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To know and to know how: Cultural differences

Too often a meeting fails due to the cultural differences among the people participating in it

Too often a meeting fails due to the cultural differences among the people participating in it

How can we understand among each other in business in a global world? I list some personal experiences:

- USA citizens had difficulties to understand that German freeway system has no speed limit in many areas while we the Europeans cannot freely carry a gun without a very special police authorization given rarely and after stringent personality test.

- Speaking about local languages a Frenchman had difficulty in understanding the abundance of languages or dialects within fellow European countries and was rudely answered by a Belgian saying that French will never understand what happens in Belgium.

- In many Europeans countries it is quite usual to ask as “don’t you have …?” and if we don’t have we answer “no”. On the contrary in Asia, particularly in Korea, as I have experienced, if they don’t have they will answer “yes“in the order to confirm they don’t have. Now imagine the misunderstanding generated when a local engineer request a drawing to a Korean engineer by saying “don’t you have XXX?”

- Time appointments in Latin America are quite more flexible than in the USA or Europe (with some distinction between north and south). In Latin America it can be even impolite to arrive at the right time while in England you are supposed to arrive at the time, not early but either late.

- A European company attending a business meeting in China and using the service of a translator had the feeling that the meeting had finished pretty well for their business interests because during all the meeting the Chinese attendants were approving with their heads all the time.

- The meeting was held in English all the time and the translator was there just in case he was needed. After leaving the meeting the translator revealed the comments he had overheard from the Chinese executives: they would never do a business with the company because they felt offended several times throughout the conversation. The head nodding of the Chinese executives meant that they were hearing and understanding but not agreement indicators.

- In some oriental cultures it is extremely impolite to say “no”. Therefore, in order to avoid it a rude answer, a very polite one is “I will think about”. Other cultures will interpret that as a delay in the answer, never a negation.

- In Mediterranean countries is normal to eat rabbit. Can you imagine the face of an American citizen when invited to eat rabbit which is considered a pet in his country? Both sides will be unhappy and it will be very difficult to reach a good understanding.

- In some cultures it is very impolite to open presents in front of the offering person whereas in others it is imperative to do it.

There are many other examples in real life. In all the cases both sides of the party believe that they are right. But the reality is different, making communication and understanding difficult. Managing in such circumstances requires a big effort and it can only be achieved through experience. Another example is the business mistake made by a European Agency in Korea. The Agency send as its representative a Japanese born citizen to deal with Koreans in Seoul not considering the bad relationship that exists among both cultures.

You may also see language differences among people of the same country. We had the experience when on a business trip to Austin Rover in Coventry. From time to time we could not understand the language the engineers spoke among themselves. Our English salesman told us not to worry, he could not understand either as they were speaking in a local dialect that himself, from London, was not able to follow. We had the same experience in Germany in Ford Motor Headquarters in Cologne.

The other side of the history occurs when people assume that their counter partners cannot understand them and then they speak freely, delivering sensitive information such as purchasing prices. I had experienced this with Koreans in Spain with Spanish buyers or in a meeting with Japanese executives. In both cases the non Koreans spoke freely assuming that they were not understood. I had a very similar experience in an airplane where executives of a French competitor were speaking loudly about business issues while I was able to fully understand.

Another cultural issue arises with the generational gap. This is the typical story of a young engineer applying to get the project budget approval to a senior executive. The generational gap in technology used to be very important due to first, the lack of understanding by the senior executive of the way the project is presented by the young engineer, and second, for the same reason, the senior will have difficulties to recognize that fact. Most probably the senior will reject the project easing the way to be treated as incompetent. This could well be the case; however, consider that the young person willing to succeed in his approach failed to recognize with whom he was dealing. He was dealing with someone which had enough experience to perceive that the budget proposal most probably would be exceeded. Being near retirement the senior executive would not take big risks in an issue he did not fully understand. If the approach was based on assuring a controlled risk process, with different steps of go/no go analyses, including corrective action, contemplating a return of investment in each step, and assuming worst/best options, most probably the senior would have accepted the proposal. In a more conservative approach the senior should have advised the junior to request the support of the production manager, the quality manager, the financial manager… each one of them willing to hear different approaches to the same project.

In conclusion, when dealing in business do not assume that the people in front of you have the same understanding as you, the same knowledge, the same cultural basis, the same ethical attitude, the same taste as you. Therefore we need to prepare in advance all that is relevant and we need to avoid early rejection of our proposal in order to assure the success of our mission

When moving around we need to be close to our person interface particularly when he has the power to make a decision in our favor. It is our duty to understand our counterpart. Preparation is as important as the content in a meeting. Getting as much information about the company and the people we are going to meet is also important. Other issues to take in account are precaution when speaking in public or in business, learning how to proceed during the first contact, do not assume the other people will be polite about language issues, prepare carefully the business lunch or dinner …

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