Using the Simpsons to Discuss Intercultural Differences – and other managerial topics…

For this first post, I decided to rely on a Simpsons episode that I’ve been using for some time to illustrate intercultural differences. Some research has already been published about the usefulness of using movies to discuss interculturality, and it is indeed a great way to illustrate the topic and to make students think beyond what they see.

The episode that I use is called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bangalore” (season 17, episode 17). I especially like this one, because it also enables to go beyond its core topic, as it illustrates other kinds of managerial situations than purely intercultural ones. It can also be used to generate near-philosophical discussions about economic and social development.

As a final remark before I start, it should be noted that this remains a Simpsons episode, which deliberately exaggerates situations, people, etc. This should be sometimes recalled to students when dealing with some of the topics below, in order to avoid any misunderstandings. All the same, it should be underlined that such an exercise is very good to try and go beyond a support / a media, in order to decipher its implicit (or not so implicit) meaning and ask oneself relevant questions that go beyond the initial nature of the media (that is to say, go beyond the funny nature of the Simpsons, in this case, to ask oneself questions and learn from that).

For information, time measurement indicated below corresponds to the time spent in the episode after the credits that follow the usual couch gag.

Intercultural differences references

The episode is filled with stereotypes more or less close to the reality about cultural differences, but also with representations of India (only the main illustrations are listed below). Any of the points that follow can generate discussion with students, .

  • India is a great mix between new and traditional buildings and ways of living: this is greatly represented in the first sight that Homer gets of the country when exiting the plane (5min 45), and at other moments in the episode (when Homer’s looking for Apu’s cousin – 7min -; when there are traffic jams with so many different ways of moving in the city, from cars to elephants in passing by rickshaws – 11 min).
  • Americans know nothing in geography: it is only when Homer lands in India (5min 50) that he discovers that he has flown to another country: “This is India? Where’s the University of Notre Dame? The Indy 500? Wrigley Field? Dodger Dogs?”. An Indian woman answers him (underlining his lack of knowledge): “You ignorant American. You have confused India with Indiana, Indiana with Illinois, and the Cubs with the Dodgers”. At the same time, this goes against a common representation that people who live in emerging countries are less educated than people who live in developed countries. The latter point is also stressed when we learn that a woman engineer in the plant has a MIT degree (10min 40).
  • Respecting other people’s culture means that you are more liable to get their approval: when a cow swallows Homer’s iPod, he does not care whether the cow is sacred or not – in fact, he has no idea. Disapproval around him is patent on the Indians’ faces, who change their attitude when Homer eventually shows respect to the cow (in his own, very personal manner! – 6min 45). Another example of disrespect towards traditions and culture because of not knowing them comes when Burns swims in a river that is (falsely) presented as the Ganges with corpses around him (a Hindu religious ritual – 13min 40). These examples put the emphasis on the need to learn the basics of a country’s culture before going there so as to avoid any misunderstandings or unpleasant situations (whether for the traveler or local people).
  • All the Indians look the same for a Westerner: when Homer is looking for Apu’s cousin (7m).
  • Americans do not care about the environment when outsourcing abroad: different views of the nuclear plant in the episode show that it has been built near a temple, near the jungle, and that water from the plant goes directly into the river (8min 45; 13min 30; 13min 55; 16 min 40).
  • American produce low-quality products: this example has nothing to do with India, but can be considered as a stereotype concerning the quality of American products – Moe and his gun in the bar (9min 15). This sequence is also an illustration of globalization in daily lives.
  • Words are important when talking to foreign audiences: it is necessary to know the words that may have a negative impact over people, and to know a minimum of their cultural roots. When Burns presents Homer to the audience, he qualifies him as “Untouchable” (9min 35) which is the name of the lowest caste in India, whose members are supposedly literally untouchable (they must not be touched).
  • India is the call-center of America: when Apu’s cousin shows that he works for many companies and answers multiple lines at the same time (11min 28). By the way, there is a paradox between the high level of professionalism that he shows by adopting different accents to match the accents of the people who call him (to make them think that they are still in America, in their own state maybe), and the lack of professionalism of his organization (implicitly meaning that Indian call-centers are poorly organized and rather unprofessional).

Socio-economic philosophical debates

At the end of the episode, starting around 18min, Burns discovers that Homer has granted Indian workers some new social rights that they did not have before that (flextime, coffee breaks, overtime pay, casual Friday, etc.). Yet, one of the main reasons why companies outsource their activities to other countries is because it is much cheaper to produce overseas rather than in their own country. If the cost increases, which will happen because of these new social rights, then it is likely that companies will move to another country or go back to their home country.

This has many implications for the country and for the workers. First, at a macro-level, it means that the country is less competitive, and that it will probably go through a decrease of its GDP. Second, at a micro-level this time, it means that local workers who had found a job in the companies that had outsourced their activities will lose their job (which in turn has negative macro-level implications for the whole country). Hence the question that can raise a first debate with students: should there be a trade-off between social rights and economic development? Why? How to manage it?

In addition to that, students should be recalled that it took a lot of time in our developed countries to get these social rights (from 1 to 2 centuries or so). Yet, these social rights can be known easily all around the world thanks to today’s communication modes, generating demands from workers who do not benefit from them. All the same, the poor working conditions in emerging countries can be rapidly known and then generate social movements in developed countries so that the latter put the pressure on the former’s governments, or on companies to give workers better conditions (see for instance what happened in 2013 in Bangladesh). Many questions arise from this situation: is it economically viable to provide workers so quickly (as opposed to the time it took in other countries from the moment they started to develop) more costly working conditions? How can this be done without endangering the economic development of the country? Etc.

Usually, students do not really see the episode through that angle (at least, students in the first year of their Bachelor), and it gives way to interesting discussions, that may be enriched by online search by the students as they are debating.

Other managerial situations illustrated in the episode

The beginning of the episode illustrates many different managerial situations.

  • Neglect of workers’ safety – disrespect towards safety rules: when Lenny is sat at the back of the room, there’s a nuclear waste barrel behind him (12 sec.)
  • Manipulation of workers’ minds and reactions: when I use the episode in class, my students usually tell me that the introductory movie showed by Burns is “propaganda”. Yet, as I explain to them, this is rather “institutional communication”, that is to say a way to communicate towards specific stakeholders (here, the employees) to make them develop or change their perception towards an event, a situation, the company, etc. Very strong words are used there to prove the point that Burns wants to prove, i.e. outsourcing: “these jobs are killing us, take them away” (with a frightened worker), “Now I have more time”, “leave other countries carry their share of the load”. All the same, the visuals reinforce the watchers’ impression that outsourcing is good for America. A last example of “institutional communication” as a way to disguise the truth comes with Burns’ answer about the jobs: “Your jobs are safe, they will just be done by someone else in another country” (1min 22).
  • Impact of laws and regulations on business management and decisions: “Federal law requires I keep one Union worker on the payroll” (1min 25)
  • Promotions do not always rely on someone’s competencies: when Burns launches the bouquet and that all the workers fight with each other, there’s a wonderful caricatural (and thus exaggerated) illustration that getting promoted in a company does not merely depend on their skills and competences, but also may be the result of unethical behaviors (use of chains, strangling, fire extinguisher to eliminate other workers’ competition).
  • Management is easy to learn: this is the message delivered when Marge gives Homer the book “The Cereal is the prize” before he takes off (5min 38), and when Homer uses it through the episode.
  • When convinced that a way of working / organizing is right in a situation, managers tend to duplicate it to any other situations (this also explains strategic imitation) – when Homer advises Bart to “outsource” his problem (“Outsourcing is the answer to everything”, 11min 10).
  • Managers are not always responsible for success: Burns congratulates Homer for the plant’s productivity (12min 20 “I don’t know how you’re doing it, but you’re outputting 10 times the power our American plant ever did”), while he obviously has nothing to do with that. That’s only the quality of the workers that’s at stake there. A good and honest manager would recognize this and value their workers – but well, this is Homer! 🙂
  • High level of power may corrupt: the whole sequence (around 13 min) speaks for itself.

I hope that you have enjoyed this post and that it will be helpful. Not all the following posts will be that long, as it is of course possible to rely only on excerpts from episodes. I’ve got some of them ready to be commented, but in the meantime, feel free to comment this post and to provide examples of series or episodes that can be used in class 🙂

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