Author Archives: Adam

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns–things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. Things we don’t know we don’t know.”

I’m not one to quote Donald Rumsfeld much, but from the standpoint of cultural training, this often maligned quote is kind of spot on. As a set of shared behavioral norms, culture reveals itself in ways that are sometimes apparent and teachable: be on time for a meeting in Switzerland, be sure to take a moment to really look at a Japanese colleague’s business card, etc. The tricky part that intercultural business trainers face is how to convey the invisible yet just as powerful ways that culture influences us. That’s why I found this TED Lecture so fascinating.

Keith Chen is a behavioral economist, and he’s discovered something rather alarming. Something that illuminates, in persuasive fashion, the unknown power that culture and language express over our lives. As it turns out, people who speak languages that don’t have a traditional future tense are actually much better at preparing for their future, be it in increased savings for retirement, better health, lower smoking rates, lower rates of obesity, and even safer sexual practices.

For instance, in English we might say, it will rain tomorrow. But in Flemish, Chinese, and several other languages, you would say, it rain tomorrow. And somehow, softening the distinction between events presently occurring with those that will be occurring in the future gives them more immediacy. Confusing? Try thinking of it this way: I will save my money for tomorrow vs. I save my money for tomorrow. By omitting the very idea of will, an entire nation is culturally more inclined to delay immediate gratification for future gain and deal with circumstances, maybe even years down the line with far a greater sense of imminence and urgency.

Very interesting stuff, and a clear sign of the power that language and culture often unknowingly exudes upon our lives. What other hidden aspects of culture have you discovered in the places and people you’ve worked with and how they might express themselves in your life and workplace?

Erin Meyer, an affiliate professor at INSEAD, contributed an insightful story to the The Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Meyer did a great job presenting a few real-life scenarios including the above graphic translating the intention of a British communication and what a Dutch person would tend to hear. This reminds us of so many situations we also grapple with in support clients with their cultural learning strategy.

Pretend you’re leading a global team remotely, with members from China, the Netherlands, France and the UK. You’ve just finished reviewing the first stage plans submitted to you by each division and you don’t like what you see. While your Chinese, Dutch, French and UK colleagues all speak perfectly good English (particularly the British team member), their work just isn’t up to par. Now, you’re minutes away from your weekly video conference call with your team members and you’ll have to deliver some bad news and criticism to get the project back on track.

Because you don’t have the time to call each colleague individually and deal with the specific issues in private. It all has to be handled over the group call. You have two cultures, the Chinese and British, who tend to communicate indirectly, and two other cultures, the French and Dutch, who tend to communicate very directly. The British can handle criticism, but it’s all done through inference and “sandwiching,” whereby the main point or criticism is preceded or placed between a pair of positive statements.

Say, Stan, lovely job on the graphics. Maybe we should
review the projections a bit
, but the report looks great.

The only thing that matters in that statement is the bolded bit.

However, “sandwiching” tends to confuse the Dutch who deal much better with direct and honest feedback, and may irritate the French who find false pleasantries patronizing and insincere. And then you have your Chinese colleague who places enormous value upon maintaining “face” and could be very uncomfortable, possibly even ashamed, of having their work criticized before international colleagues. How do you go about delivering bad news and criticism to four colleagues from four distinct cultures?

At CultureWizard we think about these situations a lot. Here’s what we suggest when it comes to breaching the culture and criticism divide.

1. Talk about culture and how it impacts the way we say and hear things, particularly criticism. Give an example from your own culture to make the point and ask others to share their perspective.

2. Be mindful to keep up morale, and use a generally positive tone. Even though your Dutch and French colleagues might find it unnecessary and a tad frustrating, in general, they will be less frustrated than your Chinese colleague might be hurt and disengage if your criticism causes a loss of face.

3. Try not to embarrass anyone. If you’re having a particular issue with one colleague’s work, and you know they value maintaining face, discuss your issue in private rather than risk embarrassing them in front of the entire team.

4. Provide clear directives in written form so your team can have something to go back to after the meeting that constructively explains your criticism. If you know individuals expect you to manage process closely, don’t take anything for granted. Extra detail and context will help.

5. Be clear, concise and kind. Reiterate your main points before you get off the call and ask individuals to re-state in their own words what they’ve understood their next steps to be.

Check out this Primer on Anglo-Dutch Translation. Priceless!

What stories and insights—good or bad—can you share when culture and criticism came face to face?

Cadillac, a luxury American car-maker, plays cultural provocateur through its recent commercial for a new high-end hybrid that ran extensively during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Like many of the ad blogs and YouTube comments it’s eliciting, I must admit to being equally uncomfortable and entertained by the commercial. If you consider it satire, Cadillac’s ad is a brilliant send-up of American cultural values and its legendary drive for hard work and to push the boundaries of science, industry and technology. Ultimately, we can distill Cadillac’s message into a few things: make your own luck, get rich, own an enormous home, and, lest we forget, buy an $80,000 Cadillac.

Many hope that Cadillac was going for camp appeal with this TV spot. How else can you explain the patriotic braggadocio by the ad’s leading man (veteran actor, Neal McDonough) as he struts through his multi-million dollar home – past his happy and hardworking kids and wife – en route to his electric Cadillac? Here’s part of what he says:

“Other countries, they work. They stroll home. They stop
by the cafe. They take August off. Off. Why aren’t you
like that? Why aren’t we like that? Because we’re crazy-
driven, hard-working believers, that’s why.”

And then, concluding for good measure with a dig at the French:

“As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two
weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?”

But for those who don’t see it tongue in cheek, the ad has whipped up a whirlwind of controversy as representing what many interpret as the worst of American stereotypes presented as virtues: materialism, arrogance, and xenophobia. This ad is clearly for a pro-American audience, but perhaps not for American viewers who wish to distance themselves from such values.

Here’s why Bustle finds the ad insulting:

“Instead of a car zooming down a highway, we get
(a somewhat recognizable American actor) explaining that
Americans are better than people from other countries
because we work harder…and don’t take August off.”

However, it’s important to be clear that cultural norms; the values that comprise mainstream American culture, are simply norms. There’s no good or bad when it comes to norms, and empirical data show that communities, as groups of people with shared experiences, do tend to think and behave in certain ways. That’s what culture is — the result of centuries of history that have contributed to a unique value system that generally serves its people in positive ways.

It’s also important to understand that while many people might connect quite strongly with the values espoused in this commercial, there are plenty of Americans who subscribe to very different ideals, or a less extreme philosophy than the one presented by the Cadillac character. Cultures also change from generation to generation, so it’s important to consider this: who buys Cadillac’s these days? What generational cohort do they belong to? What if Cadillac only wanted this ad to speak to potential buyers, instead of influencing an audience it knows doesn’t connect with the brand?

In the end, the joke is sort of on Cadillac. That’s right. In case you weren’t aware, for all the robust American ideals the automaker presents, Cadillac is named after a Frenchman! N’est-ce pas?

I’m curious how our international friends might feel about the commercial—offensive, funny, or a bit of both?

Resolving office miscommunications and conflicts is never easy, but when they involve people from different cultures, it can get downright tricky. When working in your homeland, a joke to a fellow colleague or a blunt directive to your direct report might hardly warrant a second thought. But through the filter of a non-native ear, that seemingly innocuous comment can cause quite a stir.

What we’ve found over the years at RW3 is that managers and executives run into just as many culture related issues when foreign workers are visiting their home office as when they work abroad. In an intercultural work environment, people tend to be on their toes and sensitive to the cultures around them. However, when a foreign player is introduced for the first time, managers may be less culturally aware, and that’s when miscommunications happen. So what do you do when you feel a foreign colleague is misinterpreting your message?

1. Before you deal with the problem in the manner that you might with someone from your native culture, seek some cultural coaching. Turns out that your direct approach to handling issues, which has worked well enough with your local colleagues, might be the exact wrong way to approach the problem with a foreign employee.

2. Study the culture of the foreign colleague. Oftentimes, the issue might be as easy to comprehend as understanding the inherent differences and natural conflicts when egalitarian and hierarchical cultures mix.

3. Understand that as the local manager, it’s your job to extend the olive branch to your international colleagues. Having the sensitivity and awareness to request a private meeting to clear up the issue, and explaining how culture might be a factor in the misunderstanding, is often enough to smooth out any ruffled feelings.

4. Don’t be afraid to apologize. It’s amazing how a sincere apology has the ability to cross cultural boundaries.

5. Take the opportunity to Really Listen to your foreign colleague, read their body language, and give them an opportunity to express anything they are unclear about regarding relationships, policy and workplace dynamics.

What tips do you have regarding cultural miscommunications? How do you suggest smoothing out conflicts between cultures? We’d love to hear your comments.

Look: Yves Morieux, director of the BCG Institute for Organization in Washington, DC, has an issue with how the modern workplace is overly complicated and alienating to workers. His excellent (and brief!) Ted Talk examines 6 ways to simplify the modern workplace and typical corporate structure and create a more fluid, inspiring and integrated business.

LISTEN: With the Olympics currently happening in Sochi, here’s an interesting little interview that gives a behind the scenes cultural look at what it took to bring the Winter Olympic games to Sochi and how the international business community has had to adapt their style to working there.

Read: Already slipping on your New Year’s goals? Well, the problem might not be you, but the very idea of focusing on goals. In this really worthwhile article, noted writer and performance coach James Clear suggests that, “Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.”

The potential problems of being an expat are well documented, but little attention is paid to the many challenges they face upon return. A recent piece in BBC Capital shines light on the fact that after a long stint abroad, the reverse adjustment cycle can sometimes be more difficult than going on assignment in the first place.

Attrition of repatriated employees has always been a point of pain for employers. Global organizations often spend 3 to 4 times a worker’s salary over the course of an expatriate assignment, and losing the employee shortly after return doesn’t bode well for ROI on international assignments. It turns out there’s more to returning from an international assignment than most people and companies consider. “It’s very sad to come back to the same old, same old after spending three to five years learning more about the business and having your eyes opened to global issues,” said Jane Malecki, executive director of the human capital practice at Ernst & Young.

Returning from an assignment is not the same as coming home from a lengthy vacation. Repatriation is a complicated process, which affects both assignees and their accompanying family members. BBC quantified that in 2013, about 16% of workers left their employers within two years of a global assignment ending. For expats who have managed entire departments, earned high salaries and developed professional expertise abroad, returning to their original position with no recognition of their growth on assignment can be very frustrating and disappointing.

Because of its unique challenges, the repatriation process demands nearly as much thought and preparation as expatriation. Many expatriates find themselves surprised by how rocky the transition home can be. To reduce the stress and retain returning expats, some companies are starting to take a more strategic approach. They’re starting to think about next assignments earlier, often before the employee goes abroad.

To address repatriation concerns, here are a few key points from CultureWizard’s Adjustment Cycle:

1. Be aware that returning expats usually receive less support than outgoing expats from their employers, friends and colleagues.

2. Stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues back home while you’re living abroad. This will help minimize feelings of isolation upon return.

3. Choose a person or two in your home office who can act as your mentor, keeping you abreast of changes and new positions—can really pay off when it comes time to repatriate.

4. Keep in mind that while things might have “changed” at home since you expatriated, most likely, so have you. An expatriate assignment should broaden your horizon, which may cause you to view your home and place of employment quite differently.

5. If possible, consider coming home to a new position. This way, repatriation will offer a new set of challenges, and you may feel less like you’ve returned to the “same old thing.”

Have something else to add? We’d love to hear the wisdom from you, especially if you’ve recently repatriated.

Look: Looking for a little kick in the pants to focus you for the New Year? This quick three minute and thirty second TED Talk might be just what your higher angels ordered. Self described “Desk dwelling computer nerd,” Matt Cutts decided that he could make himself healthier, happier and more interesting in 30 day increments, and judging by his flash TED Talk, not only does Cutts seem healthier, happier and more interesting, he’s also become inspiring.

Listen: Steve Jobs as an honorary Frenchman? Fascinating piece on the French presence in Silicon Valley and how French cultural values have been driving tech entrepreneurs and innovators away from their own country and to the United States for decades.

Read: Gearing up for a great 2014. Got your goals all set? Well, consider this first; Turns out goals create stress, actually make people unhappy and don’t really help you get anything done. It’s an effective system that you need. Rather than fixating on goals for the coming year, creating effective systems is the tool you need to make stuff happen and achieve what you’ve set out to accomplish. This one is a really worthy read!

One of the fascinating things about working across cultures is how, sometimes, the qualities that make you successful in your home country can actually hurt you abroad. Take, for instance, the Canadian manager known for her informal, inclusive and egalitarian management style. She goes on long-term assignment to Japan and completely falters in its hierarchical, formal work environment.

A recent article from BBC Capital discusses the value of apologizing in the workplace. Studies have indicated how a senior executive’s ability to acknowledge and apologize for mistakes actually makes their subordinates more loyal and boosts morale among their workforce.

This specific piece was written from a Western perspective. It would have been interesting if there was mention of how non-Western workplaces deal with the apology, which is an inherently cultural behavior that can lead to an unexpected cultural dilemma. As a general rule, CultureWizard advises that apologies in more formal societies (Asian, South American and Eastern European countries) be done one-on-one, being mindful not to lose face on their end and on yours. And, regardless of what culture you’re working with, be sure your apology is genuine and that you are 100% accountable. Nothing is worse than the dreaded non-apology apology, especially if your job or reputation is on the line.

What do our readers who have worked in more hierarchical cultures have to say? Have you ever made an apology that only ended up making things worse? Is it sometimes impossible to recover from a mistake or some form of failure despite a formal apology?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Look: Sales lagging? Starting to doubt your efficacy and influence? Fabulous little primer on Persuasion Science that can help boost sales and increase your understanding of how the brain works and what people unconsciously look for and respond to when we’re attempting to influence others.

Listen: And now for something fun to beat the winter blues and remind us of the wonders of an intercultural world where people are free to sample and imbue their lives and work with inspirations drawn from nations and cultures far and wide. To that end, some of the best old school funk and Ska-Reggea is coming from a collection of middle age musicians out of New Zealand. You gotta give a listen to Fat Freddy’s Drop!

Read: And who couldn’t use a few words of insight and inspiration from a can-do businesswoman who beat the odds by building a billion dollar start up in capital scarce Japan.

Look: Life, work, travel, spouse, kids, ambition, boss, in-laws, bills… feeling stressed? Feeling concerned about being stressed? (And what modern businessperson isn’t?) Stress is a killer, after all, right? Well, it turns—and here’s the good news—stress isn’t a killer. Stress can actually be good for you! It’s actually our thoughts about stress that make stress stressful and dangerous. Great talk. Worth watching.

Listen: In a wonderful bit of cultural mash-up, Elvis is alive and well, singing and strumming in—Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a pure country music story – one continent removed. Small town boy, son of a minister, grew up listening to gospel music, sets off to see the world, lives in Norway, visits the US, then returns home to become Kenyan’s first country music star, in place with no country music! (And he’s really good, too!)

Read: Do you dread the weekly office meeting? Or maybe you’re tasked with organizing it? Either way, here’s a great little primer on rethinking and reinvigorating that perfunctory weekly obligation and maximizing your your team’s time and productivity.