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Understanding Cultural Codes: The Key to Effective Business Encounters

Today’s managers are faced with the challenging task of navigating through highly complex environments. As companies merge and become increasingly interconnected, building rapport and managing communication with people from other cultures is one of the most crucial skill sets.

Research shows that acquiring intercultural competence doesn’t happen through mere exposure, and adaptation is not something we can immediately dive into. Instead, it is developed through meaningful and reflective learning experiences, while mastering cross-cultural agility often takes a lifetime. International corporations place great emphasis on employees’ ability to understand cultural differences, adopt appropriate behavior in new contexts, and effectively and mindfully manage new teams.

It is important to realize that each of us brings our cultural footprint to social interactions in the global environment, even if we use English as a common language. These variously conditioned preferences underpinning people’s speech and behavior styles cause us to project our norms onto others and harshly judge them when our expectations are not met. These judgments and misconceptions directly affect the success or failure of business interactions, from who gets employed to who receives credit to who remains in their job. 

Despite considerable differences between cultures, most misunderstandings on the global stage boil down to conflicting assumptions and expectations arising from different concepts of time, trust, leadership, and interaction norms.  

Direct or diplomatic?

Let’s take, for example, the various cultural scripts governing communication. Northern cultures, such as Denmark, the Netherlands, or Germany, are known for their direct communication style – saying explicitly and truthfully what one means is more important than saving the face of the interlocutor. For Germans, who put scientific truth above face concerns, a confrontation or disagreement is a positive demonstration of objectivity (“sachlichkeit”). 

In Poland and other Slavic cultures, strong personal opinions are seen as natural and it is expected that they will be shared without considering the feelings of others. Such behavior is a clear path to relationship breakdown in introverted or “reactive” societies, where people are accustomed to avoiding conflicts and instead use speech to create harmony and consensus. 

For introverted Japanese or Finns, the true meaning of conversation lies in subtle contextual clues: in a person’s appearance, non-verbal behavior, use of space, or power relations. One must read between the lines to understand one’s true intentions and learn to interpret silence, along with other high-context signals. In this cultural universe, the hidden code of conversation dictates considering the other person’s feelings because “saving face” in public is more important than sincerity and spontaneity.

Hierarchical or egalitarian?

What style of leadership is appropriate for direct or introverted countries? Would an autocratic French manager be equally effective in harmony-minded Japan or in the egalitarian US as in hierarchical Russia? Team leaders need to establish in the early stages of the project cycle which leadership style will be appropriate for their international teams and adapt their behavior accordingly. 

Power distance is another important dimension that affects which types of reactions are accepted in professional situations. Developed by Hofstede in his groundbreaking IBM study, the term captures the degree of deference societies and organizations are expected to display in communication by virtue of their roles. 

In hierarchical cultures, such as Japan, Russia, France, or India, people are encouraged to demonstrate humility and servitude in interactions with high-status individuals. This preoccupation is much weaker in egalitarian cultures, such as Denmark, Israel, Canada, or Sweden, where corporate communication is informal and more personal, and employees freely discuss ideas with persons higher in rank. 

Understanding where each country stands on the hierarchy scale helps businesses navigate cultural nuances and interact with stakeholders appropriately.

Instrumental or affective?

Research shows that the nature of trust and how it develops vary markedly across cultures. Inspiring cohesion or bonding over commonalities in ethnically diverse teams can be a real challenge if members of those teams share different norms, preferences or values. In the study measuring the development of trusting relationships among American and Chinese executives, Harvard Professor Roy Chua, recognizes a crucial distinction between “cognition” – and “affect”-based trust.

Cognitive trust emerges from one’s judgement of another person’s competence and reliability. For example, in the US, Scandinavian, or DACH countries, credibility is measured by the effective achievement of results. If a person always delivers on their promises and their work is of a high standard, trust will follow. 

On the other hand, affective trust stems from the expression of soft human values, such as empathy, loyalty, and kindness. Individuals closer to the affective end of the spectrum are unlikely to establish trusting relationships with team members if their collaboration relies solely on task completion or contractual obligations. In relationship-oriented cultures, such as India, Malaysia, Brazil, or the UAE, trust ensues from emotional closeness, empathy and compassion, and is build up slowly through sharing personal time. 

One of the mistakes that Western professionals often make while collaborating with Asian, Latin, or Arabic cultures, as pointed out by the author of the Culture Map, Erin Meyer, is failing to show their true character and personality. Members of these groups do not sign deals with people whose product or behavior meets the highest professional standards, but with people they like and trust on a profoundly personal level.

Linear or circular?

Another significant difference is the way various cultural groups manage time. For the task-oriented person, time is a precious commodity. It is scarce and valuable, so it should be used wisely. Northern cultures see time as linear or monochronic. They like to focus on one thing at a time and execute their tasks within precise schedules. 

For instance, Germans, Canadians, or Norwegians live their lives defined by clocks and calendars to achieve efficiency, while their relationship-oriented counterparts enjoy doing many things simultaneously, in a truly polychronic manner. Their time is event- or people-oriented, meaning it can be stretched indefinitely as long as it serves relational goals. People and meetings matter, not planning or scheduling things. 

In introverted or reactive societies, such as China, Japan, or South Korea, time cycles. Things come and go in a continuous, self-renewing process. This way of thinking about time greatly influences decision-making practices in Asian cultures. Unlike the Western fixation on speed and sequential management, reactive people need more time to think and tend to circulate problems before reaching final decisions.

The various ways people from different cultures communicate, establish trust, lead, and manage time are manifestations of deep-seated value disparities. If not adequately addressed, they can cause frustration and resentment for individuals and their whole teams. If managed well, they lead to meaningful and enriching interactions

While it is impossible to prepare for every situation we may encounter, it is possible to train ourselves to be more observant in our immediate surroundings and listen with empathy and respect to other viewpoints.

Only by creating conditions when everyone feels respected can we bring out the best in people!