, Particularists look at Universalists and ask “How can you possibly do business with them, you can’t even rely upon them to look after their friends and family!”

From our point of view, the security of the business engagement relies upon attempting to define within the contract, all the possible eventualities and what happens if things go wrong. If it’s not in the contract then it is not taken account of. No account is taken or expected of any changes that occur outside the scope of the contract.

For instance if there is an economic downturn or an unexpected shift in exchange rates, that is just good fortune for one party and bad luck for the other. Contracts tend to be lengthy and detailed. Conversely, Particularists have a diametrically opposed point of view. They start from the perspective that not everything can or should be defined in a contract. Instead, the parties to the engagement need to have the trust and confidence that should something go wrong, or that circumstances change, then the agreement will be adjusted or renegotiated to accommodate these changed circumstances. Contracts tend to be brief and not the principal instrument of the transaction. For us Universalists that is an entirely foreign concept. As a general rule, there are many more commercial lawyers in Universalist countries than in Particularist countries.

To optimise our opportunities in our developing new export markets, and to work most productively with our increasingly cosmopolitan workforces, we must factor in the science of national culture, none more so than the fundamental difference between Universalism and Particularism.


Tony Smale, Forte Management,