Tips for Accommodating Cultural Differences in Business
As a Brit living in Colorado, I am constantly reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s quote, “The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” I notice this when I’m traveling around the world on the leadership keynote speaker circuit, and particularly when I go back to the UK for a visit. Though the language is technically the same, functionally the words, phrases and intonations are very different. And, although my accent has not changed, the way I speak has—in the eight years since I became a resident of the US, my UK countrymen often mistake me for an American!
This made me think about cultural differences around the world, and how they can manifest in various ways in the workplace. I thought about the different manufacturers I had worked with during my time in the auto industry; and whilst they all had different strengths and weaknesses, I found it was interesting how closely these behaviors conformed to widely held stereotypes about their home countries.
Here’s what I’ve learned about adapting my personal work style to various cultures, both in my travels as a company leader and on the leadership keynote speaker circuit. I’ve also included links to a deeper dive on cultural differences within each region—if you’re about to launch a professional relationship with a foreign entity in one of these places, you may find these references helpful. My point isn’t to provide an exhaustive discussion of any one region, but rather to highlight differences I found interesting...and inspire you to more thoroughly explore the complexities that are relevant to your business.
UK: Stiff Upper Lip
As a Brit by birth, I don’t necessarily see myself (or my countrymen, necessarily) as overly polite. But if you’ve grown up and done business in the US, your perception will likely be very different. To Americans, British business people may seem to fit the “stiff upper lip” stereotype to a tee: private, reserved, polite and highly averse to conflict. Wary of criticizing or complaining in public, your UK business counterparts may be hesitant to express opinions or even ask for clarification on cloudy issues.
Personal space (physical and emotional) is of great value in the UK—so it may take longer than you wish to truly connect on a deeper level. The upside? Brits don’t take relationships lightly, so if you do form a bond with your British colleague, it will be a lasting one. Learn more about doing business in the UK.
US: All Work, No Play
I first worked in the US for Ford Motor Company as a graduate trainee, immediately after university, and I remember a couple of things that struck me straight away. First, my bosses and colleagues seemed very direct; there was little small talk or socializing once we stepped into the office environment. The jobs I had held as student in the UK were much more social, so this was a dramatic shift for me.
Second, taking little or no vacation seemed to be worn as a badge of honor in corporate America. This was in stark contrast to the British way, where full-time employees are expected to take their 22 days of annual leave plus eight bank holidays—for 6 weeks of vacation in total. Speaking very generally, both of these cultural traits align with the well-worn American cliché, “time is money.” While the attitude and attire may have been be somewhat less formal and more frank than I was accustomed to in the UK, the main focus was always on the bottom line...and selling, selling, selling.
As an example, our US manufacturer was without a doubt the best at sales and marketing. Even if they produced a vehicle that was inferior in some ways to the European cars, they still managed to come up with the most creative and effective advertising strategies. Learn more about doing business in the U.S.
Over time, I found that behavioral stereotypes about specific cultures continued to prove themselves out again and again. The Japanese manufacturers we represented had, without question, the best logistics in the business; vehicles turned up exactly when they were supposed to, and in perfect condition. The opposite was true for our Italian brands; the design was beautiful, but the delivery of the products and the quality could be severely lacking. Our French manufacturer had unique and quirky cars. Some worked really well, and others not so much—but you could always count on the French to have the best food at any product launches or motor shows!
And finally, Germany. Our one German manufacturer was probably the most efficient; although they seemed to work fewer hours as a whole, they did not waste time with small talk—from 9–5 it was all business. And of course, it goes without saying that German engineering is world class, and their car manufacturers still set the benchmark for others to follow.
A Parting Shot
Of course, every country is greater than the sum of their stereotypes—and a great many stereotypes aren’t true at all. But just as FIFA World Cup football teams spend countless hours studying the unique style of each country’s play prior to hitting the pitch, it’s valuable to brush up on the complex cultural nuances that define any country with which you’re planning to do business. I always do it, whether I’m traveling on the leadership keynote speaker circuit or running the family business.
At a time when many of us are being asked to do more with less, and are constantly plugged into our technology, it’s interesting to reflect on how other nations operate commercially and still manage to keep their weekends free for family and friends. The answer: they play to their strengths—the unique qualities and skills that set them apart. How can you do this in your business, so that you are differentiated from your competition...while leaving plenty of time for pure play?