Intercultural Challenges–How Can We Work Together?

Intercultural corporationsIn the old days, the definition of an international company used to be that of an enterprise which exported and perhaps had sales subsidiaries outside its home market.

It was rare – except at the big well-known multinationals – to have foreign colleagues in the office corridors. Everyone understood his or her fellow workmates when exchanging small talk around the water cooler or coffee machine. Body language, grunts and silences – all communicated messages loud and clear to everyone.

All that is now a thing of the past – even small and medium sized companies have global supply chains, foreign shareholders, and integrated business partnerships with companies on far off continents. Management teams and boards are getting multinational. Ideas – good and especially silly ones – zigzag with the speed of light between all corners of the globe.

There are many different ways to organize and run an enterprise. Each national culture harbors some predominating organizational structures.

Fons TrompenaarsThe findings of the intercultural management specialist Fons Trompenaars shows that « there is no significant correlation with any one single corporate culture and business performance, i.e. there is no ‘best’ single corporate culture”.

Every CEO previously had the ambition to be adapted to his national, natural environment. Managers have built coherent structures that interact with local behavior, history, expectations and mindsets. Employees and customers feel cozy in such surroundings. In short: “we are the best, all others are strange”.

So – what happens when History (this sounds like Hegel) take the national organizations and brutally throw them into a global setting, where they are expected to cooperate with formerly distant nationalities and their seemingly odd behavior patterns? The barbarians are inside the gates.

In post merger integration, intercultural management training is often seen as the poor youngest orphan, who gets the meager bowl of soup at the end. The IT systems, the logistics, and the remuneration grids all these things are concrete and measurable. They get all management focus and priority.

Louise RoyMy friend Louise Roy (among other positions, she has been responsible for the Americas at Air France) from Montreal has coined the abbreviation SSS: Soft Skills for Success. She finds the interpersonal “soft” skills crucial.

Many – the figure tree quarters is often quoted – of attempted mergers and acquisitions fail due to cultural factors.

The long line of failed mergers notwithstanding; top management tends to underestimate the cultural challenges. The idea being: “We are all international nowadays, so we can work together without problems. Same Nike, same iPhone and the same Coke Zero. All bound together by business English. “

Again, Fons Trompenaars findings – based upon 80 000 cases from 100 countries – proves this to be an optimistic illusion: national culture is still the major deciding factor for behavior in business.

Businessman with devil or angelPushing a problem under the carpet rarely solves it. The difficulty tends to come back with even more vigor.

Awareness is the first and most important step when you deal with other cultures.

Another common error, apart from lack of awareness is to treat cultural differences as merely an anecdote. That is to concentrate on external behavior and amusing caricatures. The Englishman with rolled umbrella, bespoke Savile Row pinstriped suit and a bowler hat. The books at the airport “The twenty five things to know to make business with Tashkent” are catering to this approach.

The most difficult obstacles with doing business with other cultures are not the dress codes or the eating habits. The crucial factors are those hidden below the surface: the instincts, the subconscious – the routine ‘natural behaviors’’. The things that belong to the core of our identity – attitudes to such things as life, death, family, money, time, destiny, willpower, laws, moral, friendship, honesty.

Cultural differencesThe French – German linguist and philosopher Heinz Wismann writes in his recent book “Penser entre les langues” – Thinking between the languages – about cultural identity. When he is German he is not French. He is not living in a grey mixed cultural area; he feels defined as a German by not being French and the opposite. The advantage for him is to live “between the languages” – to be enriched by always seeing things a little bit from the outside.

One of the important positive effects of successful intercultural encounters is that is you can see yourself as in a mirror. You observe yourself from the outside. What used to be natural and normal proves to be as particular and odd as what your neighbor does. All is a question of perspective.

To be a good intercultural manager you need to be able to interact with other cultures, listen and observe, respect them, learn from them and see how you can create synergy effects. This means that you must create a give and take process with other cultures. You must build trust.

Intercultural handshake (Small)Fons Trompenaars, again him, recommends a method, which he calls “reconciling dilemmas”. If there are two good ways of doing things in two different cultures – and these methods seem mutually exclusive, you need to proceed with a reconciliation process. Things should neither be done neither “my way”, nor “your way” and not by a lukewarm compromise in the middle.

What you need is a dynamic process of inventing a way where both cultures positive capacities are used in innovative ways for finding new solutions.

This goes far away from the digital black or white thinking.

The process – never ending – as such is also of value to the organization, as it in itself becomes a constructive and unifying factor for the cooperation and identity.


  1. A good article, insightful and well-balanced.
    I learned during four years in China that expat managers often struggle when dealing with their local colleagues/suppliers/clients. Yes ok, everyone may be using English to communicate, but this often means that, as Mr Fogelstrom’s article points out, the expats have little hope of comprehending the numerous cultural differences ‘hidden below the surface’. However, foreigners who live in the country and immerse themselves in the local language can get more easily under the skin of the host culture. As I became more competent in Mandarin Chinese, business interactions in China became much smoother, even with Chinese who spoke English. Companies doing business abroad would therefore be smart to hire ‘cultural experts’ who live in and understand the foreign country, and can therefore straddle the divide.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I think your observations are very relevant. Languages have different structures, which have impacts on how we express something and what is possible to express and what is not. Guy Deutscher has written an interesting book about this in 2010: “Through the Language Glass, Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages”. You also ‘feel at home’ in your own language. These factors makes you communicate better by taking steps in the direction of someone in his/her own language.
    In France the French language is one of the few uniting factors in a culture of conflict. It is guarded as a sacred object. And its complicated rules and precisions makes it a trap for foreigners. But it is enjoyable to try!

  3. Yes indeed, and each language has structures, patterns and vocabulary that reflect the cultural norms and values of the society it comes from. French is definitely a trap that has caught me many times and continues to do so…I prefer languages with simple grammar rules. But as you say, the trying is the fun part and it’s all very enjoyable.

  4. I remember working with a German who is now the GM of that company. We were operating a machine and every time it reversed to the right place the operator directing it would say “that’s pretty good. ..” Finally Jan came to me and asked what it meant. He had been using a translation calculator & it kept coming up with “uberlich” or very beautiful. I explained it meant “close enough.” Often we do not notice that we use colloquialisms and many don’t translate. Other issues come with specialist language. Recently a group of Japanese engineers visited the M7. It was interesting to see the translator at work . What was difficult for him was the technical terms that he was groping to find a Japanese term for. Even though they used the same materials because they belong to a specialist subset of language the translator did not know them so much more context had to be conveyed before they could be understood. This takes extra time. Therefore meetings need to be factored around this to ensure that the full and actual context of what is being discussed is understood if no common language is spoken, one party has a poor understanding of the language or specialist or local terms are used. Further, depending on the risk and time, ask your translator to explain the translation again or from another angle if you are unsure of what is meant by something said.

  5. Thank you for you interesting remarks.
    In the March 9/March 10 edition of the Financial Times Simon Kuper wrote an excellent article called “Business à la française”.

    A key part of the article – which I recommend you to read in full via the link above refers to linguistic communication issues:

    “The greater Franco-British problem is language. Most French business people under 50 can now speak “Globish”: the simplified, dull, idiom-free version of English with a small vocabulary. It’s silly to expect more from them. If Brits had discovered circa 1995 that English no longer sufficed internationally, they wouldn’t have adapted well either.
    Globish just about gets the French through international business meetings. But it isn’t enough for building relationships. French people build working relationships over lunch, and Brits over evening beers, but the principle is the same: this is when trust is created, and information casually exchanged. And these informal exchanges only happen between people who speak the same language almost perfectly.
    I’ve seen it at conferences. During the day, everyone spends the sessions checking email. Then the French go for dinner together to speak French. The British eat with the Americans (often swapping complaints about the French). At 11pm the Americans go to bed, and the Brits go to the bar to build more trust.
    These exchanges pay off. The Zurich-based economists Peter H. Egger and Andrea Lassmann recently analysed 81 academic articles on language and international trade. They found that on average a common language “increases trade flows directly by 44 per cent”. That’s where things break down between French and British.
    It’s customary at this point to urge British schools to start teaching French again. But that probably wouldn’t help. When dealing with French people, only near-native French confers an advantage. Speaking mediocre French is worse than useless. If mediocre French is all you have, it’s much better to speak English, and force the French person to operate on your turf. Then when he has a tantrum, just smile fondly and say: “I agree with you, up to a point.””
    Excerpt from article by Simon Kuper

  6. Thanks Anders.
    Indeed communication is basic in success of most anything. I was for many years a facilitator in communication, as a translator/interpreter. Knowing the things you shared helps one to function better in such roles. I love the French language naturally, but had never attended classes. So now I know that If I ever met a Frenchman, I will not use the few French phrases I now. I have learned how not to disappoint a Frenchman or woman in communication

  7. Thank you for you interesting comment. Showing an interest for French culture and French language will always be appreciated. The French language is however a refined and complicated tool constructed so that even foreigners with good knowledge will make errors. Like table manners and other matters of etiquette heritage from the court at Versailles. But I recommend still that you use your French linguistic abilities for fun and polite interaction.

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