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This posted on the LinkedIn group site, “Creating Results From Cultural Diversity”. The question, from Leah Smiley, was: “What are the differences between diversity practices in the US and Europe?”

Hello Leah,

I’m curious to see what responses you get here. I can give my perspective, but there are two caveats: 1) it is difficult to generalize about “Europe” in terms of societal trends and business practices, and 2) it is difficult to make a direct comparison between countries in Europe and the US. Dramatic differences in historical population and societal development make it clearly a case of apples and oranges.

Having said that, however, I can make a few statements about the Netherlands, the country in Europe that I am most familiar with. As in the US (or because of the US, depending on who you talk to), all economies in Europe are suffering in varying degrees because of the economic crisis. Because diversity policy is not firmly anchored and reinforced in government or business policy, many companies have simply ignored their diversity practices the past couple of years, arguing that their “priorities are elsewhere” and “it’s a question of survival”. The fact that the companies even have this choice says a lot about the state of diversity policy in this country.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Netherlands is comparable to the US in the late 1950’s in terms of awareness of the importance of a culture that encourages diversity. The Dutch constitution is clear when it comes to equal rights, but there are very few laws in place that enable diversity policy to the individual level. Most companies that do have a constructive diversity policy are the same ones that are busy with sustainability and CSR: it’s the morally right thing to do and it bolsters their image. Not because there is a legal imperative that compels them to do so.

The media reflects a society that is overwhelmingly white, and there are no charismatic leaders amongst minority communities. In fact, most minority communities are strangely silent when it comes to fighting for their equal rights.There is not a strong private litigation culture in the Netherlands and there are very few who take action if they feel they’ve been discriminated against. In fact, there is an active public service campaign that is currently running on Dutch TV that explains to people what discrimination is and what to do if you feel you’ve been discriminated against (even though it’s in Dutch, the pictures say a lot: http://www.discriminatie.nl). This campaign seems to me to be clearly targeted towards those being discriminated against, rather than those doing the discriminating.

It will be interesting to watch developments in the coming months. The right wing politician Geert Wilders of the PVV party has gained significant ground by blaming minorities for the current problems in the Netherlands. Only now, after months of negotiating to form a new government, have any of the potential coalition partners said that the policies that the PVV espouses are anathematic. And then not necessarily because of the rights of minorities themselves, but more how it would look to trading partners of the Netherlands, most obviously Germany. In other words: there was an economic rationale rather than a moral or societal rationale.

And this is the key to promoting positive approaches to diversity in the Netherlands, in my opinion (and that’s why I do what I do): prove diversity as the wise economic choice. Increases in innovation, creativity, added value and increased access to diverse labor and consumer markets; decreases in personnel turnover and employee health issues. These are the drivers the Dutch understand. Don’t tell them it’s the right thing to do; tell them how it effects their bottom line.

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In another outstanding editorial column in the NY Times, on “Özil the German,” Roger Cohen uses the metaphor of the absence of “the Big Man” in the 2010 World Cup in promoting not only teamwork, but intercultural teamwork.

Mesut Özil - Germany National team WC2010

First, the intercultural part: “My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game. The discipline, attitude and always-give-your-all is the German part,” Özil is quoted as saying. And isn’t this what it’s all about? Searching for the added value in the marrying of different cultures. Of course it can be different – it often is different. But by looking for positive examples and potential role models such as Mesut Özil, especially for the youth, we open the possibility for more to follow in his path.

Secondly, on the second theme of Cohen’s article: how the Germany of Özil and Aogo is such a victory over the Big Man who destroyed Europe, and how we hope that the rest of Africa, not just South Africa, as well can see this as a model. I find the reader’s comments instructive, and there is one in particular that is very appropriate:

“I would disagree that South Africa doesn’t have a ‘Big Man’ His name is Nelson Mandela.”

Is it too much to hope that this year’s World Cup can provide an impetus for global change and universal acceptance?

This question was placed on De Baak International’s LinkedIn Group page in reference to the Dutch doing business with Indians. Armijn Peltekian of NexusNovus gave a detailed, very complete and, in my opinion, spot-on answer that deserves a wider audience. I’ve reprinted it below:

__________________

[It] is of great importance to understand the socio-cultural differences that exist between the two countries. However, India is immensely multicultural with a large number religions, castes, sub-castes and regional differences. To generalize all Indians as equal in terms of politeness, humility and sensitivity would be an error. In my opinion the most important lesson to be learnt is that since you have to deal with a vast array of cultural differences, your approach needs to be tweaked on a case-to-case basis.
Experience is crucial when conducting business in India. SME’s in general neither have the required in-house experience, nor can they afford to hire an experienced expat to conduct business functions for them on location. The task of facilitating an effective entry into India would prove to be extremely challenging to them.
MNC’s too, face a number of problems, particularly in management styles. Deputing an inexperienced expat to carry out necessary business functions in India very often fails to generate expected results. This boils down to the cultural differences as mentioned by [a previous respondent]. A very direct style of management might be counter-productive. The cost perspective of Dutch managers is quite off from the point of view of the existing reality as costs are generally much lower in these regions. However, many managers fail to understand the extent to which the costs are lower. In India, it would be a grave error to come across as one who gives in to unnecessary splurges. To pay “too much” for something is a sign of weakness. Hindustan Lever (now Unilever), McDonalds and Maruti-Suzuki, have attained their position of success due to the fact that they have completely Indianized their functions and processes.
[The original question] however questions whether the Dutch will have the skill sets to compete in a new (flat?) world. In my opinion, the greater majority of people in Europe lack the skill sets required to conduct business efficiently in Asia. But with the rise of the new economies there will be a large premium on people who have acquired these skill-sets and this will result in adjustments/ training for people currently lacking those skill-sets. If one takes some historical aspects into consideration, throughout past centuries the Dutch have been able to trade with many different Asian and African countries as well as all different cultures contained within Europe. If that teaches us anything, it shows us that these skills-sets can be acquired.
To conclude, India is extremely multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Your approach needs to be custom designed on a case-to-case basis, and to do this, one requires a great deal of experience. Entry into India can be tough for SME’s due to cost restraints and lack of experience. MNCs do face hardships as well due to the large cultural difference that exist, as mentioned by [the previous respondent]. I also feel that Europe currently has a lesser focus on India than America does. Outsourcing and the flat world are well known concepts in those regions. Europe has not yet been exposed to India to the extent that America has, but that is rapidly changing. I fail to recognise any factors that would inhibit The Netherlands in any attempt to reap the benefits of lower sourcing costs and tremendous market potential of India.

Father Knows Best!

Yesterday I had a pretty heated discussion with my wife and daughter, both Dutch (I’m American) in which daughter, 18, was making statements such as “They don’t need to build any more mosques here in the Netherlands; there’s already enough,” and “It should be forbidden for my colleagues to speak Turkish amongst themselves at work. Dutch country + Dutch company = Dutch language.”  These statements were endorsed and seconded by my wife.

Coincidentally, I found a supporting voice this morning in the culture trainer Maureen Rabotin, in which she mentioned the book she’s writing, together with ASTD, “The 4-R’s of Globalization: Respect, Relationships, Recognition and Rewards.” You can read more from Maureen at her website here: www.effectivegloballeadership.com.

The foundation of my counterargument to my wife and daughter (where does one begin?!!!) had to do with Maureen’s first “R”: respect. “If they respect you by not talking about you in Turkish behind your back [the classic xenophobic reaction] and you respect their right to their culture, there shouldn’t be any problem, should there?”

Even though they grudgingly granted me credit, I realized that my largest challenge as a culture expert is with my own family.

In reflecting on yesterday’s blog post, I realized similar references to “questions” similar, but different in important ways, to the Gretchenfrage, in idiomatic Dutch and American English usage. Goethe’s “Faust” is a work that “remains a resonant parable on scientific learning and religion, passion and seduction, independence and love,” as well as other subjects, and is a justifiably proud influence not only on German arts and society, but on much of the “Western” world. The Dutch and American references are, how should we say, somewhat less noble in their lineage.

When the Dutch refer to a crucial question whose answer addresses the essence of a subject, the question is called the hamvraag, literally, the “ham question.” This is a reference to a radio game show that ran in the Netherlands from 1953 – 1957, in which contestants were asked a series of alternating questions. With every correct answer they were allowed to climb one rung higher on a ship’s mast that was placed in the studio. At the top of the mast the main prize was placed, a smoked ham. No, I’m not making this up. The last, and most important question, was thus called the “ham question,” as the correct answer won the contestant the ham.

Even though this construction may seem curious to those from other cultures, there are two important cultural references in this game setup. First of all, the ship’s mast. As being a people whose country is largely reclaimed from the sea and whose history is one in which the sea played an enormous role in its development, many of the cultural references in the Netherlands are in one way or another associated with water. Having a ship’s mast, instead of, say, an ordinary painter’s ladder, is culturally significant.

Secondly, this program took place starting in 1953, a short eight years after the end of WWII. At the end of the war, the Dutch suffered a terrible famine, the hongerwinter, eventually killing more than 18,000 people and resulting in generations of resulting sicknesses and diseases. Even though most likely apocryphal, the stories of people resorting to eating tulip bulbs are still told and retold by generations of survivors. Good quality food, therefore, took on a special significance. A nice, smoked ham symbolizes well being, nourishment for the family, and the comfort of being well fed. Far more appealing to the Calvinist values of the Dutch than would be cold, hard cash.

The American reference also refers to a game show, this one being “The $64,000 Question.” Again the saying “that’s the $64,000 question” refers to the final prize in a television show that ran from 1955 – 58. Current usage of the saying also refers to a question that’s answer is of prime importance. But, frankly, I can’t find any significant cultural references in the format of the show or the use of the phrase. When one watches videos of the show, one is struck with the impression of how blatantly  the game show was simply a vehicle for selling products. But something tying it to the roots of American culture . . . ?

“Gretchen am Spinnrade”

I’ve never seen Goethe’s “Faust” used to describe expat training, but this says a lot about Germany. It’s a description for expat and/or multicultural team training that refers to the “Gretchen question” in Goethe’s “Faust”. For those of you who have forgotten your college lit courses (or perhaps used one too many Cliff Notes instead of doing the required reading), the charachter Gretchen asks Faust if he believes in God and he does not know how to answer the question satisfactorily. The Gretchen Question (“Gretchenfrage”) is used ideomatically in modern German to refer to a question of great importance with a difficult answer.

But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point is: Germany has a great wealth of cultural heritage that they are justifiably proud of. In just about every art that you can think of, the greats that Germany produced throughout the centuries make one realize that there must have been something in the water, so to speak, that led to genius. This is not at all taken lightly by present-day Germans and, when doing business in Germany, is something to be respected, even revered.

It seems as though we have iPhone applications for pretty much everything these days. The spectrum runs from some outstanding business-related apps that can go a long way to improving your productivity, and some beautifully designed apps to enhance your creativity, to many apps that leave one wondering, “Why?”

Cultural dimensions iPhone app

Cultural differences app for iPhone

Where the CultureGPS app fits for you on this spectrum probably depends on how useful you find the cultural dimensions model of Prof. Geert Hofstede. For those unfamiliar with Prof. Hofstede’s work, you can read more here. But in brief, Prof. Hofstede, while employed as a researcher by IBM in the 1960’s, did studies comparing national and organizational cultures. The result was a 5-dimension model that has been used by culture and organizational experts for many years in classifying differences in culture. While still controversial, it nevertheless offers a modicum of structure for those looking for patterns in behavior that match to national differences. According to a Wall Street Journal ranking in 2008, Geert Hofstede is one of the top 20 most influential business thinkers.

The application, developed by Sales-Genetics Ltd & Co. KG of Düsseldorf. Germany, is currently available only for the iPhone. According to their website, other smartphone OS platforms are being developed.

Not only do 60& of Turkish small and medium enterprises don’t use email, 75% have no corporate website. When doing business with Turkey, check your assumptions regarding communication. More information: http://tiny.sm/dc

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A video compilation of the event held on 9.09.2009 at Amsterdam Bright City, in Amsterdam the Netherlands. Sponsored by De Baak, it was a look at Dutch leadership and society from various perspectives, Dutch and non-Dutch, about what we could learn from each other.

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