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Going Global

When professionalism and culture collide

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

My name is John and I work for a multinational here in Vancouver. My division works with several contractors located in India and China. The way business is handled there is quite different and they seem to be quite disengaged from the process, which is deeply drilled into us on the American side. My manager and I do not see eye to eye. She keeps telling me that what I perceive as incompetence is, in fact, rooted in cultural differences. I am very tired of that excuse. I would like you to explain to me why cultural differences would explain gross negligence in time-keeping or leaving emails unanswered. To me, each individual has a professional responsibility and associating every flaw with cultural differences just creates more room for lenience where there should be none. What do you think? Is missing an important deadline rooted in cultural differences or in demonstrating lack of ownership towards the project? Is not responding to an email that is specifically addressed to you cultural or plainly unprofessional? I am at my wit’s end with this cultural explanation and would like to hear from an expert on where does professionalism and culture collide so I know where I stand.

Thank you!

John

Dear John,

I can feel your frustration in your tone and I know from experience how difficult it is to work with people we don’t understand, and therefore don’t respect. However, I am afraid I have to agree with your manager. Most of what you described in your email is rooted in our cultural differences. The sense of time that is so important in linear cultures is engrained in us since birth and reinforced through our entire upbringing and education. Moreover, that sense of time-keeping was essential to our survival in the Northern Hemisphere for the longest time due to the short growing season we experience. In warmer climates, fruits and vegetables grow all year long and that sense of precise time-keeping is unnecessary. As a result, deadlines are not always treated with the same intensity by people originating from what we call multi-active or reactive cultures.

As to your second complaint, you come from an egalitarian society where you were taught that it is perfectly okay to interact with whomever. You do not have restriction based on strong hierarchy. If a director who is two levels above you sends you an email, you will respond without feeling that you are bypassing your boss or putting your career in jeopardy. In hierarchic cultures, such as India and China, respecting the pecking order is extremely important. Never offending your boss is of utmost importance, as that person controls your entire future. As a result, sending an email to a subordinate without copying the boss is a big no-no. Responding to that email directly could create some ugly tensions between the subordinate and the boss. Also, the boss is wondering why you are going behind his/her back and may become suspicious of your intentions.

It is of great importance to understand how societies are erected and conceived to have the intended impact when working across cultures. Judging people because they do not respond to your cultural expectations without realizing that they are operating with different rules than yours is misleading. My suggestion is to ask more questions, rephrase, build buffers and do your best to realize that the way professionalism is defined in the United States is unique to this country. Leaving the U.S., being professional may well be defined by ignoring an email that should have been sent to the boss instead; or delaying a deadline to attend to something else that is rated as more important in that culture, such as a religious celebration or another project that comes from higher up.

Hope this helps!

Valérie

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To be copied or not copied?

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

I am the manager of a R&D distributed team for a multinational. Our team members are located in India and China, and while they do great work, we experience some repeated communication breakdowns that I suspect might be rooted in the cultural differences between us that cause misunderstandings. For example, I see myself being dragged into a lot of email exchanges that go unanswered until I get copied on the message. This technique is inefficient and unprofessional in our eyes, but we do not know how to stop it, as having me involved seems to be the only way to get what we need from our Asian counterparts. Is there a technique you recommend to get rid of this constant escalation?

Dear R&D manager,

The first thing there is to know is that involving the manager is expected in what we call ‘reactive’ cultures where a strong hierarchy prevails. Involving the manager is a sign of respect: the manager should always be kept in the loop as a way to ensure that the request is at the right hierarchic level for the subordinate to answer it (or not, which will be decided by the copied manager). Your struggle is thus indeed rooted in cultural differences and especially in the perception of why/when a manager should get involved.

In the linear world, such as the United States, employees are expected to act on their own, and they have a lot of leeway. As a result, one gets the manager involved only when all other issues have failed and a real problem must be resolved – or approval must be obtained to unlock a situation/budget.

There is thus a perception in the West, and mainly in linear cultures, that a manager’s time is precious and should not be wasted on trivial situations. In the ‘reactive’ world, it is the exact opposite: failure is not acceptable, and it is preferable to do nothing than to take the wrong initiative. As a result, having the boss copied on an email is reassuring, and the support people have been taught to rely on that.

Understanding that this practice would cluster your inbox and might drive you to insanity, I suggest that you develop a code within your linear group that in the subject line of the email identifies that correspondence as unnecessary or necessary for you to read. Some of our clients have adopted the (UTR) vs. (TR) codes, and it seems to be working very well for them. I suggest that your group gives this a try to see if it resolves your dilemma.

Valérie Berset-Price

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Investing in cultural education

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

My name is Sandra and I am the mother of two elementary school children. While I understand the importance of learning a foreign language and knowing geography, my children are not receiving that type of education at our local public school. I would like to take care of this for them at home on the weekend and I am wondering if you would have any idea on where to start.

My daughter is in 2nd grade and my son in 4th grade.

Thank you!

Sandra

Dear Sandra,

It is true and highly regrettable that our current education system is failing at preparing our children for the 21st century. As a result, we deprive them of the competitive edge they will need to compete globally by the time they will graduate from high school.

I commend you for your awareness in that regard (too many parents in our country still believe that speaking English is enough and that the United States is the world) and your willingness to bridge the gap for your children. For your daughter, I would start by registering her with LittlePassport.com. It’s a company that mails monthly packages to children, educating them one country at a time. They receive a map, stickers and pictures as they follow the adventure of two young characters throughout the world. I did it for my daughter for the two full years of the program and she loved it. As to your son, I would register him with TimeforKids.com, which is Time Magazine for kids. It is full of world news presented to them in a format they can understand and that can get them engaged. I also would register him with Kid World Citizen so he can correspond with a child his age located in the country of his choice. I did that for many years growing up, exchanging weekly letters with a girl from Greece. It was a wonderful experience that got me interested in foreign countries and cultures.

As to foreign languages, there are many opportunities with Saturday schools offering classes in a variety of languages. For example, Vancouver has a great Chinese school I know of. Portland has an Italian school open to kids of all ages. Classes are affordable and taught by native speakers. The same can be found for Spanish, French, German, etc.

Please inquire and get your children immersed in a foreign language. In my opinion, and as someone who circles the globe for a living, I feel that being fluent in at least one foreign language is by far the best investment you can make in the future of a child.

I hope this helps!

Valérie

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A question of sacrifice

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

The multinational for which I work offered me a three-year contract as an expat manager in India. The job description interests me very much and would without a doubt advance my career in the long-run, but sacrifices are also in the mix as I would have to uproot my two children (eight and 10 years old) and my husband would have to quit his job to follow me to India. It is a very big decision and I am wondering if you could highlight some hidden elements related to such a move that I may not be able to appreciate from my current position.

Thank you very much in advance!
Coleen

Dear Coleen,

Congratulations on having received such an offer! It is indeed very exciting! Assuming that your employer offers you a standard expat package, I will not spend any time detailing such an offer. What I will spend time discussing are the challenges and opportunities of a female expat manager – and of a mother – in an emerging market. As you certainly realize, there will be some gender-specific cultural barriers that may lead to a certain level of resistance from some of your peers and subordinates, depending on the industry you are in and the region of India you to which you will be moved.

On the other hand, women in general tend to be less linear and more connected to their emotions, which is a true positive in the Indian professional setting. A softer approach that takes into consideration employees as a whole (and not just their job performance) will be a plus there. A creative approach to time management and an appreciation for hierarchy will also prepare you for the differences you will encounter on the job and in your personal life.

Speaking of your personal life, make sure that your children and husband have access to a support system that includes expat coaching before, during and after the relocation. For you, having access to a global coach during your contract will also be instrumental in stepping back from and reflecting on situations that are often destabilizing at first due to the invisible cultural component that is hidden to the foreign eye. As a mother, it is important to accept that most expat assignments require a full dedication to the position, leaving little time for family and private life. Having a partner who accepts the role of primary caregiver to the children as well as long hours on your end will greatly ease your success in your new setting.

I hope this helps!

Valérie Berset-Price

Do you have a question for Valérie? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Please note that the Vancouver Business Journal and Valerie Berset-Price reserve the right to publish your letter or an edited version in all print and electronic media.

Living in a multicultural world

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

This has little to do with business, but it has to do with living in a multicultural world, so hopefully it applies to your column.

My husband and I have a multitude of friends from around the world. I come from Serbia originally. As such, we often extend dinner party invitations at our house to people we like and who may not be American. Having lived here for a number of years, I had to adjust to the American punctuality style and the fact that communication must remain constant. My pet peeve is when people refuse to RSVP or answer my specific email to them about our invitation. It makes me upset and makes me want to get rid of those friends in the future. I know it’s wrong, but I am unable to tell myself anything that makes me feel good about the lack of respect I feel coming from those so-called friends. Could you please help me? I don’t want to be bitter, and I don’t want to judge people I love on their social manners only.

Thanks!

Adrijana

Dear Adrijana,

Thanks for your question. I can relate to your frustration, and I understand how easy it is to associate someone’s behavior with lack of respect. You see, around the world, people are taught to show respect very differently. For example, the other day I was in an Iraqi restaurant in Palo Alto, CA with a male colleague. The waiter avoided all eye contact with me and asked my male colleague what my order would be. While being invisible to the waiter bothered me, I had to remind myself that not making eye contact with a woman, especially when she is in the company of a man who could be her husband, is a sign of respect in many parts of the Muslim world.

Your international friends might have been taught growing up in India, Persia or Morocco, for example, that saying “no” to an invitation is extremely disrespectful. They were taught that ignoring the invitation is a form of communication that tells the person that indeed, they would not be able to attend. It allows people to not have to deliver bad news.

What makes it complex to live in a multicultural world is that each culture teaches to communicate in its own fashion. As a result, when people do not meet our cultural expectations, like answering an RSVP, we feel that we are being disrespected. When this happen to you, Adrijana, I suggest that you instead think of why your friends would try to disrespect you. I am pretty sure there are no reasons. Then I would think about their country of origin and wonder if their country’s mode of communication is more indirect than in the United States or Serbia. Only in other North American countries and Europe (including Russia) is communication as direct as we are in the U.S. The rest of the world shows respect by communicating indirectly. Your friends are not answering your invitation not because you don’t matter to them but because you matter too much to decline your invitation.

Hope this helps!

Valérie

Do you have a question for Going Global? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Please note that the Vancouver Business Journal and Valerie Berset-Price reserve the right to publish your letter or an edited version in all print and electronic media.