Search and Find
During a merger between a German and a US firm, both sides underwent preparation for creating good working relationships with their colleagues from the other culture. As a way of cultivating contacts in his own division, a German department head invited his new US colleague and her family to an afternoon barbecue.
The idea was to promote cooperation in the project by strengthening social ties. The German host arranged his garden just so – he wanted his American guests to see that even a German is capable of putting on a decent barbecue and that there is little truth in the commonly held notion that Germans are stiff and awkward. So our German host chose to dress casually: a T-shirt and shorts, he thought, would be eminently suitable for a barbecue. The guests arrived – and confusion abounded. His American colleague and her husband appeared in suits and their children in their Sunday best.
What had happened? Clearly the laboured efforts on both sides to “get it right” had backfired.
It may be that the individuals involved in this clash of cultures can look back on it and smile. A situation like this may prompt general amusement and laughter in the context of a barbecue, but in other contexts it can have harmful consequences.
It is hard to find a company these days that is not part of an international network. In fact, hardly any company can afford not to be part of such a network. Customers, suppliers and production facilities are spread out across the globe. The exchange of information, goods and workers across country borders has reached an unprecedented level. In Germany, we hold phone conversations with our colleagues and partners in the UK, the US, India and China just as often as we do with those in Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig or Braunschweig.
The globalised labour market is transforming the way we work and is a key factor in determining which competencies and skills are important for the jobs we do. There is a need to bridge the ever-increasing geographical, social and cultural distance between locations and employees. Many projects have to be coordinated and managed across different time zones. The complex nature of international business increases the amount of time and effort required for coordination and communication.
The ratio of time spent coordinating and communicating with colleagues to the time invested in the actual work itself is shifting more and more towards the task of communication. Adequate communication geared towards specific objectives is absolutely crucial for making efficient use of new company architectures, the benefits of decentralised production and a presence in different markets.
Company employees are spending more and more time clarifying roles, tasks and responsibilities – often without having met with their full project team even once. Whereas roles used to be clearly defined within a solid and stable corporate structure, now the norm is loosely defined work roles in projects with changing responsibilities, targets and architectures.
These changes have also meant that we are increasingly stepping beyond the borders of our own countries, organisations and traditional departments: cross-border and cross-cultural contacts often turn out to be more awkward than we are used to within our own country, organisation or department. Misunderstandings and communication difficulties are the order of the day, and a lot of time needs to be spent agreeing on a joint plan of action with our colleagues and developing a shared picture of the tasks to be tackled.
At the same time, many companies are experiencing the benefits of having a corporate make-up that reflects the heterogeneity of its varied markets and activities. Diversity and interaction with foreign cultures can be a gain, an expansion of horizons. We are often amazed to realise that it is possible to see, judge and handle things completely differently. A variety of perspectives can be enriching and can generate synergies. But making good use of these intercultural differences requires an informed awareness of them.
Our Chinese, English and US colleagues react differently to the way we usually expect. Our established work routines, feedback loops and coordination tools no longer work smoothly (or even at all) in the intercultural context. We stumble over minor deviations from our communicative norms and are disconcerted by the differences between what we are used to in our home contexts and what we expect from our counterparts in spoken or written communication and the responses we get from our international environment.
These cultural differences present us with new challenges: alongside our specialist expertise, communication skills as well as social and intercultural skills have become essential components of our portfolio; an individual’s capabilities in these areas are crucial to the success of cross-cultural projects. The problems that crop up in cooperation across borders can only be overcome if we possess intercultural skills.
The context we grow up in shapes us in fundamental ways. It influences how we think, what we notice around us, how we approach other people and how we define ourselves. Our mode of communication, our motivations, and our ways of dealing with conflicts and of making decisions differ from those in other cultures: Chinese, Indian, French and US colleagues and customers have a different view of the world than ours. Charting a course between these different perspectives is the crucial task facing anyone who works in an international context.
But how can we do this? On the one hand, we have to get used to other cultures’ ways of interacting and of seeing the world, yet, on the other, we can’t “change our spots”: our mentality is part of our identity.
One quick and easy solution would be to seek information in “How to survive in …” books, using lists of “Do’s and Don’ts” about the rules that apply in other countries. Unfortunately, though, these books are not up to the task. The rules of behaviour they suggest fail to fit the reality we find when we go there.
Compendia of cultural standards and country profiles list the characteristics of various nations. Here we can find information about the Do’s and Don’ts that exist in India, Turkey and Egypt. This helps us at least to avoid making the most obvious blunders and to avoid harming our projects by showing a lack of respect or causing embarrassing situations (cf. Thomas 2003).
However, countries such as India and China – but also places in the Middle East including Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi – are in the midst of rapid social change. There is not just “one” India: the atmosphere in the IT citadels of southern India is vastly different from that in the rural areas of, say, Rajasthan in northern India. Yet even in the modern cities of the South is it possible to find mediaeval living conditions existing within a few minutes’ walk from avant-garde office blocks and shopping malls with Starbucks, McDonald’s and Prada.
So this is not just about national culture. In many cases, it is the culture of a region that makes the crucial difference in intercultural encounters. At the same time, though, we need to think about the specific milieu and industry in which we are living and working. The truly significant cultural difference in any given situation will consist of a combination of all these factors.
Some descriptions of how to behave “properly” and some guides to successful intercultural communication are obsolete before they have even been published. Other approaches recommend that we let go of all our knowledge about other cultures and instead bring a highly attentive attitude to our encounters with cultural differences. They encourage us to approach other cultures with cultural awareness and a basic attitude of openness, arguing that cultural awareness will enable us to gain an understanding of the specific culture of our counterpart (cf. Green 1999).
Yet this approach is too simple as well. Merely being aware that differences exist is not enough to develop practical options for action. What is more, few of us actually have the opportunity in our everyday working life to use this “wait and see” approach. Projects and activities have to be coordinated successfully within tight time schedules.
If we rely solely on the Do’s and Don’ts, we run the risk of following guidelines that totally fail to improve our ability to act while possibly causing even more disconcertedness and misunderstanding. The same is true of a straightforward awareness approach: it gives us no practical options, and we risk spending too much time exploring intercultural differences.
A meta-model rather than “Do’s and Don’ts” or awareness
The aim of any effective approach to successfully handling an international business environment should be to convey not only knowledge about other cultures but also a useful attitude towards them.
Lists of Do’s and Don’ts are not flexible enough to do justice to the diversity and constant change going on within societies. A meta-model of cultural difference that enables us to be flexible in developing assumptions about cultural specificities in a certain environment can be much more helpful. This meta-model should do justice to the dynamics of social developments and the heterogeneity of cultures on the one hand, while protecting us from falling headlong into the many traps of intercultural communication on the other. It should prepare us for predictable difficulties and conflicts and enable us to...