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How do you define Fairness?

Pic Credit: Stuart Miles

Pic Credit: Stuart Miles

Our brains are constantly at work, processing messages and releasing hormones based on often-unconscious cues. These hormones influence our moods and behaviors, and I invite you today to become a little more aware of how your sense of fairness can trigger them.

Back in March I wrote about the cultural concepts of Universalism and Particularism. Trompenaars names this dimension when he saw that while every society has rules, they differ in how consistently these rules are applied.

Universalist cultures are more consistent, applying rules the same way to everyone, whereas Particularist cultures may make exceptions depending on circumstances.

Growing up in those cultures, then, influences a person’s sense of right and wrong, and how wrong-doers should be treated. To illustrate the difference, Trompenaars asked his research participants if they would lie to the police to protect a friend. People from Universalist cultures are less likely than people from Particularist cultures to do that.

From a personality Type perspective, your preference for Thinking or Feeling will also influence your definition of fairness. People with a Thinking preference are more likely to view logic, objective reasoning as fair, whereas people with a Feeling preference are more likely to take values and the effect on people into account.

Since the cultural and Type dimensions seem to be so similar, I always wonder which overrules the other. In the case of lying for a friend to the police, for me, the Universalist culture respect for rules trumps my Feeling preference.

Either way, there’s a bit of stress being produced in my brain: I don’t want my friend to get in trouble, but I also don’t want to lie.

How would you react in these situations?

Your colleague receives public praise for something you’ve helped with, and she doesn’t acknowledge your contribution. Is that fair? How does that influence your working relationship going forward?

If doing the work is intrinsic motivation enough for you, you may not give it a second thought. If, however, you feel like her status was being lifted while yours wasn’t, you’ll be experiencing some negative feelings. Breathe through them, and when you’ve calmed down, a conversation may be in order.

Your favorite player has fouled a guy from the other team, and the referee benches him as a consequence. Is that fair? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much would prefer to see him continue to play?

If you want to see him play despite the foul, you’ve just made a Particularist exception. Your brain probably inhibited your otherwise logical appreciation of following the rules, but because you see him as part of your in-group, he’s worthy of protection.

We make thousands of unconscious decisions about “yes, no”, “right, wrong”, “good, bad” every day. Partly based on our cultural programming of which behavior we have learned to be acceptable, partly based on our personality type preferences. Especially our introverted Feeling (Fi) function informs how we attach value to our experiences.

Next time you have a disagreement with someone, try to take a step back and remember that you’re evaluating what’s fair from your own unique perspective. Dialogue and consensus will be easier to find if you can try and understand the other person’s point-of-view as well. And sometimes, it’s not personal, but cultural.



How Consistently do you apply rules?

Imagine you are a passenger in a car, your best friend is driving way over the speed limit, and hits a parked car. The police arrives, and your friend asks you to lie and say they were not speeding. Would you? This is one of the (paraphrased) questions Alfons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner asked thousands of international managers for their book, Riding the Waves of Culture (1997). They identify seven dimensions of cultural differences, five of which concerned with interpersonal interactions. One dimension, described by its opposite extremes of Universalism and Particularism, looks at how consistently a culture applies rules. No one person or one culture is every completely on either side of the extreme; rather, they can move and span up to 50 % of the spectrum.

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In Universalist cultures, rules apply across the board. Treating everybody in the same way is considered a sign of fairness. This reminds us of the Thinking function: “Thinking is a process of evaluating and making judgments based on objective criteria and principles or logic.” (Understanding Yourself and Others, An Introduction to the Personality Type Code, Linda V Berens and Dario Nardi, 2004)

In Particularist cultures, the operative word is: “depends”. Rules may be bent according to who is involved. This reminds us of the Feeling function: “Feeling is a process of making evaluations based on what’s important, where personal, interpersonal, or universal values serve as guideposts.” (Understanding Yourself and Others, An Introduction to the Personality Type Code, Linda V Berens and Dario Nardi, 2004)

Germans, as well as most Western and Northern nationals, are more likely to take a Universalist approach. If we only look at the Type description, we might expect someone with a dominant Feeling function to place the relationship above the rule, and lie for their friend. I, ENFJ, born and raised in Germany, would not. I may not volunteer the information, and feel badly for my friend when giving my statement, but I would not lie. If that speeding friend of mine is German, too, they most likely would not ask me to in the first place.

Korea is a Particularist society where you would probably preemptively offer your support to spare your friend the embarrassment of having to ask for your help. That is not to say Koreans do not value order and rules, but protecting the personal relationship is more important. Friends rely on each other for everything, there is strong interdependence within colleagues of an organization, and the extended family provides a sense of stability and security (Kiss, Bow, Shake Hands, Terri Morrison and Wayne A Conaway, 1995).

Now consider this follow-up question: imagine you’re a passenger in a car, your best friend is driving way over the speed limit, and hits a little girl on a bike. The police arrives, and your friend asks you to lie and say they were not speeding. Would you?

Universalist participants still - perhaps more emphatically - respond “no”, but the answer from Particularist participants can now go both ways: either, they respond “no”, because someone got hurt. Or they stick by their response “yes”, because the consequences for the friend would be even more dire. It will take more targeted and specific research to ascertain under which circumstances culture overrules type preferences, and vice versa.

What would you do?