How do you meld people from different nationalities into one corporate culture? How accurate are stereotypes by which we all initially judge? How can people from hostile countries work together in one company? Which countries generally have open vs. top-down communication styles …. except when they don’t? How do you get people from collectivist cultures to communicate in more open cultures? Chris Smit and Peter van der Lende, both of Culture Matters, bring over 20 years of experience assisting companies with these and other critical issues that can make ventures fail or succeed. Both guests, originally from the Netherlands, together speak four languages and have worked with more than 100 nationalities in over 50 countries. The main key to success for anyone is to acquire cultural competence and awareness of your own culture so that you can more effectively relate to and work with others.
Recommendations for creating a multinational corporate culture
Working with KLM, a multiple-language Airlines
The most difficult cultural difficulties that Chris and Peter have faced
Chris Smit MSc. makes companies and organizations more aware of cultural diversity. In business, the impact of cultural differences is underestimated. Through globalization it seems the world is getting smaller, and yet we all bear the mark of the culture in which we grew up. This often leads to misunderstandings that can be detrimental to the success of your business. Chris puts you on track to efficiently deal with the cultural differences. Since 1993 he has advised thousands of people from more than 100 different nationalities. His work has taken him to more than 45 countries. He is a passionate and enthusiastic speaker with extensive experience in coaching staff at all levels.
The World in Your Pocket
Chris was born in Amsterdam. He has lived in three different countries (The US, The Netherlands, and Belgium, where he still lives). As a marketing and sales consultant for the Dutch airline KLM, he traveled the world while earning a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Amsterdam. In 2007, he founded the company Culture Matters. Chris helps international companies becoming aware of and dealing with cultural differences.
The C of Complex
Culture is a complex concept. You get your cultural identity as you grow up. This cultural footprint stems from learned behavior. Why is a German always on-time? Why is a Frenchman’s lunchbreak so important? Why is it difficult for Indians to say no? Why are the Dutch so direct? They might seem stereotypes to you, yet they are very recognizable to many. How to avoid cultural diversity becoming an obstacle? That is what cultural competence is all about.
The C of Competence
How do you acquire that cultural competence? Cultural competence is the ability to effectively deal with people of different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. You especially learn this skill by trial and error. It’s a long process, in which a great sense of nuance is needed.
The C of Concrete
Companies working on their cultural competence are rewarded, both in time and money. Cultural competence ensures a more focused management. Chris is an inspirational speaker and a seasoned consultant. He knows how to translate the concept of cultural diversity by providing clear and compelling stories as well as practical solutions. His expertise is a source of inspiration for a very diverse audience. Chris Smit has several international publications in his name and is a frequent keynote speaker at international business events.
Peter van der Lende helps companies expand internationally through Market and Business Development. Expanding across borders brings unique challenges. Peter has over 20 years of experience in different commercial roles and has worked and lived in nine countries.
Through his company Expand360 (www.expand360.com), Peter offers a variety of engagement models that fit your needs to secure a true partnership with a mutual commitment for success. The model always aims, however, at starting with business development right away while exploring the market and building relationships as opposed to the other way around.
Peter works with Chris Smit at Culture Matters (www.culturematters.com) to help executives to become culturally competent. Too often is the impact of cultural differences underestimated that leads to international expansion failures.
The World in Your Pocket
Peter was born in The Netherlands and has lived and worked in nine countries in Europe, Latin America and North America. Peter started in the airline industry and has worked as an independent since 2013. Peter has a master’s degree in Business Economics and is fluent in English, Spanish and Dutch.
The P of Practical
Companies that aim at expanding internationally often start with bureaucratic tasks. Should I start a company? Should I rent an office? How many people should I have in Sales? However, it is much better to start with business development without the big overhead costs. Business development is a process, it requires time and effort. Peter builds the bridge.
The P of Persistent
Developing a new market and establishing new relationships requires time, but also persistence. It is always the face-to-face interaction and the strength of one’s network that ultimately makes the difference. Peter has a large network of people in Europe, Latin America and North America and secures new relationships for new clients where needed.
The P of Patience
Another P can be used for Partnership, but I chose Patience. It is of course better to promise fast results, but the reality is that developing new markets takes time. It takes time to get established for the long-haul. Peter is culturally competent in many markets and offers programs for you to become more culturally competent.
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Mastering Cultural Differences offers consultation and training solutions for culturally diverse organizations that want to implement successful and long-lasting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The end result is an organization where employees feel valued, respected, and want to stay.
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[email return to Philip@Auerbach-Intl.com]
Hello everyone. Since today’s guests deal with cross-cultural issues. I’d like to start with a sign in a Tokyo hotel that is both mistranslated into English as well as exhibiting some interesting cross-cultural issues. And the sign says, in very bad English, “it is forbitten to steal hotel towels please; if you are not person to do such thing is please to not read notis.”
So, with that, I’d like to introduce our two guests. We’re having a very unusual broadcast today– Two guests from the same company dealing with the same cultural issues: Mr. Chris Smit and Mr. Peter von der Lende.
Chris Smit is the Managing Partner of Culture Matters, a company showing clients the value of cultural diversity and how to maximize diverse talents for corporate growth. Having lived in the US, his native Netherlands, and currently living in Paris, he has worked with over 100 nationalities in 45 countries. He is a passionate and enthusiastic speaker with extensive experience in coaching and managing staff at all levels. His goal is to help clients gain cultural competence so that they can work effectively with people from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. The rewards are increased time and money with more focused management, effective production, and more humane HR policies.
Peter van der Lende has his own company, Expand 360 (www.Expand360.com), and works with Chris at Culture Matters. Peter has worked and lived in nine countries in Europe, Latin America, and North America and secures customers for his clients in these three markets. Fluent in English, Spanish, and Dutch, Netherlands-born Peter lives in Atlanta and has 20 years’ experience in market and business development. He builds bridges with what is Practical with time and effort and Persistent.
Both gentlemen met each other while working in Caracas for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
Welcome! I’m delighted that you’re both with us today.
Thank you for having us.
So, I’d like to begin with a broad cultural question, to which each of you can respond individually and add your perspectives. Many nationalities can create a lot of expectations as well as misunderstandings. How do you recommend creating a multinational corporate culture? Peter, why don’t you go first. Then Chris.
I guess a good intro is and that refers to the famous triangle we talk about when it ends with respect but begins with awareness. And many companies and that is, of course, both people and companies, do not realize that at the core of many problems, there is a cultural component. Many times it is blamed on a person or the personality of that person. Not understanding this means that person is not putting in enough effort, et cetera, et cetera, not understanding that a Mexican is not the same as an American. That, as well as the fact that a Chinese does not work like a Dutchman, so awareness… begins with awareness, and the famous sentence I used, which has also been used in a specific article, a bridge requires a gap. You can’t build a bridge if you don’t even recognize that there is a gap, so I’ll leave it at that because I know Chris has some more practical and theoretical framework references and such.
OK, thanks, Peter. just elaborating a little bit on what Peter started in terms of the pyramid If you want. Awareness is the key. It is a proven fact that people have a culture of their own.
Because we are fish in our bowls, we don’t tend to see that there’s a ceiling and a floor, and we take it for granted, which gives us limitations because, for us, it is really difficult to describe our own culture. It’s difficult for us, being Dutch, to describe Dutch culture. For an American to describe typical American culture, whatever that may be.
The next thing is the next level in development, if you want, an understanding of the location and we’re talking about a Dutchman versus an American, what are those differences and how do they work? And then you’ve got this… This is something you can learn, right? It is something you can understand. You can learn.
Then there’s a level that is hard to cover, which is respect, which is not something you can learn. When you work on a global scale, you bring respect to the table. And if you can cross that bridge, then the next level would indeed be cultural competence. What do you do? How do you behave? Because, in the end, you are responsible. It is all about doing. That’s a bit of an elaboration of what Peter said a little bit.
In addition to your question and Philip’s, which is, “How do you create a multicultural company?” First of all, it’s really difficult because it is… Culture is complex, and it is like water in a way; if you try to scoop up water with your hand, it runs through your fingers, it’s hard to hold, but it’s there. You can’t deny it.
And the second point is that, if you talk about a Dutch company or an American company in this example, the dominant culture will always be there. In this case, the Dutch culture, if it’s hosted in the Netherlands, or an American company if it’s hosted somewhere in the States, is what you fall under HR practices and US federal or state law. You can’t get away from that; those are restrictions. And regardless of how many Germans or Indians there are, you bring it in. That is not going to change anything. The simple answer is it is really difficult.
Yeah, the simple answer is that it is difficult. It’s very true.
Uh-huh, but it’s doable. It’s learnable. This is something you can learn.
One of you raised the issue of a distinct American culture, and I’ve done a lot of cultural training myself over the years. Sort of as an aside, when I describe the United States to immigrants and foreigners, what unites Americans from different cultures and different nationalities is what I call the three “I” words: Individualism, independence, and initiative.
And those three characteristics are uniquely American, with other cultures sharing some but not all. When an immigrant or, more likely, the children of immigrants adopt those three characteristics— perhaps two or three traits – Individualism, independence, and initiative – then the person is much more American than foreign. And the original country is more foreign than the host country (the US).
And that’s the problem, of course, for traditional parents from traditional cultures, especially where individualism and initiative are not valued. That becomes something that creates cultural clashes within the family.
Both of you started with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Chris you were mentioning that you know that Dutch, or in this case, the Netherlands, would be the dominant culture in the company. But Dutch is not, of course, a world language, and since I assume most corporate communications and operations are done in British English, each language brings its assumptions and world outlook. So how does that change the mindset of executives and staff at KLM?
Well, again, I can start with the short answer and my short answer in terms of how I have experienced the time that I spent in contact because it doesn’t change the mindset of the time, which is already some time ago.
But the management of that area was done, and management was influenced by and got their briefs from the Netherlands. And in a practical sense, what tends to happen with pretty much every culture, is when they are with their own culture, they switch back to their own language, as the Dutch would. When you are among each other, then you will switch back to your native language, and this also happens quite frequently in this case, as in Caracas for example, it happens quite often that the person working there is a non-Venezuelan and doesn’t speak any Spanish or could only communicate in English. And the Venezuelan could communicate better in Spanish, but could manage in English, and certainly not in Dutch. Peter, you spent more time there than I did, so what’s your take on this?
Yeah, language is a topic that is close to my heart, and it’s a very, very interesting one all by itself. I read books about it too. What’s it called? Don’t Believe a Word, and the other one is Through the Language Glass, It also talks about how language influences culture vs versa, and all these other things. And it’s a debate that, in my opinion, will never end. But I think the most important thing is that what Chris said does it shape culture.
It’s probably in my opinion also, it does not always have an impact, but it does in some cases when the Dutch believe that communicating in English is necessary for international relationships, and that’s not necessarily true across the board, across the world.
It is an assertion that Americans have, and potentially the English as well to an extent, the Dutch have, so it is imposed on the Latin Americans, so you cannot work for KLM if you don’t speak English.
But then? At the same time, of course, language and culture are expressed through language, and the Dutch directness is part of that. In Venezuela, the Dutch might say, “I’m not impressed with how you manage this project, we definitely should change something”
That it’s expressed through language, but it’s the Dutch culture at play here, which is shocking sometimes to foreigners. and how a Dutchman communicates in a foreign language as well as in his or her native tongue.
By the way, I just made a note here that there are always funny anecdotes related to language, but one of the things that Chris may remember is that we assume that English is the international language. But when KLM was trying to build an alliance with Alitalia, the Italians, and Air France, that was not the case. It was French and Italian. They then had to change all sorts of things internally, including communication methods and platforms, to be able to communicate with the rest of the world. And now, of course, they are the Dutch alliance partners, it’s not a given, and it does impact the relationship quite a bit.
Can I add a few words from my own experience, Philip? It’s a blueprint for what Peter’s been doing. I was born in the Netherlands. I was born in Amsterdam. Now I live in Paris. My partner was born in what is now called the Russian Federation but grew up in a country that was part of the Soviet Union, which is called Azerbaijan so she speaks Russian. I speak Dutch, but we communicate in English. It’s our only means of communication.
Peter, you’re from the Netherlands, you live in the United States, and your wife is from Venezuela. She also doesn’t live in her home country, and you’ve always been close. You also had to make amends to get the relevant communication going, but that does not diminish my Dutchness and, I think, knowing you, or is it just how I know you that doesn’t take away your Dutchness?
It doesn’t, no.
I speak Spanish with my wife. We speak Spanish at home. I have three daughters. They were born in three different countries. We speak Spanish for the most part. I try to keep the Dutch up as well. It’s difficult, but my Dutchness doesn’t go away, my daughters make fun of it, and my wife has to deal with it.
That’s why I’m always impressed when someone from a cold climate marries someone from a warm climate. You know, a Swede marries a Spaniard or something, and I can imagine the fireworks in the family.
Philip, you do adapt somehow because I’m here, alone at home. My partner has stepped out to do some New Year’s shopping, etcetera, and she said to me, as she’s very polite in her general communication, “Say and do wish happy holidays to Peter.” I haven’t done that Peter yet. OK, but she asks “if it’s appropriate to wish him well,” I think to myself, “Happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas,” and I think to myself “if it’s appropriate?” That is not even a question. I will either do it or not do it, that is, I will say yes or no. Yes, and I adhere to the communication that I have with my kids, for instance, is very different. Thank you for that.
Chris, did she say what she said? Happy holidays, Merry Christmas, or what did she say?
I think she said Merry Christmas, which is interesting because, as a person of Soviet Union descent, Christmas is not on the 24th, or 25th as we celebrate it. So, I hope it’s appropriate, Peter.
That’s where that appropriateness comes from, right? She is sensitive to it because it’s Christmas, and even in the United States, depending on where you are or whom you speak to, people would prefer to say “Happy Holidays” because you don’t know whether that person is Christian or celebrates Christmas, et cetera.
Yeah, exactly. Many years ago, my ex-wife and I attended an interfaith wedding. Jewish and Protestant. I think it was the rabbi… There was a rabbi and a minister, and I think the rabbi said that some of you think an interfaith marriage will be difficult to navigate. The fact is that any marriage between a man and a woman is an interfaith marriage, and I think that’s even more true than the religious aspects of it.
You’ve mentioned some of the cultural issues. What are the most difficult cultural difficulties that each of you has faced? Chris, why don’t we start with you? And I mean this, you know, professionally.
Stepping outside of my role and into my culture matters. What I’ve learned over the last 20 years is that I’m generalizing because culture isn’t set in stone. Is that true for the majority of Westerners, including Australians and, say, North Americans, at least in the United States and Canada, the Japanese are the most difficult to work with, then the Chinese, then come the Indians, then it becomes gradually easier.
For us, Westerners, the Dutch, and Americans are difficult because you can’t generalize over Europe as one culture is for us. It is very difficult dealing with collective cultures. We see it as a black box. They say yes to everything, but yes is not always yes.
I was doing a workshop for a Dutch firm, a multicultural organization. This Indonesian woman told a story. She said we were having a beer and one of the Dutchmen inquired, “Who wants another beer?” And then she said to the Dutchman, “Well, my glass is still half full,” which is an indirect way of communicating that is very appropriate in Indonesia, and then the Dutchman leaned in, saying, “that’s not what I’m asking you” and so that’s a very Dutch directness that I want to have with a Yes or No. “Do you want another drink?” She declared clearly, she did not want another drink. But for the Dutchman, it went over his head like this: So there you have it. Things we discover.
And vice versa, the same thing happens. I’ll give it to you in a moment. Peter is saying that for years I worked with a Japanese colleague who was married to a Dutchman who had lived in the Netherlands for 400 years already. But she was so indirect with her communication, and you always had to recheck and carefully recheck. Is this what you’re saying? Or are you saying this, but you mean something else, so it’s extremely difficult to find a common ground in terms of direct versus indirect communication for both individualistic and collectivistic cultures.
Yeah, I think Chris has it going on. I’m trying to think in terms of other dimensions because Chris mentioned individualism and collectivism, or loyalty. Loyalty to oneself: We like to call it what we have, and Chris has renamed some of the dimensions in the past. And I think he did a very good job doing that because I think the new labels are better. For example, instead of specifying whether it is masculinism or feminism, what is the better way to say it?
Goal orientation is a very important one because, if you think about the United States and the Netherlands, people might think that in the Netherlands the Dutch are very goal-oriented. It’s crucial how you get to the goal; I sometimes refer to it as the journey versus the destination; the journey is just as important, if not more important than the destination itself, and so on.
But what I would like to shift toward—and maybe we get to that later as well—is hierarchy and open communication and things like that. So, when I was working in Latin America, it was a very collectivistic area for the most part. So, everything is in groups; family is important, etc. So just going out on your own and doing your own thing can be frowned upon, but the most important thing is like this “Yes” culture in Mexico, where I worked and lived, encouraged me to try to get this open, direct communication going as a Dutchman.
I had the team there, but I was just hitting that wall all the time, like I was encouraging you to speak up. And what shall we do? And the Mexicans looked at me as if I wasn’t a leader because you’re telling us what to do and asking for our opinions. We just want you to tell us where we go from here, so they’re staring at me, like, what are you doing. It took me quite a while to find that balance because I cannot become Mexican overnight and they cannot become Dutch, so we have to find some sort of a balance. And I think over the years, it started to work well.
On a related subject, the United States has what is normally called an open communication style where lower-level managers and employees can be normally encouraged—or certainly not discouraged—from expressing their opinions, their ideas, and their suggestions about how to make the operations better, for example. And in most American companies there’s—I wouldn’t call it necessarily an “open door” policy—but a way to easily communicate with managers and senior managers, even potentially the boss, depending on how big the company is.
The contrast is that most countries and most cultures in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, and even in Europe are very much top-down: the manager or the boss decides what to do, and the staff implements the boss’s decisions, and there’s very little communication, and it’s often impossible for a low-level person to go beyond his boss’s level to have a suggestion or idea bubble up to the top.
So again, these are very different management approaches. And what you’re saying, Peter, in Mexico, you know, it’s very much like that. So how do you encourage people from top-down societies to give their input when their own culture discourages it?
Maybe I can just get Chris and me going quickly. I’m 100% sure that Chris will have some very solid observations on this very topic as well.
I think first we need to establish … but let me take a step back. There’s a slide that we use, and it has a person with a fish in his hands, and on the slide, his fish discovers water last, isn’t that what it says? Meaning the fish is out of the water, the fish suddenly realizes I’m out of my environment, I need that water. I didn’t even realize I was living in water because I’m out of the water. And I always have to think of that slide with the fish out of the water when I talk to people in general… but Americans, in particular, are concerned about hierarchy.
And in fact, Chris and I have some differences on this topic or at least a slightly different angle. Or something slightly different. The fact that I’m a Dutchman and I’ve lived and worked in nine countries, including the United States, and I find it relatively extensive and that’s because I’m a fish outside of the Netherlands, and I’m also not American. So, I believe that I have a view that differs from that of an American who has visited the United States. Americans In the United States is a very open society where opinions flow easily. But compared to the Netherlands, I can tell you that a Dutchman will tell his or her boss that he’s dead wrong about something and he comes up with an alternative, saying if we do this, that’s much better. That does not happen in the United States.
In America, If an idea comes from that boss, the employee might say, “Well, what about Alternatives A or B?” Fine; you can come up with alternatives, but the boss might say, “I heard it from my boss. We better do it”. In the Netherlands, that person might say, “I think it’s a stupid idea. I think we shouldn’t do this” and may rebel against it, and I don’t think that will happen in the United States.
Europe is culturally extremely diverse, so in the Netherlands that might happen, but in Italy not necessarily. That is the first point I want to make about the fish out of the water and how the United States is not always perceived as a place of open communication culture in the eyes of a Dutchman; but it is in the eyes of the Mexican, Chris.
Thank you both very much. This has been a wonderful talk with Chris Smit and Peter van der Lende. I hope that everyone will join us next time for another episode of Global Gurus and Stories of international business. And I’ve been your host, Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International (www.auerbach-int.com). Thank you.
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