Culture Club

Never one to over stretch himself, Steve Gale compares regional differences in work, life and the universe

It’s a running joke in every part of the world. People from other places, usually nearby, are allocated silly but recognisable characteristics, and we dine out on rubbing it in. Absurd tropes survive the decades; English people like queuing and apologising, Welsh people break into song, Scots argue about the bill, Germans love detail, French burn tyres and throw cobble stones at the drop of a hat. Where do these generalisations come from, and is there a scrap of truth?

I went to business school during the last recession to find an alternative to mainstream architecture (and failed), but took away two big things. One was financial engineering, which is to be expected, and the other surprising little nugget was about culture – both national and corporate. This second one turned out to be very useful to me. I am no financial engineer.

The thing about culture is business owners and CEOs say it is valuable beyond measure. All corporate leaders that I have spoken to either say it is the life-blood of their organisation to be treasured above all else or, less often, it’s become an albatross that they cannot shake off or change. Either way, it is huge and never taken lightly.

So now, when culture is mentioned, I take it seriously and want to hear more. I am a permanent student of the silent language of culture, looking for intuition behind the words.

What happens when people describe their business? They speak through a filter of their culture, and then we filter it through our own prejudice. It is the kid’s game of Chinese whispers with high stakes.

In Paris I ask French managers about their requirements while their new American owners listen. To say that the visiting Americans were bewildered by the legal necessity to consult with the unions about proposed plans would be an understatement of epic proportions. To them it threatened the fundaments of corporate decision making, and wastes time. For the French employees this was simply being fair, and was their voice in their working life.

In India they respect hierarchy. People tend to avoid questioning those of superior rank, which can lead to some dead ends, but can also clear logjams when instructions are issued from upstairs. But an open discussion is not the way, the cocktail of respect, laced with a bit of traditional, fear will douse any pesky time wasting challenges to authority. Rank will often suppress professional opinions.

In Beirut I learnt that an agreed plan could be abandoned and another put in place with no consultation. People on the ground know best. A meeting is cancelled because we are driving 40 miles to meet a supplier for lunch instead – maybe we talk contracts tomorrow. Maybe. Ad hoc proposals are taken up with a vigour that feels downright unprofessional to more straightlaced players. But only a fool would question the Lebanese effectiveness at getting things done. Diplomacy is their natural constituency.

On the subject of time, it takes a few hard knocks for westerners to accept that an appointment in an Arabic region is often more of a suggestion than a pact. Power relationships are not just implied but regularly exercised. Many flights and hotel bills have been sacrificed on the altar of middle eastern indifference to time. That is not how it happens in Germany.

Social manners are another shark pool for business relationships. Take the automatic reflexes of conversation. In Italy it is not just okay to talk over someone, but a signal of active engagement and affinity. In Scandinavia anything less than a three second gap between utterances can come across as boorish or aggressive. In Japan active listening is an art form that requires tomcat growling of approval and interest while you listen and digest – polite silence signals indifference.

Maybe the biggest gap between Anglo-Saxon ways and Latin culture is the status of personal relationships. Us Brits would not expect to visit a local authority to shake hands with everyone before lodging a planning application. But in France I found that nothing happened until I had done exactly that.

Back in Blighty that would smack of corruption. I am scratching the surface, but cultures lay down unspoken rules about acceptable behaviour, and they frequently carry more weight than professional aptitude. Merit can come a poor second in this parallel universe. Watch and learn.