Nowadays companies look for different characteristics in their employees, they try to include people with different skills, mindset and nationalities, leading to increasingly exist workspaces with immense cultural diversity. In addition, companies increasingly seek to work in a global direction, that means to work for and with other markets and countries, giving the company new challenges. These aspects are often taken into consideration when it comes to choose the employee.
In July of last year I accepted the challenge of moving in and work in Germany, and of course there were several thoughts and questions. I knew I would be far from the comfort I was used to, but the desire to know and learn faster were stronger. For this reason I decided to write this article that addresses the cultural differences that exist and how, in my perspective, they can be a barrier in communication and consequently interfere in the development of the work or even have an emotional impact both personally and professionally.
I am Portuguese, and by habit we the people, easily devalues the country itself, and we put all the others on a pedestal. That is why it is perfectly acceptable to hear expressions such as: “Portugal? This is in Spain? “ Portugal has experienced several economic crises that have shaken the country a lot, but this has never made the Portuguese sad people. We are a happy and humble people, always willing to help each other when necessary. Always open to the opportunities that the other countries offer, a country with immense history and unfortunately with a population that is aging quickly. If a foreigner in Portugal asks a new or a elderly person for directions of a restaurant or museum that person will draw, point, dance, it will do whatever it takes to help. The Portuguese are humble people, who work well and who dedicate themselves, sometimes too much, in my opinion, making it harmful because there is always someone who takes advantage of it. We are a people dedicated to family, friends and the place to talk and do business is at the table.
“The best education you will ever get is traveling. Nothing teaches you more than exploring the world and accumulating experiences.”
― Mark Patterson
Since I started my bachelors I have had the opportunity to participate in different experiences with people from different countries. In my family, they used to make jokes of me saying that I was always travelling around and I was never at home, in a way it was true! For me travelling is one of the most grateful things to do, because allowed me to learn immensely about other cultures. For me it has become one of the best ways to learn and grow that I can find. In one of the workshops I participated, Norwegian, Polish, German and Portuguese students participated. At the time I was often frustrated with several things, because some struggled more than others, some worked longer hours than others, something was discussed and not everyone understood the same.. now I understand why.
We Portuguese, we are people that for explaining something we explain the whole story, we give all the context. While the Germans, for example, respond to what is asked for, if the questions were put in an indirect way the Portuguese are able to understand but the Germans most part of the times do not. When I moved to Germany I had a preconceived image of the Germans because of these previous experiences, and somehow I think I had a stereotype of the Germans comparing with Portugueses. In addition to having the idea that the weather was grey (which is confirmed!) and knowing that Germany was the center of Europe and financially stable, I thought the Germans were more serious people, unfriendly, who has a certain difficulty in creating relationships. With a “typical German” mood and always straight to the point, but at the same time a bit intransigent in accepting other opinions. Lastly, I had an idea that in German society there was a male dominance, with women hardly having less power then men, and being devalued more easily in the work context, and apart from the rest, I considered that was a society that put a lot of effort in their work.
Why this comparison between Germans and Portuguese? The answer is simple, firstly because it’s my context and my environment nowadays and the second reason is because one of them is what we called high-context and the other low-context. These are the ways we can compare countries in terms of communication:
- High-context is a sophisticated communication in terms of contextualization, and the message is mostly implied. Which means that understanding can be drawn by the obvious conversation or read in between the lines, usually this are the countries with more relationship-oriented cultures.
- Low-context means simple, precise and clear conversation and repetition is something that is appreciated in the sense of helping to clarify the conversation, where anything is possible and time is money.
Something that helps to realize this division is to a certain extent the history of the countries, for example the countries considered high context are the countries that have a greater history, where the context and the history is passed from generation to generation, while the low-context are more individualistic and “recent” countries.
The way we communicate within our country results because we all have the same background, but it can happen that it does not work with other countries if we do not know how to distinguish the type of communication they have, so everything is relative and the best way to have a better communication is to perceive the position of the country to which we are comparing, since no country has an absolute but relative position, for example:
- Portugal VS Germany = High context VS Low Context;
- Portugal VS France = They are both high context but comparing the two Portugal is less High context than France;
- Germany VS USA = High context VS Low Context;
Usually the biggest problems of communication happen between two countries considered High context, as for example Portugal and China, because in spite of everything the culture is very different. But while Portuguese are emotional and expressive and sometimes confront for information, the Chinese for example avoid confrontation and are not so expressive. This means that in addition to this high context and low context division, we have to perceive which countries are more and less emotional and those that like confrontation and those that avoid it.
Obviously for communication within a team to work, in addition to identifying these differences, requires that everyone involved in the team seek to know more about the culture and that are somehow more flexible to adapt quickly to different situations.
Nowadays, knowing how to collaborate with people from other cultures is a vital skill from a business point of view. Obviously beyond culture there are other things that influence the way we communicate between different cultures, such as personality, way of working, motivations, time notion, personal organization, methods, etc. So I would say that the important take aways, for good communication, whether cross-cultural or not, within a team are:
- Put pride aside and be flexible and honest;
- Trust and leave space for the different personalities and ways of working be beneficial for the team;
- Establish rules for feedback so that there is always room to receive and share feedback in a constructive way;
- Always share your personal goals and expectations so that everyone on the team is on the same page in terms of commitment and dedication.
All this will help you on having a more transparent communication.
If you are interested in this topic I recommend you the book “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer. The different forms of communication are explored by the author.
Want to talk? I’m Joana and I’m always interested in meeting new people and hearing a new story.
Be nice, work hard, make friends and grab a beer or an ice cream.