I have recently been thinking about my cultural values profile, and how it influences my approach to life, work and decision-making. My observations may help you and your business as you develop plans for international expansion.
To put this post in context, I spent the first 26 years of my life living in the United Kingdom, where despite the deep-rooted British class system, my workplaces had flat team structures.
As described by Hofstede Insights in its country comparison tool, British people are individualist in nature, put another way they are independent and self-reliant. I recognise the characteristics of her citizens in my preference for privacy in my personal life.
During the 2000s, I spent five years living in New Zealand, another individualist culture, though New Zealand has a lower power distance score than the United Kingdom. As an example of this, when taking an early morning flight from Auckland to Wellington, it is not uncommon to chat to a member of parliament.
The Business world in New Zealand operates with openness and transparency, and employees are encouraged to display initiative and self-reliance. Sustainability is at the forefront of business thinking and Kiwis work to protect the land and the sea. Sports are the leisure-time activity for a large proportion of the community, and this injects a high degree of competitive spirit into society.
In recent years I have also lived in Singapore, notable for its Confucian ethics. An interventionist state with a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, Singapore also boasts a pristine urban environment and pragmatic way of life.
And, multilingual Malaysia, where people accept hierarchical order and have a strong tendency to form close long-term commitments with the group in which they belong. Colleagues and business contacts prefer to get together for an excellent meal to cement relationships, as opposed to a few evening drinks which are customary in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
As a result of travel observations, I believe that American and western mindsets generally focus on individual goals, the rights of the individual, personal identity and freedom of choice.
A superb critique of American individualism is available in the highly popular Netflix series, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’. The mercurial Chess-playing Beth Harmon is a genius – a concept that aligns well with individualism.
In contrast, the Chinese and broader Asian collectivist approach puts the extended family in a central role in society and adopts a mindset where people tend to do what’s best for the country while often sacrificing personal independence. Perhaps, this is the reason why many Asian’s perceive that some westerners are behaving like spoiled children when it comes to following COVID safety measures.
Beyond this, each country (and even localities within a country) has traits, behaviours, and dominant attitudes. It is worth pointing out that I am not referring to stereotypes; instead, please view them as guidelines for engagement, as opposed to rules for engagement.
I have worked on the ground in more than twenty countries and have put together frameworks for international expansion that result in hiring people, building teams and coaching talent.
I want to share these tips that have the potential to help you to grow your business internationally.
I have found that there is often real value in considering how people and populations use ‘I’ versus ‘we’ when responding to questions. In my experience, different cultures subconsciously lean towards “I” or “we” when answering, which do not necessarily correspond with my upbringing. I believe that culture and one’s background plays a subtle role here, which has implications for the interviewer and team leader. Cultural considerations can come into play when motivating employees and designing incentive schemes.
My time in Southeast Asia subtly changed my modus operandi. I now have a greater tendency to define my self-image with “we” as opposed to “I” when referencing the past, which is more evident to me now that I am back in New Zealand. Also, I think that as we age, we become more “we” minded.
To scratch at the surface further, there is some truth to the perceived brashness of the American northeast, the Midwest has a reputation for friendly people while those on the west coast dress more for comfort reflecting a more relaxed style.
My Israeli, Russian, and Dutch friends are among the most direct that I know and this has some surprising benefits; meetings are shorter but are not for the faint-hearted.
My meetings in Italy were loquacious, and the project-focused nature of Chinese business is such that product rollouts occur in record times, driven in part by an adaptable people. However, it should be clear that my experience in China extends only to tier-one cities.
As an avid business networker, the detection of a glance in my direction often heralds the beginning of a new conversation. Maintaining eye contact during a conversation in Europe is seen as being courteous. However, too much eye contact can be disrespectful in Northeast Asia. Eye contact behaviour differs between cultures.
Though it may sound obvious, it is clear to me that those who speak more than one language have a far greater chance of success when living overseas and it need not include the local language. Not only does it sharpen the minds communication skills, but it also improves the use of their first language. Those who speak two or more languages tend to simplify the spoken and written sentence structure, which makes it more straightforward to understand them. I am, myself, occasionally guilty of overly complicating messaging.
There is also a natural advantage for those with a strong desire to travel and explore the world. It always surprises me when I meet an “APAC” this or a “Global” that who has spent little to no time in the markets they supposedly oversee.
In the book ‘Shoe Dog’, Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, goes to great lengths to share the benefits of his worldwide travel in 1962 before going on to build the company we know today. I have a quiet admiration for those on the AIESEC platform who seek to develop their leadership potential through international internships and volunteer opportunities.
In 2020, remote working has created an added challenge in capturing non-verbal elements of communication. To borrow the iceberg metaphor, below the waterline – or ‘high context’ cultures – can be challenging to understand for the outsider because people are less verbally explicit in their communication style. Asian countries are often high context cultures where things are left seemingly unsaid.
In contrast, low context cultures are relatively easy to enter if you are an outsider because the conversation contains much of the information you need to engage in the discussion. That said, there are some exceptions; some English phrases are truly perplexing to the outsider:
- To bite the bullet
- By the skin of my teeth
- Bob’s your uncle
It is essential to state that no culture is entirely high-context or low-context. As an example, your newer friends may think you are talking in code when you speak to your oldest friends because you have developed a particular way of communicating. Think of this as a high context sub-group.
Besides established formal check-ins, extra one-on-one calls may be appropriate when seeking to build and cement relationships.
Building bridges may require openness and a willingness to inspire human connection through having non-work conversations. I believe that a humane and personable approach is more critical than merely determining whether the culture is interpersonal or transactional. And do remember, not to leave any team member behind! 2020 has been a very lonely year for some, with frequent, relevant and timely updates proving vital to the team and personal morale.
In closing, I believe that the journey towards cultural intelligence begins with curiosity and a desire to understand behavioural differences. An understanding of cross-cultural communication in intercultural work environments is essential when building high-growth international organisations.
Thank you for giving me the gift of your time and attention.