LONDON — “I believe in understanding people as they see themselves, in a positive light. I try very hard to see in the same way as they. Then everything begins to make sense through an opposite point of view,” said Charles Hampden-Turner.
He is a senior research associate at the Judge Institute of Management Studies at Cambridge University, and a fellow of the Cybernetics Society. He speaks rapidly and writes persuasively of “stepping through the mirror,” a figurative act that he suggests provides the key to across-the-world understanding. He said: “The fact is that cultures are often mirror images of one another. When we travel to a foreign culture, especially from west to east or east to west, it is like stepping through a looking glass.”
His conclusions, which are scholarly with practical applications, result from years of study and experience. From a career in academia, he said, “It occurred to me that I had been working on dilemmas all my life. Dichotomy, duality — mental health means mediating dilemmas. Both points of view of east and west are legitimate, and are mirror images of each other.”
Cambridge was originally Hampden-Turner’s hometown. Living there again now, he has, he says, come full circle. After graduation from Cambridge, he spent two years in the British Army in Germany, then began working in advertising. That was a false start for him. He put it right by enrolling in the Harvard Graduate School of Business.
From 1961 he lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. He improved his qualifications with a doctorate from Harvard and gained a name with the books he published, which sold well. He concerned himself with politics, poverty and the lives of minority peoples. In San Francisco he worked for a foundation involved with a halfway house for ex-convicts. In 1981, after he had spent a dozen years as a professor, he produced his book “Maps of the Mind.” It became a Book-of-the-Month Club alternative selection, and a premium book for the Book-of-the-Month Club for Science. In the following year, “Maps of the Mind” was the main monthly selection for the Quality Paperback Book Club. Worldwide sales achieved 130,000, and the book remained in print till last year. In 1999 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts.
Hampden-Turner met Fons Trompenaars, a like-minded writer and cross-cultural specialist. He became director of research and development for the Trompenaars Hampden-Turner Group in Amsterdam. This company specializes in cross-cultural consulting and training, and includes top-name companies among its clients. For the group and on his own account, Hampden-Turner travels widely, writes extensively and is featured in television documentaries. In February he went to Tokyo to lecture the College Women’s Association of Japan on “Culture Through the Looking Glass: How Wealth is Created Through Value Conflicts.”
Critics say his books are important and powerful, “written with wit and brio.” His recent publication, “Building Cross-Cultural Competence,” is described as “a remarkable combination of intellectual theory and practical advice,” showing “a human perspective and insight which must be relevant to any company or chief executive.” He chose the topic of building intercultural competence for a conference talk he gave in South Korea in July.
Hampden-Turner has studied Japan in detail, as it seems to him “the most dramatically opposite country to the U.S.” As one example of dramatic opposites, he compares the American movie “Casablanca” with the Japanese “Ikiru.”
He points out that the two are mirror images of each other, with the American film reaching integration of the individual with the community, and the Japanese reconciling communitarianism with individualism. “The pathways are as different as they could be, but the destination is the same. Like foresters struggling through a dark wood from opposite approaches, we finish up in the same clearing. We do not agree on whether the individual or the community comes first, but we do agree that the integrity of the two values should guide the ways we live.”
He added: “I am not very interested in classifying cultures as this or that. I am interested in how we can bridge these differences and reconcile contrasting values. My view is that all cultures of the world share the truth between them.”