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The Importance Of Understanding Cultural Dimensions to Work Better

Nowadays there are so many forms of communication and ways of dealing with problems across cultures, that it becomes a challenge to decipher how people think, lead and get things done.

Sandra Kassubeck Navarro
Apr 6 · 8 min read

Many of us would like to predict conflict before they arise but without understanding properly how cultures work, it seems impossible in a multicultural context.

Everything started at university 10 years ago. Back then, I was taking intercultural management courses with my british teacher, Professor Shami. From day one, I felt completely fascinated with them. From getting useful working tips to the country’s most popular stereotypes, it was a continuous learning.

Saying that, I would recommend all professionals on this planet to take intercultural management courses before starting work life. As weird as it sounds, the work reality is something we can’t predict before putting our hands on it.

That’s when Trompenaars, Hofstede, Edward Hall came in. They were the purveyors of international cultural models pointing out the understanding of the culture as a whole.

Here is a run-down on cultural factors I experimented with throughout my travels and work life:

  • High Context culture: there are many contextual elements that help you understand the rules. This is so true!
  • Low Context culture: More explanation is needed and there is less change of misunderstanding particularly when visitors are present.
  • Monochronic Time: One thing at a time. Take it easy!
  • Polychronic Time: Human interaction is valued over time. Things get done but more in their own time. Slow living lifestyle…
  • Power distance: People in some cultures accept a higher degree of unequally distributed power than do people in other cultures.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: is a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity of future events that can occur.
  • Masculinity: Live in order to work. Money and things are important.

he world is big, crowded, competitive and most importantly diverse. And what if you haven’t got precious advice before stepping down into this diversity? How to deal with people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures at work?

Remember, the best way to do so is to first seek to understand. Let me tell you my story.

When I was 22 years old, I packed my bags and left my hometown to start living more globally.

Copenhagen (Denmark): Low masculinity

The first impression I had of Danish people was that they seemed strange in the first place, closed off and didn’t smile at all but what I could tell was that I quickly found out that this stereotype was completely wrong.

When I landed in cold but sweet Copenhagen on August 16th, 2010, I rushed to the house of a 29 years old Danish teacher to sleep the first nights at hers, the time to get a flat of my own. And my cultural lesson started exactly at this point.

The teacher hosted me like a queen with a colourful, salty and sweet brunch. My English was not particularly good back then, but we connected, ate, sang and even danced all night… I couldn’t believe what was happening.

The next day, she gave me the keys to her place and told me “ Stay as long as you need”. I was shocked and overwhelmed by her kindness. How can she leave me her keys? I’m just a stranger after all… I came to the conclusion that was a “cultural thing”. I couldn’t stop thinking that in France, people would never do that.

While I felt very happy and integrated at the business school, I admired the fact that no strong hierarchy existed between teachers and students. The classes were very interactive, we had plenty of group work and that all things were captivating to me.

Now I don’t have any bad perceptions about Denmark at all, people represent a low masculine society which means you work and study in order to live. Equality between women and men is very present and human relationships are in the center of their culture.

*Golden rules: Danish people always seem to be happy to help you, whether you lose your bus ticket or break your foot during a rugby tournament. They will do everything to keep you safe, even if they don’t know you.

Amsterdam, Holland in one word: Individualism first.

I had the chance to work in one of the biggest student job portals in the Netherlands. I quickly realised that the development of individuals is an aspiration very present in the dutch culture. Most professionals were centered on personal development and attached to their freedoms and autonomy much more than the loyalty to the whole group (family, business, friends). My manager always asked me how I felt on a weekly basis, what she could do for me and most importantly, which tools I needed to keep improving myself. Back then, I was just a marketing intern but learnt and got inspired so much by them. As said previously in this culture, everything is based on the individual which is set to succeed.

*Golden rules: It’s super key to develop yourself within dutch companies and keep educating yourself to be more efficient and show you want to succeed.

Kufstein, Austria in one word: Low context culture.

You’re here to do business, it’s not necessary to entertain close relationships with your peers. “Schulung” and training development programs are part of your daily routine. Want to learn another language? Another marketing tool? Austrians give you everything for your happiness and will set you up for success. They work from 8–5 and don’t want you to sit at your desk after 5. If you do so, they will remind you that you should enjoy life outside of work with your family and friends waiting for you.

Something that surprised me a lot was that I couldn’t call people who had academic titles by their single names, I had to add titles like “Doctor or Master before emailing them.” If I didn’t do so, it could have been seen as an insult. So I had to upgrade my self confidence and ended up adding in my email signature my university degree “Magister Sandra”.

But I still wanted to understand the WHY behind this. It was kind of hard to understand the reasoning of this action. I kept wondering till they told me that this tradition has its origins in the K&K Monarchy. Austrians still keep using it to create a high power distance, although I think this is not the most appropriate way to do it.

*Golden rules: Being punctual is key, you better not be late to a meeting. Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated.

Oh Paris, France: High Context culture and direct style of communication

Being french myself, I know that good relationships at work are at the center of every business. If you want to feel recognised and integrated in a company, you better get along with your peers. I used to work for a Wine & Spirit company for whom I had to travel approx. 3 weeks/month all over Europe but when I was in the office in Paris, I never missed any coffee times or lunch break with my colleagues. We had one ritual: going to buy our lunchbox at “Picard” and kept talking for 2 hours about food… of course… In terms of Management, I had plenty of freedom and I like that (A LOT) as French people trust you. You just need to show them what you can do by taking quick actions.

*Golden rules: Don’t expect french people to respond to your email in a minute, face-to-face meetings or calls are the best way to get what you need. French people can get very emotional so it’s important to take it into account when working with them.

Barcelona (Spain) in one word: Polychronic time.

Everything started at my first interview in Spain. I will always remember when the HR manager greeted me like I were a friend. This gesture seemed a bit awkward to me as we always put distance in France (High power distance culture), especially when you meet a person for the first time. I realised that human interaction in the Spanish culture are valued over time. People get things done the way they want to, and at their own peace. While sometimes they forget to think they are dealing with people from other countries. So this is not about the way you do but how you do it that matters the most, in my opinion.

I would like to highlight two aspects of the Spanish work culture I like: teamwork is at the core of every company where I have been working. You can clearly feel the power of the group (collectivism first) and the high score of uncertainty avoidance (86) that tends to let people avoid (sometimes) laws to make life just easier.

*Golden rules: Don’t be surprised if Spanish show up sometimes late at meetings in private or professional life. Sometimes, they can become defensive when you offer them a suggestion. You have to make sure to find the right tone to address feedback.

There are thousands of stereotypes which define each country. They act as a reference point when it comes to exchange with individuals from different nationalities for the first time. However, most of the time stereotypes give an incomplete image of reality. We can’t forget that thought is something that shapes our reality from the inside out. We can’t take it for granted. That’s why it’s important to open your eyes and seek first to understand and try to integrate.

In today’s world, diversity adds a special touch to any global company, this is what brings this extra touch of creativity, innovation and willingness to move fast.

I’m so proud to work in a global world where I can deal and work with people from all around the world. It’s a richness, a strength that helps every single person to grow professionally and personally.

I always use a cocktail to represent what I feel: What do you think is more tasteful? A spirit with local ingredients or a spirit with different botanicals and spices from all around the world? Well, the response is easy…

French, Spanish, Dutch, Austrians and many more… Humans are different, we have common traits we like from each other and things we hate but we have to cope with them in order to be stronger.

To work in international startups and corporations, if there is one thing I would recommend to everyone is to think outside the box and seek first to understand better your peers and make proof of adaptability to succeed.

As Warren Buffett said in a recent interview:

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”

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