Updated: Sep 9, 2019
"You have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth, listen and observe first. Speak later."
If you have ever worked internationally, you have faced the pain and joys of cultural differences. Americans complain about the Vietnamese talking in circles and taking too much time before getting to the point. Vietnamese believe Americans make decisions too quickly. Indians believe the British way of time management is too rigid, while the British get annoyed when Indians turn up late to meetings.
Cultural differences can have a massive impact on how people communicate with each other and perceive those around them. Even within the same geographical areas, differences can be quite significant. French and Germans are by no means the same … ask them, they will both agree.
The author Erin Meyer, an international business expert has invented a tool called the Culture Map. The culture map divides cultural habits into eight categories and then places each culture on the map to highlight the extent to which both cultures differ.
I've taken the Culture Map and presented the cultures in which I come across most often while working here in Vietnam: Vietnamese, American, South Korean, French, German, Japanese, and Indian.
If you are an international manager, working with an intercultural team or in a cultural setting that is unfamiliar, draw up a cultural map. Position the different cultures that you see yourself confronted with on the map, and start understanding and managing the differences.
The culture map is an amazing tool, but here is one word of caution: Besides cultural differences, there are also differences in personality. Just because Vietnam is a flexible-time culture, that doesn’t mean your Vietnamese business partner accepts you not delivering on time. Within each culture, individual personalities may differ significantly.
The 8 Cultural Categories to Focus on
- Communication Styles, Ways to evaluate employees, Leadership styles, Decision making approaches, Trust-based systems, Disagreeing through confrontation, Scheduling and flexibility of time, and Persuading conversations.
1. Communicating: Low vs. High Context
Work meetings in Asia can take a long time. Much longer than in Europe, even though the topics on the agenda may be the same. A common assumption about Asians is that they are vague when giving an opinion and take ages to get to the point. What may seem as talking around the issue from a North American point of view, is called high context communication. High context cultures consider more details before coming to a conclusion.
In this area of the book, Meyer explains that in low-context cultures all of their communication is very as-a-matter of fact. There are no hidden meanings within a sentence. However, when working with high-context cultures its important to be able to read between the lines and to reflect on what is being said and more importantly what is not being said.
#1 Cultural Tip "In high-context culture, listen to what is not being said"
2. Evaluating: Direct vs. indirect negative feedback
Has your boss ever yelled at you directly for having made an error, "David, this work in unacceptable, why did you prepare the report in this way?" If your answer is yes then your boss might be Dutch; or German. In most northern European cultures, direct negative feedback is common, accepted, and encouraged. In most Asian cultures, direct negative feedback is unacceptable and often seen as insulting. This usually directly leads to demotivated employees who quickly resign from their companies.
Warning: While direct feedback often accepted in low context cultures, you shouldn't expect all low context cultures to appreciate direct negative feedback. In Canada, for example, Canadians do not like negative feedback and it is common for managers to use the classic feedback sandwich approach to giving feedback with a positive statement, followed by the negative feedback, and in closing more positive feedback (ie. "I am grateful for your loyalty to this company. In the future, I would like if you were here on-time every day. Overall keep up the good work and we are happy to have you on the team")
In Asian cultures, giving negative feedback is an art, and when placed in a new cultural environment, a manager should invest some time in figuring out the feedback culture before heading into a staff review meeting. A good way to learn the best approach is to ask some colleagues who are familiar with the local culture.
#2 Cultural Tip "Be careful about feedback, you might get offensive"
3. Leading: Egalitarian vs. hierarchical
One of the most common modes of transportation in the world is the bicycle. In cultures, around the world people travel by bicycle to move around the city and countryside. After 4 years in Vietnam, I've seen people carrying pretty much everything on a bicycle but one thing is for sure, if a company director takes a rides a bicycle to work, he or she is seen as an unsuccessful business person. In Scandinavia and especially Denmark this is simply the opposite. Comparing hierarchical and egalitarian leadership comes down to the power distance between a boss and subordinate below.
#3 Cultural Tip "To be a great leader, you must learn to adapt your style."
Companies in an egalitarian world, such as Australia or Scandinavian countries, usually implement flat organizational structures. The distance between a boss and a subordinate is low. In Asian and Arabic whereby hierarchical cultures rule, the distance between the boss and a subordinate is high. When a manager is leading in a new environment it is always best for them to adapt their own style to that of the culture of their employees. A leader in an egalitarian workplace must give employees the freedom and power to make their own decisions.
4. Deciding: Consensual vs. top-down
Decision making impacts every step of the business strategy and the processes ensuring that those strategies are properly implemented. In certain cultures such as Japan, Sweden or the Netherlands, decisions are being made in groups through unanimous agreement (Consensual). The team will spend time discussing and reviewing issues sometimes quickly and other times over many months and then come to a conclusion as a group.
#4 Cultural Tip "Want to implement a new idea, think first about your team's decision making processes"
In the US, France, Thailand, Vietnam, Russia or China, the decision-making process is top-down. The boss is expected to make a decision, and the team will follow. Accountability is rarely discussed as this is simply passed on to the leader above. A phrase that you will often hear in Vietnam is “It's up to you.” You are the boss, you have to make the decision, don’t ask me.
While hierarchical cultures typically have a top-down decision-making process and egalitarian cultures typically have a consensual decision-making process, this is not always the case. Japan, for example, is a very hierarchical society, but decisions are being made collectively.