Long time ago when I worked for another multinational, there was a program to improve the relations between headquarters and the countries (sometimes also called ‘local’, versus the more important people at HQ, who were ‘global’). One of the recommendations of the ‘Improve the image of HQ’ task force was to give people at HQ an English course. They all thought their English was at a very high level, but the reality was some misunderstandings were caused by the poor English of the staff at HQ. Also I was forced to participate in the course (totally unnecessary for me of course, I thought). The course was revealing. The teacher made it very clear to us it was not only about the use of the language, but also about the cultural differences. He play acted two conversations. Conversation one is between a Dutchman (D) and an Englishman (E):
D: Do you want a cup of tea?
E: No, thank you
Conversation two is between two Englishmen:
E1: Do you want a cup of tea?
E2: No, thank you.
E1: Are you sure you don’t want a cup of tea?
E2: No thank you, I appreciate your offer.
E1: Are you really sure, it’s no trouble at all, I was going to make a pot anyway.
E2: Well, maybe one cup?
After the course we needed some more people at HQ to interface with the UK, but the relations changed enormously (haha).
Even within one country or within one organization the cultural differences can be big. The difference between the approach of HR and Legal. Between the approach of Sales and Audit.
Cultural differences are clearly a potential barrier to global collaboration we have to take into account.
Let’s not make too many assumptions. You might think that because Belgium and The Netherlands are very close, the cultures will be very similar. You might think that because Dutchmen speak reasonable English their culture is comparable to the English culture.
What helps? To be open to the differences, to reflect on the differences before judging, and last but not least: take advantage of the differences.
Some additional information on cultural differences at the site of the Cultural Detective.
Illustration by Adelina Rakovska.
The illustrations for the blog posts in the series ‘Global Collaboration’ are made for ‘The Future of HR’ by various artists from around the world.