This section deals with the most frequently-asked questions from readers of the book and from participants in Global Management keynote addresses, lectures, seminars and workshops over the last 24 years. The answers vary in length: four to five paragraphs for Question Number 1, a couple of paragraphs some of the others.
Aren’t cultural differences disappearing? Aren’t business cultures all over the world coming together?
This is a very popular question. People ask it because of the ease of electronic communication and the vastly expanded use of the internet these days. My answer is, “Yes and no.”
Yes, globalization and technology – the internet, email, phone, Skype and web conferencing – along with migration, student-exchanges and the thousands of books and courses on intercultural interaction have indeed expanded the number of business people in today’s world who are able to understand and deal with cultural differences.
But unfortunately culturally competent people still represent a tiny fraction of the global population. While more people gain cultural awareness every year, at the same time thousands of brand-new businesses enter the global marketplace without a clue about how to effectively sell, buy and communicate effectively across cultures.
A recent Global Management workshop I did for 25 SME managers in a Western deal-focused culture illustrates this issue. “Tom,” a bright tech-savvy manager, after surfing the web for hours had found exactly the right Chinese business partner for his young company. So Tom sent the Guangzhou firm a two-page email with all necessary information details and waited impatiently for the reply. When a week passed with no answer Tom resent the message. And then he sent it again…and again…and again.
Weeks later the prospective Chinese partner finally replied to the ninth mail, and the two companies are now in the process of negotiating a deal. Tom asked me, “Why did it take so long for the Chinese side to start a discussion? It must have been obvious from my email that cooperation with us would benefit them.”
My answer to his question related to differing expectations and assumptions. Deal-focused Tom was unaware that relationship-focused Chinese usually expect a new contact to be introduced by someone they trust. Had Tom understood that, he could have approached his country’s consulate to arrange a proper introduction, thus saving considerable time. And in business, time is money.
In this case neither side was able to bridge the gap of differing expectations. It may be a surprise to those who ask these questions that both companies were managed by young people who still had a lot to learn about differences in business behavior. So no, cultural differences are not (yet) disappearing.
What is the biggest cultural mistake you’ve made in your international career?
“To err is human.” As a member in good standing of homo sapiens I’ve certainly made my share. One I remember well happened during our first assignment in New Delhi. In early January the nighttime temperature dropped to about 5 degrees centigrade, provoking a swarm of cute little rodents to join us indoors and scamper gaily around our bedroom. My wife, who for some reason didn’t like our new pets, called it Invasion of The Rats.
Hopi didn’t like any of them: George with his missing left ear, Suzie with her crooked tail, Alphonse with his extra-long whiskers…even lovely little Lulabelle. After complaining loudly for three days Hopi finally issued an ultimatum: “Richard, enough. Either those rats go or I go.”
So the next morning I instructed our inside sweeper Sita Ram to get rid of the furry critters. But to my surprise – and Hopi’s disgust – that evening the whole rat pack was back again. Asked why he hadn’t done as he was told, Sita Ram explained that he had caught each animal in his hands and tossed them gently out the back door.
That’s when I realized my mistake: I had forgotten that as a good Hindu Sita Ram considered it morally wrong to take the life of any living creature. But Hopi was not a Hindu, so I sent our driver Suraj Pal to the local market. He bought six small boxes designed to trap a rat alive. We baited each trap with bits of chappati (Indian flat bread); I stayed up until the traps snapped shut, one by one. We then carried all six traps out to the front gate where our tough Gurkha night watchman stood guard.
I expected Gopal Singh to use his long, curved kukri knife to eliminate our pet rats. Second mistake! Pulling the rodents out of their boxes one by one, the watchman neatly wrenched off their heads with his bare heads. Later I asked Suraj Pal, a retired sergeant major in the elite Rajput Rifles, why Gopal Singh had used his bare hands instead of his long knife. “Oh Sahib,” replied our driver, “Gurkha soldier use kukri only to kill men, not rats.”
So I had in fact made two mistakes. But at least we never saw rats near our house again!
Have you ever experienced culture shock?
What we call ‘culture shock’ happens when deeply felt values are challenged. Some memorable situations did cause us culture shock:
In Germany: Our firstborn, Richard, was born in 1964 during our first overseas assignment in Frankfurt am Main. Hopi was surprised and offended when, as often happened, older German women would stop her on the street, shout at her and loudly criticize the way she was carrying the baby or the way she had him dressed. In our relatively egalitarian home culture such intrusive behavior by strangers would be considered incredibly rude, totally unacceptable.
We soon realized that this behavior was regarded as perfectly normal in Germany. Back then Hopi was 23 years old but looked much younger, more like a teenager. Germans apparently considered it normal for older people to publicly criticize the actions of young people. In a relatively hierarchical, formal culture older people enjoy higher status and may feel free to tell their juniors what to do and what not to do. As for me, I happened to look older than my age, which could be why I didn’t personally experience that kind of rudeness.
Twenty years later when we had our second assignment in Germany, in Bad Homburg, we did not experience that behavior. Of course by then we were in our forties. But German culture had also changed a good deal in the generation between the 1960s and the 1980s, becoming less hierarchical. Young people no longer meekly accepted public correction from elders.
India: Despite having read over a hundred books about India before our first assignment in New Delhi, we were both deeply shocked that our many Indian friends simply ignored the heart-breaking poverty and miserable condition of the great majority of their fellow citizens.
Though we lived in India twice, Hopi nor I were never able to pretend such conditions didn’t exist. So we suffered a double shock: First the horror of the dirt, disease and undernourishment, second the ability of well-off Indians – including our good friends – to ignore the plight of their less-unfortunate co-nationals.
You’ve written that we all make mistakes. Have you learned from your own cultural missteps in global business?
Yes indeed. For example, ignorance of time orientation caused me enormous frustration doing business in India until I learned about polychronic time from Edward T. Hall’s early writings. On my next overseas assignment in Brazil and the Former Yugoslavia I found that my direct approach to potential business partners was totally wrong. Fortunately another of Hall’s seminal ideas – high-low context – showed me how to correct that mistake, and over the next two decades I developed that theory of Hall’s into what eventually became my deal-focus vs relationship-focus concept.
Some of the business-behavior variables you present in your Patterns are changing, right? If so, which are changing the fastest and slowest?
In five decades of negotiating and managing in other cultures I’ve observed a number of gradual changes and just one rapid change. The latter was in Denmark in 1968. That spring in Copenhagen students still addressed their teachers and professors by the family name. But by the time the autumn semester began students were already using first names and “Du.” Within less than ten years that trend towards informality and egalitarianism had spread throughout the country. This trend away from formality and hierarchies is evident to a lesser extent in other cultures of Europe as well.
The drive to compete globally has produced a very slow trend towards punctuality and a monochromic time orientation among business people active in the world market. Similarly, many relationship-focused exporters have learned how to adapt their business approach to the expectations of deal-focused customers.
On the other hand, the high-low context difference seems to be deep-set – no major change in communication directness or indirectness. Nor have I observed changes in body language, whether emotionally expressive or reserved, with just one exception: Whereas in the early 1990s it was rare to see cheek-kissing in northern Europe, by the early 2000s it was commonplace, even in reserved Scandinavia. Was this perhaps the result of holidays in Spain and other expressive cultures?
Isn’t the deal-focused approach to business more efficient than the relationship-focused approach?
While it may seem so to DF business people, people from RF cultures believe they save time in the end by taking time upfront to really get to know prospective customers and partners. And in RF cultures business partners do tend to stay together longer.
What do you do when you make a mistake in another culture?
Here unfortunately the “what to do?” is highly culture-specific. For each new market we need to prepare carefully before making business contact so as to avoid embarrassing gaffes and faux pas. What may work for us in Germany could be disastrous in China. The solution: do your homework!
Which was your most difficult training assignment?
My most challenging experiences were a pair of two-day executive-coaching assignments in Germany. Both times I had prepared thick binders of customized training materials, but then never opened the binder.
Instead I spent ten hours per day – including breakfasts, lunches, drinks and dinners – answering specific, detailed questions from the board-level “trainee.” That can be a bit exhausting, but both of those high-level execs were well aware of the cross-cultural management challenges they faced and wanted to be ready.
Why are the business cultures of North and South America so different?
This is not complicated if you look at the business cultures of Europe today: deal-focused, low-context and monochronic in the north but relationship-focused, high-context and polychronic in the south.
And of course the dominant settlers in Canada and the U.S. came from northern Europe while it was Iberians who primarily settled what we call Latin America.