Culture Matters in Bussiness. It’s Culture Stupid

[4-mins read]

In an earlier article called Nine Signs, You’re Not Getting it, I wrote about 9 signs showing that people who work internationally don’t always realize that they should pay attention to cultural differences.

Not getting what?

That Culture Matters in business when you’re working internationally!

That article got quite a number of comments and also good traction on Social Media.

So I decided to give you nine more signs showing that some people get it (and unfortunately most don’t). Here we go.

1. We’ll Give Everyone a Book

There are plenty of travel guides and so-called “how to” books for dealing with other cultures. But increasing your cultural competence is a contact sport and you don’t get that from a book. To illustrate this, there’s a famous story about an American company that took over a Dutch company some years ago.

it's culture stupid undutchables. Culture matters in business

The American workers were already a bit wary about the deal with the Dutch (and they only knew the Dutch by stereotypical things, such as windmills and cheese or even the liberal drug policies and the Amsterdam red-light district). So, in order to better prepare them to work together, management thought it was a good idea to give everyone a book called the UnDutchables.

It’s a hilarious book written by an American and a Brit which looks at every aspect of the Dutch culture. Many Americans already had their doubts about working with the Dutch, but after reading this book, they were sure the Dutch were completely crazy.

Management had to do a lot of damage control to make things work…

You don’t learn a culture by reading a book. Period.

2. It’s Too Expensive

Everything costs money and there’s no such thing as a free lunch… So, cultural competence development also costs money. Of course, I work for a fee!

But here’s the thing: in my 20+ years as an interculturalist, I have seen many companies that work with different cultures but don’t pay attention to the development of the cultural competence skills of their people. Here are some examples:

  • Banks outsourcing their IT to India and not getting back what they want: time & money wasted.
  • Turkish IT staff that don’t consult their boss for further clarification of what they need to do; results in projects running over time: time & money wasted.
  • American expats that can’t settle in their new country and leave their job: time & money wasted.
  • Southern Europeans ended up in a deep depression due to culture shock not knowing why this is happening to them: time & money wasted.

Every time this happens it is time & money wasted. But… I haven’t seen any company calculating these expenses and most of them muddle through without ever realizing that it’s the cultural differences that got in the way.

Cultural competence is a skill that you can learn. In the end, it will be cheaper than just muddling through.

3. They Don’t Speak English

Being able to understand a language is crucial in any form of communication. And yes, I agree, if you don’t speak the language it’s hard to work together.

Having said that, most people, when working internationally, do master a certain level of English. And if they don’t, you should ask yourself if they’re in the right job to begin with…

Based on my international experience, I observed that many people can understand English well enough to understand cultural differences. They may not be 100% fluent (and therefore may be very hesitant to enter a conversation), but they might very well understand basic English.

And if they do, they will also understand the explanation of cultural differences.

4. We’ve Always Done It This Way, So Why Change?

Change is hard. Many people will resist it. Organizational culture might result in solving problems through rigid patterns and teaching people to become more culturally competent can be a real challenge and is often met with resistance as well.

it's culture stupid change

I’ve seen it time and again with companies that run projects in multiple countries: many times they think that simply managing projects as they are used to (in their home market), should represent the most efficient way. However, employees turn out to be reluctant to share information with each other, which hinders innovation, delays time to market, and leads to mutual frustration (and eventually of course negatively impacts the company’s bottom line).

6. Business is Business in Any Country

Fundamentally this is true. However, business is done in different ways in different countries or cultures!

Here’s an example: If you give someone a bottle of wine before negotiations in the Netherlands, it would be seen as a form of bribery. You should only bring wine at the end of a successful negotiation.

In neighboring Belgium (and France, Spain, and Italy), however, bringing a bottle of wine before negotiations is a sign of respect and could smoothen the negotiation process.

7. It Isn’t Our Priority At This Moment

For many companies, paying attention to the development of culturally competent people is not a priority. The focus tends to be on project execution, cost control, etc.

Culture matters pizzaWhat they don’t seem to realize is that in every aspect of international business (sales, marketing, negotiating, presenting, recruiting, etc) there is an aspect of culture and cultural differences. There aren’t any exceptions.

See it as a slice of pizza: In all international business aspects, there is one slice of pizza that represents cultural differences. How would you feel if you ordered a pizza and one slice is missing?


8. Cultural Differences Will Be a Thing of The Past Soon

Because of globalization and international travel, some people think that we are slowly converging into one culture.

I beg to differ. Here’s an example: On January 1, 1999, the Euro was introduced in several European countries. If you’re reading this and you’re from a Euro country, let me ask you this: “How much closer, culturally, has the introduction of the Euro brought us?“. I don’t think it has. The union is still struggling and Brexit is yet another example of how culturally diverse Europe really is.

Also, in terms of international travel, only about 5-10% of the global population frequently travel, or, in other words, 90% never leave their home country.

9. Doing Business Simply Requires Honesty

The non-culturally neutral word here is honesty. However, what is honest in one country is considered dishonest in another. Here’s an example:

The American sports apparel company Nike has a so-called “no gift policy“; in other words, you’re not allowed to give or receive gifts while doing business. A lot of the stuff Nike produces is made in Turkey. A businessman from Turkey made a remark that if he didn’t provide presents to the Nike factory workers, the productivity would be much lower. He literally said, “I use it to create a well-oiled machine“.

Now you tell me if he is being honest or dishonest… Or is he just doing business?

Read this article about 3 things to consider when working internationally.

Culture Matters in business

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