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When Cultures Collide

septcultureDespite globalisation, Richard Lewis says people are still rooted in their national and regional backgrounds, and it is important to understand how these influences work to avoid cultural misunderstanding

One of the key parts of a diplomat’s job is to understand and build good working relationships with the governments and peoples of the countries he or she is dealing with. Despite the fact that cultures are coming together under the influence of globalisation and internationalism, people are still rooted in their national and regional backgrounds and it is important to understand how these influences work.

Three key areas can cause cultural misunderstanding. Handled wrongly they can cause strained or ruptured relations. Handled with due care and respect they can build strong, effective links. What are the three key areas? Values, communication patterns and attitudes to authority and leadership. By values, I mean core beliefs, national characteristics and attitudes and worldviews. By communication patterns, I focus particularly on speech styles and listening habits. Attitudes to authority and leadership speaks for itself.

Stereotypes and generalisations

Mention national characteristics and immediately someone will jump up and tell you they know someone from the culture you are discussing and they are nothing like what you describe. Then they accuse you of stereotyping.

Describing national characteristics is just a first step in understanding the individual. Anyone’s culture is complex. Anyone you deal with is a mixture of several different kinds of experience. One is their national background but just as important in many countries is their regional background. Ask an Indian about the key Indian characteristic and they will tell you – variety. Huge differences of population, language, lifestyle, religion and culture exist in this democracy of 1.2 billion people. Ethnicity is also an important distinguishing factor, as is gender, generation, religion and social class. On a personal level, education and upbringing are important as is their personal and corporate experience. As international consultants advising governments, corporations and international organisations such as the World Bank, we make generalisations based on national characteristics and use this as a platform to drill down to the individual. This has proved to be enormously helpful in bringing international negotiation and project management to a successful conclusion.

The Lewis Model

One of the key tools we use in international consultation is the Lewis Model. This divides the world’s countries into three categories, based on the way they organise themselves, the way they communicate and, particularly, their attitude to the use of time. It provides a framework within which individuals can understand their own profile and compare it to the people they are dealing with.

The three categories are Linear-active cultures, Multi-active cultures and Reactive cultures. A linear-active culture is a planning culture, characterised by careful planning, commitment to deadlines, more or less strict timekeeping and building personal relationships through successful business dealing. Cultures in what is sometimes called the Northwest cluster of countries are typically linear-active. A multi-active culture on the other hand is a vision culture. It knows what it wants to achieve but is flexible about how it does so. This means it prioritises activities by personal importance rather than by adherence to externally established deadlines. It also means time itself is a flexible resource. For example, Indians joke that IST (‘Indian Standard Time’) really stands for ‘Indian Stretchable Time’. In a multi-active society relationships are everything and therefore building strong personal relationships comes first. “Get the relationship right and business follows as day follows night,” one Korean friend and colleague explained.

There is sometimes a suggestion that linear-active countries like the US and Germany are more successful than multi-actives. They may be more efficient. What you do find, however, is that international operations run more smoothly according to linear-active principles and as cities in multi-active countries become more internationally commercial and successful they inevitably become more linear-active in their mode of operation.

Most countries tend towards a linear-active or multi-active modus operandi, but we need to mention one more category in the Lewis model – reactive. This is a characteristic typical of countries in the Asia Pacific region, such as China, South Korea and Japan. Diplomats from reactive countries typically value time for silence, consideration and reflection. Respect for the other person and giving them time to think before answering questions is very important. Also important is the reactive concept of groupthink. Japanese diplomats will want to take time to reflect and discuss with colleagues before giving a response to a problem. The process is known in Japanese as nemawashi, binding the roots of the rice to make it stronger, or more typically, a process of collective internal negotiation. This means that decisions can be slow in coming and foreign envoys have to ready for this.

Most important of all is the overriding importance of ‘face’ or personal dignity. All societies have this to some extent but in the Asia Pacific region it is particularly evident. ‘Face’ puts an absolute premium on respect, politeness and consideration, and most colleagues will do their utmost to save face, even if it means being economical with the truth or outright covering up of difficult or embarrassing situations. This may extend to covering up the facts of a crisis when the situation is visibly deteriorating. Successful diplomats require the ability to both understand the culture and to know culturally the right way to behave in order to resolve difficulties.

Culture isn’t black and white. Countries vary in the degree to which they conform to the three categories. This is why we find it useful to present them in this colour-graded triangle.

Human Mental Programming

What we find in a globalised world is that many countries share common values but also have their own deeply rooted national values. We describe this as human mental programming. If you compare, for example, Japan and the US the base of the triangle shows ‘internationally-held values’ while the rest of the triangle shows national values. The diagram enables the user to see at a glance the similarities and differences between typical members of the two communities and to calibrate their approach to each in the appropriate way.

Communication patterns – what your audience is looking for

Finally, a quick look at communication patterns. This covers both negotiation and meetings styles and listening habits. What is your audience looking for in a presentation? In Russia, for example, you are probably dealing with cautious listeners wary and suspicious of ‘officialese,’ so the more you can be personal and empathetic and ‘strike a personal chord’ with your audience the better. At the same time they need to be reassured that you have the authority and expertise in your subject to impress a sceptical audience, hungry for information.

In Germany, personal empathy is good but not vital. They want information, delivered at the right level of detail with a knowledge of the technical issues at play. They don’t want or need simplifications and jokes (almost obligatory in US and British) which can detract from the presentation value in Germany. Above all they don’t need a ‘hard sell.’ They want you to be frank about the ‘pros and cons’ of any project you describe so that they have the information to evaluate it for themselves. Above all, be ready for ‘aggressive’ questioning, if they are interested. A British diplomat was horrified at the level of detailed questioning he faced after his presentation, only to discover at the end that his presentation had gone down really well.

On a final note, you’ve probably heard of the British diplomat in Shanghai who told a joke in English and was highly gratified by the enthusiastic response. Afterwards he asked his interpreter how he had translated the joke. ‘Well, Sir,’ replied the interpreter, ‘First, I said, His Excellency is about to make a joke. Please smile in anticipation.’ Then I said, ‘His Excellency’ is telling a joke. Please laugh.’ Finally, I said, ‘His Excellency has finished the joke. Please laugh loudly and applaud heartily.’ Enough said!


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