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Understanding and learning cross cultural differences in the pan-European workplace
by Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in the Eurograduate)
A company in the Netherlands is looking for a French partner. A Dutch businessman travels to Toulouse to discuss possibilities with a promising French prospect. He has an appointment for 10:30 a.m., and arrives promptly but is kept waiting for 20 minutes. Once inside, he must answer many personal questions about his trip, his family, his perceptions of the French countryside, and so on. The Frenchman, who has left the door open, is constantly interrupted by subordinates and colleagues needing advice or requiring him to sign something. He even accepts a call from his mother, and talks for several minutes. No business matters are raised, and after 45 minutes the Frenchman invites his guest to lunch. The Dutchman is irritated and confused: "Dont these people ever do any work? Now Ill be late for my next appointment."
When it is the Frenchmans turn to visit his Dutch counterpart, he is careful not to be late, since he has heard the Dutch like to start on time. Still, he is unavoidably delayed by ten minutes. When he is ushered into the Dutchmans office, he is told "a pity, now we only have 20 minutes". The Frenchman is taken aback, but thinks "he cant be serious!". After a most perfunctory inquiry into his trip, the Dutchman immediately raises the business issues to be discussed. There are no interruptions, as the Dutchman has instructed the switchboard to hold all calls, and there is a do not disturb sign on his (closed) door. The Frenchman gets the distinct impression that he is dealing with an unimportant representative of an unsuccessful firm. After 20 minutes of discussion the Dutchman stands up, sees his guest to the door and thanks him for the visit. The Frenchman is irritated and confused: "He didnt even offer to take me to lunch! And its not like he has anything better to do."
In this case, both parties behaved correctly according to their own cultural programming for the relationship-oriented, polychronic (1) Frenchman, it is perfectly acceptable, indeed desirable, to do many things at once. In addition, since relationships are central in every situation, it is important to get to know your business associates on a personal basis before you start discussing formal matters. For the Dutchman, who is both task-oriented and monochronic, time is money and appointments are strictly scheduled and enforced.
Directness is highly valued in Dutch business, and it is not appropriate to show too much personal interest in ones business acquaintances.
Language and Management
Within Europe, the differences start with language. The 15 countries of the European Union share 11 official languages. In addition to these there are over 50 minority languages, such as Catalan and Flemish. Fifty million people in the EU speak one of these minority languages as their first language. And with each of those languages goes a distinct cultural package. Management styles differ greatly across Europe. According to European business guru Richard Hill there are at least three major schools of thought: those like the French who think that a good manager is there to take the decisions, those like the Swedes who think that a good manager consults his or her team on everything, and those like the Germans who think a good manager should master his subject better than the people below him.
Working across borders, within Europe or elsewhere, the opportunities and challenges presented by communicating across cultures are a source of both anticipation and dread. Defining both culture and communication is useful because, according to Condon and Yousef (1975), "we cannot separate culture from communication, for as soon as we start to talk about one we are almost inevitably talking about the other, too"
Dutch professor Geert Hofstede (3) defines culture as being "the collective programming of the human mind". In other words, we are programmed, or conditioned (for the most part unconsciously), by the collectives or groups within our own societies. Simply put, culture is to a group what personality is to an individual. Realising how you see your own culture, and that of others, is crucial: intercultural understanding has to begin with awareness. An oft-quoted comment on international work and travel is that the first person you meet when you go abroad is yourself.
Communication is, in a sense, inevitable. We are always sending messages, consciously and unconsciously, through our appearance, our ethnic background, the company we work for or our chosen profession, for example. Even when we remain silent, we communicate something about ourselves, because communication is a continuous and interactive process. For communication to take place, two or more people have to be involved, and, as many international managers have learned the hard way, communication does not necessarily mean understanding. Effective intercultural communication is not about sending the right message, but stimulating the right response. Without receiving that feedback as confirmation that your message was clearly understood, you are just sending your ideas into the air you may be the last to know if they ever reach their target.
Sociological and behavioural studies have determined that, across cultures, the total impact of a message on the receiver is based less than 10% on the actual wording of the message. Forty percent of the impact comes from how the message was conveyed (tone, accent, emphasis) and the remaining 50% from non-verbal communication (facial expressions, gestures, clothing). Over-emphasizing content (low-context), rather than context (high-context), and vice-versa, has been the cause of many cross-cultural misunderstandings: "High-context people are apt to become impatient and irritated when low-context people insist on giving them information they dont need, and conversely, low-context people are at a loss when high-context people do not provide enough information. One of the great communications challenges in life is to find the appropriate level of contexting needed in each situation. Too much information leads people to feel they are being talked down to; too little information can mystify them or make them feel left out."(4)In low-context culture, non-verbal communication is still very important. In high-context cultures it counts far more than the actual content of the message.
According to consultant and author John Mole (5) in the U.S. Expatriate Handbook (6) the function of the meeting can be radically different from culture to culture. Broadly speaking, in Germany a meeting is a vehicle for experts to exchange information. Participants are well prepared and do not expect to be questioned or challenged. For the British and Dutch, it is a forum for interested parties to debate ideas and come up with a recommendation and an action plan. Everyone is expected to make a contribution. In France, a meeting is for the boss to announce decisions which have been made elsewhere or to solicit specific information. It is not a forum for debate. For those in the Mediterranean region, meetings are for making official the decision that has been made in the restaurant or the coffee bar and for sorting out the politics and the personal relationships that the decision affects. Such differences affect every aspect of business life, not just meetings: planning, control, teamwork, communication, recruiting, decision making.
What is the most important requirement in managing effectively across cultures? To remember that we are always (unconsciously) referring back to our own cultural programming, viewing new situations through our own cultural filters. As Anaïs Nin put so well "We dont see things as they are. We see things as we are".
(1) Hall, Edward T., Beyond Culture, 1977. According to sociologist Edward Hall, the world is divided into monochronic and polychronic cultures. Monochronic people see time as a measurable, quantifiable entity, something with real weight and value. The strongest characteristic of monochronic people is that they do one thing at a time, and hate to be interrupted. Monochronic people are not so interested in relationships, but rather in goals, tasks and results. Polychronic people, on the other hand, see time as a general guideline, something without substance or structure. Polychronic cultures love to do many things at once, and live for interruptions. Relationships and people are central to every polychronic activity.