Bruce Lee, Getty Images and the Dangers of Cultural Oversimplification in an Overconnected World

Chinese-American martial arts exponent Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973), in a karate stance, early 1970s. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The Internet is a necessary tool to handle international exchanges. Online Professional Content Delivery Services should pay the utmost attention to the information they release

What’s wrong with this Bruce Lee’s photography from Getty Images?

Nothing, in the photo itself, a lot with the Getty’s caption that verbatim reads:

Chinese-American martial arts exponent Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973), in a karate stance, early 1970s. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Well, Bruce Lee is not in a Karate stance, first because he developed his own approach early called Jun Fan Gung Fu and later 截拳道 (Jeet Kun Do) that is of Chinese, and not Japanese descent. Secondly, Karate (in its different 流派 – “method” or “school”) has no such a stance that, with a lot of stretch might looks slightly similar to those adopted by ? 少林寺拳法 (shōrinji-kempō.)

To put it short, Getty Images’s editor (or whoever wrote the caption) did a serious mistake (at least, in the eyes of martial arts experts.)

But that’s just a picture, and of a man belonging to a market-niche (martial arts enthusiasts), isn’t it? How this mistake can possibly affects our lives? Why should we care about that?

Short answer: because is an example of cultural oversimplification, and cultural oversimplification never helps in an overconnected world.

Long answer: understanding another country’ way of life is the first element to build a (personal/business) relationship, that actually helps to stay away from stereotypes and avoid a wide range of issues, from goofs to serious embarrassment.

A “war story” – one among the many that every professional working with other countries has in his personal diary – explains the concept.

A few years ago I assisted a delegation from an important Chinese university that came to Italy to explore academic partnerships.

During an official lunch with the major of the municipality we were, the major exclaimed: do you Chinese eat monkey’s brain in their skulls, don’t you? Everybody but the major felt the embarrassment, while the Chinese hosts politely let fall the uneducated statement.

Of course, the major had no intent to offend his guests; he just tried to play nice, but did it in the wrong way. Would he have done his homeworks, by learning a thing or two about the place his guests came from, things would have taken an entirely different turn.

The World’s Overconnection made possible by the Internet expanded the cross-cultural communication from the relatively small international business and academic communities, to a huge number of people that had not (and still haven’t) a proper attitude in handling such scenarios. And while is not reasonable – while it would be actually useful – get a degree in cultural anthropology to enter the international market, being sure of what one is going to say or write to a person belonging to another culture is the first step to avoid communication troubles.

So, to close the circle, let’s try to figure out a possible conversation with a Chinese businessman, maybe at lunch: “Hey, I have seen this Bruce Lee guy in a Karate stance. He definitely looks tough: you Chinese are serious on this stuff, aren’t you?”

With just a couple of sentences, the Chinese businessman has been told:

  • I don’t even know the difference between China, Japan and the other places of the Far East,
  • Chinese are a violent people,
  • I know better.

This is hardly different from the news released today about the Norwegian Public Broadcasting service labeling Sicilian’s Cannoli as the Mafia’s pastry: a poorly historical informed statement (cannoli are fairly older than Mafia), a meaningless association between food and crime and maybe a humor’s attempt gone south. In one – well, two, actually – words: careless ignorance.

The antidote to this raising flow of ignorance is being conscious of Socrate’s I know that I know nothing or Hamlet’s immortal warning:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The Internet surely may helps, and this is why professional content delivery services should pay the utmost attention to the information they release: an error in the caption of a picture might lead to personal and business loss, as well as political embarrassment.



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