With another dramatic World Cup still fresh in our minds, what better time to explore the nuanced world of international business?
For many business leaders, international business relationships have never been so vital to growth.
With Brexit on the horizon, large and small companies alike are expanding across borders, trade deals are brokered over thousands of miles and more businesses than ever before are working in cross-cultural teams. Despite these advancements, there is one obstacle that remains, and must be traversed with care: cultural differences.
Truly understanding and relating to colleagues or business associates from another country goes beyond language barriers and superficial customs. It requires an appreciation of societal context, how different cultures specifically relate to one another and, crucially, how you can find a co-habitable middle ground.
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Speaking at our Executive Summit in December, Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map, explained how a deep understanding of how different cultures respond to one another is essential to succeed in conducting business abroad. The Culture Map divides various aspects of business into scales or ‘dimensions’ and examines where different cultures lie in relation to one another. Here’s everything you need to know…
It’s good to talk
Effective business communication isn’t about language. Even when both parties speak the same language fluently, the cultural background and context can result in messages being misconstrued or lost in translation.
At one end of the communication spectrum are low context cultures such as the US or Germany. These (mainly Anglo-Saxon) cultures communicate with the assumption that people have a low level of shared information or references.
This tends to mean that communication is direct and explicit; what they say is what they mean and there isn’t much scope for reading between the lines. Points are made clearly and unambiguously, often repeated and almost always put into writing. As Erin Meyer says, ‘in low context cultures, everything is about the simplicity and clarity of the message.’
In stark contrast, high context cultures, such as the Japanese, are the exact opposite. The assumption is that people have a larger pool of shared reference points and therefore good communication should be implicit, subtle and layered with meaning. Instead of things being nailed down or crystal clear, they are instead left flexible and open to interpretation.
In high context cultures, points may be made in an ambiguous way - or could even be left unsaid - the assumption being that the mood and tone of the situation are enough to carry the message.
All cultures fall somewhere along the scale, and as Erin highlights, it’s not how high or low context a culture is that matters, rather how they react and relate to one another. So what could happen when polarised ends of the spectrum interact?
The Japanese term ‘kuuki yomenai’ describes someone who is ‘unable to read the air’. It’s likely that someone from a low context culture would be seen as kuuki yomenai and may find it hard to fully understand the subtle nuances and subtext behind what is being said.
They may therefore feel a business interaction lacks transparency or that the other person is deliberately withholding information. Conversely, a person from a high context culture might find low context communication too direct, patronising or lacking depth.
Having an awareness of these different backgrounds is key to adapting and communicating when working in cross-cultural teams. Erin Meyer believes for communication to be effective, multicultural teams need to cater to the lowest common denominator with low context processes which can be understood by all. High context cultures may initially find that abrupt, but it’s the clearest and best way to avoid miscommunication.
When it comes to one-on-one interactions, making small changes to the way we communicate can make a big difference. With low context people, be as clear as possible; repeat the main points and put things in writing. When you’re working with high context individuals, try to ask clarifying questions, repeat yourself less and work on your ability to explore subtext or ‘read the air’.
The sound of silence
How long is too long when it comes to a silent pause? It all depends on where you’re from.
In Japan, it’s not unusual for people in a business meeting to be silent for up to 8 seconds - a length of time that would feel like an eternity to someone from the UK. While some cultures are completely comfortable with silence and actually welcome it, others are incredibly uncomfortable with it and try to avoid it at all costs.
In cultures which are uncomfortable with silence (such as the UK, USA and France), a pause of more than two seconds is often interpreted as negative. People from these countries would usually assume the silent party hasn’t understood something, or that they’re displeased or uncomfortable. The response: to fill that silence by making a comment or asking a question.
Cultures which are comfortable with silence (such as China or Japan) are likely to perceive that same silence as positive. It’s a sign of attentive listening and shows that someone is thinking carefully before responding. It could just as easily mean nothing at all - the important fact is that some cultures are completely happy to sit in silence for a while.
Erin highlights these distinctions by looking at different patterns of conversation. Some cultures (Latin, Mediterranean) speak simultaneously, overlapping each other continually. Some are ‘perfectly timed’, meaning they speak immediately after the other person has finished speaking (this group finds both silence and overlap uncomfortable). The third group (most East Asian cultures), leave a clear pause between one person finishing speaking and another person starting.
In teams where a combination of these groups is working together, individuals from East Asian cultures are likely to suffer. If there is no space or silence for them to speak, they won’t speak at all. It’s therefore important to make space and create opportunities for people to be heard in global teams. If there’s a silence, it doesn’t have to be immediately filled. Instead, let it be and remember that some people need a clear moment or invitation to speak.
All feedback is good feedback
Nobody enjoys giving negative feedback, but the ways in which different cultures approach it vary hugely. Understanding these differences is vital to nurturing positive relationships and avoiding miscommunication in cross-cultural teams.
Countries like the UK and US tend to sugar the pudding when giving negative feedback. We focus on the positives first and then delicately make suggestions for improvement - often in a slightly apologetic manner and always mindful of the other person’s feelings. We soften criticism by cushioning it with language like ‘maybe’, ‘sort of’ and ‘possibly’.
At the other end of the scale are countries like The Netherlands and Russia. Their approach is direct, honest and unemotional. Rather than softening negative feedback, they reinforce their points with language like ‘very’, ‘definitely’ and ‘clearly’.
With such fundamentally different definitions of feedback, it’s easy to see what could go wrong when these two ends of the spectrum collide.
A Dutch person unaware of how the British give feedback would likely take what was said literally and think everything is fine or that there isn’t much to change. In reverse, the British person would likely take offence and think the Dutch person is rude or doesn’t like them.
Just being aware of these cultural discrepancies is usually enough to mitigate for problems in this area. If you know you’re dealing with a person from a background of direct negative feedback, you know what to expect and won’t take their comments personally. The other way round, you’ll know that the message may be more subtle so you really need to listen out for the salient points.
I predict a riot: the problem with disagreeing
Disagreeing is a fundamental aspect of all business, wherever you are in the world. Yet the ways in which we communicate our differing opinions can end up causing serious conflict when working on international teams.
On one end of the scale are cultures like France, Denmark and Russia. These cultures do not shy away from confrontation; if they disagree, they’ll tell you in an unequivocal way. People from these countries view disagreeing as a positive, productive necessity in business.
On the other end of the scale, cultures like the Japanese and Chinese avoid confrontation and view disagreeing as a negative factor which can destroy a relationship. Harmony and the absence of conflict are considered to be much more important to the overall success of the business than saying what you think.
In a meeting where one group takes disagreement personally and the other attaches no personal significance to it whatsoever, what can be done to limit negative conflict and bad feeling?
When disagreeing with confrontation-avoiding cultures, try to soften the language. Using suggestive rather than commanding words can help to minimise offence. You could also try presenting the conflicting opinions anonymously, by writing them on a board before the meeting; this will make it seem less personal and more objective.
If you’re in charge, you might want to miss the meeting altogether. Your presence may be a barrier for individuals from some cultures to speak openly.
One thing Erin warns against is people from confrontation-avoiding cultures trying to adopt the directness of high-confrontation cultures. As she says ‘it’s easy to overshoot’ and end up sounding inauthentic - or worse, rude. Instead, she suggests playing devil’s advocate and talking about the pros and cons of both sides of the argument.
LEADER or leader
Societal constructs like hierarchy can pose significant problems in international business. While some cultures believe the distance between a leader and their subordinates should be sizeable and clearly defined, other cultures operate in a more egalitarian, less formal way.
In strongly hierarchical cultures, status is often intertwined with respect, communication channels are formalised and the leader is seen as unimpeachable. In contrast, egalitarian cultures favour more relaxed communication styles and the leader is usually seen as one of the team who can be questioned or challenged.
For leaders working abroad or heading up international teams, it’s important to be aware of these conflicting definitions of being ‘the boss’. Erin gives the example of a Nigerian man who moved to Denmark and was shocked to hear his Danish staff referring to him by first name and challenging him in meetings.
In Nigeria, a society built on hierarchy, this level of informality is seen as highly disrespectful. In Japan, challenging or disagreeing with someone who is senior or has white hair is strictly verboten. Similarly, in meetings, people will expect to be seated in order of seniority, and you’re likely to need final approval from the boss before actioning any decisions.
However, in Denmark, land of egalitarian beliefs (where children call teachers by their first names), hierarchy simply doesn’t play a part and is certainly nothing to do with respect.
Although it may seem that a leader from a strongly egalitarian culture would be more easily welcomed as a breath of fresh air into a hierarchical culture, that’s not the case.
Employees are as much a part of the culture as the boss. They expect their leader to be singular, formal and appropriately distanced from them. Their boss being seen as serious or important is a reflection of the team, so acting like one of the gang could make employees lose confidence or feel affronted.
Bridging the gap between these styles of leadership is all about compromise. If you try to disregard your own culture of leadership entirely and adopt another, you’ll feel like a fish out of water.
Conversely if you try to impose your style of leadership on a different culture, your team will feel uncomfortable and unhappy. Assessing expectations and making concessions (like allowing your team to address you in a way that they’re comfortable with) will help you find the middle ground.
Playing the international game is all about understanding. When we know why people behave the way they do, our negative perceptions usually dissipate. At first cultural differences can seem polarised and impenetrable, but with a bit of background knowledge and willingness to compromise, you can find the perfect balance.
Interested in finding out more? Erin Meyer wrote the book on it. Head to her website to order the book, or get exclusive access to online tools and references. We highly recommend checking it out!