In a recent issue of Newsweek, Sharon Begley writes about how cultural experience can change the brain in a column called West Brain East Brain.  Many of us have already heard about studies that show, for example, that presented with photos of the same busy scene, the brains of collectivist-culture Asians will show more activity in the regions that process figure-ground relations, and individualist-culture Americans will show more brain activity in regions that recognize objects. 

But interestingly, Begley says there are examples that are not so intuitive.  To do simple arithmetic, the Chinese use brain circuits that process visual and spatial information, and English speakers use language circuits—even though both cultures use Arabic numerals.  Begley comments, “…it shows how fundamental cultural differences are–so fundamental, perhaps, that “universal” notions such as human rights, democracy, and the like may be no such thing.”

Some may find that a troublesome concept.  A couple weeks ago, I posted a blog entry called Respect looks different to different generations on several Linkedin groups, and it sparked some lively debate about one of the examples I used.  I had said that perhaps we need to re-evaluate our typical training norm that says all laptops and PDA’s must be turned off and put away during a meeting or training session, because to Gen Y’s, typing during a meeting is not a sign of disrespect but simply the way of today’s world.  Notwithstanding the excellent points made about the ineffectiveness of multi-tasking, there seemed to be a great furor over the idea that respect could be interpreted any differently than the commenters interpreted it; respect meant not only listening intently, but looking as though one were listening intently.  It was a universal sign of respect, some of them said.

But if Begley is right, that nothing is universal when you look at cultural differences (and that cultural differences go beyond behavioral to the very brain circuitry we use), then I would argue that nothing need be universal when you factor in generational culture either.  Everything changes over time.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach new supervisors to look up when a direct report walks into your office with a question or problem; there are still plenty of people in this world that are offended by the appearance of so-called “multi-tasking”, and effective leaders will recognize that.  But as trainers and OD practitioners, shouldn’t we lead the way in beginning to recognize alternate realities and changing norms?  Shouldn’t we attempt to rise above our own personal pet peeves in a training session?

I believe the answer is yes.  What do you think?

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