Being able to conduct business around the globe has become easier in the last few decades. It’s now almost essential for your company to create relationships in other countries. Making contact is the easy part.
But how do we act when working with people from another culture?
Erin Meyer, professor at INSEAD Business School has brought us a how-to do in her book “The Culture Map”, which has become increasingly popular in the last few months. Here’s a quick rundown on a few topics in her book:
Reading Between The Lines
One skill you might need is the ability to read between the lines, important in countries such as Japan or China.
This is founded upon the concept of low context vs high context. So, countries with Germanic languages are considered low-context and are more direct, while countries with Asiatic languages are highly contextual because their words carry multiple meanings.
When doing business with low-context countries, you should take everything at face value. But if not, don’t focus on what they’re saying, but focus on how they are saying it.
So when your Chinese colleague comments ‘yes, that’s perfect’ on your idea, it’s probably a ‘no way in hell would that ever work’.
Now for the hard part. Remember when I mentioned that all countries that use low-context languages directly convey what they want? This doesn’t apply when they’re giving negative feedback.
Both America and the Netherlands can be considered part of the low-context scale, but when giving feedback– they highly differ. You might directly tell a Dutch person what they did wrong, and while they might not like it, they will deal with it and try to solve it.
An American however, will wrap negative feedback as a positive feedback gift.
Talk to the Face
In most Western countries it’s possible to have an openly heated discussion, with the exception of America where someone might walk out on the conversation and slam the door.
According to Meyer, you should ask the question, “if someone disagrees with my idea, is it me they’re disagreeing with or my idea?”
In confrontational societies the personal and the idea are separated, in contrast to avoid-confrontation countries where these are interlinked. And in this case, it’s not only based on West vs East.
The authority scale between countries run from egalitarian to hierarchical. While it might be normal to have a heated discussion with your boss in an egalitarian country, in Japan (a hierarchical society) the language changes depending on one’s seniority.
The way to deal with this is by simply doing research on business etiquette. While it might not be a big deal if you don’t greet your Dutch boss properly, it’s critical to know who’s boss when visiting Japan, and the angle of how much you should bow towards them.
In terms of time, while it might be a big no-no when you’re more than six minutes late without a notice in a country such as Germany, in South America there’s little difference between 9:15 and 9:45.
Grasping the difference in time perception across countries can often be challenging. The easiest method used to divulge this is by observing whether the country itself is fixed & reliable, or dynamic & unpredictable.
It might be difficult to be working in a company with a contrasting culture to your own. The easiest way of understanding the know-how’s is by looking at a countries culture be it religion, their history, or the dynamics in a city as this is reflected in their interaction on the workfloor.