Tag Archives: business culture

Cultural awareness starts with yourself

The Unmixed View of the World

Many articles or even workshops on cultural etiquette and ‘how to do business in X country’ become a list of dos and don’ts, a little tickbox exercise of everything that is different or ‘quaint’ about the other culture.  I suppose there are good reasons for that: time constraints, word limits, or the unwillingness to dig deep within yourself.

However, I do profoundly believe that the first step in understanding other cultures is to become aware of  your own values, assumptions and -dare we say it? – foibles.  Only when you understand what you are made of, can you begin to grasp and appreciate what others are made of. 

Some of these assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we are unable to distance ourselves from it or even to see it.  So, in my workshops or coaching sessions, I will often throw in some provocative statements or questions to reveal some of these cultural blind spots. 

For instance, when I have a predominantly British audience in the room, I will ask them what they think that foreigners find most puzzling or annoying about living in the UK.  Typical answers include the weather or poor customer service, but in fact these are the things that annoy British people most.

So what is the answer?  Simple:  unmixed taps and carpet in the bathrooms.

When I finally give the answer, expat audiences laugh or give a groan of recognition, while the British usually are completely mystified.  Why would anyone pick up on these trivial points?  Surely carpet is softer and warmer on your feet when you come out of the bath?  And just what is wrong with unmixed taps anyway?  (If you are still baffled, pick the nearest Continental European and ask him or her about this.)

Yes, these might be innocuous examples of mild irritation, but do not underestimate their effect on a long-term relationoship.  What else might be annoying our foreign colleagues, employees, partners?  What else makes perfect sense to us but  could be causing them embarassment, unease, anxiety?  Shed some light on your blind spots and, who knows, you might even change your taps!

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Filed under Business cultur, Globalization

Blog to Survive

To begin with a sentence that has become notorious over the past few weeks, I met a man yesterday who…  is an expert blogger and Internet psychologist.  His name is Graham Jones and he said that businesses that do not blog will most likely not survive over the next few years.

So there I sat smugly, sipping elegantly from my glass of wine, thinking, ‘Well, I’ll be all right then… ‘, until he quoted a very recent survey showing that you really need to blog daily to attract customers.  Daily!  And I thought I was doing quite well with the ‘once a week when I get round to it and feel I have something important to share, otherwise it’s whenever an idea crops up’!

I won’t steal Graham’s thunder by reproducing his very funny and useful speech about how to find ideas and blog more successfully.  You can find some of those ideas on his website at www.grahamjones.co.uk (and no, I am not an affiliate, I just like talking about people who impress me). 

But I was also wondering if anyone really wanted to hear from me every day, no matter how passionate they are about intercultural issues?  I mean, I have Seth Godin pop up on iGoogle for me every day (or even several times a day, so accomodating an acrobat is he!), but I have to admit I don’t read every entry.

On the other hand, perhaps I should focus on writing shorter, snappier blogs more frequently, rather than infrequent, really long ones that few people can be bothered to read to the end.  I may feel that I am sacrificing quality for quantity, but perhaps it’s not really quality that I am currently providing.  Just rare waffle.

What do you think?

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The British in a Nutshell

Continuing the theme from last week about how playing to stereotype can sometimes be advantageous, I will summarise how the English (and it is the English that foreigners mean when they discuss the ‘Brits’ more generally) are perceived by those new to the country.  If you are English and disagree with this perception, please comment (as you should know by now I am not a big fan of stereotypes).  If you have moved to the UK from elsewhere and can confirm or add to these perceptions, please do so.

I should add that yesterday I heard a cross-cultural coach, Katherine Barton http://www.bartoninsights.com/  speak at the Oxford Summit of Leaders conference http://www.ebaoxford.co.uk/index.html about the cultural challenges of doing business in the UK.  Katherine had the unenviable task of condensing thousands of years of development of national character into 20 brief minutes, but she mentioned three key elements to understanding the English:

1) Being reserved, ill at ease socially, which is not the same as being cold or unfeeling.  However, displaying emotions is feared and widely regarded as unprofessional.

2) Desire to avoid confrontation and fear of giving offence can lead to excessive politeness and vagueness.  For instance, ‘a little bit of a problem’ probably signifies quite a major disaster.

3) Quite structured and planned, scheduling everything far ahead and sticking to the agenda, the English can be inflexible once they have planned their workload and are not keen on surprise interruptions.

Some other key characteristics that spring to mind (and were mentioned by some of the other speakers at the conference) are:

4) Honesty and integrity in business dealings, incorruptible legal system, keeping their promises, sticking to deadines

5) Democratic, fair, transparent systems that favour personal merit over personal connections

Interestingly enough, each of the characteristics above can be reversed once you delve a little deeper into the national psyche (without even taking into account regional or class differences).  For example:

1) Mass display of grief and outrage at the death of Diana, kidnapping of Madeleine McCann etc.

2) British managers viewed as too blunt in their feedback in Latin American and Asian countries.

3) Big building projects are rarely completed on time and within budget.

4) MP expenses scandal

5) Old boys’ network still alive and kicking

So what is the truth, other than considerably more complex than the stereotypes? Is this because business culture is quite different from the ‘mass culture’?  Or are we focusing too much on exceptions rather than the norm?  Or is the national character changing?

All of the above, in some way.  I also believe that perceptions of another culture invariably tell us more about the ‘assessor’,rather than about the people being assessed.  The British are punctual, honest, incorruptible, professional and polite to most East European countries, for example, because that is what we aspire to be.  And an excellent starting point for discussion, mutual understanding and collaboration.

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