Friday, February 8, 2013

Competition vs cooperation

Perestroika, formerly closed Soviet society has recently become more open and friendly. So friendly that Americans were allowed to invite the best English students in my school to take the TOEFL. The reward for the very best student was one year of study in one of the leading American schools. In the early 1990's, you wouldn't find a Russian teenager who wasn't dreaming about America, so all the students, including myself, tried our best to win.

Our test instructor, a nice looking young girl with a snow-white smile, explained the process, and the test began. After an hour she had to stop the testing because to her surprise, we were helping each other with the test. She couldn't understand why a student would help another to pass the test when clearly only one winner would be selected out of 20 students.

“Guys, what are you doing? I don't get it, why? Only the winner will go to America, not everyone here. Don't you understand this?”, she cried.

Of course, we did. We knew it was a competition. However, there was something more to it than that. She was an American teacher, and we were Russian students. We wanted to impress her with our English. We knew that she would judge all the students in Russia based on her experience with us, so we wanted to do our best on this test. If there was a fight, it was not between us (we were quite realistic about our abilities and understood each other's knowledge of English).

This story came to my mind when my friend, who is also Russian, told me about her experience when taking a professional test in Canada. The test was administered over the course of three days, during which students stayed on campus. And those three days were something that my friend said were, "the worst hell”. She said that other students were extremely non-collaborative. “When someone asked me for help, I tried to be helpful. I didn't mind answering their questions or letting them borrow my books. But they never answered my questions or even worse, they intentionally gave me inaccurate information. Why? We were not competing with each other, why did they treat me like that?”

In both cases the reaction of the strangers seemed overly emotional and irrationally strong, which is a true sign of culture clash. I think, the reason for the grave misunderstanding is that the Western culture is highly competitive and individualistic, while Russian culture is all about solving problems collectively. Personal success in the North America is the major value, which is openly declared in books and TV shows. This idea lies in the very core of the Western culture.

The question “Are you a team player” that is so popular among North-American HRs have no sense for Russians who are team players by culture. For centuries Russians have been valuing “we” over “I” and have ostracised individuals which are too focused on their own personal success. If this wasn't so, the idea of communism wouldn't have been so massively supported during the October revolution. It doesn't mean that Russians don't care about personal success or that every Russian is exceptionally supportive. I'm talking about a difference in perception. Sometimes we tend to cooperate where people from Western cultures see competition (I can't help but say 'we').

In order to give you the true sense of a collectivist's mindset, let me tell you about a story that was included in 1st grade textbooks for years. Once there was an old man who had three sons. He felt very ill and called for his sons. When they came, he told them to tear the broom apart. The brothers tried hard, but failed, because there were many twigs in the broom. Then the old man told them to loosen up the twigs and break them one by one. The brothers managed to complete the task very quickly. “When you are together, nobody and nothing can break you. When you are alone, you are easy prey”.

Photo by Barret Anspach