Understanding the Tamil Mindset
Posted on July 2nd, 2009

By Anil Perera

Many people have written about the need for national reconciliation and unity between Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka. They stress the need for a dialogue between the Sinhalese and Tamils and the importance of a political solution to solve the conflict. All previous attempts to come to a negotiated solution with Tamil separatists were failures. While there are several reasons why they ended up in failures, I believe we failed to take into account a key factor which allowed the LTTE to take naive governments of R.Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaranatunga and Ranil Wickramasinghe for a ride. They simply failed to understand the Tamil mindset and in their naivety thought that the Tamils think the way Sinhalese do. There are major cultural differences between Tamils and Sinhalese, which, although not a hindrance to unity between two communities, should be understood by all Sinhalese to prevent unscrupulous elements in the Tamil community from taking advantage of them.

Tamils and Sinhalese have a lot in common and almost all of us have good Tamil friends. But have you ever wondered about the differences? In general Tamils are more hospitable than Sinhalese. Some of us naively assume that this hospitality is an indication of the willingness of our Tamil friends to live with us as Sri Lankans. While there are some genuine people, most of the Tamil Diaspora in Western countries play a double game. Your Tamil friend may host you to a dinner, may go out of the way to help you if you need help and may appear to be craving for your friendship. But in reality he may have willingly sent money to the racist LTTE and may have silently applauded when the LTTE killed innocent Sinhalese men, women and children. You on the other hand would not even do anything to counter the LTTE propaganda, help our soldiers at the battle front or even speak out against the LTTE, for the fear of hurting the feelings of your “ƒ”¹…”good’ Tamil friend.

Most Sinhalese assume that the Tamils think the way we Sinhalese do. This false assumption has enabled the unscrupulous elements in the Tamil community such as the LTTE to take undue advantage of us. Therefore, it is vitally important to be aware of our cultural differences and keep them in mind when dealing with Tamils. I do not intend to condemn Tamils for what they are. Centuries of cultural conditioning have made Tamils what they are and Sinhalese what they are. It is not my intention to claim that culture is superior to that of Tamils. But we need to have a clear understanding of the differences.


Comparison of Sinhalese and Tamil Cultures using Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Dutch Professor Geert Hofstede found five dimensions of culture which are useful in the interaction between national cultures. These dimensions are widely used to help understand different cultures around the world. While Sinhalese and Tamil cultures are similar on certain Hofstede dimensions, there are marked differences on other dimensions. Let us see how Sinhalese and Tamils fit into Hofstede’s five dimensions.

Power Distance Index is the extent to which the less powerful members of a culture accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. In simpler terms this means that there is a large gap between those who have power (leaders) and those who do not have power. The society’s level of inequality is endorsed by both the followers and the leaders.

Both Sinhalese and Tamil cultures have high power distances and that may be the reason we worship our leaders despite their shortcomings and reluctant to challenge them.

Individualism (versus collectivism) is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. In individualist societies everyone is expected to look after himself and his immediate family. In collectivist societies people are integrated into strong, cohesive groups which continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

Both Sinhalese and Tamil cultures are collectivist without a question. But Tamil culture is collectivist to a higher degree. This explains why Diaspora Tamils always like to live in ethnic ghettos of their own even in Western countries.

Masculinity (versus femininity) refers to the value placed on traditionally male or female values (as understood in the Western countries). Masculine cultures value competitiveness, assertiveness, ambition and accumulation of wealth. People from feminine cultures are modest, caring and place more value on relationships.

This is a major difference between Sinhalese and Tamil cultures. Although there are individual exceptions, in general Sinhalese culture is feminine and Tamil culture, similar to the Indian culture, is masculine. We need to keep this in mind when we deal with Tamils. We should not let more assertive and ambitious Tamils walk all over us. This was clearly evident during the peace negotiations Ranil Wickramasinghe’s government had with the LTTE when the LTTE delegation dominated the “ƒ”¹…”feminine’ government delegation.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index deals with the extent to which members of a society attempt to minimize uncertainty. People of uncertainty avoiding cultures take less risks and are comfortable in structured situations. People from uncertainty accepting cultures take more risks.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index of Sinhalese is higher than that of Tamils. As descendants of people who took risks to cross the Palk Straits to escape poverty of India and as descendants of mercenaries, Tamils are naturally risk takers. That explains why the LTTE was successful in getting the better of the government forces for decades. The LTTE took far more risks than our forces and our forces stuck to conventional tactics with which they were more comfortable. The situation was reversed only after the government soldiers took more risks to carry out daring operations against the LTTE.

Long-Term Orientation (versus short-term orientation) is the importance attached by a culture to the future versus the past and the present. Values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance and values associated with Short Term Orientation are personal stability, protecting one’s “ƒ”¹…”face’ and fulfilling social obligations.

Sinhalese culture is more short term oriented and Tamil culture is comparatively longer term oriented. While Tamils are thriftier and more persevering, Sinhalese attach a lot of importance to “ƒ”¹…”saving face’.

It is not fair to stereotype all Sinhalese and Tamils as fitting into Hofstede’s dimensions the way I have described above. But this is true for a majority of both Sinhalese and Tamils, although there are exceptions. A handful of Sinhalese who are more masculine, who accept uncertainty and who are longer-term oriented compared to the general Sinhalese population provide us the leadership in political, military and business establishments.

What I would like to stress is the fact that we need to be aware of the mindset of the Tamils when we deal with them. It is important not only for the purpose of safeguarding our interests, but also to build a meaningful relationship between the two communities based on trust and equality.

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