This February it will be two years since I relocated from Buenos Aires to Prague. During this time, I had the privilege of working with people and companies from all over the world and collecting enriching experiences that I would have liked to have shared sooner, but I was just too busy living them.
I read writers such as Geert Hofstede, Edward T. Hall and Richard D. Lewis on how different cultures approach work, time and business and the impact that language has in the way we perceive the world, but these concepts really came to life once I experienced them. Cultural barriers exist, and they are real challenges when trying to get things done.
“Don’t fight the culture”, I was advised before coming here. But like the many warnings I received about the Czech freezing winter, I only bought gloves at the point of frostbite. So, while I gave up my naive intention of changing people (this really doesn’t work even in your own culture), I still believe in motivating people to engage in self-reflection, and, like always, doing so ourselves is the best way to set an example.
Argentinian culture in the Czech spot
I still remember the email in which my boss introduced me to the company — “Welcome Pablo Bertero, who will bring new ideas to our office”. As an Argentinean with a managerial role in a company where my peers and superiors are all Czech, it didn’t take much for my ideas to be considered different, and, many times, they were not welcome.
Soon enough, I could see the perception that my colleagues were forming of me, and the place that my culture had in other nations’ stereotype maps. Like this chart that was shown in a company training that brought everyone to a hot discussion while I, in silence, kept thinking, “Drama Queens?” Well, we are a little bit dramatic sometimes, I must admit to myself.
Argentineans tend to be emotional, passionate. And while many may feel attracted to the Tango or the trembling beats of the Bombonera football stadium, it can be quite challenging when we put that same blood in work-related discussions.
On the bright side, we are perceived as creative people. This makes sense for those who live in a country that runs into continuous crisis. Prices change every day, and we once even had five presidents in the same week. With such a high level of uncertainty, creativity becomes a survival mechanism that we use to constantly reinvent ourselves. Living by the day also makes us tend to think in short periods of time, be less focused on details and trust that we will find our way through a problem eventually. For Czechs, who have thousands of years of history and know exactly at what minute the tram will pass by the station every day, Argentineans are unpunctual punks that talk too much and tend to have issues with following processes and norms.
But the first lesson about my own culture I learnt before landing in Prague. My boss had come to Buenos Aires to interview me and had asked me to take him to a place to eat within walking distance. I suggested an Italian place that was just 5 blocks away. But after walking more than 10 blocks under the humid summer sun, my boss told me, “For Czechs, 5 blocks are 5 blocks, not 6, nor 4, and definitely not 10”. Yet, he hired me.
Later, I realized that distances in Prague, and Europe are much smaller than in Latin America. It is likely that my perception was distorted because in my youth, I did not mind walking kilometres every time there was a strike or I had no money for a taxi late at night.
Best of all worlds?
These aspects of my culture wouldn’t have been that clear to me if I had still been surrounded by people who behave similarly to me. (by the way, not all argentinean are the same) I believe that being away from my country helped me put these aspects into perspective, and by becoming aware of them, I could focus on improving them. In contrast, I also was able to see the aspects of other cultures that I wish I could adopt for myself.
Over time, and on the basis of mutual respect, people at the office would hear me saying, “Let’s do this the Czech way, or please, try to think like an Argentinean”.
Of course, I believe that we can’t change our essence, but it is worth trying to get the best of all words. Moreover, as lead of a fully multicultural team, you have the opportunity to use these differences in your favour, and get the best mix.
I am convinced that a multicultural team achieves better results than a monocultural team. Different members of the team tend to naturally take part in the tasks that suit them better while avoiding those for which others could be in a better position. It is like having a suitcase full of a variety of tools, enabling you to use the axe to cut the wood and the brush to paint it. If we could just be romantic as Italians, disciplined like Japanese, punctual like Swiss and have fun like Brazilians!
Though getting out of your comfort zone and exposing yourself to other cultures can be frustrating, it is worth the challenge. You will not only have the opportunity to learn the best from others but, most importantly, you will learn about yourself. And while exploring the richness of different cultures, you may realize that at the very bottom of the most distant cultures there are the same core life motivators: Love, protection, recognition, family, etc. If we find ways to connect with others through these common links, then it becomes naturally easier to bridge cultural barriers. It is quite sad that the world today is once again building up the walls that once divided us, when we do so much better united.