Saturday, 6 August 2011

Decisions decisions decisions

There are times when things seem to be following some master plan, and rather than being a series of random events, there appears to have been some purpose to my life. For example, when I started on this building project, the things I'd learnt twenty years ago about finite elements, thermodynamics and electricity found a practical application. The threads of life start to tie together, and make me worry that the credits are going to start rolling up and I find I've been in a Hollywood movie. Thinking about decision making is another thing that ties together some ideas about how I can get my students to speak English, and why usually they don't.

I've been aware for a while about differences in decision making between Anglo-Saxon and Japanese models, or to generalise even further, Western and Eastern norms. These difference lead to cultural mis-communications and misunderstandings, and can waste a lot of time. One way of looking at it is in terms of democracy, consensus or dictatorship; another is in terms of high context or low context.

The fundamental ideas behind democracy are that each person's opinion is equally important, and that the majority should make the decision. This comes from ideas about equal rights of individuals to having opinions. The west has a long history of democracy and individualism, going back to the Greeks and probably beyond. This leads to dialectics and voting. This leads to meetings where people advocate their points, disagree or challenge other opinions, and concede, albeit often grudgingly, to the majority when they are in a minority. It also leads to low-context meetings where the agenda is transparent, and the issues being decided are explicit. Ideas and opinions are brought to meetings, and people leave with decisions.

Consensus, on the other hand, is based on ideas of harmony, and the importance of the group. The east has a long history of collectivism, rather than individualism. Japan has a sense of wa and expressions such as "the pole that sticks out will be hammered in". This leads to lengthy discussions, and goes with long-term relationships. Meetings are high-context, so the important issues are the relationships between participants and the hierarchy among them. The agenda is less clear, and issues being decided are vague. Opinions are usually left out of the meeting, ideas may be generated, and the participants leave in harmony with a stronger group. The actual decision may be made after the meeting, and may be arbitrary. 

Dictatorship is a much less partisan system that can flourish whether the society tends towards individualism or collectivism, whether East or West. In terms of decision making, dictatorship is the most straightforward; one person makes the decision and everyone must follow it. In both democratic and consensus-based systems, one person can take control of the whole show. Dictators often have long, successful careers if they give the impression of democracy or consensus. 

What's the price of freedom? Perhaps not strictly relevant to this discussion, but John Philip Curran, Ida Wells, and Thomas Jefferson would all tell us that it is eternal vigilance. I seek the freedom to live in the house of my dreams and desires, but will only get it through eternal vigilance.

So whether the meetings that have been held between us, the architect and the other players in our evolving charade have been a battle between democracy and consensus, or whether they are a battle between two dictators, I'm not sure.