Updated: Jun 16
"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 like 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 it's 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 a 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 is 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 ride of 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 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 and 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.
5. Trusting: relationship-based vs. task-based
If you can remember your first business trip to Vietnam or Korea then there is a good chance that it included karaoke. You may have even spent more time as a whole singing, drinking, and dining than conducting the actual business meetings you were there for. Vietnam and Korea like most Asian countries, have relationship-based cultures. On the other hand, most Western cultures are task-based cultures.
#5 Cultural Tip: "Trust is built in different ways in each culture but it remains vital for all partnerships"
In task-based cultures, business is business, in relationship-based cultures, business is personal. Potential business partners first want to know if they can trust the other party. If there is no trust, there will never be business.
The reason lies within the often ineffective legal frameworks in Asian countries. If your business partner cheats on you, there is very little you can do. Contracts are often not worth the paper they were written on. Sure, you could go to court, but the chances of success are rather slim. Therefore, it’s better to only do business with people you trust. Building relationships is a form of risk management.
6. Disagreeing: confrontational vs. non-confrontational
In certain societies, open confrontation is encouraged and appropriate and will not impact the relationship in a negative way. These societies include France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel. People here perceive an argument more like a sparring exercise, but not a real fight. They often use disagreement as a way to learn more and further explore varying ideas.
However, in some African and Asian cultures such as Japan, Vietnam, Ghana, and India, partners who approach disagreement in a confrontational manner will cut the group harmony and can cause great harm to their long-term relationships. When working with Asian cultures open confrontation should be avoided. The roots and history of this can be traced back to the Confucian concept of face. For an individual or a group to maintain social harmony, under no circumstances can anyone lose face.
#6 Cultural Tip: "There is a right way to disagree".
Having that said, Confucianism heavily influenced the way people deal with others within their own social circle but the ideology provides little guidance on how to deal with people who are not part of one’s own social circle. That’s why, certain asian cultures deal with outsiders, they might turn out to be confrontational, and sometimes even hostile but would never act in the same way with friends.
7. Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time
Recently while working on a new project in Myanmar, I had scheduled a meeting at 10am between a Vietnamese company that was expanding into the region and a potential new partner who would be assisting on a project. By 1015am our Myanmar partner had yet to arrive and our Vietnamese client began to ask where he was. After a few failed calls we expected he might be close. By 10:40am there was still no sign of him and we canceled the meeting. I was finally able to discuss with him when he explained that he was having coffee with someone else and the meeting had went longer than expected and would arrive around 11:30am, which was now too little too late. Looking back this was a great example in differing perceptions of time.
Myanmar, India, as well as most Asian and Arab cultures, perceive time as flexible. Flexible-time does not only refer to punctuality, but in general to the way how time is being utilized. Although flexible-time culture may resemble themselves this in no way means that all Asian Cultures follow the same scheduling standards. In Vietnam 15 mins late remains acceptable while parts of Myanmar and India may believe 30-60 mins as being within the acceptable range. Thus flexible-time cultures approach schedules and deadlines in a fluid manner changing frequently as challenges and situations arise. In linear-time cultures, project steps are being organized in a sequential fashion, one task is being completed before beginning the next.
#7 Cultural Tip: "Scheduling should be made in accordance with perception of time of others."
Flexible-time such as cultures such as in Vietnam, Indian, Mexican, Saudi Arabia usually appear as unorganized and chaotic in the eye of the linear-time observer in the UK, Japan, or the US. On the contrary, an Indian or a Saudi would view the British culture as inflexible and incapable to adapt to sudden changes.
8. Persuading: Principles first vs. applications first
For this last category we did not use it when comparing the aforementioned cultures however it is important when presenting your ideas.
#8 Cultural Tip: "Understanding how others convey ideas, will help your to be more convincing."
Let's look back at when you were still a high-school student in math class, would your teacher present the formula first or start with examples? If you learned the formula first and focused on the theory before finishing up with a conclusion and recommendations, you are most likely from a principles-first culture, such as Vietnam, France or Spain. If you are a business consultant in any of these countries you should start by presenting your market research, methodology, data collection, and how you analyzed it, before you present your conclusions.
In an applications-first culture, such as the US, Canada, UK or Australia, consultants start with the findings and recommendations and avoid discussing methodology unless otherwise requested. Pitches and presentations need to be tailored to the audience. If you take half an hour explaining your methodology, but your American boss only wants to see our conclusions, you are wasting your and your boss’s time. However, if with a German client you only present your findings without first explaining your methodology, he will question your credibility and professionalism.
These 8 categories of cultural differences have helped us in the way we train companies, employees, and lead our personal lives. We highly recommend you take time read this book and start making your life easier when working with groups around the globe.
Here is an Interview with Erin Meyer on CNN discussing the challenges of culture and how the culture map can improve your cultural understanding.
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