The layers of what culture is made ofIf you are running a business in UK, especially in London, you are very likely to be working with people from all over the world. Since I am presenting seminars and business chats on cross-cultural communication, I am often asked what the implications are on a business. I have already presented some aspects of it in the perspective of off-shore development. I shall now consider the angle of business in general. So, in short, what if you are working with colleagues, partners, providers who are from another country?

Maybe I will start by answering something I already hear coming in your mind: “that surely won’t apply to me since I’ve been working in UK for XX years.” Well, I am far from convinced it is the case. If you are yourself a foreigner in the workplace you live in, at best you are adapted and work on adaptation mode without knowing, but deep inside there are elements of yourself that probably remain what you were educated as.

Before going further I will quickly recap what culture is about in the context of this article. I am using the definition given by Gert Jan Hofstede: Culture is the unwritten book with rules of the social game that is passed on to newcomers by its members, nesting itself in their minds. In other words, it is the sum of all the rules you have learned when you were a kid without necessary knowing you were learning them. They were just “the way to do things”. There are several depths in what makes culture. If we think of it as an onion with layers, in the outskirt we would have the Symbols made of Words, Gestures, Pictures, and Objects that carry a particular meaning only recognised as such by those who share the same culture. These symbols are easily developed and copied from other cultures. It is the layer that will be the easiest to change.
Then we have Heroes. This layer is made of persons, alive or dead, real or imaginary, who possess characteristics that are highly prized in a culture and thus serve as models for behaviour. Even if we start sharing more and more Heroes via television (mainly Anglo-Saxon shall I say), these models are often specific to the culture you come from. As a Frenchman I shall mention Asterix who might be known outside of France but is unlikely to be perceived as an influential character. Descartes is definitely influential as we even made an adjective out of him: Cartesian. Heroes can be recent or ancient. In all cases they are known by everybody and associated with a role. This layer is obviously more difficult to change than the previous one. You do not replace the influence of Darwin on the British people and history in a snap. No more than you replace Buffalo Bill or Martin Luther King (Please, I do *not* compare Buffalo Bill and Luther King intrinsically but only as names attached to acts and values you respect or despise).
The next layer is made of Rituals. They are activities technically superfluous to reaching desired ends, but within a culture considered as socially essential. They are carried out for their own sake. This goes from ways to greet and pay respect to others, via social and religious ceremonies to discourse and the way the language is used in text and talk. This is becoming really tricky here because you don’t even think about it really. It is the way you shake hands (if you do), the real expectation in asking “How are you doing?”, the way you serve tea, the formula at the beginning and end of a letter, the level of familiarity you allow yourself with people at first encounter and thereafter, how you give a present, a business card, how you invite people and how you visit those who invited you. The list is endless but you understand that none of these thing are summarised somewhere in a book. You “know” them and that’s it. These rituals are very difficult to change for real in your mind. You might adapt slightly but do you really understand the deep meaning of these actions when you learn them as an adult?
The last layer and core of any culture is Values; In other words, the broad tendencies to prefer certain state of affairs over others. These are acquired early in our lives. You still don’t walk that you are already learning them: Evil vs Good; Dirty vs Clean; Dangerous vs Safe; Forbidden vs Permitted; Decent vs Indecent; Moral vs Immoral; Ugly vs Beautiful; Unnatural vs Natural; Abnormal vs Normal; Paradoxical vs Logical; Irrational vs Rational, etc. Believe me: these values are not going to change easily. Once you made up your mind on what is nice and what is ugly, it takes a while to change if ever it does.

Now what, will you ask? Fair enough cultures are making us different and we kind of knew that. Well then: what are the consequences on our business relationships? will I ask in return.

So, I would like to present a situation you could encounter when working with foreigners and the potential consequences of misreading the foreigner’s behaviour. I will aim at illustrating the different layers within the fictional scenario. I will talk about a job interview.

Now what happens during a job interview? First of all we have to convene that this situation is highly charged in rituals. From the chosen room to the chosen desk to the chosen team to run the interview, it is very unlikely that the context of the interview is not carefully thought and managed by the interviewer.

On his/her side, the interviewee will carefully select clothes, time for arrival, general attitude, etc.

In this situation, we have several cultural layers involved:
– the Symbols one (clothes, haircut, colours, etc.);
– the Rituals one with the way to greet each other, the handshake, who sits down first and when, who speaks first, asking permission for taking notes or not, looks into the eyes or down, etc. ;
– Then of course, you have the Values one with judging what is right or wrong, normal or abnormal, etc.

So, you could have an interviewee arriving in suit and tie but with tattoos and face piercings, an interviewer relaxed in casual clothes, an interviewee always looking straight into the eyes when talking, an interviewer asking about a 1 year gap in the CV. What do we have to think about that?

  • A suit is rather risk free for the interviewee as it is becoming a general sign of respect worldwide in business when you do not know the person you are meeting with. But in some situation, that makes you look like a follower depending on the country you are coming from. As a Frenchman, I have to say that you more and more rarely see any suit and tie in the IT business in France. On the other hand, I would not think twice about it for a job in UK as it is the basic rule to wear a suit.
  • Regarding piercing and tattoos, once again I could imagine that in UK (up to a certain level of course) but hardly in France for a managing job. I remember working for a huge bank in the city and having my manager (on the customer’s side) being a lady, biker and tattooed. That never bother anybody around that she was in charge of a big department. I can hardly imagine the same thing in France. You’d have to hide your tattoos carefully. This is even truer about piercings.
  • Is looking straight in the eyes a good thing or not? If you refer to a previous article of mine, you can see that this is the case in USA and most probably in most Anglo-Saxon countries. But I remember talking with a friend of mine from Congo about Congolese students who were perceived as not trustworthy by French teachers because they were never crossing your eyes with theirs. What happens is that it is a sign of disrespect to do so in Congo. Therefore these very teachers should have read that as respectful students rather than dodgy ones.
  • What about the 1 year gap in the CV? That is definitely a sin in France. Everyone in Voltaire’s country knows how to hide a gap in a CV. There are tricks and formulas you will use to pretend you were working when in fact you were raising your kids or travelling around the world. Do the same in Australia and as I understand you become dodgy as everyone expects you to get out and travel for a while, one day. So if you did not do it yet, the employer might think you will in the future and be less keen to hire you. Same CV, two conclusions.

Cross cultural communication is a tricky exerciseWhat is important to understand is that there is absolutely no right or wrong in either side of the interview. In both sides people will do what they have been taught to do when they were kids. This has nothing to do with the language you talk and speaking English, German or French will not tell you the rules we are talking about. This is why I am always smiling when I hear someone saying that they have given responsibility of an office abroad to someone based on the fact that this person knows the language. This is nowhere near enough. Culture is all about these things you don’t “see” unless someone told you to look at them. And the most treacherous part of the problem is that very few people are aware of their own rules. So, unless you genuinely understand where things can go wrong, I’d bet they indeed will go wrong at some point.


Let’s think about IT!