Connecting Cultures

“Why don’t the Mexicans arrive on time?” ask the Germans. “Why don’t they follow a plan?” The Mexicans, on the other hand, ask, “Why keep to the plan when circumstances have changed? Why keep to a deadline if we rush production and lose quality?”

To succeed in the 21st century, companies recognize the need for global leaders with the skills and personal qualities required to lead effectively through the complexities of this era. Being a global leader in today’s world – whether as a country head, regional executive, leading a global business unit, corporate function head, or CEO – requires much more than operating skills, technical understanding, and financial knowledge. It requires critical leadership skill to live the mantra ‘think global, act local’, with due consideration for how national cultures intersect with organizational cultures.

In his book When Cultures Collide Richard D. Lewis classifies the several hundred national and regional cultures of the world into three groups, which he refers to as the 'LMR Personal Cultural Profile':

  • Linear-actives – those who plan, schedule, organize, are highly organized and task-orientated, do one thing at a time. Germans and Swiss are in this group.
  • Multi-actives – lively, people-orientated people who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the importance that each appointment brings with it. Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs are members of this group.
  • Reactives – cultures that prioiritise courtesy and respect, listening quietly and calmly to their interlocutors and reacting carefully to the other side’s proposals. Chinese, Japanese and Finns are in this group.

Geert Hofstede defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.” Lewis argues that misunderstandings arise principally when there is a clash of category rather than nationality.

The need for a convincing categorization in business is obvious. It enables us to:

  • Predict a culture’s behavior
  • Clarify why people did what they did
  • Avoid giving offense
  • Search for some kind of unity
  • Standardize policies

Linear-active people, like Swedes, Swiss, Dutch and Germans, do one thing at a time, concentrate hard on that thing and do it within a scheduled time period. Germans, like the Swiss, attach great importance to analyzing a project, compartmentalizing it, tackling each problem one at a time in a linear fashion, concentrating on each segment and thereby achieving a near-perfect result. They are uneasy with people who do not work in this manner, such as Arabs and those from many Mediterranean cultures.

Multi-active people think they get more done their way. They are not particularly interested in schedules or punctuality, and do not like to leave conversations unfinished. For them, completing a human transaction is the best way they can invest their time.

Reactives tend to be more introverted. They listen before they leap, don’t let their minds wander, rarely interrupt a speaker, and when finished they do not reply immediately. A decent period of silence after the speaker has stopped actually shows respect for the weight of the remarks. A Westerner should bear in mind that the actual content of the response delivered by a person from a reactive culture represents only a small part of the significance surrounding the event. Context-centred utterances inevitably attach more importance not to what is said, but how it is said, who said it and what is behind what is said. Also, what is not said may be the point of the reply. Silence is a form of speech, so don’t interrupt it.


We have a variety of cultures using speech according to the strictures imposed by grammar, vocabulary and syntax. These different speech styles do nothing to improve communication in the international forum. All over the world thousands of misunderstandings are caused every day through simple mistakes. Here are some light-hearted and not terribly damaging examples:


  • What is your death line? (deadline)
  • Next week I shall become a new car (get)


  • I have split up my boyfriend
  • I work hardly 10 hours a day (hard)


  • What will you do when you retire? I will breed with my horses


  • Are you hopeful for any change? No, I am hopeless


  • How old is your son? Half past seven


Everyone knows that Arabs don’t eat pork, but is everyone aware that it is bad manners to point one’s foot at an Arab during conversation? Do not openly admire their possessions either, as they may feel obliged to give them to you. Did you know that sending yellow flowers to a woman signifies that she has been unfaithful to her husband in some European countries? Or not to open gifts in front of Asians and Arabs when an exchange of presents is taking place. In Asia, one generally wraps up presents in red paper; white, on the other hand, is an unlucky colour associated with death.

French and Hispanic people indulge in the nose twitch, snort or sniff to express alertness, disapproval or disdain respectively. The Portuguese tug their earlobes to indicate tasty food, though this gesture has sexual connotations in Italy. In Spain the same action means someone is not paying for his drinks, and in Malta it signifies an informer. It’s best to recognize these signs, but not embark on the risky venture of attempting to imitate them.


Managers in linear-active cultures will generally demonstrate task-orientation. They look for technical competence, place facts before sentiment, logic before emotion; they will be deal orientated, focusing their own attention and that of their staff on immediate achievements and results. They are orderly, stick to agendas and inspire staff with their careful planning.

Multi-active managers are much more extroverted, rely on their eloquence and ability to persuade, and use human force as an inspirational factor. They often complete human transactions emotionally, assigning the time this may take – developing the contact to the limit. Such managers are usually more orientated to networking.

Leaders in reactive cultures are equally people orientated but dominate with knowledge, patience and quiet control. They display modesty and courtesy and there must be no loss of face, either for oneself or one’s opponent. They excel in creating a harmonious atmosphere for teamwork and the showing of respect, in speech and actions, to those higher in the hierarchy is mandatory. Subtle body language obviates the need for an abundance of words.


Experienced multinationals like IBM, HSBC, Nestle, and Siemens tend to be skilled at choosing the right person for each environment. Unilever recently needed a manager to supervise their marketing operations in South America. A Brazilian or an Argentinean might have been resented in some of the smaller countries and certainly in each other’s. They chose an Indian executive and provided him with quality language and cross-cultural training. Not only did his nationality place him above interregional rivalry, but his keen perception and Indian characteristics of people orientation, subtle negotiating skills and warmth made him someone Latin Americans could easily relate to.

Here are some of the advantages of diverse teams:

Versatility in Problem Solving

  • Generate more alternatives
  • Respond better to cultural preferences in local markets
  • Better local forecasting
  • Better critical analysis


  • Broader perspectives, less emphasis on conformity
  • Better product design

Diversity in General

  • Not only ‘black’ and ‘white’ but also ‘both-and’
  • Not only ‘one-way’ assumptions
  • Asians, Africans and women have different cognitive styles
  • Bilinguals have higher level of divergent thinking
  • More charisma, stimulation and real dialogue
  • Better tolerance with ambiguity and chaos
  • Diverse talent compensates for inability to attract top local talent
  • Sound moral basis
  • Demographic trends indicate that in the second half of the twenty-first century, most of the workforce will be non-Western, non-white, non-male

Moving Forward

In our own culture we are provided with a code for behavior. There is right and wrong, proper and improper, respectable and disreputable. The code, taught by parents and teachers and confirmed by peers and contemporaries, covers not only basic values and beliefs but also correctness of comportment and attitudes in varying circumstances. Unless we are eccentric, we conform. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as international etiquette. When someone begins to formulate an international code for correct behavior, we instinctively look to our own norms as being the logical, acceptable, inoffensive ones.

Connecting cultures is never easy but we can get better at it. Organizations need to invest more in culture training to help broaden employees' worldview and clear away the unnecessary barriers to engagement, enablement and unleashing high performance underpinned by values.

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