Influence of national culture

Introduction:

Culture is a set of practices, beliefs, conduct, customs and conventions followed by a specific region or population. Although the description of culture in a literary way is quite simple, the actual meaning of culture is profound. If one takes into account the atmosphere prevailing in a business organization then one will realize that they also have identical practices though that cannot ideally be termed as culture. But it also cannot be denied that they also follow a close resemblance to a cultural setup which has been termed as work culture. But still there is vast difference between identical practices, beliefs, attitudes and what can be termed as culture. Culture is the characterisation of a group of population through their attitudes and goals over a period a time. This period of time has no boundaries as culture can be passed on through generation to generation. Broadly speaking culture as a word could be fragmented into several forms such as global culture, national culture, regional culture, local culture, organization culture, societal culture, family culture and regional culture. These different aspects of culture convey an impression that these groups have identical practices over period of time. It is like a set of school children studying for a specific period in a school daily, or a group of persons attending a certain ceremony and following identical practices on a regular basis.

The study essentially focuses on understanding what culture is in general, and discusses national culture and homogenous societies with special preference to a particular nation.

Culture:

Various scholars have given different definitions and interpretations of the word 'culture' in accordance to their understanding and keeping in view the accepted norm about identifying this phenomenon. Geertz understands culture as interpretative behavior of an identical group of people who follow a specific set of rules and regulations, practices, behavioral modes, language, lifestyle preferences and inter-personal communication (Geertz; 1977). Ruth Benedict identifies culture as a cluster of practices that shapes up human life and its various practices but at the same time incorporates diversity in its mode in order to enrich the culture. For her, culture is a group of practices that gives life to the worldly practices of a set of people and makes them sagacious enough to recognise with new practices and incorporate them into their practices but in their own way (Benedict; 2006). Hofstede et. al., define culture as having five dimensions that form the identical practices, behavior, attitudes and norms of a set of people. These five dimensions are power distance, collectivism versus individualism, femininity versus masculinity, uncertainly avoidance, and long-term versus short-term orientation (Hofstede et. al.; 2002).In another book Hofstede et. al., describes culture as a mental programming of a person that is conditioned by continuous patterns of thinking, feeling, acting in a certain way that are learnt through lifetime and also derived from the practices of people living in the immediate vicinity or environment (Hofstede et. al.; 2004). Still others define culture as a large pool of practices and norms followed by a set of people but not necessarily residing in a particular region or place or existing in a homogenous group or living compact groups. It means that culture is a factor that is institutionalised in a person and for whom; parting with it is a difficult concept. Although he or she is liable to be influenced by other culture and modify one's own to a certain extent without leaving his or her basic tenets that has been imbibed since long. Therefore we witness a scenario where there is either harmony or clash of cultures but nonetheless there is a certain amount of intermingling of cultures which results in either the emergence of a composite culture or the creation of mutually existing exclusive cultures in a particular region or place (Lewis; 2005).

All these definitions of culture point to certain factors through which one can identify the basic points that define culture. There can be variations or different opinions, but what one identifies as the basic factors that define culture are a set of practices, tenets, norms, behavioural modes, inter-personal verbal and non-verbal communication, lifestyle followed by a certain group of people living in a certain geographical region over a period of time, or even if not residing in a particular geographical region, have developed strong communication channels that have strengthened such practices. These help to identify all these people as a group who act, behave and interact in a basic particular way with individual minor diversion that all the same, do not veer away from the basic tenets of their cultural background. The definition of culture along these lines means that culture as such gives a certain amount of homogeneity to a particular set of people which they follow over lifetime and feel at home within their own set of people, group or region. It is a strong bonding that gives certain amount of strength to the members of a particular cultural group to follow their practice even in hostile societies or under strong influence of other societies. It means that culture gives ample character to the members of the cultural group, which in turn results in building strong homogenous societies or groups of people who follow their identical set of practices and beliefs. In that way; homogeneity, strength and identification with a certain group of practices within a specific society are the hallmarks of culture (Crouch; 2004).

Culture and Homogenous Societies:

The signs of a particular culture are visible in homogenous societies. Or in other words strong influence of culture helps in creating strong and homogenous societies across all levels. Homogenous societies are the ones where there is a strong influence of a particular culture and its related practices, and which has a dominant place in that society. As a result the general outline and outlook of that particular society gets conditioned according to the requirements of the dominant culture and results in imposing its identity on that particular society. The result is that even if some members of other cultures are residing in that society in certain numbers, they have to, or generally, subsume their own cultural identity with that of the dominant culture even though they practice their own culture in a personal and private way or within their homogenous group (Cho; 2008). This means homogenous societies and strong cultures are the ones which have members of their own ilk rising in large numbers in a particular society region and place, which gives them the strength to impose their own culture in that region or society. The inference that can be drawn from this fact is that homogenous cultural societies have that factor of numeric strength of people of same culture, which gives them the strength as well as the comfort level to practice their own culture over time, resulting in that place getting identified with that particular culture and succeeding in pushing all other pre-existing or contemporary culture to the background, thereby giving that society the recognition accruing to a homogenous society (Maidment; 1998).

Types of Culture:

Previously, we had discussed that there can be different types of cultures at different levels of geography and existence. In terms of geography and region it all starts from the global culture which is a current phenomenon, down to the continental culture, national culture, regional culture provincial culture, and local culture. In terms of existence there can be political culture, social culture, club culture, office culture, organizational and business culture, family culture, religious culture and clan culture (Berry; 2002). In all these cultures there is a discernible streak of an overriding mode and way of life and personal interaction with definite signs and material possessions that distinguish one from the other. In today's world and even in the past the national culture of a country is the most significant way of identification in the world. This has its reasons in the sense that the build up of a cultural identity is always backed by a well organized support system and demarcation of identities areas and practices. In the case of nations there has always been a strong organizational support and common systems backed by identical social moorings that has reinforced the identity of a nation towards a particular cultural system (Buell; 2004). As a result most of the nations of the world have strong cultural identities that distinguish them from other nations..

National Culture:

The national culture is one of the most overriding identification of cultural mores in the world. In terms of national culture, the area under the nation practices more or less identical forms of other cultural practices that have bee delineated in the preceding section. According to Ralston et. al., the effect of national culture is such that it influences all the other types of cultural settings that prevail in human society and coordinates into giving a common identity and recognition (Ralston et. al; 1996). In other words it is the national culture that gives the most overriding identification to members of that society and influences all their ways of life. A study shows that most of the people of the world prefer to go by their national cultural identity during their socio-cultural interactions as well as in all types of interpersonal and inter- regional interactions (Parker; 1997). Therefore, it goes to show that national cultural identity is the most powerful identity for human beings in the world. Accordingly, the people residing in a nation have strong identities with regards to their different social, religious, familial, business, food and drinking habits, interpersonal interaction, ways of doing things and practicing different social and religious methods (Mackey; 2000). For example, though there are common set of practices concerned with doing business, yet those same practices get modified in its applied sense in a particular nation under the influence of their national culture.

In this particular essay we concentrate on the different aspects of the cultural; practise of one such nation i.e. Oman and seek to enlighten ourselves about the strong influence of national cultures on people in the world.

Oman:

Oman is a middle-east country or a sultanate bordering the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and Persian Gulf, between Yemen and UAE. It has a total area of 30950 sq km. It has a coastline of 2092 kms which makes it a seaside country, thereby having strong influence of maritime activity in its culture and history. Oman also has a dry desert which results in hot, humid climate along the coast; with a hot, dry interior and a strong influence of southwest summer monsoon in the far south. The topography is that of a central desert plain with rugged mountains in north and south (CIA, World Fact book; Oman; 2009).

History:

Oman has been an independent nation with the exception of early Persian conquests of parts of Oman. The Portuguese who ruled Oman were expelled in 1650. During the succeeding centuries, political leadership shifted from the Ibadhi imams or elected religious leaders, who were directing the administration, to hereditary sultans who established their capital in Muscat (who had established trading posts on the Persian coast). By the early 19th century, Oman was the most powerful state in Arabia and had a major presence on the East African coast. During the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, the sultan in Muscat faced a rebellion by members of the Ibadhi sect residing in the interior of Oman, who wanted to be ruled exclusively by their religious leader, the Imam of Oman. This conflict was resolved temporarily by the Treaty of Seeb in 1920, which granted the imam autonomous rule in the interior, while recognizing the sovereignty of the sultan elsewhere. In 1970, Qaboos bin Said al-Said overthrew the restrictive rule of his father and has ruled as sultan ever since. As a result there is strong influence of the sultanate tradition coupled with its historical legacy, geographical and topographical setting in shaping up its cultural practise in all spheres of life (Hawley; 2005). Oman's moderate, independent foreign policy maintains good relations with all Middle Eastern countries (Background Note Oman; 2009).

Values and Norms:

Generally, the Omani way of interaction and attitude towards a westerner on a visit to Oman is said to be very pleasant to interact and courteous to a fault. One rarely finds them in common places like shops because non-management jobs are beneath their dignity and therefore filled by Indians, Pakistanis, or Filipinos. In Oman womenfolk dress as they feel, which is a rarity n a middle-eastern country, though shorts and skirts above the knee are frowned upon and two-piece bathing suits are a strict no-no except at five-star hotels where they're tolerated (Jon; 2007). This may be due to the influence of traditions prevalent for ages in Oman because traditionally Oman is a tribal society, although tribal influence is gradually declining. Its predominantly Ibadi Muslim population observes social customs that are conservative by Western standards but are less strict than those of neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, where even alcoholic drinks are prohibited as per Islamic traditions and customers. It is a very good example of national culture overriding the religious culture considering the fact that Oman is a traditional Muslim country. By virtue of the influence of national culture women in particular enjoy relatively more freedom in Oman than elsewhere in other Middle Eastern Islamic countries. But like most Islamic countries social interaction is dominated by gender and most rural Omani women dress in a conservative fashion (Britannica; 2009). Citing the experience of a western woman residing in Oman, says that a woman in Oman should not talk freely with men, a culture which is quite normal in western countries. People in Oman are usually curious about woman of other cultures and nationalities. Even though Omani women drive freely and frequently in the country, they are not expected to walk around or move unnecessarily. She also spoke of the dressing sense of women in Oman and said that normally women wear long and loose dresses. Recalling rare rude experiences she states that they are generally confined to few long stares or honks from passing cars.Otherwise men are incredibly respectful of women, so much so that even in crowded supermarkets they would go out of their way to move and make room for womenfolk to pass through.However, Oman is a particularly safe place for women, she said (Brockman; 2009). It goes to show that Oman as a nation is very respectful of women, although expectations are to behave in a certain way without confining their required social and personal independence.

These example shows that the influence of Ibadhi sect i.e. the moderate form, of Islam pervades the national culture of Oman. As a result though Oman is not very radical like the other Muslim countries of the middle-East, yet it expects its people to maintain some amount of conservativeness as per the Ibadhi tradition (Nowell; 2009).

Food Habits:

Omanis are very hospitable and greet visitors with food and drinks. Food habits include both vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods although non-vegetarian food is more prevalent. Rice is the considered to be the staple diet and supplemented with cooked meats. The main daily meal is usually eaten at midday, while the evening meal is lighter. Maqbous, a rice delicacy, tinged yellow with saffron and cooked over a spicy red or white meat is served to people. Though traditional Omani food is fairly simple, yet usage of various marinades and impregnating meat with spices results in preparation of very delicious food. Spice and variety are the hallmarks of Omani food and a lot of spices, herbs, onion, garlic and lime are liberally used in traditional Omani cuisine. One of their favourite drinks is laban, a salty buttermilk. Yoghurt drink, flavoured with cardamom and pistachio nuts which is very popular. Special dishes are prepared for festive occasions. Overall the Omani food habits are rooted in tradition because of which modern western practices have negligible influence (Walker; 2007).

Attire and Dress:

The national dress for Omani men is a simple, ankle-length, collarless gown with long sleeves called the dishbasha underneath which a plain piece of cloth covering the body is worn from the waist down. Omani men wear a variety of head dresses especially, mussar, a square of finely woven woolen or cotton fabric, wrapped and folded into a turban. Some men who are from traditional families move with a stick, which can have practical uses or is simply employed as an accessory during formal events. However men also wear modern dresses especially the young folk on an occasional basis.

As discussed before, the Omani womenfolk wear colourful costumes which differ from region to region. The women's main outfit comprises of a dress which is worn over the trousers and the headdress, called the lihaf or hijab. This dress is shorter at the front and is created from luxurious velvet or cotton, laced with gold and silver embroidery, beads and sequins. Elaborate jewellery is normally complemented with this dress, around the head, neck, wrists, ankles, fingers and toes.

Altogether the dressing sense of the Omanis veer more towards elaborateness, colour and covering of most of the body parts which is due to the cultural moorings of the place (Walker; 2007).

Social Structure:

The social structure of Oman is rooted in tribal tradition. As a result the society is patriarchal in nature although women are given respect and suitable place in society. The traditional head of family is the male member, but the household management rests with the women folk. There is strong adherence to tribal rules and regulations that has continued till today. As a result, obedience, respect to elders, courtesy to women, and hierarchical nature of decision making process both in personal and public sphere define the social structure that is place in Oman. Yet there also prevails diversity in accommodating other social practices and the Omani respect other social structures as a result of which southern region of Oman, displays a tremendous diversity in its social structure.

However, the overriding factors of the social structure are based on tribal tradition whose applied aspect lies in the existence of a hierarchical society, respect of elders and women following of long established rules and traditions, and passage of family legacy on the father side rather than the mother side. All these factors shape the society of Oman and social culture till date, even though the country has a whole is quite open to the deep influence of western social practices due to it being a sought after destination of business because of its mineral resources, especially oil and a robust economy (Allen; 2002).

Religious and Ethical Systems:

Oman had become an Islamic nation in the seventh century A.D when Prophet Muhammad was preaching Islamism. But it adopted Ibadhism, a form of Islam distinct from Shiaism and the orthodox schools of Sunnism and is known for its moderate conservatism. As a result Oman is the only country in the Islamic world with a majority of Ibadhi population. One distinguishing feature of Ibadhism is the choice of ruler by communal consensus and consent. Presently the religious constitution of Oman has 75 % Ibadhi Muslims, with 25% consisting of Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Hindus. As a result the overriding cultural influence on terms of religion is that of Ibadhi tradition which makes Oman a moderate Muslim county unlike Saudi Arabia and others. It is due to its religious beliefs that the Omani people are accommodative to the practices of other religions and societies, which makes it a hospitable country to live in (Choudhury; 2003).

Languages Spoken:

The official language of Oman is Arabic. There are native speakers of other lingo like Balochi, a Semitic language distantly related to Arabic, but resembling languages in neighboring regions. Other dialects include Swahili and French which are also quite common in the nation because of the historical relations between Oman and Zanzibar. The dominant indigenous language is a dialect of Arabic and the state has also adopted English as a second language. The prevalent influence of Arabic is so profound that all the important communication and interaction is done in this language apart from English though a significant number speak Hindi due to presence of a large number of Indians in Oman (Allen; 2002)

Educational System:

Oman's education system developed rapidly in the 70's and 80's of the last century. Today Oman provides free education up to the secondary level and attendance is also mandatory. It is in keeping with the national need to spruce up the educational credentials so that the Omani people can provide everyone with a basic education level. In Oman there were about 560,000 students and 1053 government public schools with the number of students in private schools being about 20,000. The only University in Oman is the Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, the national capital. Oman conducts extensive programmes to combat adult illiteracy. However the Human Development Report of 2006 finds adult literacy rate to be 81.4% in adults i.e. adults older than 15, up from 54.7% in 1990. During the same period youth i.e. from 15 to 24 years of age, the literacy rate increased from 85.6 to 97.3%. Public expenditure on education was reported to be 4.6% of GDP and 26.1% of total government spending. The Ministry of Education developed a Basic Education programme in 1997 to gradually replace the three levels, General Education System to create a unified system covering the first ten years of schooling. It organized the Basic Education into two cycles: the first cycle covers grades 1 to 4 and the second cycle covers grades 5 to 10, followed by two years of post-Basic Education system or secondary education after which the students can pursue their own professional or higher university education according to their choice and aptitude. The pre-school education or primary education is conducted by both private and public sector schools under the supervision of the government (Education System in Oman; 2009).

Workplace Culture, Traditions, Beliefs:

Omani culture is a high context culture, unlike in most western countries where a low context culture prevails. In the high context cultural tradition people rely more indicative signs, gestures and interpret human behavior in order o make references about attitude and aptitude unlike in low context cultures where the word of mouth conveys the meaning itself (Brottman; 2005). So the typical Omani cultural workplace follows a more relaxed attitude towards work which might result in work not being completed in the process. The office atmosphere is informal and people interact with each other a lot before doing work or getting into serious business discussions. Omani people have a deep rooted connection to their society and family which influences their business relationships and office culture. As a result the prayer times according to Islamic tradition are included in the office hours and Fridays are holidays. Generally the Omanis do not work after sunset though the expatriate workers continue with it. In term of business interaction and people to people business contact, social niceties prevail over business relationships and a lot of social and personal interaction is done before going for actual business or office work. Adherence to time is not a positive factor with the Omani workplace culture, which makes a westerner feel surprised about how work is done in the process. In that way the Omani work culture is that of a flexible nature and people rely more on socio-cultural relationships and tribe affiliations to carry forward their business work (Carte et. al; 2008). As a result employers who have implemented more flexible practices are reaping the rewards in terms of increased commitment from employees because workers are happier and more productive due to flexibility in the workplace. This results in positive results for both employer and employee with prospects for real growth (Workplace Culture on Oman 2009).

Overall the business and workplace culture and tradition in Oman rests more on the social practices and is channelized according to the religious and cultural setup.

Conclusion:

The discussion on culture in general and the culture and its related aspects of Oman as a country in particular, show that although Oman as a country is open to the influence of other cultures and traditions. Still one cannot question that a homogeneous society like Oman has a strong sense of national culture. What could possibly be the reason for this given their openness to Western culture? The answer is very a simply one. When one looks below the stream of their calm almost mundane flow of life, one finds a very strong and resolute undercurrent of tradition and values rooted in them through ages. Oman as a nation has had its own cultural practices shaped since ages and which have stood the test of time. It is not that the Omani people are not appreciative of other cultures but they choose to adopt their own culture and tradition. They are at ease and content with their lives. The same can be said about homogeneous societies who share a common values, beliefs, lifestyle, social structure and in most case a common ancestry resulting in a strong sense of nationalism. The culture of homogeneous society's spectacles a strong national culture because they believe what is theirs is utopian. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any."

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