A German, Lebanese and Nederlandse walk into a bar…

Nathalie (Dutch, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in the UK) sends an email to Ronald (German, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in New Zealand) and Charles (Lebanese, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in Beirut) about a cross cultural issue. All three are academics at local universities.

Nathalie, London 09/10/2010

A cross cultural issue:

We teach our classes in London, Hong Kong and Dubai. These are partner campuses, in the sense that when students obtain their degree it says ‘British University’ without an indication at what location. We have always been instructed that English standards apply. In practice this means that content and assignments need to be of equivalent level (although do not necessarily need to be the same).

Today we were told that Dubai students complained that they had to do an assignment that involved the analysis of the performance of companies that produce alcohol. They felt that this was insensitive to their cultural norm.

It was suggested that we adjust the content to local needs.

I have huge reservations. First, it’s analysis of a company, I am not making them drink the stuff. Secondly, the university’s aim is to expand world-wide. We now have campuses in Mauritius, China, India, Dubai, Sri Lanka etc etc. Adjusting content and assignments to each culture is just not feasible.

Some people have argued that we teach from a Western-centric perspective. We expect students to be independent learners, who are critical thinkers, which for some other cultures may be challenging. As a UK university, are we selling a UK product or is the university a multinational that should adjust it’s product to local needs?

What do you think?

Ronald, New Zealand 09/10/2010

hahaha this is too funny. sorry, but those complaints i can’t quite take seriously.

if people are too ideologically narrow to care about stuff like that, just change the name of the product. maybe make it landmines or deep sea oil drilling machinery or male underwear something like that :p is this a serious complaint or just somebody trying to act important?

Nathalie, London 10/09/2010

A serious complaint, presented today by the Dubai representative (English national), who urged all module leaders to change the content to Dubai norms.

Ronald, New Zealand 09/10/2010

i leave it to charles to reply to that.

what happened to good old educational standards, first practiced and perfected in those areas that seem to have some problems with content these days (according to this complaint).

i guess the university needs money, so you should change all your course content now. immediately.

Charles, Beirut 10/09/2010


Well, I’d probably side with the Dubai request on this one. The issue is not really about alcohol for me, but about teaching effectiveness…

The inclusion of Alcohol in the example becomes a distraction from the actual exercise as students are focusing on this “forbidden” or “unfamilar”

object rather than on the point of the exercise. This is not about critical thinking. What if the exercise was turned to “the company that publishes Mein Kempf wants to increase its sales, blab la” sent to UK or German students. it will irk some people and distract from the main purpose of the exercise. In my personal opinion, exercises need to use examples that are meaningful and recognisable by students for them to be most effective. No point giving camel trading examples to British students, or referring to superior Japanese efficiency to Chinese participants. 

However, we would have a problem if Dubai authorities request removing “sexism” or homophobic discrimination from the curriculum, or decides that some psychological concepts are inappropriate. Then we are dealing with actual content.

That’s my two cent worth of thoughts.

Ronald, New Zealand 10/09/2010

i still believe that the alc example is hypocritical though. i have not been to dubai, but i have been told that you can buy alc and many men appear to drink. so it is a superficial political reaction rather than a sacred value type kind of problem. i am sceptical about religiously motivated requests, but i understand that it might deeply offend and motivate certain groups of people. but at the end of the day, deeply religious people are often quite tolerant and these issues are used for political purposes.

my one cent.

Nathalie, London 10/09/2010

I thought about this some more and sent email last night via iPhone: On 2nd thoughts, if even working on a case on alcohol represents an acknowledgement of something abominable hence it is a problem (like a case on pedophilia discussed as a norm) then this may make sense.

I do not agree, however, with Charles’ comment that we cannot agree with homophobic issues. If by law homosexuality is not allowed, I don’t see the difference between that and alcohol, which is also forbidden by law. Thus, if it concerned a legal case of Smith vs Kramer, where Kramer was the defendant and it was related to dismissal of work due to sexuality and Dubai would complain about that… then isn’t that the same argument?

What this highlights is that our Western minds are rarely exposed to situations where we have to write about something we find disgusting (e.g., a case study of the success of a company that makes utensils for female clitoral removal). Hence, we jump through the political correctness hoop and LEARNED that issues related to alcohol are problematic, however, we do not truly understand the sentiment, we cannot empathise. I certainly didn’t, and felt that Dubai should get over it.

I understand now. It conjures up all sorts of questions. It makes me realise that the gap between cultures is magnificently huge and that debates about land, etc may be more rational but debates about these norms and values are emotional and difficult to comprehend. If people are not willing to explore, research to try to understand (and instead do the PC thing or the f*** off thing) then we’re not getting anywhere really.

My two pennies.

Charles, Beirut 13/09/2010

Feels like a conversation … : )

The example of alcohol is not similar to homosexuality, even if they seem to have a  common denominator in “laws and regulations”.

Consuming alcohol or not has no implication towards discrimination, and is a matter of choice (to drink or not to drink). This is not the case in homosexuality or gender or race. These you are born into, and all humans are equal in the eyes of Allah 🙂 (ergo the theological argument).

So, if the retrograde government of one country or the other would like to enforce homophobic legislation, it doesn’t mean we have to bend to it. I live in a country that supposedly considers homosexuality illegal, yet I talk about it openly in class even if some ears do not like to hear what I say. This is not the same as preferences and choices (e.g. to ban CFC aerosol or not :)).

Nathalie, London 13/09/2010:

I see your point. But then this too is up for debate because you say one is born into homosexuality, whereas others may argue it isn’t. It then comes back to opinion and my opinion is that, I am not asking the student to drink the stuff, I am asking him/her to evaluate a Cross Cultural Case study on a beer company. If anything, the international MBA student should’ve highlighted the cultural issues related to this product (and get an ‘A’!).

After note: The case study was changed to a different kind of assignment before this discussion happened. This particular case study on teaching a controversial product will now be used in the introductory lecture at Under Graduate and Post Graduate level as it can be apply to the context of marketing (a controversial product), advertising, shipping, producing etc. To me, this example has highlighted the complexity of cross cultural management. When a conflict occurs, the challenge is to empathise truly, i.e., understand the beliefs and emotions. This then doesn’t mean that something has to change perse. That depends on ultimately what is deemed to be in the benefit of the organisation/individuals involved.

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