Photo: Author's taken in Qatar
Now I get asked to review and check drafts for a fair number of manuscripts, and this one by Gurnek Bains entitled: Cultural DNA - the Psychology of Globalization, carries an intriguing and perhaps intentionally provocative title, which did grab my attention.
So it ticked the first box, which I call the 'magpie test' - does it look interesting? In a world where there are any number of shiny airport style business books focusing on softer skills and promising unique insight; being able to grab eyeballs is something.
Stage Two: browse through the contents pages, and meander into the introduction and acknowledgements. Well, by this stage I was hooked in. The chapters and overarching thesis were a fascinating blend of human geography, history, religion, cultural studies, politics, class, and leadership - underpinned by a hard edge of science.
To give you a flavour, here are some of the headings that jumped out: 'The Psychology of the Eurozone Crisis', 'Unconscious Bias', 'Deserts and Civilization: The Twin Drivers of Middle Eastern Cultural DNA', 'America - The Change Makers', 'China: The Seekers of Harmony and The Art of Copying', 'Australia: Mateship in a Far-Off Land'.
Stage Three: I followed my magpie mind and began dipping in and out of the sections that caught my eye - because either they looked interesting, or in truth the academic [some would call the cynic or critic] in me wanted convincing. I mean, what is meant by Cultural DNA here? Are we talking natural science, social science, or the art of structuring the arts? Is Cultural DNA a biological function, a concept, an analogy, or a state of mind?
Bains steers an eclectic but carefully measured journey, in which he builds stepwise arguments, supported by anecdotal and empirical evidence from his own impressive consulting history and wider sources.
Photo: Gurnek Bains
In response to my initial questions, Bains writes,
"...in spite of the use of the biologically laden term, DNA, the focus is on the deeply grained aspects of a culture that are replicated over generations rather than biological differences. Occasionally, this cultural DNA springs from biological factors; but it arises more often from the environmental challenges that each culture faced historically or the predilections of the original founders who moved to that part of the world".
So in short, he's saying that it's nurture over nature that governs how we think, feel, and act; but you can't separate this from our historical and geographical environment. Over time, these environmental factors, experiences, and folklores have a cumulative effect, which shape cultures.
A further difference in Bain's approach is the way in which he stands short of comparing and contrasting different world regions completely, according to one grid or ranking system. This would be over-simplistic and insensitive in his view - and this for me is the beauty of this book. You can pick a region and immerse yourself in a rich case-study style approach to appraising the landscape, with room to arrive at your own additional conclusions.
I met up with Gurnek at his offices in Central London and chewed the fat for over an hour. His PR agent was right in thinking that we'd hit it off. We're both science graduates who've spent our lives working in industry across the globe. Several thousand air miles later, PhDs along the way, balancing the expectations and aspirations of multicultural families and clients, have ignited our realization, fascination and obsession with people.
Within that journey, both understanding and managing culture appears to be that perishable, precarious, alluring, and elusive x-factor - that makes, shapes, and breaks who we are as civilizations. Also, there seems to be a future for those emotionally intelligent enough to appreciate culture, surfing a wave of dynamic changes that blend the arts, science, technology, and real-time right-place right-tone communication. For that you need data, diverse networks, a rule of thumb, sufficient and continuous cultural exposure, and practise. But like any surfer will tell you it's fun, but tough. Bains' book has enough in there to offer a starting point of inspiration for anyone looking to polish their rule of thumb or world-view.
If you're a traveller looking for something that takes a richer and more longitudinal approach; a business person or civil servant looking for insight beyond the usual Dos, Don'ts, honorifics, platitudes and rituals; a student of the humanities and social sciences wanting something more grounded in the world today; or a seasoned dinner party socialite and pub quiz pro looking for a global Zeitgeist to boost your social capital - then this is definitely the book for you. There's plenty to learn, it sinks in easily, and this is the sort of book that you'll find yourself marking-up and folding page corners on.