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Inter-Cultural Management with Chris Smit and Peter van der Lende, of Culture Matters

Part 2: Stereotyping, Trial & Error, Dealing with failure, and Melding hostile nationalities

Chris Smit and Peter van der Lende

Part two of our two-part series with Chris Smit and Peter Van der Lende
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.

Highlights:

Encouraging people from top-down societies to give their input when their own culture discourages it?

Stereotypes that we have some merit.

The American management styles.

Chris Smit Bio:

Chris Smit Auerbach

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 Bio:

Peter van der Lende Auerbach

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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Full Transcript

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 Schmidt 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 clients for his clients in these three markets. Fluent in English, Spanish, and Dutch, Netherlands-born Peter lives in Atlanta and has 20 years of experience in market and business development. He builds bridges with what is Practical with time and effort, Persistent through face-to-face interactions, and Patience to secure results based on trust and cultural competence. 

And both gentlemen met each other while working in Caracas for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines that’s where they both started their careers. So welcome! I’m just delighted that you’re both with us today. 

Thank you for having us.

 

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.

Yeah, that’s true, and I agree with that. I’m just skimming over our little cheat sheet which if I’m not mistaken [Holds it up], you won’t see it. It’s useless to actually hold it up, but I’m going over some scores on one of the first primary dimensions of culture too, uh, new ones; the first statement is in terms of geography; you have the United States on one side and then you have Europe, Latin America, and Asia and they’re all more top-down.

That is not always true for countries and Caribbean islands. Jamaica has a fairly comparable level of hierarchy compared to the United States. By the way, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia all agree, as do the Dutch, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. They have relatively comparable scores and hierarchy. When it comes to the United States, your question at the end is now acceptable. How do you go about this? In general, you could argue that for a person from a higher-scoring country, say, Belgium, Italy, or France, going to a lower-scoring country in terms of Hierarchy for those people, it’s relatively easier to adapt. 

A Belgian once told me that the temperature in the Netherlands is significantly different from that in Belgium and that I experienced about 50 degrees more freedom, whatever she meant by that. Typically, this is true for people who come from a lower-scoring country, such as the Germans or the British. as well as the Dutch as an example. Going to a country like Mexico or France, Why? Why all this mess? You are just a boss. That’s all. That’s all you are. So that tends to be by far more difficult.

If you want to get some feedback from the people who are in this case Venezuelans, one solution could be to gather the Venezuelans and assign them a task. In other words, I’d like to find a solution to this and this problem. Appoint one spokesperson, and this person will then feed that back to me, so there’s no loss of face. There’s no difference in the hierarchy. It’s a clear assignment, and it all makes sense. I want you to tell me what’s going on so that we can find a solution. So that could be a way around it. There is no one way to organize it.  There are various roads that lead to Rome, so this could be a solution.

Yeah, it’s very, very interesting. Thank you. You’re very right, and each company has its own culture in itself. I worked for an American company that said we absolutely want your input, we value input, and I think everyone there was American. There may have been one or two immigrants, but basically, everyone was American, and this was in California, which supposedly is very open-minded.

The reality was that if I did give input, it was not valued, and they basically shut me down. So, again, it depends on the corporate culture, but in general, what you’re saying is correct in terms of cultural hierarchies and so on.

This leads to the question of stereotypes. A lot of people think that stereotypes are wrong. We shouldn’t judge people by whatever the criteria are. The fact is, however, that when you meet someone for the first time, you may meet a person who introduces himself or herself, and you can tell by the person’s name, accent, or nationality in general where the person came from, and that creates a certain stereotype. 

The Dutch are this way. The Americans are that way. The Japanese are the other way. 

And stereotypes are stereotypes because there is an element of truth to them. There’s an element of fact to them. So, what are some of the general stereotypes that both of you have found about working with different nationalities and talking about the Dutch, the Belgians, the Germans, the Americans, the British, and so forth? You can go down the list of what nationalities. What do you generally find?

So, you would like to hear stereotypes that we have found to have some sort of merit. 

Yes.

OK, Peter, you want to go first.

Of course, the stereotype of all Latin Americans is that they are easy going, late, enjoy life, and value family. And all of these things—yes, they are the stereotypes you apply to them across the board. And yes, I mean my first day in Venezuela, for example, when I was in Caracas, Venezuela, and said, “Well, it’s Friday.” It’s not, actually. It was a Thursday. On Thursday every other week, we simply roll out the cart with the beer and whiskey, and we’re going to have some fun. 

And we did, and afterward, we went out, and it was, and Venezuelans drink whiskey. That’s part of their culture, surprisingly. And it was very late. I didn’t even show up at the office the next day, and this is what happened to Peter because I was not there. It was too much for me. I could not handle the partying. 

And another stereotype is, I guess, that Mexicans just say Yes. Multiple times I suggested something, everybody was nodding about something, but it didn’t happen. But the most important thing and what I wanted to say here is separate from stereotyping and coming up with the stereotype. By the way, I believe the stereotype for Americans is “just do it.” 

And hopefully, we have time to get to that because understanding the trial-and-error culture of Americans is critical. But what I would say and add to this stereotype discussion is that stereotyping is not always bad because it contains some truth in it, right? Because otherwise, why would it be a stereotype? First, there are big differences between them. 

The Latin Americans. So, for example, between Venezuelans’ very Caribbean-style cultures and the cultures of Peru and Ecuador. Very different people approach things in very different ways. In terms of hierarchy and making noise and opinions and opinions that separate if they are very different.

But the most important thing I think is that stereotyping is not bad, but you have to be aware of these assumptions. Don’t assume or do not attach any competence or skill level to it, and I believe it is a proven fact that if you make a stereotype, as well as include fluency of language suddenly, the other person might attach an opinion regarding the skill, the professional skill of that person as well. 

So, if a Venezuelan is loud and his English is not so good, maybe he’s not so good in sales and marketing. That’s, of course, absolutely wrong, right? I mean, that person could be much better at the job than you are, but you are assuming things based on that stereotyping and what you hear. I’ll leave it at that, Chris.

Yeah, let’s start with our own backyards. Then Peter mentioned the Netherlands, one of the stereotypes that is often mentioned, which I think is true, we are overly direct. I’ve been out of the country in the Netherlands for the last 16 years, and every time I go back, I am stunned by the rudeness. Really, really, I was talking… I was in the supermarket, I had a question about something, and this woman looked at me and said three words to me as she turned around and just went to do something else, and I was flabbergasted. That is one of them.

They’re the understatements that the Brits tend to use, right? The Brit is sorry for everything. Sorry, I’m so sorry. They’re not sorry. They don’t give a … Well, whatever. But they aren’t, but they have to apologize, and they do.

By the way, I apologize to the Dutch one more time, which I think is an interesting and important one that the Dutch have marketed that we are very tolerant. The Dutch are a tolerant society in terms of liberty and what you can do, and the soft drugs, and all. That’s good stuff. But the Dutch are not really tolerant. No, the Dutch are fundamentally indifferent. Whatever you say, I don’t care. Do you mind if I leave you alone, Philip? OK, you do what you do, and you leave me alone. Which is a misunderstanding. It’s not really the stereotype. 

For the Indians for instance, I have quite some experiences in India. The wobbly head, the shake, the shake in the head where you never know whether it’s a yes or a no. The right way to say “no” In India, is actually saying “Yes” And then you still don’t know where you are as a westerner. You return to collectivism and individualism. 

Maybe I can add to the English because I think it’s a very good one. We use it quite a bit, and I use it. It’s quite a bit as well. It is a famous quadrant that you can find if you Google it. It’s what the Englishman says, and what the Dutchman hears, which is amusing, very funny statements or very funny phrases. In fact, I told everybody to an extent, which applies to the Americans versus the Dutch as well. 

The Americans are a little bit more explicit than the English. But the Americans would also say, “Yeah, maybe it’s an interesting idea”, meaning I’m not really liking it, but the Dutchman hears is “It is an interesting idea.” So the Dutchman takes the idea further in the company because that’s what he heard. So, these are differences that are very true, and it’s a stereotype that the English are just going around it a little bit, trying to convey the message to them clearly that something shouldn’t happen, but the Dutchman is already doing it on his own because that’s what he heard.

I’m laughing because I’ve heard this from other guests as well. 

The Germans will tell you that Americans are difficult to understand and are very indirect, whereas Americans do not like to hurt other people’s feelings.

So if you do badly in a project, you would say, “Gee, I really think there are some ways that you can improve that. Or what do you think we could do about it?” And the Germans would simply say, “That was terrible. You really screwed up, and you know to do it right the next time” or something like that. Something very direct and seemingly impolite to other people.

So, yes, it is an endless book like this. You could keep on talking about this.

There’s another wonderful story from a previous guest. He’s German and he lives in California, and he went back to Germany and ordered something at a restaurant. It was something very simple, like, say a hamburger and French fries, something like that.  And instead of wanting French fries, he wanted a salad. And the waitress said No. He said, “What do you mean ‘No’? It’s exactly the same; both are on the menu. They’re the exact same price. They are both ‘sides.’ What do you mean? Just change one for the other.” The waitress said, “No, we can’t do that. You know whatever is on the menu is what’s on the menu, and that’s it.” And there was no budging, and the German was so shocked, having lived in this country for many years, that you can’t make substitutions as needed. It was very funny as well. 



I think, Peter, you raised the issue of trial and error. That’s something that Americans do, one of the American management styles. Do you want to elaborate on that, Chris?

Yeah, this is a topic that comes up all the time, and it’s actually a very practical thing to think about and realize when you work across cultures and across borders because you have to potentially execute the project together as French and Americans, and our styles are very different. So, here’s an example of a slide I can describe, Chris, can describe it, but if you have time, I will try it. 

If you think about time and progress and everything else and you have them on different scales. What an American typically does is “just do it,” right? But that is all we need to take a step; we need to accomplish something. Let’s just start. 

Then it could fail, and if it does, if you fail, you will experience a temporary plateau. Okay, so it didn’t work. And then you say, “Let’s try something else,” and then that fails, or there’s something accomplished. OK, something worked, and then you did it again, and so it’s trial and error, trial, and error, and it fails, and it looks ugly. Because the path to the goal is you, you fall down and get back up, so it’s just ugly and bloody and messy and painful, et cetera. 

The Germans and the French don’t like that very much. They prefer to engineer to perfection and then execute. So, the road toward the goal is slow. So, the American looks at the Germans, and nothing is happening. Well, the German is sitting at his desk engineering, he doesn’t want to fall on his nose and has blood everywhere. He just wants to make sure that it works, so it’s slow. 

The Americans think nothing is happening. These people are not doing anything, and at some point, the American or the German says, “I’m done.” And then you execute it, which is actually quite good. So, there is very little mess along the way. And he casts a glance over there. What a mess, say the Americans. But at the end of the day, they more or less achieved the same thing, but in a very different way. 

So that is trial and error. The Dutch by the way … Chris, maybe you should take up that one for us. 

Yeah, one of the clearest examples, I think, because pretty much all Anglo-Saxon countries have this so-called trial-and-error approach used in the United States, there’s an apparel company called Nike which you probably have heard of. They have a slogan; they’ve had a slogan for years, and what is it? 

Just do it!

You don’t have to think, just do it. That’s the first thing that you do.  There is a similar concept in the United Kingdom. Then I’ll get to the Dutch. In the United Kingdom, the Brexiteers were those who wanted to leave the country. Out of the EU, that is. They were often asked, “Do you have a plan?” Out is fair enough, but do you have a plan for what is going to come after that? And the answer was always “No, we just want out”. And that’s what happens. And now they’re still in this big mess. We are suffering to some extent because some of the UK’s products or produce are not available in our country, In continental Europe.

The Dutch have a different approach to this. The Dutch can work together as a team to reach an agreement. We’re going to launch this software version 1.0, and then we’re going to launch that in five days’ time. Everybody agrees. Next week, four days or one day before the launch, this team comes together again. Are we ready? Yes, but you know, maybe we should wait until we have version 1.01 because then we will have fewer bug fixes and we can actually deliver a better product.

So, what the Dutch usually do is they come to their conclusion with a phenomenon called growing insights. So as time progresses, I get more information, which changes the decision that I’ve made before that. While Anglo-Saxon will say “No, this is our launch date we’re going to launch version 1.0. And we will do some upgrades”—some surface packs or something. Look at Microsoft. This is typically how they launch, or how they launched so long ago. They’re one of the latest products, which is called Teams, which in the beginning was absolutely inferior to a product that was already on the market. But things are gradually improving, and this is just the history of Microsoft.

What was the name of the Microsoft product you just mentioned? 

Teams, MS Teams 

Teams, yes. 

Yeah, and for those of you who are old enough already and have a computer background, go back to 1997. The outlook was first introduced in 1997.

And many of us on Windows use Outlook. It just didn’t work; it was buggy. It wasn’t functional, and they didn’t launch it until about a year later they launched ‘98, Outlook 98 was a lot better, and now it’s a fully grown, very capable product, but it is trial and error. Trial and error.

The interesting thing… I find it very interesting what Chris just mentioned with Outlook. I use an example all the time, and I think it’s striking because you have basically two big companies that produce airliners, airline jets. 

One is American, which is Boeing, and one is European, which is Airbus. About 20 years ago or so, Boeing decided to develop a lightweight carbon fiber airplane called the Boeing 787, or the Dreamliner. And it had two engines, and it could fly long distances because it was lightweight, using less fuel, et cetera, it was revolutionary. And Airbus was looking at it like, “Wait a minute.” What is this, they were just slow and like, “We don’t know what this is.”

And the Americans basically started developing the Boeing 787 and shot it up in the air as soon as possible, right? So, this plane isn’t even done yet. But they want it in the air to see what happens, and they did it so that the plane can fly. It doesn’t look good yet. It’s not perfect. There are issues, and at some points, it’s like, “Keep on flying, keep on designing, keep on fixing, and all of that stuff.” 

And at some points, like, OK, let’s sell this thing. And then some clients buy it. And then there were issues. So, the airplane was grounded because there were all sorts of issues with the 787. The whole fleet stopped. Fix the problems, etc. It took years, years, years, and years for this thing to be completely reliable. At the same time, the Europeans were thinking and, looking at it, said we needed to develop something too. It’s the Airbus 350. 

They started designing, designing, designing but didn’t shoot up in the air. That’s not perfect yet, and the Airbus 350 was done, and they started selling very few issues, so it’s a very good example of trial and error versus engineering on the other side.

Yeah, that’s very true. You know the American approach as you say is trial and error. And we look at Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. You may know one of the great American success stories, but to get to the light bulb, I think there were 400 tries. I’m not sure about the amount, but some astronomical number of times that he did it and it failed, and so one of the cultural values of the United States is persistence. You know, if you’ve got an idea, just keep working on it and see if you can perfect it; eventually, hopefully, it will work. Since it’s trial and error in that way.

 

Another cultural issue is that Americans don’t mind failure, especially in the IT industry. Silicon Valley is, in a way, a badge of honor. If you failed at a previous enterprise, it means you’ve tried something that didn’t work, you’ve learned from it, but now how can you take that learning and apply it to something that hopefully will work. 

And there’s a wonderful story that one of our previous guests told me—do you know the story of Seven Up, the soft drink? So, the entrepreneur who had it couldn’t quite get it to work.  I don’t know how you get a soft drink to work, but whatever it was, the taste wasn’t right or something, and he tried…  I think he tried five times, and eventually, he was ready to give up when he tried a sixth time  and it didn’t quite work, and eventually he sold the company and the person he sold it to, the entrepreneur just tweaked it a little bit. That was the seventh try, and then it worked fine. So, it was not constantly pursued until you got it right. Yeah, if you fail, it’s OK. In American culture, it’s OK to fail because you’re working to perfect something. 

That, I believe, the note in the margins, pertains to pretty much all the questions you’re asking us, Philip. There’s nothing right or wrong.  Airbus did not do it better than Boeing did it. And under certain conditions if your ship is sinking, holding a meeting is not very productive. So then, jumping is probably better. It depends on the circumstances. In this context, which idea or solution is superior to the other? So, it’s important to realize that the Germans are not better than the Americans. It is just different. That is what it is.

Exactly 

We just joke about this quite a bit, Philip. So, Chris says, “The ship is sinking, Let’s have a meeting.” We are very good at looking at our own culture as well, because we are, of course, outside of our culture. We are the fish that realize there is water somewhere outside of the Netherlands and what Chris is saying is about how the ship is sinking – Let’s have a meeting – is a very Dutch thing. So we make jokes about ourselves a lot that the Dutch would say like, “OK, the ship is sinking. Let’s all go into the meeting room. How do we solve this?” That’s not a good idea. You should apply the American culture . Let’s jump.”

For the Germans it is “the correct procedure” because the Germans have planned ahead of time and will simply follow a procedure and that’s it. It’s all sites except one. The end result is getting people off the ship.

Yes, how you do it makes sense.

So, here’s another question about what we’ll call warring or hostile nationalities. If you’ve got a multinational corporation and you’ve got the two cultures that are normally fighting or are antagonistic – on one side, there are Indians and Pakistanis; or Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese on one side and Israelis on the other; or currently the Ukrainians and the Russians; and so forth – how do you bridge those gaps? How do you get people from countries that are normally hostile to each other to collaborate?

Shall I take that, Peter? 

Yes

What’s important to realize when we talk about culture, at least when culture matters, is that we talk about culture and its definition of culture is talking about a group of people. So the one Ukrainian working with a Russian in the same company, You cannot talk about culture; you talk about individuals. That is critical to understand. It’s my personal experience, and I’ve coached, I don’t know, enough people from Turkey, but Turkey has the Kurds, for instance, who are divided among Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Iran has a similar division in terms of people who are Iranian by passport but speak Azeri from Azerbaijan.

And I’m coaching Russians from Moscow who told me, you know, the reason I’m here is that I got an opportunity. But also I might be drafted if I stay in Russia and they meet a Turkish colleague or a Ukrainian colleague, and that’s perfectly fine.

On an individual level, I’ve hardly seen any difficulties because, “Oh, you are Ukrainian?” Alternatively, you are Israeli and you’re Palestinian? That means I don’t….I’m not going to work with you. That is usually not how it works on an organizational level. 

What I have seen Is this again for a big Dutch medical company, who are working on one project, and they had three locations; which was Boston in the United States, India, and the Netherlands. And I went to these three locations, I asked every group I asked, “Would this go better if we did it only in India, only in the Netherlands, and only in the United States?” And everybody said “yes”. 

To that extent, yes. Leave it to me and then it’ll be fine. But if you put these people together, then it usually works for me. I’ve never seen it as a problem.

The hostile environments you can see if you read the newspaper, you look at the news, or you watch sports, right? So, if you have, for example, the World Cup as a good example, you have Iran versus the United States, or you have whatever Germany against, whether it was France or something else, you can see this culture bubbling up; It’s like, “Oh, all the stereotypes are out, and we want to beat them,” with all of these things and emotions on the TV set and in the stadium, and so on. And it’s just almost like a fun component of sports in that sense. 

But when do you talk about companies? You know you want to work across borders, what I’ve seen is that some of these stereotypes go away very, very quickly because people who work across borders meet other people within minutes, one normally realizes this is just a very nice person. I need to get something done with this person, and I really like that person, and then it goes out the window very quickly, that hostile stereotype, when people begin to see each other in person and begin to work together and have a drink together. In my experience, it’s a matter of minutes; then that flies out of the window.

The World Cup Football It’s not soccer; we call it football because we do it with our feet. There have been a few of these encounters between Morocco and France, and one of the star players from France’s Killian Bopet, and they are friends at Paris Saint-Germain, where he also plays. And he had a good friend, a personal friend, who played for the Moroccan team. So, you’re fighting each other, but you’re still friends.

Lionel Messi versus … What’s the alternative to playing from Argentina with the same bat they use in one team. Here in Paris, both of them play on one team, but then they face each other. But, in a way, it’s a friendly competition. Even though there’s a lot at stake, nonetheless, as Peter says, on a personal level, it hardly ever goes wrong.

Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful observation, and I’ve seen it also. I’m always amazed, you know, because we’ve got so many nationalities in the United States, just as in Europe, and we never have any flare-ups, say, between the Indians and the Pakistanis here. People work together, and it’s fine. On an individual level, it’s fine, and a lot of Arabs meet – hostile Arabs let’s say –  meet Israelis, and they all seem to get along despite the fact that their countries are not getting along.

So, it’s very interesting in that way as well. 

Similar subject, when it comes to China and Taiwan, China is very, shall we say, propagandistic about… I wouldn’t say it has superiority because it believes that its way is the best way, the only way, or the most important way to do it, and whatever the Taiwanese want, it’s just that they’re wrong because they should be incorporated back into China. 

And how do you get groups like that… I guess it’s a similar issue, but it seems that with China and Taiwan, there are many more political overtones. And, for example, if a Chinese student studies abroad, whether in the United States, Europe or South America, the Chinese government continues to monitor him or her to make sure he or she toes the party line so as not to embarrass the homeland, and to ensure that he or she is more or less loyal. 

So, when you’ve got that overlay on top of this, the propagandistic and authoritarian government, again, from the perspective of the immigrant to the foreign student, how do you mesh the cultures so that they can work together? 

But I think about this again. The simple answer is you don’t. 

They are comparable to some extent in one of those four dimensions. One of those is the one we mentioned earlier. Four primary cultural dimensions. There’s quite a difference between China and Taiwan. Of course, China is a country with a long history and centuries of traditions. Or tradition in general, and it’s over if you go back to 1945, the year Taiwan separated from China and declared itself an independent country…

It’s from 1949.

Then, over that period of time, for the Chinese, that’s nothing. That is that… that is a non-period? And because they are the bigger brother, they will eventually … they do not want this to happen to that extent. The United States is not much different. The approach has been different. But what happened to Cuba? That was unacceptable. In no way. What happened in Nicaragua is unacceptable. No way. The way the United States wields power differs from that of China, but those are larger countries. Big Brother. Yeah, it’s not watching you, but it’s forcing you to go and stay this way.

Inform yes. 

Yes, I have very little knowledge and very little opinion about Taiwan and China other than what I’m reading in the news, and from a cultural perspective, I think Chris covered it. 

What I think is interesting is returning to the previous topic and seeing how it relates to this topic, the stereotype about hosts being hostile to each other or historically having a hostile relationship I said that it goes out of the window very quickly, and I’m talking about, working in a company where an American meets an Iranian or something, or, you know, name any other country that is supposedly hostile to another country goes very quickly out the window, If you sit at the table drinking coffee or having a beer after work, there is always, under the surface, something bubbling that may explode and that is that goes back more to the larger group or, you know, nations who become hostile to each other. And that’s what one mentioned when he was in Weslandia; at the time, I was in Budapest, Hungary, and there were a lot of Serbians and Bosnians, and so on. crossing the border and just escaping the conflict. And, one of those guys said, “I don’t know what happened because we just were living together, and he is Bosnian. He was Serbian. And suddenly we were enemies,” and he said, “I don’t know what happened. We began to fight and kill each other.” So, it goes out of the window very quickly. But if there’s something under the surface that’s boiling and somebody is, you know, just getting some gas out and somebody lights it up, I think bad things can happen, so I don’t know about Taiwan or China specifically. I do not know enough about it.

Yes, very interesting, and the example of the former Yugoslavia and the civil war. It’s a great example. 

Is there anything else that either of you would like to add before we close? Chris, let’s start with you.

First and foremost, I’d like to thank you for having us on your radio, podcast, and video shows. I hope it has been useful.

Again, I want to emphasize that this cultural competence is something that you can learn. It’s like swimming. It’s something that you can learn. Learning another language, It’s something you can learn. It’s not a given that only these people understand it, and I believe at least, and I think Peter will agree, for me, the determining factor in succeeding in business is international business is being able to understand different cultures and being able to compromise or go out of your comfort zone, and do the stuff that you normally would not do. To accommodate the other person just because it’s easier, who is easier to change? If it’s between you and me, Philip? If I want things to be different, then it’s easier for me to change myself than for me to change you. So, looking inwardly from that perspective, I believe in business that culture matters.

Sure, I would say that in international business—and Chris and I have been in international business for 20-plus years—we’ve seen quite a few successes and failures when it comes to international business. 

In fact, we were in the midst of one that made us think twice about certain things, and I’m talking about KLM and Alitalia getting together. And we saw how things can fail, and we both believe that culture was at the very core of that failure. When it comes to the Italian-Dutch alliance. 

And it all begins with awareness. And what Chris also mentioned earlier is that it’s not only that you need to understand the other culture if, like me, you also want to do business in the United States as a Danish company, I need to understand the Americans a little bit better. 

It also starts with your own culture because, whether you realize it or not, you’re almost imposing to a certain extent your Danish approach onto the Americans, and will you eventually conclude that things are failing because you don’t understand your own culture. And I specifically mentioned the Danes because we had recently had a conversation with the Danish company about certain differences that we don’t understand. One was the HR approach, right? The Danes are saying, “We have an HR approach; we need to get new people in. We need to keep them on board, etcetera”, and the Americans were firing people or laying them off as they went. We don’t need that, we don’t need her, and the Danes were just being shy. And there was some friction there. 

So that’s what our firm, Culture Matters, does. We help companies understand their own culture. To avoid some of these frictions, they understand the culture of the market they are entering. Bigger than they should be. So, it all starts with raising awareness. 

Thank you. Yes, you both mentioned two very interesting points. 

One is about introspection, which is really critical, and a lot of individuals don’t like to look at themselves. They try to blame others, and it’s always the external factors as opposed to what’s happening with me that I can change myself or something that I can do to make it better and stop blaming other people. As a result, the first criterion is to be willing to be introspective, to look inward to understand yourself, and see if there is anything you can do to improve it. 

And I think, Chris, you said that cultural competence can be learned, and that’s very true. Learning a language, by the way, can be difficult, at times very difficult. It’s like math or science; not everyone is good at it. Languages, in my opinion, are far more difficult in this subject. But cultural competence is something that one can learn. And again, it’s the willingness to do it, the willingness to be introspective, and the willingness to just apply it and see how you can bridge gaps and create a common purpose. 

 

So, thank you both very much. This has been a wonderful talk with Chris Smit and Peter van der Lende and I appreciate speaking with you very much and 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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