Monday, 1 October 2012

"My Country - Right Or Wrong" - Is Criticism good or bad?

Recently, an article by a German expat in New Zealand was brought to my attention. The author pointed out that New Zealanders weren't keen to deal with any form of criticism of their country. "Thin-skinned" was the way she described it.

This triggered off reminiscences of my time in Scotland. Any form of less than over-the top enthusiasm was met with resentful, defensive silence. And you really had to pile it on. If you failed to use words like "best ever", "world-class", "tops" you were a marked person. (Talk about British understatement...!)

This is all fine, if it's about being polite. Of course no sane person goes round telling other people what a shit-hole they live in. Of course I toed the line, talking about the splendid weather (wasn't), really tasty food (wasn't) beeaauti-ful countryside (have never been).

And yet, and yet. Isn't criticism a force of good? Should it not be encouraged? Especially from outsiders, especially in a country like New Zealand which might otherwise be in danger of  "im eigenen Saft schmoren". Ehem, I hope this wasn't too critical - take it as feedback!)

Wise, forward-thinking companies encourage their employees to notice things that need improving, find out where processes can be changed for the better. Lemming-like behaviour, head-down, nose to the grindstone... all these things struck me as old-fashioned, and vaguely totalitarian. I mainly grew up in countries - Holland and Germany - where criticism is encouraged from an early age on, and is seen as a mark of respect of the community you live in. It means you're interested in what's going on, you take a stance, you care, you're an active citizen. Not being critical in Holland would be seen as a sign of having dumbed-down, of being switched off, and ultimately a way to side-line yourself.

I agree of course that criticism has to be constructive, and cannot zoom in on fundamentals - like the weather in Scotland which can hardly be changed. But even here, I'd say a degree of realism would be infinitely preferable than the weird buil-up of societal pressure. Why should it not be possible in Scotland to say "Agreed, we haven't got the best weather but then again, that's why everything is so green and lush here". It would be realistic and honest. And infinitely preferable to the peevish, tight-lipped reaction which to the casual observer from outside indicates nothing more than an inferiority complex.

Personally, I find the pressure of permanent compliance with the staus quo, always asserting that you're 100% behind the mainstream, "Yes it's grrreat!, Love it! So excited! Super"...." tedious in the extreme. And no, I won't deliver.

I would still offer cookery-classes in Scotland and encourage New Zealanders to get out of their country more, and get a different perspective. No hard feelings, mate!



  1. Margit, this is such an interesting response to the original article at which gives a very German perspective on New Zealand. The article explains that "Kritik hat in Neuseeland nicht den gleichen Stellenwert wie in Deutschland – Lob ist wichtiger, Negatives verpönt, Meckern undenkbar. Das macht die Neuseeländer wohl mit Abstand zum freundlichsten Volk der westlichen Welt" - and mentions the "Gelassenheit seiner Bewohner, die sich um Status und Geld weniger scheren als um den Zusammenhalt untereinander".

    This last point explains why criticism is handled differently in New Zealand: it's because community is so important here, and the cultural aim in any social interaction is to strengthen bonds between people. So people tend to be nice with each other, not complain, and support each other. This is all done in a relaxed and very friendly way, so it's quite a shock when someone gives (culturally) unexpected criticism with a directness that is normal in places like the Netherlands or Germany, but not in New Zealand.

    Here, feedback is still given on the positives and negatives of the topic being discussed, but it's usually done in a fairly gentle way. Of course, to a New Zealander, this is understood in the same way as is more direct feedback in somewhere like Germany. The difficulty comes when the different cultures interact - one is seen as weak, the other as rude!

    In my view, neither way is better - but it's good to understand why different people communicate in the way that they do. That's why I like reading your blog, Margit!

  2. Thanks Jayne,for the explanation - all the more welcome as you are "vor Ort"! Just to clarify - my point wasn't to discuss the whole of the original article which raises many different interesting points. I only wanted to extrapolate one particular thing (namely how people react to any critical/different/challenging point of view.) The directness-rudeness-politeness triangle is always in the focus when it comes to intercultural communication,a real hot potato. It would deserve a whole book (already exists I know, but I would like to add to it:). One slightly off-topic question: I always had New Zealanders down as being quite forthright and direct? Maybe that's a myth though (or maybe I'm getting confused with Australians)?
    Oh - and so glad you like "Intercultural Musings", thank you!

  3. New Zealanders are definitely down to earth, but like a fair bit of lead-in before coming to the point of the discussion. Even though Brits do small talk, they often get to the point fairly quickly and that can come across as rude here. So I wouldn't say they're direct - you must be thinking of the Australians!

  4. "...and encourage New Zealanders to get out of their country more..."

    This is a major intercultural faux-pas on your part, I'm afraid. Kiwis seem to be kicked out of the country when they've finished high school and come back after a few years of travelling around the world...

  5. More thoughts on this! Of course there's the stereotypical "Kiwi bloke", who is a man of few words and therefore has to be fairly forthright. But I also know Kiwi men who find British women too direct. There's always a danger in generalising, especially as there are major cultural differences between different sections of New Zealand society. But I'd still say - overall, not direct!

  6. Tony: The sad truth is that they almost exclusively go to English-speaking countries to live and work in their time abroa. The rest gets a brief touristy look-in. What I was suggesting was taking in different cultures (of which language is an important factor), viewpoints, cultural models etc. I also empirically observed -when living in London- that New Zealanders stick together almost obsessively, thereby minimizing contact/exchange with their temporary host country. I'm not saying this in a censorious manner, just to explain my original statement.

  7. Thanks for explaining, Jayne! I wish I could persuade you to write something on the subject....!

  8. Mmmm, bit of a cultural minefield if you ask me! But perhaps as a guest post sometime... :-)