Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Culture is just hot air...

....well, a gas actually

Culture is like a gas, a reactive gas such as O2.
Gases always expand to fit the container they are in, and if oxygen comes into contact with another reactive substance, it will react and become something else.
It is therefore unstable, dynamic, constantly changing and unpredictable.

Culture is in the same way dynamic, constantly changing. Whenever you interact with someone, you create a culture – a way of defining the commonly understood rules of behaviour, etiquette, power distribution and face strategies that will govern that interaction.

Let’s break that down a bit.

When you talk to someone it is very very rare (rare enough to put to oneside for the moment) that you start by intending to offend them. We have an intuitive need to maintain our own face (our public identity, how we are viewed by those around us) and a desire to maintain the face of those we are communicating with. Each of us has slightly different expectations of how we perceive that our face should be maintained, and more importantly our expectations differ greatly depending on the context we are in.

To take a simplistic example, a Captain in the army expects subordinates to stand to attention, salute, and use “sir” (or “ma’am”) when speaking. When the same Captain comes home, she will certainly not expect the same attitude and deference from her children. In most familiar circumstances we instinctively know how to behave at a job interview, in a pub with our friends, in the office, in a client meeting etc etc. In each circumstance I portray a different identity, which is nonetheless still “me”.

The difficulty comes when we are in an unfamiliar environment, or meeting people whom we do not know, and cannot immediately guess their relative power status in relation to ourselves. In our familiar environments, we know how to be polite, to be deferential, to be humourous, to demonstrate authority. When a woman introduces her new partner to her circle of close friends, he is initially unsure of himself: firstly the woman is torn between two identities – that of best friend to her girlfriends, and that of partner. But more importantly the man is as yet unaware of the rules governing the group of friends – do they kiss on greeting each other for example – if the assumption is yes, and it is wrong, embarrassment and confusion will ensue. The group of close friends have a shared resource pool that they will index partially without repeating all the details. For the newcomer, a statement such as, “What an awful meal we had last week” will mean nothing. The “we” will be understood by the in-group, it will be clear what meal they are talking about and the group will continue with the details “taken as read” – for the outsider to the group, they need further explanation, even to the extent of whether it is appropriate to challenge the speaker.

In this kind of relaxed informal context mistakes are relatively easy to mend and rarely have longer lasting consequences. However if we take the same issues into the context of major international business meetings we suddenly have serious consequences riding on the outcome of being able to decide almost instantaneously which strategies are appropriate to what context.

One of the first negotiations to take place concerns power – who takes the lead in the meeting. If we follow a common assumption that whoever sends round the agenda or calls the meeting is the lead, can we be sure that that is always the case? Well, actually, no, we can’t.

A supplier may well request a meeting with an important client to discuss invoicing terms. This immediately upsets the established “culture” of interactions between the representatives of the two companies. One might normally expect the supplier to be deferential to such a big client, and to hand over the lead in a meeting to their representative. But in this instance they need to draw attention to the fact that several large invoices are outstanding, and they want to resolve the issue urgently, so they request the meeting, send round an agenda and nominally chair the meeting. However they don’t want to lose potential future business from this client, so it is clear that the power is renegotiated here, tacitly, and without anyone really noticing, but nevertheless it still happens.

For those who speak Russian, I have another analogy. My Russian teacher, Dr Gotteri (of Sheffield University fame) explained aspect in Russian verbs as like cricket balls and jelly. The perfective aspect – loosely related to the perfect forms of English tenses (have done, will have done, had done etc) - is the cricket ball: it’s stable, firm, no arguing. The imperfective aspect, which again, very loosely conforms to the continuous forms of English verbs (is doing, was doing, will be doing) is jelly – amorphous, unstable, readily mixes with other bits of jelly.

In my analogy this cricket ball is the now outdated view of culture that wants to limit us to defining ourselves by immutable, static groups with exclusive memberships – you can’t have two cricket balls occupying the same space at the same time. However it is becoming clear that we need a model that more resembles jelly – undefined, constantly adapting to its surrounds. The best bit is that it actually makes it easier for us. If we take the cricket ball approach to culture, we need to learn a set of rules and “culture scores” for each national/ethnic group we meet, and hope that the individuals conform to the rules. But the jelly approach means that we merely need to be aware that our assumptions and expectations may (or may not) be different from anyone else’s whatever their background and it is up to us to negotiate the rules of the encounter as we go along – which we do anyway.

Does this mean the end of intercultural training? Not at all, in fact it makes it much more interesting, because we can look at the strategies and ways we negotiate power and face, how we “do” politeness, and we can not only improve communication, but because we know how it is done, we can move to take control and give ourselves the advantage. More importantly, these lessons won’t be restricted to one country, but will have a universal applicability

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Infinite dimensions

As the initiated will know, there is a little controversy around Professor Hofstede and his research into Cultural Dimensions, first published in 1980.

For those who aren’t aware, Hofstede took survey results from IBM and from the identified 4 “dimensions of culture” (he later added a fifth), to distinguish between nationalities. There is a large amount of criticism aimed at his research methodology – not being an expert, I’m not really in a position to comment too much on that, however I can use an analogy and let people draw their own conclusion. There are 2 adults and 2 children in my family. Our average ages are 24.5. Can I therefore claim that the members of my family are around 24.5 years old? If I am unable to survey one member of the family, the average age will be significantly different. Hofstede took the average score across the various dimensions to be representative of a national cultural identity!

Please consider another situation. If an alien were to visit the earth to do some research into each nation, and were to ask humankind to choose a single specimen from each nation, what sort of person would you choose to represent Japan? (*Answer below)

One of the current views of culture that has gained a lot of credibility, especially among “social constructionists” is that we “do culture”. In other words, we create our own identity which is negotiated continually depending on the situational context. There are certainly national elements to this negotiation, but it is implausible to claim that the national is the most important feature in any context (in some it may be, however hard it might be to identify). Social constructionists and current interculturalists believe that an individual has an infinite number of cultural identities, none of which are fixed or stable, and represent all our past experiences, observations and perceptions. For example we behave very differently when we are with our children and/or parents than when we are at business meeting, and we will portray a very different worldview.

Hofstede presents a very practical, easy to use model of culture, and the alternative is infinitely harder to confine and present (especially if you’re an intercultural trainer trying to sell your services to business), however the intercultural model that pre-supposes infinite, negotiated, unstable cultural identities presents us with an approach that is of much wider benefit – instead of learning the dimension score for each “national culture” and devising a specific approach for each, we can start looking at a more universal approach that is not limited to one situation.

It’s an area I have only just come across (better late than never, I suppose) but after a strict diet of measurable and easily identifiable national culture, it is a fantastically interesting approach!

*Answer to the above “typical” Japanese – if you take just the statistical average, you would choose a 46 year old woman, with only high school education, living in a suburb, who has never joined a union, and probably works in retail

Monday, 2 June 2008

Do you really understand

Do you really understand? Communicating across cultures

Imagine a situation. You have just received a memo from your CEO (you work for a huge global organisation). In the memo, the newly appointed CEO states his vision for the company, and the core values he will be implementing as part of his new strategy. The core values are: Freedom, Respect, Integrity. Very simple values and easily understandable. In fact there is little doubt what he is looking for......or is there?

Are you really sure that you have the same definition of respect, freedom and integrity as your CEO?

Some examples might help, one I have lifted shamelessly from Mijnd Huijser (Author of “The Cultural Advantage”). An American newspaper published an article denouncing the levels of freedom and democracy in Singapore. It cited laws banning smoking in public places, consumption of chewing gum, the seemingly hereditary post of Prime Minister, the authoritarian manner of policing, and dictatorial government style. The conclusion of the article was that Singapore was not a free country, and the US government should be pressurising Singapore towards democratic reform. This article prompted (unsurprisingly) a large response from Singaporeans – one in particular was highlighted by Mijnd Huijser, which pointed out that if you were to walk two blocks from the Post building after dark you had a very high chance of mugging. Americans may well have the freedom to smoke and chew gum in public, but Singaporeans had the freedom from the fear of mugging (Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world) and a very stable government that is able to present a consistent style.

For the American “freedom” is “freedom to....” – to the Singaporean, “freedom” means “freedom from....” Which interpretation is correct?

What about “respect”? For Western cultures, respect is largely a two-way process, that allows each person to value the others, to listen carefully, be polite, but it allows a certain amount of conflict (i.e. providing I am constructive and polite, I reserve the right to criticise, disagree, and ignore). In Asian cultures “respect” is one way – from the bottom to the top. In other words, your boss gets all your respect, whether you like him or not, whether you are work or not. Fons Trompenaars (one of the founding fathers of intercultural theories) uses a dilemma – would you paint your bosses house if he asked you to? To us Westerners, once you had removed the expletives, the answer would be “no”. However studies show that, for example, in China almost 70% of the workforce would definitely paint their boss’ house!

Again, we can ask, which interpretation is correct?

Integrity is another grey area. I suspect I am not shaking any idealist too much if I claim that everyone lies to some extent in their day-to-day life. However we try to remain true to our concept of integrity – honesty in our negotiations and relationships. Trompenaars uses the dilemma of a car crash which is entirely your fault, but witnessed by your friend. How will you expect your friend to describe the event to the police? In many cultures (covering approx. 80% of the world’s population) they would expect the friend to tell a huge lie to protect your driving licence. In Britain we would probably expect our friend to avoid the truth, by saying for example, they couldn’t really judge the speed, or they hadn’t noticed me drinking etc. In Switzerland 97% of those asked said they would tell the truth (that I was over the speed limit and had been drinking) – in fact there is a joke about the Swiss: Why is the crime rate so low in Switzerland? Because breaking the law is illegal!

Is it fair for the Swiss to judge the remainder (80% of the world’s population) as dishonest liars? Is it fair for a Venezuelan (70% of whom would tell a lie to protect their friend) to judge the Swiss as traitors to their friendship? Again, who is right?

If we return to our imaginary CEO and his equally imaginary memo above, we realise that he (or she) has a huge problem. If his core message cannot be communicated clearly, he is going to have to explain to his shareholders that he has failed in setting a new strategy for the company.

Again a hypothetical situation: a company wants to tap into the success of the Coffee shop franchise and make its chain of small coffee shops more “upmarket”. The CEO sends a memo to the local franchisees around the world– bring in some class to your operations. In New York the coffee shop brings in Styrofoam cups with lids on, and speeds up the service time. In Germany, they bring in recyclable cups. In Italy, the franchisees invest in bone china, expensive furnishings and artwork. In Britain, they put the price up. Unsurprisingly the CEO is horrified out how his employees have completely missed his point!

Intercultural communications skills focus on ensuring that your meaning is the same as the meaning as perceived by those who hear your message. We have to remove our assumptions of comprehension and become more explicit. Testing and retesting comprehension (obviously in a culturally sensitive manner – no one likes being patronised!). Learning how to transfer a message across cultures is one of the most important skills an international manager can have!

(Sources: The Cultural Advantage, Mijnd Huijser; The World’s Business Cultures, Tomalin/Nicks; Riding the Waves of Culture, Fons Trompenaars)

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Just a quick post with a link to an article on how badly things can go wrong when you don't pay attention to all aspects of the cultural values of a country. Most people don't realise how deep Russians' feelings for the Orthodox church is, until they get it wrong. Well worth a read!

Tuesday, 8 January 2008


I suppose it's "traditional" to post a New Year welcome message, so I thought I'd start off by looking at where people are moving to.

Apart from the traditional "oil" expats in Nigeria, Middle East and Central Asia, we've seen Brazil and Argentina become much more popular destinations for business expats. India and China remain frequent subjects for the training I'm involved in, although the number of actual expats seems to be in decline - more and more companies seem to prefer either using local management companies, or relying on a combination of visits and remote management. This is particularly true for companies in Russia, where the soaring cost of expat life, along with perceived security issues makes people reluctant to move their families to Russia.

At Farnham Castle we have been doing a lot more in intercultural personal development in recent months. More and more companies are recognising that cultural misunderstandings are effecting their productivity. The main change is that attendees on our courses have become more outwardly focussed. Historically, the focus has been "getting on with" colleagues, but more and more frequently we are asked to help develop relationships with business partners, clients, suppliers and governments, and more commonly the training is aimed at a global or regional work, rather than with a specific culture. For the future I can see that anyone working internationally is going to be expected to have global skills, and knowledge of a single specific market is likely to be much less valued.