One of the things that fascinates me about culture is the way that apparent subtle differences in theory play out to be rather larger in practice, and also how ones reaction to those differences changes with attitude.
My current example is quite petty in a way, but goes on to illustrate the challenges of working in a cross-cultural sphere.
Last night at my weekly badminton competition, the team we were playing against had a fill-in who, like the fill-in before him in a previous week, is clearly a higher grade player than B grade. I was lucky to get 10 points off him, and to be fair, I think if he was fired up I’d be lucky to get half that. My team mate got more, but by this stage they had won every game and he was clearly ‘being kind’. It should probably be noted at this stage that the team we played against is second on the ladder and gunning for the top position.
Now, in the Western tradition, despite the fact that no rules have technically been broken, bringing in a fill in that you know is better than the person replacing them is something you just don’t do. It’s rude, unsportsman-like, and a whole heap of other negative adjectives. However in a more Eastern context, because you’re not breaking the rules, what you’re doing is being clever, and levering an advantage. The rules aren’t there to tell you what you can’t do, but in a way, hint at what you can.
So whilst in the Western tradition you are breaking ‘unwritten rules’, if as a Westerner you enter into a sphere where Eastern cultural mores are the norm, what do you do?
Clearly you can’t fight against it, because the reason you’re upset or disappointed by the lack of adherence to what appears to be common sense to allow everyone to be happy and feel as though they’re playing on a level playing field just doesn’t even register with the people you’re showing your displeasure towards. I’d even hazard a guess and say that it may even register as a weakness – you don’t accept an advantage as such, therefore you’re not ‘up with it’ and not a contender.
That of course is the great paradox of competition sport – there is only one winner, so those that aren’t contenders better have something to look forward to every night, or else what’s the point? Most weeks I want to play the best I can and have a fair shot at playing against people on my level. If I wanted to get smashed every week, I’d just go play A-Grade. There’s a sense that because we’re not in the top 3 teams, that somehow there is the assumption that we’re happy to assist the second team get to the top by being okay with the bringing in of a substitute of a higher level for us to lose against. That we’re happy to sacrifice our enjoyment to help them, because winning is everything, and rules are only there to be worked around.
In the Western context, these and other notions are very confusing, culturally. We generally come to sport as ‘recreation’, as something to do for fun. Even club level competition is not really that serious. If you don’t train specifically for your sport, then in essence what you’re doing is recreation, not competition.
Historically, the badminton of 80 years ago was firmly planted in British notions of recreation, of physical activity for fun, fitness, and leisure – but also British notions of behaviour, ‘manners’ and sportsmanship. Up until about 30 years ago, that was still the case, but with it’s prominence in Asia it is now in a way very much an Asian sport, and as a result, the culture has shifted in subtle but impactful ways. In entering that sphere – and designing in that sphere – it’s definitely a real-world challenge to behave and design cross-culturally, and accept attitudes and behaviours that might be completely foreign to your own.