Culture clash

Anyone who has ever worked on a global IT team has a culture-clash story to tell. For Rick Davidson, CIO at Manpower Inc., it was the time he and a male co-worker were waiting for an elevator in Japan, along with two Japanese female colleagues. When the elevator arrived, the men looked at the women as if to signal for them to enter, while the women -- following their own culturally embedded rules of hierarchy that defer to men, especially male guests -- simply looked back at the men. "The doors opened and closed, and no one got in the elevator," Davidson says. "When we realized what happened, we agreed to a compromise -- they would enter first on the way up, and we would enter first on the way down."

And Fred Danback, vice president of global technology at a global financial services firm in Stamford, Conn., will never forget the time he started a meeting with his company's new Swiss acquisition by professing his two-year vision for the corporate IT infrastructure. When it was the Swiss staffers' turn, they not only presented their own technology plan, but they also backed it up with slides and architectural diagrams. "They probably already had the impression that Americans were an arrogant lot that would try to come in and steamroll them, and I probably met that expectation," he says.

Then there's the Indian firm that recently sent a greeting card to co-workers worldwide with the image of a swastika, an ancient and sacred symbol in that country. "Many people went ballistic," says Gopal Kapur, founder and president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif. In fact, it took five managers hours of telephone conversations and many e-mails to calm the waters. The work of 14 international team members came to a halt for more than 11 days, delaying the project and costing thousands of dollars.

From the humorous to the offensive, from startling to subtle, there are an infinite number of misunderstandings that can arise when people from different cultures merge on a project team. And while some of these misunderstandings are obvious and surface quickly so they can be resolved on the spot, others are more difficult to detect, resulting in long-term trouble, like endemic mistrust among team members.

"You need to get beyond the superficial layer of what we think we know," says Lu Ellen Schafer, founder of Global Savvy, an international training and consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's important to understand what's underneath the surface -- why your e-mails aren't being answered, why people are telling us 'yes' when they mean 'no,' why there's silence on the phone during a teleconference."

Although the gaps can't be avoided completely, it's crucial to raise awareness of the cultural divide to build at least part of the bridge before you try to cross it.

Separated by language

Because English is the international language of business, many misunderstandings are bred by the use of idioms, acronyms, slang and other sayings that are culturally specific. "You can imagine sitting in a meeting, and someone says, 'Give me a heads up when issues arise,'" Schafer says. "Everybody says, 'OK,' but when you ask them if they know what 'heads up' is, they say no."

While it's difficult to eliminate slang, companies should train global staffers to speak a "neutralized, denuded and precise English," suggests Erran Carmel, associate professor and chairman of the IT department at the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington. So instead of "Let's wrap up the project by June," say, "Let's complete the project by June," he suggests.

There are also more formal approaches. At Sunterra Corp., a resort company in Las Vegas, Norbert Kubilus develops a glossary for multinational projects containing industry-specific language that differs from country to country. Kapur suggests employing a documentation manager to search all documents for local nomenclature.

"IT terminology is relatively universal; however, this is not true for business terminology," Davidson says. For instance, in some countries, the word deployment is used to describe the user testing stage, not general release. To overcome that, Manpower has created an IT governance system dubbed "The Manpower Way." It describes the processes, methods and tools used to manage projects, people, assets, investments and budgets.

But sometimes it's nearly impossible to make an interpretation without being intimately familiar with the culture. Danback only recently realized that the British "cheers" means more than goodbye; it also indicates that the speaker feels the conversation went well.

And in India, when you ask when something is going to be finished, don't hold your breath when you hear "10 to 15 minutes," as Avi Huber, an Israeli software engineer who has worked in the U.S. for eight years, discovered. "It just means, 'We're working on it, and we think we have a solution,'" he says.

Israelis and Americans can have their own miscommunications. When a colleague of Huber's was called into his manager's office because of a big problem, the colleague responded with, "No problem!" Although it sounds blithe, the term is actually a direct translation from Hebrew that means, "I'll do whatever needs to be done," Huber says.

Glitches can even occur among speakers whose first language is English. "If a British person says, 'That's interesting,' it can actually mean he thinks your idea should be trashed," explains Jay Crotts, CIO at Shell Lubricants/B2B in London, part of Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

Americans are similarly guilty of not saying quite what they mean. For instance, two words in U.S. business-speak -- "issue" and "challenge" -- are actually code words for "problem" or "difficulty," but their loaded meaning would be lost on a nonnative speaker of English, Carmel says.

Eastern cultures can be even less direct, particularly when it comes to saying no. In Japan, the most negative response you would hear would be something like, "That would be difficult," says Mike Rosen, practice director at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. "We might interpret that as, 'Buck up and do it,'" he says. Similarly, in China, "We'll consider that" is a polite way of saying, "We'll allow you your opinion," Kubilus says.

Rules of engagement

In the hierarchical cultures of Asian countries, guests and superiors are never corrected in meetings or teleconferences. Even if you asked, "Can we move ahead with this plan?" you might hear "yes," but that simply means you're senior to them and they can't push back, Crotts says.

In India, a "no" might sound like, "I'll try to get to it on Sunday," Schafer says. "Many people in Asia think they're preserving the relationship by giving us what they think is a soft no," she says. What can cause more confusion is that workers in India aren't culturally compelled to close the loop, because in their minds, they never committed to a time frame.

With so much room for misinterpretation, it's important to play it straight with both speech and body language. Keep your vocabulary basic, and avoid jokes, Rosen cautions, as they never translate. Don't use a lot of hand gestures -- a thumb's up and the OK sign are obscene in places like Brazil, Australia, Spain and the Middle East.

"Since gestures have different meanings in different parts of the world, they can cause confusion," says Terri Morrison, president of Getting Through Customs , which provides books and seminars for international travelers. This is particularly true in "high context" cultures such as Japan, France and many Arab countries, where important information is transmitted in nonverbal or indirect ways, in comparison with low-context cultures such as the U.S., U.K. and Germany, where most information is transmitted verbally.

It may seem basic, but you should also speak slowly, since many in the audience may not speak English as their primary language. "We don't think of ourselves as having an accent, but when I ask people in India what is hard about communicating with Americans, they say accents," Schafer says.

Confrontation is also treated very differently throughout the world. Whereas workers in the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Australia, Scandinavia and Israel are comfortable vocalizing contrary opinions, even in the presence of superiors, Asian workers are less so.

"When Americans work with India, China or another Asian country, they make the assumption that people will speak up in a meeting or conference call -- and they will if they're in a position of power," Schafer says. "But if they're not, our questions may be met with silence." For that reason, problematic issues should be discussed privately in one-on-one conversations. "Conference calls are good for disseminating information but not for discussions of what is not working," Schafer says.

The situation is quite different in Israel. Meetings there can involve lots of shouting, but "it's nothing personal -- once it's over, everyone's friends again," Huber says.

And while Americans have no problem jumping into a business discussion as soon as a meeting begins, it's considered insulting in places like the Far East to begin negotiations before socializing and forming a relationship, even if that takes days, Kubilus says. Similarly, in collectivist cultures such as those of Spain, Italy and Latin America, it's important to build a relationship first and let that dictate where business decisions lead, Davidson says. "Individualistic cultures like in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany are more interested in getting the task done and building the relationship later," he says.

But unlike in the U.S., where relationship-building may happen as much in the office as outside it, Danback has found that in Europe, business offices are not considered social settings. In countries such as France, where people work strict 37.5-hour workweeks versus 50 hours or more in the U.S., "there's a time to socialize and a time not to," he says. For instance, lunchtime and right after work are more acceptable times for building relationships.

Cowboy vs. engineer

Another area that can lead to mistrust is in the different approaches toward software development. Americans tend to take an iterative approach toward programming, which is part of what Rosen calls a "cowboy culture," while Europeans, particularly German and Swiss programmers, tend to be more rigorous and process-oriented and manage to a spec that doesn't change.

"They can get tremendously frustrated that we don't have details worked out ahead of time, and we might think they've buried themselves in minutiae," Danback says. His firm has paired the engineering-oriented staffers with the more creative and iterative people.

Another approach is to compromise, Rosen says, and follow a formal process with standards and guidelines but with fewer steps than the Europeans might ordinarily incorporate.

These types of differences can even exist in the way people view meetings. In some cultures, people come to meetings prepared to discuss their opinions, having reviewed all materials and developed calculated positions, Davidson says. In other cultures, people expect meetings to be more spontaneous. "Setting expectations before the meeting regarding preparation and the desired outcomes can improve the productivity of the meeting and minimize the cultural friction that can occur," he says.

But the make-or-break factor for effective global teams is how well they collaborate. "You have to stop making assumptions that people understand what you mean and get some verification back to be sure they interpreted it correctly," Rosen says. Many people use collaboration tools such as WikiWeb from WikiWeb Inc. or Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting or Groove.

Schafer encourages lots of one-on-one communication in which people exchange instant messages while they are talking on the phone, since people are often better at reading a foreign language than listening to it.

And, of course, nothing substitutes for personal get-togethers. At Sunterra, Kubulis is kicking off a major project to migrate the company's European offices to a new enterprise system by getting U.S. process owners together with their European counterparts to create empathy between the two groups. "If I don't spend that time upfront, when I get to implementation, training and user acceptance, I'll be in trouble," he says.

It will also awaken people to the reality of cultural differences, because one of the biggest enemies of a well-oiled global project team is denial. "I often find people who say there are no cultural issues on their global teams, but I think it's because they don't associate the problems that crop up with cultural differences," Carmel says.

Indeed, says Crotts, "if you ever think you have the diversity journey figured out, you soon find there's another hill to climb or plateau to reach."

Sidebar

Don't be the ugly American

The U.S. has a reputation for not being sensitive toward other cultures, and according to many observers, that reputation is well earned. "Americans are not particularly adept at working globally," says Jay Crotts, CIO at Shell Lubricants/B2B in London. "They tend to make false assumptions about how people around the globe work."

Failing to fully understand the local culture may be somewhat excusable when you're just visiting on vacation, but when you're trying to collaborate with people in other cultures, it's good to at least be aware of how your behavior might be irksome or even offensive to other people.

It's about time

We all know about differing time zones, but it's easy to forget that ours isn't the dominant one. According to Fred Danback, vice president of global technology at a global financial services firm in Stamford, Conn., his European counterparts get upset when Americans schedule early-morning next-day meetings when it's late afternoon U.S. time. "As soon as they come into the office, they have to juggle their schedule to make it happen," he says.

Americans also use a different date convention than the rest of the world, which can confuse meeting scheduling. If we schedule for 1/6/06, for instance, many people would interpret that as June 1. At Sunterra, a resort company in Las Vegas, CIO Norbert Kubilus urges staffers to write out the month rather than using a number, to avoid miscommunication.

That's Mr. to you

In U.S. business offices, Americans call everyone by their first names. However, in many countries, only "Mr.," "Mrs." and "Miss" are used, from the mailroom clerk to the CEO. People move to a first-name basis only when a formal invitation is issued.

But when Americans enter the room, "we often address everyone by their first names," Danback says. He has found that non-Americans are accepting of this tendency, but as soon as the Americans leave the room, they revert back to their own norm. "If you work with the culture on their terms, you'll be much more warmly received and trusted," he says.

Curb your enthusiasm

Americans value enthusiasm, but other cultures can interpret our "Great job!" incorrectly, believing we're more committed to something than we really are or, worse, that we're being patronizing and disingenuous. "The exclamation, 'Great idea, Juan!' can sound like a go-ahead to a colleague in Madrid," says Lu Ellen Schafer, founder of Global Savvy, an international training and consulting firm. "When Europeans realize there's no commitment implied, they might feel deceived or that the American is being superficial."

"At the fifth 'Good question!' they begin to feel it doesn't mean anything," Crotts says.

Avi Huber, an Israeli software engineer who has worked in the U.S. for eight years, says U.S. hyperbole has led Israelis to believe that we don't say what we mean. "When [Americans] say, 'I appreciate your opinion,' they often don't at all," he says. "An Israeli would say, 'That's bull, and this is what I think,' but with an American, it would take a long time to get to that point."

It's a big world out there

A typical trait that irritates people in other countries is arrogance about our own culture, Crotts says, as though we think the U.S. is the center of the universe. To help dispel that image, he suggests being able to refer to current events, business examples and cultures beyond U.S.-based ones. "When you go to a new country, do you read USA Today, or the local newspaper?" Crotts asks. When you mention only to U.S. businesses and events in your conversations, it undermines your credibility. "In the U.K., they get 30 minutes of international news, whereas in the U.S., it can be 30 seconds," he says.

Rick Davidson, CIO at Manpower, agrees that Americans are seen as lacking in a global understanding of geography, history and politics. This is brought home in our tendency to overuse sports analogies when trying to emphasize a point. Examples that Schafer often hears include "Hail Mary pass," "ballpark estimate" and "slam-dunk." It helps, Davidson says, if you at least try to speak the local language. "If you're working hard to understand their culture, they're forgiving if you make a mistake," he says.

Primary languages

Because English is so widespread in the business world, Americans can be insensitive to the fact that many listeners are translating every word they say. "We don't realize people are having a hard time keeping up with the conversation," Crotts says.

The trouble is, in many cultures it's considered impolite for people to say they don't understand what you're saying, so they won't ask for clarification. "That's why it's important to find multiple ways to describe or explain things and ask them to explain their understanding of what you just said," Davidson says.

This becomes particularly apparent in PowerPoint presentations, says Mike Rosen, practice director at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. Our tendency is to put very few words on a slide and then talk around those points.

"But when you're giving a talk to an audience without a great command of English, most people can read the language better than they hear it," he says. "You have to change the way you're giving the presentation so you have more content on the slide, it's readable, and you don't diverge from that content as much as you might in a typical presentation."

For example, Rosen might spend 90 seconds per slide in the U.S., but he increases that to two minutes per slide in other countries.

And remember, it's not so much about acting "less American," Schafer says. "It's about being globally competent -- it's not changing who you are."

You'll find, Danback says, that because it's assumed Americans will impose their culture on the country they're visiting, if you make any effort at all to live by other people's rules, it will be greatly received. "You'll surprise and delight them," he says.

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