How bad is stealing a piece of bread really?

It happened again in Germany: a nurse got fired because she stole several pieces of bread from the hospital where she worked. It was all over the news about two weeks ago. Well, to be frank that wasn’t what got the attention of the news. What did get a lot of attention was the fact that the court decided that the dismissal was unlawful. Court judges argued that the punishment (the dismissal) was disproportionate compared to the wrongdoing (the stealing).

You might ask yourself now: why does this interest me, and why is it published in a intercultural communication blog? Very valid question! We get to that now. Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner came up with a cultural dimension called universalism vs. particularism. Lets define both terms first. In universalist cultures rules and laws apply in all situations, regardless of the context and the circumstances. This is based on the assumption that treating everybody equally is just and fair. Particularist cultures, on the other hand, see this differently. According to them, every action occurs in a context, and we have to take this context into account when we determine whether it was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

You can see that the decision made by the German court was made – in part –  based on particularist beliefs. The judges took into account two things. Firstly, she shared the bread with her colleagues. And secondly, she immediately admitted that she took the bread from the fridge and ate one of them herself. This, they argued, made it possible that trust between the employer and the nurse could be re-established. Had a purely universalist belief been applied, then there would’ve been no possibility of arguing in favour of the nurse. She did something wrong, and consequently needed to be punished. Those two before-mentioned facts in favor of her actions would have no meaning. However, none of this is my main point here. What really fascinated me was the comments of the German readers below the article (article and comments are in German).

“A German court took full advantage of the legal scope? What new conventions! Nice if more of this were to come (in the future)!”

“…so now you are allowed to steal from businesses or business owners? Privately that would never happen”

“The next one spontaneously takes a few vials out of the poison cabinet. Somebody else helps himself with the office supplies, because it just got empty at home (…). What the judges do not understand is that even at a theft in the value of 2 Euro, the trust is permanently gone. Who wants to keep someone who you can’t trust?”

“You should immediately close the clinic! Who behaves this way to his employees, is unqualified to care for ill people  due to clearly missing social competence!”

“In cases like this, it doesn’t matter so much what was stolen, but more that something was stolen at all. Theft can destroy trust between the company and its employee, which then justifies a notice of termination (…) Even the judges see that from a social viewpoint, such a dismissal is too severe as a consequence, but purely from a legal perspective it is completely acceptable”.

The point I am trying to make here is that there is a substantial difference among the German citizens in terms of whether to apply univeralist values in this case, or particularist one’s. Some argue that stealing is stealing, and one should always be punished for it (universalism). Others argue that is was right that the German court was correct in that they took into account the context in which it happened. So even within Germany, there are substantial differences within its citizens in terms of their values. Nonetheless, there are tendencies of cultures towards a specific value. Some cultures are naturally more particularist, others are more universalist.

It would be incredibly interesting to compare how such a case would be treated in a particularist culture like China and a very univeralist culture like the USA. Unfortunately, it is not likely that this is ever going to be possible. In addition to being a particularist culture, China is also a very collective culture. The fact that she took the the bread with her colleagues probably would’ve been seen as absolutely normal in the first place.

Can you see why it is difficult to predict behaviour based on a cultural ‘score’? Even when you forget about all other factors besides culture (personality, environment etc.), then cultures also vary on several different dimensions. And even along these dimensions, behaviour can be interpreted in very different ways. You could interpret her action as beneficial for the community. After all, she shared the bread with her colleagues, which would make it a very positive behaviour in a collective society. You could also interpret her behaviour as a selfish, individualist action, where she took away the bread from the community.

Cultures are very complex. Scores like the unversalism and particularism dimension are helpful in looking at tendencies for behaviour. But unfortunately, they are not good enough for us to rely on to make predictions. Be careful.


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