Cultural Contrasts in English (Part One)


The latest contribution from Business English Author Paul Emmerson…

Introduction

About ten years ago I spent some time reading various books about cultural differences in business. I cannot now remember the titles and authors. I made a lot of notes. The document that I created that summarized the books has been sitting in my files ever since then and I have never done anything with it. I’ve now decided to present it here on my blog. Feel free to use it in any way that you choose, possibly as a student hand-out for discussion and comment, possibly just for your own consideration.

I’ll post these notes in two instalments, with the second to follow next month.

Yes, I am aware of all the problems of generalizing about cultural differences:

  • I am aware that international business culture is becoming more uniform, and that many individuals do not conform to these stereotypes.
  • I am aware that when you take someone out of their country and put them into a team in another country, they often adapt quickly and lose their ‘national’ characteristics, at least to some extent, and at least for younger people.
  • I am aware that company culture may be as important as national culture.
  • I am aware that descriptions of national characteristics are really just subjective impressions with no firm evidence (Hofstede and Trompenaars notwithstanding).
  • I am aware that the descriptions that follow in this document divide the world into three groups, and ignore differences within the groups.

If you personally are against cross-cultural comparisons and believe that everyone should be treated as an individual, then that is perfectly reasonable. At least the summary below will give you something to argue against. I would just add that people who are interested in intercultural differences never try to pretend it is the whole story: of course individual/family/gender/age/team/company/profession differences also play a part in describing and explaining differences between people. It’s just that for that part that does relate to national culture, no matter how big or small, at least there can be an attempt at describing the differences. And a division into three groups as here, rather than country by country, gives a first approximation that can be used for later refinement. The big argument in favour of cross-cultural comparisons is that:

  • It makes you realize that your way is not the only way.
  • It gives an initial orientation for what to expect when working internationally, and this alone is helpful. As you get to know the culture the broad stereotypes will disappear and you will see individual differences and form your own views.

General Business Culture

America/N. Europe

Latin America/S. and E. Europe/Middle East

 

Japan/China/E. Asia

Self-image

Unique individuals, independent and equal. Part of a family or religious group. Members of a large group: family, company, nation.

Measure of success

Individual achievement, high salary, recognition for being creative. Status, honour, social recognition, reputation. Group success.

Cultural values

America: action, success, openness, directness, equality, competition, independence, risk-taking. Europe: less materialistic, less risk-taking, more traditional. Family security, family harmony, relationships, authority, status. Group harmony, relationships, cooperation, honesty, loyalty, age/seniority, family security.

Corporate values

Competition, innovation, quality, informality. Trust in individuals. Group harmony, long-term relationships, reputation of company, quality.

Motivation to do business

Profit. People live to work. Security for family and prestige for head of family. People work to live. Market share and long-term opportunities for company.

Business relationships

Friendly and informal, but a continuing personal relationship with individuals is not important. Much business is done over the phone. Personal relationships are very important. A long time is needed to build trust before business can begin. Preference for doing business face-to-face. Based on mutual respect. Relationships with individuals are important, but business is done on a group basis. Often there is an older authority figure who seldom appears but has ultimate power. In Japan, socializing after work is seen as an important part of the relationship.

Business style

America: hard sell, with slogans, clichés, exaggeration, tough talk and wisecracks. Europe: reason and soft sell. Time needed to study other individuals. Reserved. Like lots of opportunity to ask questions.

Nature of decisions

Decisions are like contracts and people are under an obligation to stick to them. If the situation changes, the decision might also have to change. If the situation changes, the decision might also have to change.

Discussions and Meetings

America/N. Europe

Latin America/S. and E. Europe/Middle East

 

Japan/China/E. Asia

Objectives of meeting

Making a deal or decision. Formulating a plan of action. Establishing relationships and building rapport. Clarifying and issuing instructions. Information gathering. Decisions emerge over long time period.

Punctuality

Punctuality important. It shows a desire to use time efficiently (particularly Switzerland and Germany). In Latin cultures people might take a more relaxed attitude to time, and being 5 or 10 minutes late is acceptable. Time is very important to the Chinese, who apologize for taking up time and thank others for their time.

Seating

Senior person sits at head of the table, others sit fairly randomly. If there are two ‘sides’ they sit face-to-face. Senior person in place of obvious importance, others often arranged by status/age. Two ‘sides’ may sit next to each other. Pre-arranged, with members often sitting in order of rank. Guests will be shown where to sit. Two ‘sides’ may sit so that you face a person of equal rank across the table.

Body language

Direct eye contact shows sincerity and equality. Direct eye contact shows sincerity and trust. Direct eye contact rarely used – it is seen as intrusive. A smile shows lack of understanding.

Opening comments

Americans, Germans and Scandinavians get down to business quickly. Considered rude to start talking business until some small talk has been exchanged. People’s opening comments are addressed to the senior person, who often speaks first. In Japan, there is a long ritual of thanking the visitors. People’s opening comments are addressed to the senior person, who often speaks last.

Communication style

Americans: direct, factual, informal and at times confrontational. French: oratorical with abstract logical arguments. Germans: require full information and context. British: use humour and try to be reasonable. In Arab culture distractions during a meeting are normal. The host may be talking to several people about different topics at the same time. Preferred style is ‘monologue – pause – reflection – monologue’ rather than dialogue. Arguments are often indirect. Periods of silence show respect and allow time for consideration.

Flow of meeting.

Keep to the agenda. Treat agenda more flexibly, returning to previous items or digressing. In Arab cultures there is often no clear agenda In Japan the meeting has clear phases: opening ritual, outline of agenda, less formal expression of views, non-confrontational replies, formal summary.

Disagreements

Participants bring up disagreements quickly, openly and directly. Americans, Germans and Australians are particularly frank. English are indirect. French are rational and precise. Latins are direct, but the Portuguese and Chileans are considered more diplomatic. In Arab culture disagreement is often shown by silence. Public disagreement is very rare because criticism means the other person losing face. More subtle techniques are used, including questions that express doubt, remaining silent, or ‘Yes, but …’. Serious issues are addressed privately, outside the meeting. The Japanese in particular value harmony very highly. Koreans are more direct.

Decision-making

Decisions are based on facts, and are often made instantly in the meeting. During the meeting positions can change. Decisions are made by key individuals, outside the meeting. Positions are relatively fixed in the meeting, but are subject to rapid change outside the meeting. No rush to make decisions. Decisions are made by group consensus over a longer time period. ‘Yes’ often means ‘I understand’ rather than ‘I agree’. There are no sudden changes of viewpoint in meetings.

Closing

Plan of action, delegation of responsibility, review of tasks to be done. Reference to continuing relationship. Formal thanks. Reference to long-term relationship.

 

Negotiating

America/N. Europe

Latin America/S. and E. Europe/Middle East

 

Japan/China/E. Asia

Group composition

Typically 2-3 people involved. Team members constant throughout process. Typically 4-6 people involved. Senior person involved at beginning, junior/technical staff take over later. Senior person comes back to close the deal. Typically 4-7 people involved. Team members may rotate.

Social setting.

Pragmatic view of negotiation – little consideration given to social aspects. Little understanding of nuances of protocol, status, connections and respect. Sit facing each other and maintain eye contact while talking. Negotiation is a social ceremony with important considerations of venue, hospitality, protocol, timescale and courtesy of discussion. Seating shows status of individuals. Maintain eye contact while talking. Negotiation is a social ceremony. Seating displays harmonious relationship – often a circular arrangement. The Japanese sit side by side and stare at a common point, giving sideways glances to their opposite numbers.

Relationship building

Little time spent on building rapport – the deal comes before personal feeling, particularly in America. Little room for sentimentality. Personal relationships are very important for doing business, and a long time is spent on building trust. In S. America it is important to spend time establishing respect for national characteristics. Building rapport and group harmony is necessary before business can be discussed. Respect for the company is important. Long time frame is used to check sincerity of other side.

Exchange of information

Logical, step-by-step approach. Early focus on price. Much use of written documentation. All elements of negotiation are constantly available for change. Price discussed towards end. Extensive asking for and checking of information. Focus on explaining, justifying and evaluating.

Persuasion techniques

Saving and/or making money. Facts and figures. Loss of opportunity unless you act soon. Concessions are asked for and given in a rapid, linear process. Hospitality and personal relationship. In Middle East a go-between is often used to avoid face-to-face conflict. Long-term relationship more important than the individual deal. No-one must lose face, so open negotiating in a meeting is unacceptable.

Use of language

America language is open, direct and urgent. Confrontation is seen as being necessary for progress. No personal honour is at stake. The English like a calm, reasonable discussion where confrontation is avoided. Germans are very thorough. The French are logical and rational. In Use of expressive and emotional language. Respect for dignity of others. Grand outlines rather than details. Latins like to have something to win, and their own concessions must not appear too much like concessions. In Middle East religious references (God’s will) may be made. In Japan, language is indirect, appreciative and cooperative. Respect for dignity of others is very important. No-one must lose face in the meeting.

First offer

Within 5-10% of expected outcome. Within 10-20% of expected outcome. In Middle East, within 20-50%. Within 10-20% of expected outcome.

Further offers

Add to package, sweeten the deal with more favourable payment terms etc. Further concessions on price. Few further concessions and little continued bargaining.

Decision making

Top management team make decisions. Short time scale. In America there is high tolerance of risk. It is calculated, and is the personal responsibility of an individual. Feelings and intuition of senior individuals are important. Long time scale. In the Middle East never push for a decision or criticize anyone for the way business is conducted. Middle managers make a collective decision. Long process until consensus is achieved. Low tolerance of risk. Group responsibility.

 

Paul Emmerson is a well-known figure in the Business English world. He is a writer, teacher and teacher-trainer based in Worthing on the south coast of England. His most recent book, Management Lessons, is a photocopiable resource book for teachers of Business English, available from BEBC. To find out more visit http://www.paulemmerson.com/.

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8 thoughts on “Cultural Contrasts in English (Part One)

  1. A nice overview of the cultural differences that are out there. I also like the way you qualified ít all at the beginning. Personally my experience has shown me that these differences do exist and are important and that as much as we like to think we are all individuals there are traits that are subconsciously buired within us which are present all the time (well most of it anyway). There is no doubt that expose to other peoples and cultures makes us more aware of and tolerant of different behaviour but at the same time when we return to ‘our’ people the tendancy is there to revert to our inbuilt characteristcs.

  2. Hello Paul,
    I teach, train and coach in Germany and this article is a great discussion base for any business English discussions.

    Thanks for the concise descriptions, I am sure it will be a “Hit” with my learners

  3. Yes, there are cultural differences that exist and need to be considered when doing business. I have a question though, you have considered the rest of the world but Africa; are there any considerations that people need to put in mind when doing business there?

    • Now there’s an interesting question! No, I haven’t considered it. Or, more accurately, the books where I originally got this information from didn’t consider it. Remember this article was a precis of my reading, not original thoughts! First thoughts are that you immediately have to make a distinction between North Africa (similar culture to Middle East), Sub-Saharan Africa ex South Africa, and South Africa. But you are right, and Africa is certain to feature more and more strongly on the business map as it catches up with the globalization that the rest of the world has experienced.

  4. Hi Paul,

    Thank you for this post. I found your points at the beginning more interesting than the categories and “cultural characteristics” of different regions. I am not completely convinced, though, that when someone leaves their home country or culture and joins a new culture and a multicultural team they tend to lose aspects of their culture or blend in with the group. They might begin to follow certain practices that would characterize the local culture but have their cultural values and communication styles really changed at the core? For that reason, it is important to work with multicultural teams to help them build on the variety of communication styles and ways of thinking in order to create a dynamic team that would be much more creative than a mono-cultural team. Indeed, culture is dynamic but there are various levels of culture including those that are visible and might change and those that are very much a part of our core and are far less likely to change.

    • Hi Lindsay.
      Yes, my point about people (especially younger people) losing some of their national characteristics when they join a multinational team comes from hearing my students say this. For context, my students are mostly in-work middle managers from European countries who have experience of working with non-Europeans on projects etc. Often I have a session on my course programme for a discussion of inter-cultural issues and working in multicultural teams, and it fails to generate much enthusiasm or input from the group. They usually say something along the lines of … ‘we don’t have any problems with this and just get on with the job’. And I find it’s the younger ones who are the most adaptable and don’t really ‘see’ national differences.
      When I lived in London most workplaces had very multi-national teams, and it wasn’t an issue I heard discussed, again people just got on with the job. But I do agree with you – there are certainly ‘core’ levels of national culture that will remain despite working in an international team. These re-emerge in social life, away from the workplace. So if the Poles in London and the Brazilians in London and the French in London get together with their co-patriot friends (from different workplaces) at the weekend, the atmosphere in the three groups will be very different. In fact, the people involved might act even MORE Polish, Brazilian or French than if they were in their own country!
      To this I would add a small bit of personal experience: I lived in Portugal for 6 years, and the Portuguese in general are very self-critical of their own culture (I mean work culture, not food, music etc). The younger ones (twenties) usually wanted to get away precisely in order to lose that national work culture which they recognized and didn’t want to reproduce. They were only too willing to adopt the work practices of other countries in other countries. This attitude of ‘we need the North Europeans to save us from ourselves’ is very, very prevalent all over Southern Europe. Nowadays ‘the north’ is seen as imposing austerity measures on them, and so is not so popular, but many young people from Portugal/Spain/Italy/Greece and Eastern Europe are still eager for a chance to lose their national ‘work culture’ by moving to other countries and having a chance to re-invent themselves.
      Having said all of that, I do think the broad differences I outlined in my article remain. They are subtle, and can vary a lot from country to country, region to region, company to company etc, but at some level they are still there.

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