Friday, 28th September 2007
In German-speaking regions people usually wish 'Guten Appetit' to everyone at the table before starting to eat, no matter that is business gala dinner or family supper. The same protocol is mostly unnecessary in the United States or in China. Cultural differences as such can be learned by reading a cultural etiquette tip list or one of the many other ways. This kind of knowledge - the subtleties of how to behave - helps navigate the day-to-day challenges presented by life in a new country. However, a country's cultural profile goes beyond what can be seen or heard. Understanding and respecting the state of affairs in the minds and souls of people from other cultures may need not only patience, but also a flexible mindset.
While cultural differences were highly interesting topics for several panel discussions at the recent GIIS conference in Berlin, many of the off-stage small talks were also quite enlightening on the subject.
Cultural differences get complicated when cultures share a particular value but express it in very different ways. Some examples:
* Americans like to look good and make a good first impression. So do Europeans. And Chinese go a long way to avoid losing face. But what constitutes 'looking good' for Americans may be quite different from Europeans or Chinese.
* Social networks are important everywhere in the world for business and personal success, although the degrees of influence and the dependency of social system functions vary greatly in different cultural contexts, as it is exemplified in the Chinese concept of Guanxi, which is usually translated as 'relationship'. In America, social networks can be very fluid and change frequently; in Europe and China, it may take longer to be admitted to a social network, and locals may hold newcomers at arm's length for a period of time.
* Americans value team-building but in a cultural context that also venerates the individual. Chinese, on the other hand, put group goals ahead of their own personal desires and belonging-together community spirit is deeply embedded in the Chinese collective culture. Chinese have also been deeply affected by the teachings of Confucianism which emphasizes the importance of interdependent relationships.
Recognizing cultural differences, no matter in which form or color, is important for business success in the global markets. Investment in understanding these differences will pay dividends in the future.
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