Lazy nations and indolent national cultures

Having toured lots of factories in a developing country, an Australian management consultant told the government officials who had invited him: ‘My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers they informed me that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage.’ 

This Australian consultant was understandably worried that then workers of the country he was visiting did not have the right work ethic. In fact, he was being quite polite. He could have been blunt and just called them lazy. No wonder the country was poor—not dirt poor, but with an income level that was less than a quarter of Australia’s. For their part, the country’s managers agreed with the Australian, but were smart enough to understand that the ‘habits of the national heritage’, or culture, cannot be changed easily, if at all. As the 19th-century German economist-cum sociologist Max Weber opined in his seminal work, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, there are some cultures, like Protestantism, that are simply better suited to economic development than others.

In a book written by an American missionary who’d lived in this country for 25 years, he observed that the people ‘give an impression . . . of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time.’

The country the Australian consultant and American missionary were talking about is Japan in the early 1900s. Irony abounds, doesn’t it? :-)

Similarly, in the 1800s, books from the British and the French frequently described Germans to be dull, “indolent” and incapable of the kind of cooperation required for enterprise. (H.T. The Bad Samaritans by Ha Joon Chang for these examples)

There are many powerful lessons in these anecdotes – two of which stand out to me. First, when we are exposed to cultural stereotypes, we often take them as truth that has been passed on to us over the centuries. In truth, however, stereotypes are a recent phenomenon. Most nations didn’t exist in their current form just 200 or so years ago. And, their people didn’t behave the way we think they’ve always behaved. This is a great lesson in being wary about stereotypes.

And, second, cultures are more malleable than we think. That two of the most productive and hard working nations on the planet were labelled lazy not very long ago in our human history should give anyone striving to make change in their organizations and communities heart.

And, just think, if cultures with millions of people across generations are so malleable over the course of roughly one human’s lifespan, what does this say about our ability to change ourselves?

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