Differences in Cultures
Increasingly, managers must deal with multiple ethnic groups with very different
cultures. Thanks to globalization, you are likely to work with Japanese, French, Chinese,
German and all sorts of other nationalities. It is important to recognize that people from
different cultures have are different in a variety of ways, including
- different ways of looking at things
- different ways of dressing
- different ways of expressing personality/goodness
|In an ideal world ...
- the policemen would be English
- the car mechanics would be German
- the cooks would be French
- the innkeepers would be Swiss,
- and the lovers would be Italian
|In a living hell ...
- the policemen would be German
- the car mechanics would be French
- the cooks would be English
- the innkeepers would be Italian
- and the lovers would be Swiss
These differences can cause problems interpreting what the other person is doing. Some
- In the US, a firm, short handshake indicates self-confidence and (heterosexual)
masculinity. A limp handshake by a man can be interpreted (usually wrongly) as a sign of
homosexuality or wimpiness. But in most parts of Africa, a limp handshake is the correct
way to do it. Furthermore, it is common in Africa for the handshake to last several
minutes, while in the US a handshake that is even a few seconds too long is interpreted as
familiarity, warmth and possibly sexual attraction.
- In Britain, men do not look at women on the streets. The French do. Recently, a French
public figure mentioned in a speech that the Brits are all gay -- the evidence was their
lack of overt interest in women.
Some dimensions along which cultures vary:
High Context vs Low Context
A low context culture is one in which things are fully (though concisely) spelled out.
Things are made explicit, and there is considerable dependence on what is actually said or
written. A high context culture is one in which the communicators assume a great deal of
commonality of knowledge and views, so that less is spelled out explicitly and much more
is implicit or communicated in indirect ways. In a low context culture, more
responsibility is placed on the listener to keep up their knowledge base and remain
plugged into informal networks.
Low context cultures include Anglos, Germanics and Scandinavians. High context cultures
include Japanese, Arabs and French.
- Interactions between high and low context peoples can be problematic.
- Japanese can find Westerners to be offensively blunt. Westerners can find Japanese to be
secretive, devious and bafflingly unforthcoming with information
- French can feel that Germans insult their intelligence by explaining the obvious, while
Germans can feel that French managers provide no direction
- Low context cultures are vulnerable to communication breakdowns when they assume more
shared understanding than there really is. This is especially true in an age of diversity.
Low context cultures are not known for their ability to tolerate or understand diversity,
and tend to be more insular.
Monochronic vs Polychronic
Monochronic cultures like to do just one thing at a time. They value a certain
orderliness and sense of there being an appropriate time and place for everything. They do
not value interruptions. Polychronic cultures like to do multiple things at the same time.
A manager's office in a polychronic culture typically has an open door, a ringing phone
and a meeting all going on at the same time.
Polychronic cultures include the French and the Americans. The Germans tend to be
- Interactions between types can be problematic. German businessman cannot understand why
the person he is meeting is so interruptible by phone calls and people stopping by. Is it
meant to insult him? When do they get down to business?
- Similarly, the American employee of a German company is disturbed by all the closed
doors -- it seems cold and unfriendly.
Future vs Present vs Past Orientation
Past-oriented societies are concerned with traditional values and ways of doing things.
They tend to be conservative in management and slow to change those things that are tied
to the past. Past-oriented societies include China, Britain, Japan and most
spanish-speaking Latin American countries.
Present-oriented societies include the rest of the spanish-speaking Latin American
countries. They see the past as passed and the future as uncertain. They prefer short-term
Future-oriented societies have a great deal of optimism about the future. They think
they understand it and can shape it through their actions. They view management as a
matter of planning, doing and controlling (as opposed to going with the flow, letting
things happen). The United States and, increasingly, Brazil, are examples of
Quantity of Time
In some cultures, time is seen as being a limited resource which is constantly being
used up. It's like having a bathtub full of water which can never be replaced, and which
is running down the drain. You have to use it as it runs down the drain or it's wasted. In
other cultures, time is more plentiful, if not infinite. In old agricultural societies,
time was often seen as circular, renewing itself each year.
- In societies where time is limited, punctuality becomes a virtue. It is insulting to
waste someone's time, and the ability to do that and get away with it is an indication of
superiority/status. Time is money. In cultures where time is plentiful, like India or
Latin American, there is no problem with making people wait all day, and then tell them to
come back the next day.
- Time-plentiful cultures tend to rely on trust to do business. Time-limited cultures
don't have time to develop trust and so create other mechanisms to replace trust (such as
The extent to which people accept differences in power and allow this to shape many
aspects of life. Is the boss always right because he is the boss, or only when he gets it
- In high power distance countries (most agrarian countries), bypassing a superior is
unsubordination. In low power distance countries (US, northern europeans, Israel),
bypassing is not usually a big deal.
- In the US, superiors and subordinates often interact socially as equals. An outsider
watching a party of professors and graduate students typically cannot tell them apart.
Individualism vs Collectivism
In individualist cultures, individual uniqueness, self-determination is valued. A
person is all the more admirable if they are a "self-made man" or "makes up
their own mind" or show initiative or work well independently. Collectivist cultures
expect people to identify with and work well in groups which protect them in exchange for
loyalty and compliance.
Paradoxically, individualist cultures tend to believe that there are universal values
that should be shared by all, while collectivist cultures tend to accept that different
groups have different values.
Many of the asian cultures are collectivist, while anglo cultures tend to be
- A market research firm conducted a survey of tourist agencies around the world. The
questionnaires came back from most countries in less than a month. But the agencies in the
asian countries took months to do it. After many telexes, it was finally done. The reason
was that, for example, American tourist agencies assigned the work to one person, while
the Filipinos delegated the work to the entire department, which took longer. The
researchers also noticed that the telexes from the Philippines always came from a
Problems Caused by Cultural Differences
- You greet your Austrian client. This is the sixth time you have met over the last 4
months. He calls you Herr Smith. You think of him as a standoffish sort of guy who doesn't
want to get really friendly. That might be true in America, where calling someone Mr.
Smith after the 6th meeting would probably mean something -- it is marked usage
of language -- like "we're not hitting it off". But in Austria, it is normal.
- A Canadian conducting business in Kuwait is surprised when his meeting with a
high-ranking official is not held in a closed office and is constantly interrupted. He
starts wondering if the official is as important as he had been led to believe, and he
starts to doubt how seriously his business is being taken
- A British boss asked a new, young American employee if he would like to have an early
lunch at 11 am each day. The employee said 'Yeah, that would be great!' The boss
immediately said "With that kind of attitude, you may as well forget about
lunch!" The employee and the boss were both baffled by what went wrong. [In England,
saying "yeah" in that context is seen as rude and disrespectful.]
- A Japanese businessman wants to tell his Norwegian client that he is uninterested in a
particular sale. So he says "That will be very difficult." The Norwegian eagerly
asks how he can help. The Japanese is mystified. To him, saying that something is
difficult is a polite way of saying "No way in hell!". Dave Barry tells the
story of being on a trip to Japan and working with a Japanese airline clerk on taking a
flight from one city to another. On being asked about it, the clerk said "Perhaps you
would prefer to take the train." So he said "NO, I want to fly." So she
said "There are many other ways to go." He said "yes, but I think it would
be best to fly." She said "It would very difficult". Eventually, it came
out that there were no flights between those cities.
Three basic kinds of problems: interpreting others comments and actions, predicting
behavior, and conflicting behavior.
Some Perceptions of Americans
Europe & especially England. "Americans are stupid and unsubtle. And they are
fat and bad dressers."
Finland. "Americans always want to say your name: 'That's a nice tie, Mikko. Hi
Mikko, how are you Mikko'
Indian. "Americans are always in a hurry. Just watch the way they walk down the
Kenyan. "Americans are distant. They are not really close to other people -- even
Turkey. "Once we were out in a rural area in the middle of nowhere and saw an
American come to a stop sign. Though he could see in both directions for miles, and there
was no traffic, he still stopped!"
Colombia. "In the United States, they think that life is only work."
Indonesia. "In the United States everything has to be talked about and analyzed.
Even the littlest thing has to be 'Why, why why?'."
Ethiopia. "The American is very explicit. He wants a 'yes' or 'no'. If someone
tries to speak figuratively, the American is confused."
Iran. "The first time my American professor told me 'I don't know, I will
have to look it up', I was shocked. I asked myself 'Why is he teaching me?'"
Try this experiment:
Start by reading this:
FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS
OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE
EXPERIENCE OF YEARS
Now, quickly count the number of "F"s in that sentence.
On average, anglos find fewer F's than do others. Why?