Business knows no national boundaries. You can be working withdifferent cultures in Scotland and buying supplies from China, Norway or Australia.
Or own a consultancy in Paris while your clients are in Spain, Turkey and Russia.
The people you deal with share a common purpose: to do business in a way that serves everyone’s interest and adds value to the relationship.
Despite this, there are several important cultural differences in the way people interact. It’s essential, especially in this digitally connected world, to understand that some things you take for granted may cause offence to people from different cultures.
We’re the same, but with different cultures, in several important ways.
Dutch social psychologist Prof Geert Hofsteder is an expert on how cultural practices affect the way we conduct ourselves in the wider world.
For example, he points out that Western European and North American cultures tend to value the actions and freedom of individuals. On the other hand, East Asian people focus on the needs of the group, not the individual.
Clearly, a sensible approach to doing business with the individualist countries of the West would not be successful in an environment that’s based on the importance of collectivism. The opposite is equally true.
Just to complicate things further, in some nations, such as Japan, businesses are managed by rigid hierarchies. Responsibility for important decisions is almost always deferred to the most senior managers.
Consider too that even countries you would assume are culturally in tune very often are not.
Applications vs principles.
Here’s an interesting example. Writing about the art of persuasion in a multicultural world in her excellent book The Culture Map, Professor Erin Mayer describes a divergence in the approach followed by the British and the French.
The two countries are such close neighbours, you would immediately guess (despite their historical differences), that they share a common perspective on the use of persuasion for gaining support for their visions and ideas.
Professor Mayer identifies two distinct philosophies that separate the UK, America, Australia and Canada from France, Russia, Spain and Italy.
She calls them the principles-first and applications-first cultures.
Due mainly to different philosophical influences between Britain and France, and the way these have been applied to each country’s intellectual life, the UK is an applications-first culture.
This means that, in putting forward a proposal for consideration for example, the British are trained to begin with a fact, statement or opinion and later provide the evidence. They prefer to get to the point first and justify it later.
The French, meanwhile, have been trained to develop the concept they’re proposing before arriving at a conclusion. So they spend considerable time laying out all the theoretical arguments they’ve considered and only then will they make their position clear.
What are the practical difficulties when these two approaches clash?
To use a very simple example from The Culture Map, a senior French member of a global team whose other members were in the UK, complained that his British colleagues were ignoring his emails.
This puzzled him because he has a reputation as a clear thinker and a persuasive writer. Also, whenever he met his British colleagues they had a warm and cooperative connection.
Professor Mayer pointed out that, having read through the first paragraph of his mails and seeing no clear point, they shifted them into their “reply some time in the future” file.
He later learned from one of the British members of the team that if an email doesn’t fit on the screen of a smart phone, there’s a good chance it will be ignored.
From the French point of view, they will obviously not respond well to an argument unless it’s built on a painstakingly logical development of the principles, addressing all possible concerns along the way, until finally reaching its point.
What’s the easiest way to avoid cultural clashes?
There are no short cuts, you simply have to learn enough about the cultures of the countries or regions you wish to deal with to make sure your approach will be successful.
Business in different cultures
Before you do any business with people from different culture, read as much as you can on the subject.
Apart from Erin Mayer’s book, Professor Hofsteder has written several, the most practical of which is Culture & Organizations: Software of the Mind.
It’s also valuable if you can spend some time with someone who has recent experience. All good books do get revised from time to time, but we live in a world of constant change, so someone with first-hand knowledge is worth spending time with.