How Cultures Think
Making the Case in France
Here’s the first part of a chapter from my next book, titled “How the World Thinks.”
A few years ago, I had the extreme good luck of having to do some intercultural consulting work in the south of France. Provence, in fact (which has, interestingly, over the last decade become the Silicon Valley of France). Lucky me, I fantasized: bottles of good Provençal wine, wonderful meals, sunshine, fields of lavender, and, oh yes, the pleasures of working with the French.
I mean that sincerely. Over the years, the French have taught me many things, with both of us taking both pleasure and pain from the fact that the Gallic way of thinking is profoundly different from the Anglo-Saxon. Time and again, my experiences with the French have reminded me, the US-American, that two cultures that share so much can still fundamentally be so very different. In fact, when it comes to the way that information is processed and digested, there aren’t many cultures more different in this regard than the US and France. And on this particular trip, this fact was brought home to me, in both professional and personal ways.
First, the professional: I was sent to France by my US-based client who had just begun negotiations to acquire a small, family-owned French pharmaceutical company with headquarters and main operations in the south of France. Apparently my client had already experienced some bumps in initial communications between its US-Midwest executives and their French counterparts, and they were hoping that I could help them to better understand what the French were thinking; what drove their negotiation and communication behavior; and get a better picture of what the French would consider a carrot or a stick (as my client expressed it to me). My job was twofold: I was not only to help explain French business behavior, but also to assist in the actual negotiations, whispering helpful suggestions when needed, and doing what I could to help them avoid — and if necessary, successfully get through — any cultural misunderstandings. After some surprisingly smooth and efficient preparations for a first meeting, I suddenly found myself one morning in a sunny office in the south of France, where the key players from both sides were assembling to make their initial presentations to each other as the first exploratory step toward the possibility of a merger (that’s polite business-speak for a takeover by a major US company). Essentially, both sides needed to make the case to each other of the benefits — or not — of the merger, and to convince the other of the way they saw things. The result was a picture-perfect example of the cultural chasm that exists between the way French and US-Americans (and other Anglo-Saxon influenced cultures, as well) process and organize information.
As the host, the French opened the meeting. While key players had already met one time prior, this was the first time that all the members of both teams were meeting one another, and the French began with a detailed introduction of each member of its team, their roles and responsibilities, and their professional backgrounds. Each member was also expected to say a few words about him or herself after having been introduced, and because many of them were older, with limited English skills, they spoke in French; fortunately, an interpreter (French, chosen by the French side) was (intermittently) available to provide English translation from time to time. (Mysteriously, she would often leave the room just at the time she was most needed). These formal introductions took over an hour.
Once the introductions were made, the CEO stood up and began his presentation. While he spoke in English, his powerpoint slides — all filled with myriad details, organization charts, performance statistics and historical information — were in French. None of the US-Americans in the room spoke or read French. While the numbing amount of detail that he was going through challenged the morning coffee to do its job, the really interesting aspect of his presentation — at least for me — was the way he organized and presented his information. This was a meeting intended to highlight the pros and cons of a merger, and for the first half hour of the first, and most important, presentation, the CEO chose to give a history lesson on the chronological development of his company, from its founding almost two centuries ago by his great-great-grandfather, through the challenges of the various decades, walking everyone through the critical events of each momentous epoch in the company’s growth, the family’s relationship to the political and social realities of France and Europe at the time, and providing in-depth explanations about how decisions were made that moved the company onto the next, almost inevitable, step in its journey to the present.
The American team sat like deer in the headlights, wondering why they were being taken on a historical tour, and wondering where and when the tour would end. Most importantly, from the American perspective, they didn’t understand the reason why the tour was being made in the first place. This kind of information, for them, was interesting but certainly not relevant to the major concerns regarding the merger. It was background, referential information, the kind of stuff that is included in a handout as an addendum for anyone who might be interested in reading about it afterward. However, for the French, and certainly for their CEO, this information was precisely the information required in order for the deal to be made in the first place. For him, this information was not referential, but essential; not an interesting afterthought, but a critical conceptual road map that needed to be both appreciated and understood in order for there to be any merger at all.
For the French side, it was absolutely essential to provide such a road map, built from a historical record, that would lead logically to an irrevocable conclusion that justified going forward with the merger (or not). For the American side, the critical determinant for going forward (or not) was simply the current practical, financial and strategic advantages that the merger would bring. For the Americans, it was all about looking forward based on current facts. For the French, it was all about finding a past precedent that justified the current facts. When the CEO finished his presentation, almost one hour later, the Americans expressed polite gratitude for the opportunity to learn about his company’s remarkable history, but had few questions or comments, despite the CEO’s invitation for them at the end.
Now it came time for the US president to make his presentation. When he stood up, he made a joke about not having a family or corporate history that could compete with the French, and that, in fact, he was brought into his job at the US company only a year or so prior from another firm. His powerpoint slides were mainly short bullet-points, trending graphs and some photos of key facilities and people. He began by explaining the corporate culture of the company, and provided a quick current financial overview. The heart of his presentation was an explanation of the company’s current strategic goals; where they’ve been, where they are, and where they want to go; and how acquiring the French company was such a critical piece of their larger global strategy. While politely listening at first, the French began to ask some questions, beginning with questions about details and facts that they did not understand on some of his powerpoint slides. The American presenter clarified, and assuming the French were satisfied, would move on.
Interestingly, after the presenter made another point, the French side — and not necessarily the original questioner — would raise a question related to the first point, questioning how the earlier answer affected what was now being discussed. This would force the American to stop his presentation, circle back to provide additional clarification on what he thought had already been clarified, and attempt to move forward again from where he left off. Sometimes he succeeded; sometimes he was derailed. At times he found it hard to pick up from where he’d left off; some discussion points were left unfinished, some were overlooked. Slides were moving back and forth quickly.
By the end of the presentation, there was a palpable sense of frustration in the room, both from the Americans (who felt as if the French were being negative, contrary and perhaps intentionally uncooperative) and from the French (who felt the Americans were being flippant, disrespecting of their questions and too concerned with their own agenda).
Once a cultural misunderstanding occurs, both sides typically need to attribute a reason for the behavior they don’t understand. As the consultant, I usually get to hear these incredible theories over drinks at dinner. That night I heard that the Americans were beginning to think that the French might in fact be intentionally undermining the deal, and making judgments that the French are basically just impolite and rude (constantly interrupting), negative, too wrapped up in petty details, too stuck in the past, unable to see future benefits and in a constant state of “analysis paralysis.” The French, on the other hand, were judging the Americans to be shallow, intellectually uninterested and uninteresting, proudly self-serving and naively confident without the ability or will to digest all the necessary facts required to justify taking any next steps.
Although it was just the first meeting, and real issues were not yet laid out on the negotiating table, a cultural divide based on the differences between Gallic and Anglo-Saxon thought processes had already expressed itself; a divide specifically on how we organize and present facts and information that was threatening the success of an otherwise worthy cross-cultural venture.
Let’s take a closer look at what these thought differences are, and understand their cultural roots. French (and other Latin-based cultures) think in a deductive style, while Americans (and other Anglo-Saxons) think in an inductive style. Remember, all people are capable of thinking in all different ways, but our cultures do a very good job emphasizing one style over another, and reward us, as we grow and become good cultural beings, for thinking with the culturally preferred style. In France, schoolchildren are taught how to think deductively, a specific method of thought developed by Descartes, the great French philosopher (and, not coincidentally, a great mathematician as well). Cartesian thought, as it is referred to, values the “concept” (the “why” behind the “what”), or way of thinking, that organizes the facts of any situation into a logical framework or road map. Without this conceptual orientation, facts cannot be organized, and conclusions therefore cannot be justified.
In order to organize facts into a justifiable road map, all facts must be considered at first, no matter how small, because every fact, no matter how tiny, can be a link in the larger logical chain. So if there is even a small detail left out, the link is broken, the logic interrupted, the road map blocked, the conclusion questionable. Before any next step in a logical chain can be taken, we must first be certain that all possible facts have been considered, for truth is what remains only after we have eliminated all illogical facts.
This emphasis on a conceptual framework based on the detailed investigation of all possible facts was what made the cartoon published in Economist magazine many years ago so funny: two French managers were speaking with each other, and one says to the other, “Well, it might work in practice, but it will never work in theory.” Even if something works practically, without the theoretical explanation for why it works, the French would be hesitant to move forward with the plan, even in the face of practical evidence to do so. Nothing satisfies the French more than a beautifully laid out intellectual plan, and nothing makes them more anxious than its absence.
Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand, are taught the values of inductive thought: a logical conceptual plan, though helpful, is always subordinate to practical, empirical evidence. The priority value is the evident success of the end result, regardless of the road map — conceptual, intellectual, logical or otherwise — that got us there. If it works, just do it. If the practical result challenges the conceptual road map, change the road map. After all, there are many ways, beyond an intellectual process, that can take us to a successful result: consider the great British legacy of empirical, scientific experimentation. Trial and error, informed or accidental, can be as valid a way to get to a successful end result as a carefully detailed intellectual process. Alexander Fleming leaves a bit of bread on a windowsill, and the next day there is penicillin mold growing on it: Voila! (excuse the irony). Thomas Edison invents the lightbulb by tinkering with the thickness of tungsten wires until he gets it right. None of this is possible in a French context or the result of a carefully created intellectual plan; but Marie Curie’s conclusions on the logical existence of radioactivity to explain X-rays, or Descartes’ methodology of thought, or Pascal’s conclusions about the “social being” could never have been developed in a British context.
For inductive thinkers, gathering just enough information to take us to the next stage is far more important than analyzing the entire encyclopedia for facts to discard. For inductive thinkers, if the end result shows evidence of having overlooked something, we’ll fix the end result. For deductive thinkers, such after-the-fact evidence indicates sloppy intellectual work, and explains any waste and expense as the result of bad planning, which could have been avoided had they gotten right in the first place. For inductive thinkers, getting the plan launched may be more important than getting it right, precisely because we can fix it later. This cultural thought chasm has resulted in an American society on the one side that values “just do it,” speed, risk taking, innovation, future-thinking, and post-decision “tweaking,” with French society, on the other side, valuing skepticism, inquiry, risk avoidance, intellectual perfectionism and process. Both have benefits and downsides. Both are available targets of the other for misunderstanding and misjudging. And, because these differences in thought are culturally determined, they are pervasive in their respective societies, affecting all aspects of life, business, social, political and personal interactions. And while I saw this play out at the negotiating table for my client, I also experienced it personally with my friends Cynthia and Armando, whom I visited on my trip to Provence.
While I was serendipitously visiting one of the world’s most beautiful locations for work, Cynthia and Armando are lucky enough to actually live in Provence year-round, and I am lucky enough to count them as among my dearest friends. So, of course, I was looking forward to seeing as much of them as possible while on my client-sponsored work trip, and was eagerly anticipating a dinner with them at their renovated 15th century “moulin” just outside of Cannes. Cynthia and Armando had recently bought the moulin (windmill, in French, as there is, in fact, a small windmill on the grounds that was once used for grinding wheat), and spent several years renovating it and bringing it up to livable 21st-century standards. You can imagine the amount of work needing to be done to make a 15th-century country stone house livable in the modern world. And although I had heard about all the work they needed to do, I had not, in fact, seen the final result. My dinner with them was going to be my first visit to the renovated moulin that I had heard so much about. I was excited to see my friends, to share a wonderful dinner together, to spend a weekend with them in their fabulous new, old home.
I arrived at the appointed hour (actually, a culturally appropriate 20 minutes late), knocked on the old wooden door, and voila, Cynthia appeared! Hugs and flowers aside, she looked a bit distressed, and admitted to me that they were having, hmm, some plumbing problems. We laughed that how could it be otherwise, in a 15th-century house, and on the day of a dinner party, of course, totally predictable. She apologized that she had been trying to reach the contractor who did most of the renovation work on the house all day, but only got through to him late in the afternoon, and that with no water running, she had no alternative but to arrange to have him come as soon as possible to fix the problem, or else dinner was going to be in a restaurant in town. She said he told her he would be right over, as soon as possible, and Cynthia explained that in a small town in the south of France, “as soon as possible” means “as soon as it becomes possible for me to come over, Ill be over,” and that just about anything might take priority to that, including a sunny day or a good bottle of wine. Nevertheless, soon after I arrived, the contractor appeared as promised, and I experienced the power of the deductive process in a windmill in Provence.
“There’s no water,” Cynthia explained.
“C’est impossible,” the contractor answered.
“That may be, but the water is not coming out of the pipes … anywhere,” she replied.
I should add here that when the contractor arrived, he did so with a complete set of blueprints rolled up under his arm. When Cynthia explained the problem, he proceeded to unroll the blueprints onto the rustic old dining table that was half set for dinner. He studied the blueprints in silence for a long time. “Non, non, c’est impossible,” he reiterated, and then, remarkably (at least for me, the American) attempted to prove to Cynthia and me why the plumbing works, by showing us, on the blueprints, how the water flows.
Or should be flowing.
“But it’s not,” Cynthia reminded him.
More silent studying of blueprints.
“Come with me,” Cynthia insisted, and three of us took a walk to the bathroom. “See?” she pointed to the very dry pipes.
He stood there. Finally, after a few moments of more somber thought, he admitted, “Something is wrong”.
And then he turned and went back to his table of blueprints to find the problem.
Had this scenario occurred in Britain or the US, no self-respecting plumber would return to his blueprints to try to find the problem, and no self-respecting homeowner would have let him out of the bathroom without insisting that he get down on his hands and knees and open up the waterworks and fix it. But in the French context, the reverse is true, and the difference reflects the cultural thought chasm between inductive and deductive thinking. In Provence, we will find the problem as a flaw in an otherwise correct blueprint; in Peoria, we will fix the problem, and correct the blueprint afterward, if it matters. In Provence, the contractor is loath to admit there is a problem, even in the face of evidence, as it reflects on his intellectual ability to avoid problems that would need to be fixed later; in Peoria, the plumber is proud to have been able to fix a problem that he would never take responsibility for causing, with little concern for how it got that way.
For those of us needing a happy ending to my story with Cynthia and Armando, I am pleased to report that the contractor did in fact fix the plumbing, and the water flowed (allowing the dinner wine to do so, as well). But not until he first showed us where, on the blueprints, the problem occurred, explaining that the problem had nothing to do with his design, as drawn on the blueprints, but rather, with some bad daily plumbing habits that needed to be corrected over which he had no control.
Beyond learning how to deal with Provençal plumbers and French negotiators, my experience in the south of France reminded me that whether personal or professional, social or political, cultural thought chasms will emerge when interacting across cultures, and do need to be managed. So, here are some general rules for bridging the deductive/inductive cultural thought chasm:
For Americans (and other Anglo-Saxon based cultures) working with the French (and most European continental cultures):
• Present a central thesis or concept, and explain how you developed a plan to prove it.
• Provide more detail, information than you normally would.
• Organize your detail and data into a logical chain so that your conclusion, which you must state when you reach it, is logically irrefutable.
• No point, item, issue or detail is too small or unrelated.
• Demonstrate intellectual rigor, clarity and precision throughout.
• Expect to be questioned (perhaps even interrupted) when more logic or information is needed, and interpret questioning and skepticism as genuine intellectual curiosity, not an attempt to slow you down or trip you up.
And here’s a geographical map for this mindset.
Major Deductive Thinkers Around the World
*France (resulting in an intellectual conceptual road map)
*Germany (resulting in a provable, reliable methodology)
*Spain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, southern Belgium, Greece, Balkans, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Poland, Romania, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine.
*Most of Latin America (less so in Mexico, Central America and Brazil; more so in Argentina, Chile, and Andean cultures of Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador).
*Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, most of West and Central Africa (with exceptions below)
Major Inductive Thinkers Around the World
*UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Baltic nations, northern Belgium
*Australia, New Zealand
*Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia
Obviously, many countries haven’t made the above lists, and that’s not because they don’t think inductively or deductively; they can, and, of course, do. But their major thought mindset, when it comes to how they organize information, is neither inductive or deductive, but yet another cultural thought mindset. Which brings me to China, and much of Asia, and my story about trying to understand my Chinese friend in Shanghai …
To be continued…