All societies and cultures have rules and laws. They differ on the following of these rules and laws.

On one side, some cultures think that these rules and laws apply the same to everybody (universalist cultures). It is a one size fits all approach. On the other side, some cultures will adapt how they apply the laws and rules to the context of the situation (particularist cultures).

At the end, both approaches have the same goal in mind: fairness. However, what fairness means differs. What seems fair to some cultures and some people will not be to others. Western cultures tend to think that fairness is treating everybody the same. Different cultures think fairness is context dependent.

Consider this little exercise commonly given (or something similar) to discover where you stand on this topic. While with you, a close friend or family member has broken the law and it resulted in some damage to somebody. You are the main witness. Now, will you stand by the law and have your friend or family member potentially punished or will you stand by your friend or family member? Would your decision differ according to what the situation exactly was for instance?

This difference between universalist and particularist cultures can have significant implications for business for instance. Imagine a company with offices in different places and different cultures. They tried and tested a new system, let’s say a reward system to employees. It worked well and they want to introduce it in all their offices. That will work only if all places have the same idea of fairness. Otherwise, the reward system may not work and even backfire if considered unfair in some offices where employees are from a different culture. It can also have consequences on how a successful candidate is chosen for a particular position for instance.

So what can you do in circumstances when you are with people on a different side on this universalist/particularist continuum, when you have moved to a new country for instance? The first thing to assess is your own preference. The second thing is to assess on which side of the continuum your interlocutors are. You can check whether rules and policies have a prominent place or not, in offices, shops or in the street for instance. Do people wait for the green light before crossing the road? You will see an illustration of this aspect of culture in many aspects of life. Basically, do people behave in an organised or more unruly, independent manner?

Then, if there is a gap between your and others’ preference, you will need to adapt your behaviour and actions towards what is expected. This can be difficult because this aspect of culture underlies what you think is right or wrong, good or bad. So you need to leave your judgement behind and understand that what is right, wrong, good or bad is relative rather than absolute.

Is this something you can do or does it come with difficulty for you?

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