Friday, 21 September 2007

So what’s the big deal with culture shock?

Why do expats go on and on about culture shock? Surely it can’t be that bad? Isn’t homesickness for kids?

Research has shown that symptoms of culture shock can include:

  • Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
  • Preoccupation with health
  • Aches, pains, and allergies
  • Insomnia, desire to sleep too much or too little
  • Changes in temperament, depression, feeling vulnerable, feeling powerless
  • Anger, irritability, resentment, unwillingness to interact with others
  • Identifying with the old culture or idealizing the old country
  • Loss of identity
  • Trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
  • Unable to solve simple problems
  • Lack of confidence
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Developing stereotypes about the new culture
  • Developing obsessions such as over-cleanliness
  • Longing for family
  • Feelings of being lost, overlooked, exploited or abused

If you look at the list these are the things you need least of all when you arrive in a new country – most expats are sent by their companies to do an important job, and as a leader of the local staff. If you’re suffering from even one of the conditions from the list you’re not going to be able to do your job properly.

Princeton university ( ) defines culture shock as
“…a condition of disorientation affecting someone who is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life or set of attitudes…”

We also know that almost a third of expatriate assignments fail because the family is not happy, or cannot settle (again, look at the list above!).
It’s just a shame that it appears pre-departure training is such a low priority for most companies!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Getting the job done - with the Germans

Dr Brian Bloch explains why, even between members of the European Union, an understanding of German culture, and in particular business culture and practices, is crucial to commercial success

Germany is a major market for many European trading partners and it so it will remain. The current low growth rate and high employment impacts little on the massive business potential, much of which remains untapped.

Although many German companies conduct business in English and business people often have high levels of competence in the language, ensuring optimal success requires a substantial package of cross-cultural skills.

These range from knowing the latest economic, political and trade union developments, to impressing people with your knowledge of German literature, theatre and film.

Getting it right

Everyone knows that Germans are punctual and precise, but what exactly does that imply for a negotiation process and the subsequent deal? If you are a seller, keeping to delivery dates and agreed product specifications is clearly essential. But there is a lot more involved in really getting it right.

To expand on the language issue, although one can frequently "get by" in English, this cannot be taken for granted, so it is important to establish just how well your partners understand you. They may sound more fluent than they really are. Any sales or information brochures should already be translated into German so as to be understood fully and to send the right signals about commitment.

Germans dress carefully and generally quite fashionably too. Turning up in creased trousers and an old-fashioned tie with a suspicious stain on it may convey potential inefficiency and unreliability.

Shaking hands is surprisingly important. Germans go though this ritual meticulously the first time they see each other in the morning - every day. And business meetings are ended with a comprehensive round of handshaking.

There is a whole host of other issues relating to meetings, negotiating, socialising, and even body language, which can ensure that your German business partners are suitably impressed with you and keen to do business.

Moving beyond these fundamental do's and don'ts, as in the case of any international business, it is important not only to impress the Germans with some name and fact dropping, but also to do things right in terms of the German economy and society.

Crucial issues include the structure of industry, location and the vast differences which still prevail between West and East. Productivity, and real - as opposed to perceived - efficiency, are significant dimensions.

Furthermore, the expanding European Union is fundamental to Germany. The pending membership of Poland and Hungary, for instance, indirectly creates much potential for trade, enabling Germany to be used as a "springboard to the East".

Discover the differences

Ownership and organisation are not the same as in the UK and other European countries. Controversial corporate governance issues impact on doing business in Germany or with Germans, and it is important to be aware of the implications for your activities.

Each industry sector has its own peculiarities. Retailing works one way, and the insurance industry quite differently. The machine tool industry is also a distinct and, in many ways, unique sector.

Knowing precisely how each sector is performing at a particular time, and thus its current requirements, is essential to the planning and execution of business activities. Similarly, what kind of mood prevails amongst buyers, consumers and sellers and what opportunities or threats does this create right now?

From politics to pleasure

Networking in Germany is extremely important. Despite the emphasis on quality and the right person for the job, knowing the right people is surprisingly important. For outsiders, this is a challenge, but also a source of competitive advantage.

Sadly, integrity and honesty cannot always be assumed. Although Germany does not figure badly on international corruption indices, the country has been rocked by a number of horrendous scandals.

Politicians such as Helmut Kohl, have seriously tarnished reputations, and bribery and corruption have been exposed in the financial, construction, food and various other industries. This is not without its implications for British business people dealing with Germany. In short, care and open eyes are required.

Having said that, however, most Germans are a pleasure to deal with. They are solid, reliable partners and they get the job done.

Furthermore, the county is extremely wealthy. The prevailing problems do not detract from the massive wealth that has been accumulated during and since the "economic miracle" years of the fifties and sixties.

Germany's massive economy, its established power and increasing interconnections East and elsewhere, offer unlimited potential for trade partners.

Information and knowledge, especially specific to a particular deal or industry, combined with a sound level of cross-cultural expertise, can make all the difference between success and failure.

Dr Brian Bloch is Associate Professor, Department of Marketing, University of MĂȘenster, Germany. Previously Senior Lecturer in International Business, University of Auckland. Visiting researcher at the University of Linz, Austria. Extensive published articles on International Business and cross-cultural issues. He is a contributor to intercultural programmes at Farnham Castle.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Learning styles and culture

How do people from different cultures learn? Are learning styles affected by culture?

We already know from extensive research that male and female are significantly different in approaches to learning and processing information, and it seems logical to assume that people of different cultures will also learn in different ways (see for example

“Ways of learning are derived from ways of life and how adults and other people, including peers, in the immediate context 'teach'. These ways of learning develop through a complex interaction between life experiences, habits and formal instruction. Some cultural differences may occur in this regard which you should consider but they cannot be assumed. Culture is shaped by a multitude of circumstances and influences. “

Of course we know that culture is made up of many elements – visible and invisible, and without reigniting the nature vs nurture argument, how we learn is an integral part of growing up, and is inherited from the way in which our parents, initially and later teachers, colleagues and friends, pass on information and encourage us to process it.

“….(for) Asian learners group solidarity is important, we will try to emphasize group work in which the group, rather than the individual, is at the core of the activity. If we find that Hispanic learners profit more from concepts presented globally rather than analytically, we will try to ensure that each new topic is contextualized so that they get the whole picture first. If we become aware that Islamic students value oral repetition, we will ensure that, especially at the start, this approach is included in some way or other in what we do in the classroom”

Why is this important? First of all, it’s important to me, because if I am talking to a group about intercultural communication, I will need to adapt what I say and HOW I present the material to the audience, based on the cultures represented. The activities that we do will have to be modified further to encompass the preferences of each. Looking at the quotation above, it will be important to ensure that an Egyptian delegate has the opportunity to repeat verbally key learning points, whereas a Norwegian may be more content to write it down, or read it. On the other hand, a Japanese learner will find it more important to concentrate on the elements of the training that improves his/her group; but an American or British learner will be looking to develop his or her personal skills primarily, in the hope that these will bring a business return eventually.

As always when dealing with people from other cultures, it is important not to over generalise. One of the functions of formal education is to broaden our range of learning style, and to help us accept information in a wider range of sources and formats.

I don’t think it’s possible to say that “Culture A” is a predominantly Learning Style “B” culture, however I think it is not too far from the truth to state that people from culture “B” might be more receptive to an approach that focuses more on Learning Style “C”. As usual, more research needs to be done to fatten this theory up a little, but all comments as always appreciated.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Presenting to audiences whose first language is not English

Don't leave your audience in the dark!

As business becomes more global, we are speaking to an ever-wider range of nationalities and people. This is true not only in the multi-nationals, but also in the professions and the public sector. It is giving us greater opportunities for wider relationships and more business. Increasingly, the world is using English, and this appears to give native speakers great advantages. However, there are dangers as well...

The tendency is to think that one can go into a presentation without having to prepare for that extra English language element that our Japanese, German or Spanish counterparts have to. In addition, we may forget to prepare for different cultural perceptions; because if we use English, we often expect the cultural context to be ours as well.

Adapt your language to the audience

Careful preparation is required for business encounters with non-native speakers of English, both linguistically and culturally. Take the example of a medium-sized pharmaceutical company in North Italy. They supplied medicines to the Italian market, and the only language spoken by employees was Italian. The company was taken over in the mid-nineties by an Anglo-American multinational with its European headquarters in London. The new British general manager arrived and called a meeting for all management, to set out the new strategy. The employees understood little of the presentation, because he spoke fast, idiomatic English. They left the auditorium in a state of panic, knowing that in future, they would be reporting in English. The presenter had not adapted his language to his audience.

This is not an isolated example. Similar stories are heard whenever non-native speakers have to deal with native English speakers.

The young Spanish aeronautical engineer on a management development programme with British and Irish fellow students, felt isolated as he struggled to keep up with their language.
The group of French purchasing managers for a Franco-German pharmaceutical company had enormous difficulty understanding their British counterpart when he presented to them.
The Japanese manager of a Japanese electrical engineering company could not understand the Scotsmen on his team. The list goes on.

Use of Off-shore English is growing

We may ask: "Why don't they learn better English"? The answer is, they are doing so. Companies and individual invest heavily in English training, and there are increasing numbers of managers around the world using English daily. They use, however, a different form of English from the native speaker: 'Offshore English' (OE), is a practical, direct language used as a business tool throughout the world. It cuts out the idioms, expressions, indirectness, phrasal verbs and colloquial phrases that we use to add life, interest and magic to our language.

OE is growing rapidly. It enables managers from a Franco-Japanese automotive company to communicate effectively, or executives from an Italian-German manufacturing company to solve complex problems together. Frequently, non-native speakers tell us that it is easier to talk to the Dutch, the Germans or the Scandinavians in English rather than the Americans, Australians or British.

Why do native speakers not use OE? In our experience, it is because most people using English internationally do not realise that it exists. In addition, the relatively poor foreign language skills of native English speakers are well known, and many of us do not appreciate the practical difficulties of using a foreign language at work. We hear a frequent complaint: "There is one American in my team of ten Germans, and so we all have to speak English at team meetings in Germany". Or that the British manager has been in Madrid for two years now, and still is unable to understand a presentation in Spanish. There are accusations of laziness, but more frequently of cultural arrogance.

Cut out idioms

So, how can the native speakers help their non-native counterparts? Clearly, adapting their language to OE is crucial. "We'll do it willy-nilly" is difficult to understand. "We'll do it anyway" is not.

Cut out those delicious idioms we love, and use unconsciously.

A former British prime minister used a mass of cricketing idioms in a meeting with a Spanish minister proud of his excellent English. But talk of 'sticky wickets' and 'being stumped' totally confused him, and before the next meeting he demanded it be conducted through interpreters.
Phrasal verbs are a minefield for anyone learning English, and often a more formal equivalent will be more easily understood. To a Frenchman or German, "I'll contact her" is easier than "I'll get on to her", or "Let's postpone the presentation" is more understandable than "Let's put the presentation off".

Presenting internationally

We also need to take into account cultural differences when we present internationally. The more we know what an audience in a particular country expects, the more effective we can be. The British prefer the presentation to be short and to the point, full of humour, metaphor and analogies. However, this can appear lacking in seriousness in Germany or Scandinavia, or not detailed enough in Japan.

A presentation keeping strictly to the timetable will be appreciated in Northern Europe, but may be less relevant in Italy, as one executive discovered to his cost. Asked to present to an Italian business association, he delivered a concise, well-argued performance in two minutes! After he finished there was an awkward silence, and then polite applause. The other presenters spoke for much longer, some for as long as 20 minutes. The meeting ended two hours late, and afterwards the Englishman was approached by a friend, who asked: "Why didn't you spell out in much greater detail the many things I know your company can offer?" The Italians expected to hear a well-argued case with the appropriate embellishments, and felt short-changed by the concise English style.

Presenting internationally offers many challenges. We need to be aware of not only what we say and how we say it, but also what our audience expects from a presentation. The more we know about our own language, and how to adapt it to a non-native audience, the more the audience will understand, and be able to take an active part in the meeting. The more we understand the cultural dimension, the greater our chance of hitting home with the message we want to give, on the level that the audience understands and feels comfortable with. When we get it right, we can build relationships and trust, and do business effectively.

Original Article at