Does culture matter?

spock-beautyAccording to American anthropologists Clyde Kluckhohn and Alfred Kroeber, culture “is a shared social blueprint for life – the constellation of values, assumptions, beliefs and behavioural norms that define a group of people.”

Well that’s the academic perspective for you, but how does this work in practice? Let’s say you have a prospective major customer in Germany and arrange to meet in Berlin over lunch.

Knowing how to read and speak German will be an obvious advantage when it comes to ordering lunch or entering into discussions but how will this serve you in being able to recognise the communication patterns of your guests that goes beyond the difference in languages being spoken?

Richard Lewis, a British linguistic expert and author of a fascinating book, When Cultures Collide, says the key to business success in such a situation will turn on having an understanding of leadership styles and an insight into cultural identity – not something taught in many business schools and yet probably one of the most important skill sets required to be successful in global business.

“By focusing on the cultural roots of national behaviour, both in society and business, we can foresee and calculate with a surprising degree of accuracy how others will react to our plans for them and we can make certain assumptions as to how they’ll approach us.

“A working knowledge of the basic traits of the other person as well as our own culture will help to minimise ‘culture shock’ and provide insights in advance and enable us to interact successfully with nationalities with whom we previously may have had problems with,” explains Richard Lewis.

From a marketing and public relations perspective, there are two forces that have a profound impact on shaping communication – language and culture – and this is covered in my own book, High Impact Marketing That Gets Results.

I was drawn to the research by Lewis because he tried to provide a graphic presentation of what culture looks like, why culture matters, where the blockages to communication are likely to occur particularly within a business context and how to achieve the outcome you’re looking for.

For example, when preparing to meet that German prospective customer you should be prepared for a highly methodical discussion and it looks a bit like this:

German business culture

German business culture

Germans tend to rely on logic but “tend to amass more evidence and labour their points more than the British or the French,” says Richard Lewis.

Spanish and Italians regard their languages as instruments of eloquence and they’ll go up and down the scale at will, pulling out every stop if need be to achieve greater degree of expression. And when dealing with the Swiss, be prepared for a straight forward and unaggressive approach.

Although cultural generalizations can be overly reductive, Richard Lewis has shown it can be done fairly as he says “determining national characteristics is treading a minefield of inaccurate assessment and surprising exception but through our research we have identified national norms.”

Scandinavians tend to have entrenched opinions but are also good conversationalists. “Swedes have the most wide ranging discussions, Finns tend to value concision and most Norwegians fall somewhere in between” says Richard Lewis.

When it comes to the English, we’re famous for not mixing business with pleasure, being a bit aloof, have a tendency to make understatements and also possess a strong notion of ‘fair play’ so be prepared for negotiations with us to look a bit like this:

English business culture

English culture

What both the German and English business communication charts demonstrate is how the conversational range flows – in the case of the German business conversation it’s pretty much on the same level all the way through whereas in English business culture the conversation tends to widen out at the end.

These charts also identify what ‘road blocks’ you can expect to encounter in most type of negotiations and what the typical cultural traits look like.

French business culture

When negotiating with the French you should be prepared for a vigorous logical debate:

French culture

When negotiating with American clients or customers, be prepared for getting right down to business, managing an emotional response when an agreement looks like slipping through your fingers and expect to make concessions to get the deal done, like this:

American business culture

American culture

In comparison, Canadians tend to be more low-key and inclined to seek harmony, though they are similarly direct in their approach around the negotiation table.

When you survey these social norms you can see why international negotiations so often go badly wrong – either diplomatically or at a business level.

In the US, there’s a social norm of meritocracy with fluid hierarchies and very often some of the most successful US organisations often have matrix management structures. This contrasts sharply with social norms observed in countries such as China, India, Brazil, Russia and Japan which tend to be much more hierarchical.

Another major difference is that Americans don’t feel the need to particularly know or deeply trust the people they choose to do business with. They tend to rely on contracts to enforce business dealings.

In contrast, personal relationships in Russia, Mexico and India are far more important – something that was identified in the research I undertook for the British Government that examined the way in which incremental new business opportunities could be secured in the wake of London 2012 Olympic Games.

Understanding the basic traits of those whom we want to do business with has taken on a greater significance as traditionally strong economies of the developed world such as continental Europe and the US have been overtaken by the rate of growth experienced in developing countries like China, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, Argentina, Turkey, Taiwan, Nigeria and India.

Indian business culture

Indian culture

Given that Indian culture is organised into distinct social groups based on language, caste, religion and region, Indians learn that many, if not most, social interactions are embedded in networks and that network members will monitor and sanction anybody who deviates from the norms for that group. Indian culture tends to support numerous overlapping guarantees of behaviour and as a result, makes India a ‘tight culture’ whereas the US is a ‘loose culture’.

In loose cultures people routinely trust on faith and therefore negotiators will extend relatively high interpersonal trust to their counterparts. However in tight Indian culture, people depend on institutional guarantees of behaviour in compliance with accepted norms arising from the networks they are used to.

Where such guarantees are absent from negotiations, the negotiators will extend relatively low interpersonal trust to their counterparts and research shows that Indian negotiators tend to show lower trust than US negotiators.

In summary, what the evidence shows is that culture really matters.

Things can go wrong in negotiations with clients and customers from different countries where you don’t respect or appreciate the social norms that apply elsewhere. This can be on an individual but also organisational basis, for example, where a company is operating in a different market from its country of domicile.

Experience of successful marketing and PR practitioners shows that they not only understand social norms in other territories but they also customise the negotiation process to the particular individual they’re dealing with.

Research by about local customs, practices and behaviours in business negotiation is essential part of the preparation process.

But marketing and PR shouldn’t be driven by generalisations about inhabitants of a particular country in which you want to do business with as they may be unreliable when assessing the particular individual and the specific context for the negotiation.

Ultimately your success will be dependent on understanding culture as well as the attitude, values, beliefs, perceptions and behaviours of the person you are doing business with.


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