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Understanding cultural differences

When working in a multi cultural environment, understanding the way each person behaves is crucial.

There’s a video from Robert Dempsey HERE that is brilliant. My comments will be highly based on his video plus my experiences.

For the last five years, my environment by itself is noticeably multicultural: I’m Brazilian, in a German company, reporting to Spanish managers and directors, working mainly for users located in London and NY markets. Because of it, I’ve seen some odd situations as well as learned a lot about cultural differences.

Every day is a new lesson. After a while, people get used to working this way. However, when a new person arrives in the company (and even a few more that are working in this environment for a while) may not understand these differences and how to best react to these differences. So, let me put a few lines on each of the most common profiles I’ve interacted with in the last years.

First, let me try to put a few lines about my own profile, which I’ll characterize as Southern (or Latin people). In this group, I intend to enclose all people from Latin America as well as Spain and – I assume – Italians, although I’ve never worked with Italian people (so far). Latin people are known for their hot blood, in contrast with the cold-blooded northern people. Because of it, Latin people tend to be very personal, receptive and talkative (and may also get offended by the way something is said that is not correct). When meeting a Latin environment for the first time, it won’t be rare to be asked (in a chit chat) for personal things like family, politics, sports, and so on. Usually it’s used for breaking the ice. Another aspect that is still seen is regarding meeting agendas and schedules. So, be prepared for Latin people that may delay when reaching meetings without giving proper notice, or shifting meeting topics without following a pre defined agenda or even ignoring meeting’s expected time to finish. As Robert states, it may be caused by all the bureaucracy Latin people suffer with. In more informal environments, you may face cases where things are suggested to be done in an ‘unusual’ way, again due to the bureaucracy. In Brazil, that’s what’s called ‘jeitinho brasileiro’, or ‘Brazilian way of doing things’. I don’t know if that’s only my opinion, but I’m happy to tell that this Brazilian way of doing things is now belonging to the past.

In time: In Brazil we speak Portuguese, which is not the same as Spanish, although Spanish and Portuguese are similar.

While in Europe, we also have another very contrasting profile that I already mentioned and its called Northern people. It is not the case of disregarding one’s feeling or not being worried about people. This difference is more subtle, I’d say. I believe that commonly German people are known for their austerity, precaution and politeness. Because of it, sometimes people tend to think that German people are cold and distant, but it’s all about conservatism. For a people coming from a vanished economy around 50 years ago and that’s now sustaining Europe, we must agree that this approach does work.

There’s also a profile I’ve identified for people from UK and US, especially in New York and London. These people are all about business. For them, personal matters belong to the outside of the office, therefore be objective and keep to the business. Also, they tend to be quite direct with their comments, which may sound quite harsh – unless you know that this is the way they are. I remember a case some years ago where a teammate asked to change project because she just couldn’t take the UK partner anymore. I remember that when I was invited to replace her, I had a meeting with her and she drew me a picture of a monster partner, which in the months she stayed in the project, made her cry more than she could stand. When I was about to meet with this partner, my managers advised me that it would be ok if I didn’t want to take that project. After getting the project and working with this partner for almost a year, we got along very well, as I took all his comments about my work just like what they really are: comments about my work. Not my behaviour, not my person, not me. My work. I changed to another project and a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to meet him in London, this time not as partners anymore, but as friends. I can’t express how friendly he was, inviting us to meet his family, his house, had sightseeing with us and in the end of the night we bought some pizzas. What a great time! I’d say ‘us’ as I was with my wife there (adding another level of personality in our meeting!).

If I wasn’t able to understand the differences between his professional and personal profiles, probably I would never have met him.

There’s another profile that’s important to mention here, especially as we’re dealing with IT global environment: Eastern folks, most specifically, Indians. Indians are everywhere now, and its unlikely to have a single global project without at least one Indian. I have great Indian buddies I’ve met in my career, and there are some aspects of the Indian culture that are often misunderstood by occidental people.

Indians live in a world where there is still a caste system in place. In the late years, this system is becoming rarer, but still exists. Because of it, its very common to have complex hierarchies within an Indian team. I’ve seen several times during conference bridges managers openly blaming their subordinates, which is quite rare in occidental culture. But that’s common in a hierarchical culture. Also, some may think that an Indian team would be only picked by their low prices in comparison to other technological centers. That’s not the case, again (I believe) due to the castes. There are the low-profile call-centers Indians that may change from a job to another within a couple of weeks, but there are also the high-skilled professionals offering high-end services all around the globe. Some may not know, but Indians are great contributors on several areas, like maths and finance (that’s the reason why we have so many Indians at senior management levels in several companies).

In contrast, I’ve faced once a case where we were dealing with some Indian vendors in a high risk scenario, where SLAs were being impacted quite often. The RCA concluded that this specific vendor was the origin of the problem. We went to a conference call, did several agreements for the next days and assumed that everyone would know how to behave during next occurrences. To my joy, on the day after we received one mail complaining about one problem with an incredible ‘please advise’ at the end. I couldn’t believe that. Really. We simply asked “what about yesterday’s agreements?”, and they answered “we’re not aware of any agreement” (in spite of the meeting minutes sent on the day before). I asked this pal to contact his peers that were available on the previous turn and he simply told me “no one is here anymore” (and we had more than one vendor represented in this meeting). In short, we had to go through the whole process again, (re) defining agreements for the next days.

Beyond the Indian castes, there’s also another very important point and needs to be highlighted (thanks Paul for mention it!): the several cultures within India. I believe there’s no other country with so many cultures flourishing within the same borders. For a country with history stretching back to almost 10.000 years, that’s quite understandable. Every midsized country has different cultures, habits and so on. But the level of differences inside India goes further anywhere else. Bear it in mind next time when dealing with our Indian pals!

There are some other cultural differences (out of the office) that are remarkable. I remember back in 2007 when I was chit chatting with an Indian pal… telling him I was about to get married. His next two phrases were: ‘Congratulations!’ and ‘Was it for love or arranged?’. At that time, it was very funny, because for me it was simply impossible to conceive an arranged marriage… but in his culture, that’s more than common. That’s the rule.

I’m aware there are plenty of other cultures (and also differences amongst the above I mentioned) but my idea is to present a (properly biased) overview of what I’ve seen so far.

In short:

Southern:

  • Friendly
  • Relationship Oriented
  • Informal
  • Easygoing
  • Medium / Low Cost
  • Tend to take comments as personal

Northern:

  • Objective
  • Business Oriented
  • Formal
  • High Cost
  • Clearly separate personal from Professional

Eastern:

  • Hierarchy Oriented
  • High turnaround
  • High range of quality (from very low to very high)
  • Lower Cost

Again, please evaluate this and make your own assessment, don’t take the above for granted.

And you, do you have any cultural experience you’d like to share? I”d like to hear from you!

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