Talking about intercultural differences

TED conferences are places for visionary people to meet and “share ideas that matter”. In November 2009, TED India took place in Mysore in the South of India. Devdutt Pattanaik and Derek Sivers presented their views on intercultural differences. Devdutt Pattanaik, Indian mythologist, author, and Chief Belief Officer with a corporation in Mumbai, talked about fundamental concepts, deeply rooted in culture and tradition. Derek Sivers, American musician, entrepreneur, minimalist and globetrotter, showed how misleading cultural biases can be. Easterner and Westerner both arrived at the same conclusion…

Devdutt Pattanaik: East vs. West — The myths that mystify

Devdutt Pattanaik explains basic differences between East and West by telling wonderful stories about mythical figures from both worlds. He tells the story of the two Indian gods Ganesha and Kartikeya and their race three times around the world. Kartikeya surrounded the whole world whereas Ganesha surrounded just his parents, claiming victory: “You went around the world, I went around my world. What matters more?” The world is logical and fact-based, my world is emotional and based on belief.

Another story tells what happened when Alexander the Great met a Gymnosophist (a naked wise man) at the banks of the river Indus in 326 B.C. They asked each other what they were doing. The Gymnosophist said, “I’m experiencing nothingness.” Alexander said, “I’m conquering the world.” And both laughed thinking the other was a fool. Having grown up in the Greek culture, with stories about heroes such as Achilles, Theseus, and Jason, Alexander had only one lifetime to achieve all glory. In the eastern cultures nothing lasts forever, not even death. To them life is an endless chain of reincarnations until “you get the point of it all”. Two different ways — which is the right one?

Devdutt Pattanaik is a great storyteller. Presenting in front of an international audience, he uses examples from both worlds to make everybody comfortable and perceptive. He raises his audience’s expectations — and delivers. Highly complex topics such as philosophical matters, religion, and business strategies are embedded in colorful stories that make us understand and remember.

Being deeply familiar with his own, complex Indian culture as well as Western philosophical, religious and cultural concepts, Devdutt proves that even fundamental ideas such as fate, destiny and death are only constructions and not universally shared between cultures. He offers new ways of enriching our understanding of reality and approaching the challenges of our time: “Depending on the context, depending on the outcome, choose your paradigm. Paradigms are human constructions, they are cultural creations, not natural phenomena.”

Derek Sivers: Weird, or just different?

From the point of view of the curious globetrotter, Derek Sivers talks about open mindedness and tolerance using some unexpected examples of how easily we jump to conclusions and how always the exact opposite can also be true. In only 2:20 minutes he takes us on a surprising journey around the globe — from a street in the U.S. to Japan, China, Africa, and India. Although very short, his presentation feels deep and meaningful, and helps us understand ourselves — and others...

Derek tells actually four stories: about a Japanese man asking for his way on a street somewhere in the U.S., an American (or any Westerner) asking for his way somewhere in Japan, about Chinese doctors being paid slightly differently, and the special rhythm of West-African music. All stories are real-life examples of things that we take for granted: addresses and street plans, doctor bills, music and rhythm. The genuine surprise and wonder they evoke prove how deeply entangled we all are in our own cultural conditioning and how that limits our view of the world.

Derek makes his point in a stunning way — with interesting stories presented in a light and conversational tone, accompanied by elegant and unobtrusive presentation slides that really serve as visual aids and support his talk. If true art means disguising the effort, making things look light and breezy, then Derek Sivers is a great artist. His presentation is so easy to follow, his examples so well chosen, that his message seems to fall into place almost by itself: “Let’s never forget ... that whatever brilliant ideas you have or hear, that the opposite may also be true.”

Stories, slides, and stage performance

It is interesting to watch the two presentations one after the other. They couldn’t be more different: Devdutt Pattanaik talking about Indian myths and how they relate to the Western culture and the business world, an educational experience; Derek Sivers painting an elegant picture with a few tender strokes (or so it seems), a motivational talk of 140 seconds.

And yet, they have so much in common. Both arrive at the same conclusion, that the world can be seen from very different angles and that it is up to us to understand the differences and to incorporate them into our own lives. Both tell wonderful stories and make the intercultural experience tangible. Both employ a minimalistic visual style to illustrate their talks.

Devdutt Pattanaik uses the traditional form of a mandala throughout his talk as a visual metaphor for antithetic and highly abstract concepts such as world view, destiny, and reincarnation. The mandala becomes a visual anchor, a “red threat” leading from point to point. Derek Sivers uses the map as leitmotiv, starting with a street map of a typical American city, ending up at a world map in South-North direction, charging his presentation with a virtual pan-and-zoom move.

Devdutt Pattanaik and Derek Sivers represent a new generation of presenters — beyond bullet points, data junk and clipart. They truly communicate with their listeners through interesting stories, meaningful visuals and passion for their topic.

(This article is an edited version of “The opposite may also be true...” Intercultural differences — as presented by Devdutt Pattanaik and Derek Sivers at TED India, Sietar Journal, December 2010, pp 6–9, PDF download here)

Visit Devdutt Pattanaik ( and Derek Sivers ( online.

Axel Wendelberger