The Quick Culture Guide for Global Business

The Quick Culture Guide for Global Business
Photo by Cytonn Photography / Unsplash

The following guide is for anyone looking to increase cooperation and productivity in a multicultural environment. The ten-minute read is easily translated into multiple languages due to its simple vocabulary and sentence structure.

I encourage people to comment, discuss, and learn more about the practical findings by reading Erin Meyer's The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (the following maps are based on Meyer's culture mapping tool) and Steven J Heine's Cultural Psychology textbook. I also included an attachment at the bottom of this article with the necessary citations to understand how the data and results were collected.

Some of you will want to know the theory before reading this guide, and some of you will be happy to get straight to the bullet points. Why?

Persuading

  • People from theory-first cultures generally want to understand reasons before taking action. They prefer deductive reasoning (deriving conclusions or facts from general principles).
  • People from application-first cultures focus on the facts, statements, and how to get things done. The theory is avoided in business settings unless necessary. Instead, they prefer inductive reasoning (conclusions are based on a pattern of factual observations from the real world).
  • Mix the two styles when presenting to people from various cultures. Answer the theoretical questions so people from theory-first cultures trust your results and return to the practical points, so people from application-first countries don't get bored.
  • Westerners think good communication is clear and explicate (due to a more heterogenous and low-context culture), whereas, in many Asian and African countries, good communication is implicit and filled with subtext (due to a more homogenous and high-context culture). This also applies to Latin countries and some southern Western European countries.

More on persuasion and motivation

  • The endowment effect (the tendency for people to value objects more once they own them) is significantly more substantial in Western samples than in East Asian ones.
  • Canadians are more likely to persist longer on a task if they think they are talented at it compared to when they think they are poor at it. In contrast, Japanese persist longer on a task if they think they are poor at it compared to when they think they are talented at it. You can apply these results to other countries by understanding self-esteem.
  • Self-esteem as self-enhancement: seeing oneself in a positive light, exaggerating one's favourable attributes, minimizing unfavourable ones (common in the West).
  • Self-esteem as self-improvement: seeing flaws in self and improving on them (common in East Asia).
  • Self-esteem as self-acceptance: valuing oneself (including one's shortcomings) without conditions attached (found in many wisdom traditions around the world).
  • North Americans tend to make more external attributions for their failures, whereas Japanese make more external attributions for their success. Keep this in mind when asking for evaluations.

Communicating

  • In high-context cultures, the listener already knows the context and does not need to be given much background information (when they are from the same high context culture).
  • Low-context cultures depend little on the context of a situation to convey their meaning.
  • In high-context cultures such as Japan, being blunt and forward can be impolite even when stating what you want.
  • Low-context cultures are more likely to recap meetings in writing. This is good practice in multicultural teams as long as you let the team know why you're doing it.
  • If you're in an unfamiliar low-context culture, provide details and don't take offence when people tell you exactly what they think.
  • If you're in an unfamiliar high-context culture, ask for details. However, remember that people from high-context cultures might use a holistic approach, whereas people from low-context cultures might use an analytic approach. With holistic thinkers, people don't separate individuals from the environment, so describing the context and environment is equally relevant when understanding the individual.
  • Analytic thinkers have less tolerance for contradiction if A = A, then A cannot also = B.
  • East Asian tradition has a relatively higher acceptance of contradiction (na├»ve dialecticism). Because change and contradiction are constant, everything is related and cannot be isolated into independent elements.

Evaluating

  • If you come from a blunt/direct culture, don't try to be too blunt when giving feedback immediately. You might not have learned the correct language and mannerisms when being blunt.
  • If you come from a blunt culture, remember to make a shit sandwich. Say something positive (the bread), something negative (the shit), and then something positive (the bread).
  • In a French setting, positive feedback is often implicit, while negative feedback is direct. It's the opposite in the USA. They use negative notes with encouraging language.
  • More direct cultures tend to use upgraders (absolutely, totally, completely), "That was completely unprofessional," or "This was an absolute failure." More indirect cultures use more downgraders such as kind of, sort of, a little, maybe, etc.,
  • If you provide feedback for those from a high context and indirect feedback culture, do it privately because these cultures emphasize saving face (upholding their role in society to keep from losing respect). A boss or someone higher on the hierarchy can be more direct.
  • High context doesn't always mean indirect negative feedback. For example, in Israel, people speak with a lot of subtexts but give very direct negative feedback.
  • Russians are direct with negative feedback but come from a hierarchical culture, so you can be candid with your subordinate but not the other way around.
  • Many countries in the lower-right-hand quadrant have cultures that influence an interdependent self-construal (identity tied to social context with stress on social roles). Interdependence scores significantly correlate with higher embarrassment. It is essential to keep that in mind if you plan to critique someone in a group setting.

Leading

  • Hofstede developed the term "power distance" while analyzing 100,000 management surveys at IBM in the 1970s. He defined power distance as "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally."
  • Don't forget the significant variation within Europe.
  • "It is important for a manager to have precise answers to most of the questions that subordinates may raise about their work?" Those on the hierarchical side are more likely to answer "yes."
  • In an egalitarian culture, authority is more likely to come from acting like one of the team. In a hierarchical culture, an aura of authority usually comes from setting yourself apart.
  • Americans might perceive German organizations as hierarchical because of the fixed hierarchical structure and the very formal titles. Germans might consider American companies hierarchical because of their approach to decision-making. German culture places a higher value on building consensus for decision-making, while in the United States, decision-making is on the individual.

Deciding

  • Consensual: Decisions are made by the group or groups through unanimous agreement.
  • Top-down: Decisions are made by an individual (often the boss)
  • Japan uses the "Ringi system," which often starts in middle management. Once everyone has approved at one level, it goes to the next. The next higher-ranking managers then discuss the new idea and reach a consensus. If they agree, they pass the approval to the next level. The process continues until the idea reaches the highest management level to choose whether it is implemented.

Trusting

  • In task-based (business-first) societies, trust is built through your work and practicality. It might be easier to get into the inner circle, but the working relationship is also dropped more easily.
  • In relationship-first societies, work relationships take time. You must share a personal, deeper connection before discussing business.
  • People from more interdependent cultures see members of their in-group as a part of themselves and trust them but don't trust people from the out-group as easily.
  • In Japan, drinking together can build trust. Drinking is a time to share your true inner feelings (what are called honne rather than tatemae feelings).
  • If you need to email someone you don't know from a relationship-based culture, try to find someone who can connect you to them first.
  • If you come from a relationship-first society, you might find the relationship-based approach a waste of time. Take the time to enjoy the relationship process because these relationships can save time in the long term.
  • If you come from a relationship-first society, don't take offence if someone with a task-based background wants to get discuss business right away. And don't be surprised that people discuss business right after a "team building" exercise.

Disagreeing

  • Confrontational cultures believe that open debate is a beneficial way of developing new ideas and understanding each other.
  • In cultures that avoid confrontation, open debates are negative and can break the harmony.
  • If you are managing a team that is hierarchal and avoids confrontation, try to remove yourself from the meeting if you want truthful answers. You can also ask people to prepare their notes beforehand.
  • If you come from a culture that avoids confrontation, don't be offended when your team publicly critiques or challenges your ideas.
  • Consider Confucian teachings when visiting places like China, Japan, and Korea. Confucius preached a model of five constant relationships governing how the parent should behave toward the child, the older sibling to the younger, the older friend to the younger friend, the husband to the wife, and the ruler to the subject. If someone in the group does not live up to the expectations of their role, it can lead to a loss of face and societal order.
  • Don't confuse emotional expression with confrontation. In cultures like Peru and Mexico, people might show their emotions, but that doesn't mean they are quick to disagree. And in cultures like the Netherlands and Denmark, people might be more emotionally reserved but are open to expressing disagreement.

More on emotions

  • In some Arab populations, it is dishonourable if a man does not respond to an insult with a great demonstration of anger.
  • AMS: acute Mediterranean syndrome. People from Mediterranean cultures communicate their pain at several decibels louder than those from other cultures.
  • A tongue bite is recognized as embarrassment by Indians but not Americans.
  • With sachlichkeit, Germans can separate someone's opinions or ideas from the person expressing those ideas. They believe a good debate brings more ideas and information than we could ever discover without disagreement.
  • People from cultures in the upper-right-hand corner might find it difficult to separate the opinion from the person.
  • Chinese and Korean people might still challenge foreigners. Behaviour toward those with in-group status may differ greatly from behaviour toward those with out-group status.
  • Before confronting someone about their tardiness and scheduling styles, consider their culture.
  • As you can see, France is in the middle where 7 minutes late is still considered on time. If you move to the left on the scale, you should probably call and apologize. If you move to the right of the scale, you still have more time.
  • Even though China is on the more flexible side of the time scale, punctuality is a virtue in Chinese culture, and you should definitely apologize if you arrive late. In China, people are excellent at adjusting to constant changes.

More on time

  • Whereas English speakers think of time as passing from left to right, Arabic speakers see time passing from right to left. This can be important when asking someone to arrange something in chronological order.

Final thoughts

Improving your cultural competence and understanding of people worldwide is a never-ending adventure I'm exploring through my podcast, travel series, and writing (which is usually in a completely different tone than this easily translated, point-form article). There is still a lot for us to discuss with formalities, politeness, and gestures which I will write more about.

Remember that culture is always changing and that it is not only bound to place but in time. Some of the advice and results are based on research done over two decades ago, so using these graphs and advice as guidelines to reduce conflict, not stereotype people, is important.

All the graphs you saw in this piece come from Erin Meyer's The Culture Map, which I reformatted for this article. You can purchase her book and learn more about her workshops by visiting her website. You can also purchase Erin Meyer's mapping tool to see the results for countries not mentioned in the book. It's important to note that some countries have much more data than others, influencing the results.

I used Meyer's eight scales to compare my cultural background (I'm a third culture kid) to most of my students so I can adapt my presentations and give you all an example of what Erin Meyer's culture map looks like. I will write more about these culture maps and the results in the future, so make sure to subscribe.

I hope you all will discuss your thoughts in the comments. And before coming to conclusions about a certain culture, it's important to understand your frame of reference and how culture is studied. I recommend Steven J Heine's Cultural Psychology textbook and reading my introduction to studying culture, cultural biases, and research problems.

For anyone interested in taking business English classes with a focus on cultural competence, please email me and check out my teaching page. When working with an international team, you need people raised in multiple cultures to share their insights. As a Canadian and Belgian citizen who was born in Chile, currently lives in Spain, and has spent most of his career working for Chinese companies, I can improve your English and global communication skills.

I also encourage people to join my Interintellect series Without Borders: A series for Borderless Thinkers. On the first Sunday of every month, we investigate how to increase cultural competence, better workflow for international business, abate polarization, discover universal truths about morality, advance the bureaucratic system and immigration process, and create a more 'borderless' society.

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