Wednesday, 29 August 2007

New Cultural Dimension

I've been doing some informal research among people I meet, and have started putting together a little theory, which I'm calling the "How are you, and Who are you" theory.

One of the problems with intercultural theory is that the cultural background of someone you meet is not always immediately obvious. Or even if you do know what the culture is, then it maybe one you know very little about. So how can you learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible about a new culture, before you make any mistakes?

I'm a Brit, and as such, I'm conditioned to ask the question, "How are you?" when I meet someone. OK, so I'm a Brit, and I'll always answer, "Fine, thanks" however I'm feeling in reality! Nevertheless, my short answer can tell you a lot about me. The way I say it (intonation, facial expression, emphasis etc) will tell you how important I consider the answer (not very); that I am not accustomed to sharing my thoughts with relative strangers; and that there are other things to move on to as quickly as possible.

Have you ever asked an Italian how they're feeling? It could take you a while to listen to the answer! Italians are much more concerned with establishing a relationship with you; are very happy to talk about themselves and are not so rushed in business settings - and so you may get a full medical history of them, their families and their family's pets!

Russians are a slight problem, and in my view, a nation of split personalities. In a business or formal context, Russians are closed, difficult to read, unhelpful, and not afraid to say "no" (Some mythical research suggests that the word "nyet" is used up to nine times more frequently in Russian, than we use "no" in English). Russians are the masters of patience during negotiations, and will use threats and blackmail to ensure they get the better of the bargain. BUT in an informal context, Russians are renowned for their hospitality, and not just plying unsuspecting foreigners with dodgy ("left") vodka.

If you have ever had a meeting in Russia, followed by a meal (nearly always called a "banquet"), you will know what I'm talking about - the food seems endless, the mood invariably cheerful, you will be told all about the family and their successes, latest purchases, subjected to tipsy renditions of Russian music and dance; and crucially to my theme, when you ask, "How are you?" be prepared for the intimate details of the last flu remedy (Don't EVER cough or complain of a sore throat when a Babushka can hear you!). You will be overwhelmed with information about your correspondents health and life story.

I've tried linking this "How are you" dimension to personal space, and largely it works: the more honest the answer you get, the closer the personal space, and probably the more important a personal relationship is to the business in question. Finns, Germans, Dutch, Brits will give you a short, curt answer; they like a large amount of personal space around them, and a business deal comes first, and if you genuinely like your business partner, well that's a nice advantage to have. The Italians, Greeks, Slavs are more honest in their answers, generally prefer to get closer than Northern Europeans are comfortable with, and will let business decisions be influenced by a very subjective view of their business partner.

The second part of this theory is the "Who are you" side. As a trainer, I start each session by asking (in various interactive ways) each attendee to introduce themself, or their neighbour. Last week I was very struck by the very different ways people from different cultures answered that relatively simple question. Compare:
"Hi. My name's Matthew, I'm a trainer and programme manager at Farnham Castle, where I've worked for about 7.5 years. Before that I lived in Russia for 8 years, and managed to learn to speak reasonable Russian."

"Good morning, I am Friedrich Hampel. I am a Senior Civil Engineer at XXXXX GMBH, and finished my PhD two years ago"

"My name is Abdul, I'm from Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. I have two sons who both work in the my father's business - they are both very successful. My third son is studying at Oxford, but we all have a house in London that we use when we are visiting here."

Again, as a Brit, I've limited myself to bare facts, nothing about my personal life, and a repressed desire to let every one know that I speak completely fluent Russian, but am slightly embarrassed to be seen as a show off!

Friedrich on the other hand is proud of his doctorate, and his rank within his organisation, but has only included information from his professional life. His personal life (even the fact that he is German) is omitted, because it is not relevant.

Abdul is very proud of his family's success - we can infer that he owns at least two homes, has at least three sons, and is from a wealthy family - we know nothing about how he became (and remains) wealthy.

When you introduce yourself, you talk about the things that are important to you in that context - for the Northern Europeans, this is usually qualifications and experience; for an Arab his family is always the most important.

The answers to these two simple questions "How are you" and "Who are you" give us a huge insight in how to approach the cultures of the people answering - do we need to get straight down to business; should I expect there to be interruptions during the meeting; how should I approach the meeting - facts and figures or generalisations; etc.

Yes, I admit, so far very informal, very simplified - but I will keep my ears open and look forward to hearing any other comments.....

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Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew!

I saw your blog in Blogging To Fame!


Greetings from Brazil / Rio de Janeiro.


Renato de Trindade

sneha said...

Great...Research..Keep ..In ..Touch..