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I’m a big believer that culture eats strategy so I’ve been planning to read the book Fish Can’t See Water for a while. When it got to the top of my reading queue earlier this summer, I started researching the authors Kai Hammerich and Richard D. Lewis. As happens more often than I might like to admit, I got distracted during the research and haven’t yet read the book.

Lewis himself is a fascinating person. He’s a British linguist who brought Berlitz, the language instruction services, to East Asia. While living in Japan, he personally tutored Empress Michiko and five other Japanese Imperial Family members. Cultures Collide, Lewis’ guide to business cultures around the world, has sold more than one million copies in 15 languages.

Given that I work for a multi-cultural company, I decided to read Cultures Collide first. In retrospect, I wish I read it a long time ago and encourage others in a similar situation to read it as well. Lewis claims understanding cultural differences can improve business performance:

By focusing on the cultural roots of national behaviour, both in society and business, we can foresee and calculate with a surprising degree of accuracy how others will react to our plans for them, and we can make certain assumptions as to how they will approach us. A working knowledge of the basic traits of other cultures (as well as our own) will minimize unpleasant surprises (culture shock), give us insights in advance, and enable us to interact successfully with nationalities with whom we previously had difficulty.

While he acknowledges there is a danger in determining national cultural characteristics, Lewis believes “there is such a thing as a national norm.”  He provides a series of diagrams which show how cultures use language to communicate during meetings. Here are my over-simplified summaries in (mostly) alphabetical order:

Americans prefer to launch right into negotiations, are confrontational when disputes arise, and resolve disagreements with one or both sides making concessions.

Canadians are more low-key and prefer harmony in negotiations; although they are as direct as Americans.

English tend to avoid confrontation, are mannered and understated, and rely on humor to make their points.

French prefer a logical debate, which they engage in passionately.

Germans are also logical in their approach but “tend to amass more evidence and labour their points more than either the British or the French.”

Italians and Spanish care more about the debate itself than winning the argument. It is a chance to show the eloquence of their languages.

Indians “excels in ambiguity, and such things as truth and appearances are often subject to negotiation.”

Israelis are harder to characterize as they change style to suit the purpose. They are logical on most issues but emotional on others.

Finally, the Chinese are more direct than the Japanese and most other East Asians. However, public meetings are not for making decisions; they are mostly for gathering information.

Yes, it’s difficult and maybe even dangerous to summarize an entire culture in just a few words but Lewis does just that. And, even if directionally correct, understanding the negotiating style of another culture is likely to make the discussions go more smoothly.

How do these fit your own experience?


This blog was originally posted on Manage by Walking Around on August 14, 2016.

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