In this monthly column, Vincent Merk, senior lecturer intercultural management and community advisor at TU/e, writes about a topic that is relevant to the international community. This month: the peach vs the coconut.
As I’ve just returned from a trip to Taiwan, I was able during my stay there, and above-all during both flights, to test and apply the intercultural theory known as the peach vs the coconut. It illustrates with a metaphor how we relate to one another across cultures, without of course ignoring personality aspects such as being by nature introvert or extravert.
A peach as a fruit has a thin skin that offers little protection from possible invaders: a worm or that person sitting next to you on an intercontinental flight. Unlike the coconut, that has a hard shell you need to break through first before you can get to the milk inside or open up for a conversation with your random neighbour.
So metaphorically, the peach features a large accessible public space (the flesh) and a small, very closed private space (the hard core), whereas the coconut provides a small, public space (flesh attached to the shell) and a large, private space (inside with the milk), but with an easy access from public to private. In other words, one can easily move from public to private because both are interrelated. Consequently, when we relate to one another, a person behaving like a peach is open, direct, informal and impersonal, while a coconut tends to be more indirect, formal and personal in the relationships. Peaches, for example, leave their curtains open in the living room at night (see on Dutch streets), their gardens visible to all and socialise a bit during working hours, but ignore you after 5pm. This behaviour is typical of people from Anglo-Saxon, North-Atlantic cultures, hence including the Netherlands. Coconuts, in contrast, close all the curtains at home, make a fort out of their gardens with high fences and socialise a lot during and after work. You can find this type of behaviour in large areas of the world, for example in Asia, hence including Taiwan. Frustrations and misunderstanding can appear when someone’s public space doesn’t match with that of the person next to you.
Back to my travel to and from Taiwan. Expectedly, my peachy behaviour didn’t necessarily match that of the Taiwanese coconuts I had as neighbours on the flights or I interacted with during my stay. It simply takes more time to break through that shell, but then, once inside, a new world opens up: holistic, more sincere and personal relationship. I did experience this, especially during both flights when I had little conversation with my (Taiwanese) neighbours. My guess is I would have had much more (superficial?) conversation if I had flown to the US with John Smith from Austin, TX next to me.
How does this relate to your (new) daily life in Eindhoven in general and in the Hub in particular? I’m sure you feel this in moments of starting a relationship, sometime you act like a peach, and sometime like a coconut, depending with whom you’re interacting at that moment. This is just life, vive la différence!