Instabilitate vs. Stabilität: How Important Are Cultural Differences?

Transposing emblem by Andreea Sepi

In June 2017, half a year after its new government took office following the December 2016 general elections, Romania experienced yet another unforeseeable development on its rocky political scene: the PSD (Social Democratic Party), the majority party, was desperately trying to topple its own government.

The PSD withdrew its support for its own team of ministers and forced a no-confidence vote through Parliament. The fact that, only months earlier, the very same cabinet had survived massive street protests to cling to power in a January anti-corruption scandal only adds to the oddity.

And that’s not all. The Romanian PM surprised everybody by refusing to toe the party line and resign. A political crisis ensued. The summer fun did not stop there. A new government was sworn it, and with it, new and controversial tax proposals.

The press and social media exploded. Possible party intrigues were “exposed”, gloomy forecasts printed, endless debates followed. 

But that’s all that exploded. The economy continued its steady growth and the population did not seem too phased. Activists responded on Social Media by hijacking the Facebook pages of PSD leaders and posting hilarious updates in the typical Romanian brand of “gallows humor.” And eventually some of the more bizarre tax proposals were dropped after a meeting with EU officials in Brussels. 

What makes Romania so resilient to this type of instability that would be deemed insane anywhere else in the world?

The answer might lie in the cultural profile of Romanians themselves. According to Hall, Hofstede, Trompenaars, Lewis and others, Romania is a short-term oriented, polychronic culture with a person-orientation rather than a long-term devotion to quantifiable results. Throughout history, the Romanians have grown accustomed and almost indifferent to political chaos and basically thrive on flexibility. Agile management has been a reality way before the term was even coined, and it means changing plans and objectives as times and circumstances change.

Although one might think, from the descriptions above, that living in Romania is like living in the middle of a perpetual earthquake, there is surprising stability in people’s daily lives, there is very low crime and very low social violence. The Romanians achieve a balance by offsetting their pragmatic flexibility with relative conservatism and a love of tradition in their social and family lives. Also, there is no taboo on expressing emotions, so outbursts are frequent but short-lived. Personal feelings and interests, and quick solutions are important aspects of the Romanian decision-making process. There is an interesting combination of old-fashioned collectivism and acute individualism. The paradox also includes an ability to endure combined with relatively low perseverance in pursuing an objective goal. Romanian sports teams or athletes notoriously perform better when they have their back to the wall than when they’re ahead, and Romanian popular wisdom blames this on “our slacker mindset.”

A lot of what happens in the lives of ordinary Romanians follows a “fast and feast” pattern. Many Romanians are extremely rigorous and conscientious about their diets during the religious fasting periods, only to eat themselves into a frenzy at the ensuing celebratory meal. They will save up an entire year for that one summer-vacation-cum-shopping-spree where they are known as generous tippers. At the confluence of three major cultural vectors – Latin heritage, Orthodoxy and the Balkans – Romanians have long learned to cope with difficult times by not taking them too seriously. Sooner or later, something or other is bound to change anyway.

Nothing can be further from the steadfast, rule-oriented German way of doing things. Compared to Romania, life in Germany is steady, monotonous and highly predictable. It follows a clearly outlined structure. In fact, you’ll hear many Romanians complain that they “don’t feel alive” enough in Germany. 

Germans like to go about every aspect of their livelihood thoroughly and with a clear plan for the long haul. A long-term orientation, self-control, discipline and strict regulations, impersonal institutions and the thoroughness of solutions make up the core of the German cultural standard. On almost every level studied by the consecrated models of intercultural communication, Germany is placed at the opposite end of the spectrum from Romania: stability, rigorous procedures, adherence to rules and plans, objectivity and a staunch results orientation are the German “modus operandi.”

The country has been ruled by a stable great coalition (Große Koalition or GroKo) between the center-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union) and the center-left SPD (Social Democratic Party) for the past four years with very few signs of tension. The only conflict has been a light skirmish on immigration and security issues (between the CDU and CSU), but even in that case, there was never any imminent danger of disintegration. The debates were usually mature, subdued, and extremely weak (or soft-spoken) by Romanian standards where “ad hominem” attacks are ubiquitous in politics. Germany is characterized by stable coalitions at the local, state and national level, based on the ability to separate people from the problem, discuss interests instead of positions, and, generally, address issues in a much more objective manner (Sachorientierung).

Although it is difficult to identify the exact causal relationship between a short-term orientation and instability (is a short-term orientation a response to chronic instability, or a generator of instability?), the issue of stability vs. instability (or Stabilität vs. instabilitate, in our case) is likely to be connected to issues of self-control and self-discipline. These are very important parts of the German cultural profile, but not so much a part of Latin or Balkan cultures, to which Romania belongs.

While Germany today is a spectacularly stable political and economic heavyweight, where any perceived uncertainties are taken very seriously and where political instability has become almost unthinkable, dealing with instability is almost second nature in Romania. Surprisingly, in a certain context, that can make for pretty good macro-stability too.

From tacit acceptance of fate to languid resignation in the face of endless delays and changes of plan, from adherence to tradition to the deliberate building of informal networks, and from effective improvisation and problem-solving spontaneity to resilient business growth, Romania remains an oasis of stability in South-Eastern Europe – despite its tumultuous neighborhood and its hotly debated political scene.

Andreea Sepi

Bibliography:

David, Daniel (2015). Psihologia poporului român. Bucureşti: Polirom

Hall, E.T & Reed Hall, M. (1990). Understanding Cultural Differences.

Yarmouth: Intercultural Press

Hofstede, G, Hofstede G.J., Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations. Software

of the Mind. Revised and expanded 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill

Lewis, R.D. (2004). When Cultures Collide. Managing Successfully Across Cultures. London: Nicholas Brealy Publishing

Lewis, R.D. (2008). Cross-Cultural Communication: A Visual Approach. Warnford: Transcreen Publications

Hofstede, G, Hofstede G.J., Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations. Software

of the Mind. Revised and expanded 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill

Rădulescu-Motru, C. (1910). Sufletul neamului nostru. Bucharest: A. Baer

Thomas, A., Kammhuber, S., Schroll-Machl, S.  (2003). Handbuch

Interkulturelle Kommunikation und Kooperation. 2 Bände. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

Thomas, A., Rubatos, A. (2011). Beruflich in Rumänien. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

Trompenaars, F., Hampden-Turner, C. (1998). Riding the Waves of Culture. New York: Nicholas Brealy Publishing

Further reading:

Boia, Lucian (2012). De ce este România altfel? Bucureşti: Humanitas

Djuvara, N. (2008). O scurtă istorie a românilor povestită celor tineri. Bucureşti: Humanitas

Ispirescu, P. (1975). Märchen. Berlin: Altberliner Verlag Mungiu-Pippidi, A. (2012). De ce nu iau românii Premiul Nobel. Bucureşti: Polirom