I am writing to you from Buenos Aires. I came to Vancouver to spend the Christmas holidays with friends and stumbled on your column at their house. I don’t know if you’ll be able to help me, but in my country, I am the chapter president of a global association headquartered in the U.S.A. Last year, the person I report to with regard to chapter relations changed. I am now dealing with a lady out of the Netherlands. My communication with her is abrupt, and I always feel as if she is suspecting our chapter of cheating or deceiving the association in a multitude of ways. I really dislike the way she talks to me via email. We communicate in English, a foreign language for us both, which I suspect contributes to our problem. I am at a point where I am considering resigning from the position even though the association is very dear to me and important to my country. Before I resign, I thought I would check with you and see if there is any cultural misunderstanding that I should take into consideration instead of taking my communication with this lady too personally. Thank you very much in advance for your assistance.
Dear Maria Inés,
I am very sorry to hear about your dilemma but very pleased to see questions for my column coming from as far as Argentina!
You are very right in suspecting that the root of your uneasiness with your new direct report from the Netherlands is rooted in cultural differences. Very few individuals have been trained to communicate with people who come from a different culture than their own; even fewer are aware that the way they communicate is ineffective (and sometimes even offensive) outside of their own physical borders.
In the Netherlands, people are extremely direct in their communication and tend to be misinterpreted by other cultures as harsh, unfriendly and critical people. To Dutch nationals, the line between business and personal matters is clearly delineated, and they seldom feel compelled to include warm chit-chat in their communication. They are all business.
In the Argentine culture, business and pleasure blend easily; people value quality time with one another, and flexibility toward deadline and punctuality is much greater than in the Netherlands. Hierarchy is also more in effect in Argentina than in the Netherlands. Argentineans are used to being talked to with respect for the social level they occupy, while in the Netherlands – an extremely egalitarian culture – people don’t attach much importance to class. Thus, Dutch people tend not to be very ceremonial and to say “the truth” (or at least circumstances as they see them through their own lenses), unaware that they may offend.
Becoming a global bridge is part of the challenge people experience worldwide. We are now forced to interact with people from other parts of the world, to realize that there are some strong differences between us and them, and that our style does not automatically work globally. Someone who has been properly trained in behaving as a global bridger, will for example, leave his or her Skype application open for several hours while working when trying to reach someone for a meeting that had been scheduled for 2 p.m. PST, understanding that making it at 7:00 p.m. on the dot in Argentina might be a challenge. The person will then focus on the fact that communication took place instead of nagging the other for 15 minutes about being late.
Not being able to display that type of flexibility (or worse, immediately assuming that the other person forgot or is inconsiderate of the other person’s time) only widens the divide between cultures. To be aware of those cultural subtleties requires either personal exposure to them or solid training, outlining how one must flex, adapt and adjust to meet the other person halfway and create the needed climate of trust and respect all human beings crave the world over.
My recommendation, Maria Inés, is to talk to your direct report and make her aware, in a non-threatening way, that her communication style makes you feel unfit. Do mention that you are both using a language that is not yours to communicate, which may contribute to misunderstandings. Being Dutch, she will appreciate your directness and your willingness to find a solution. I can guarantee you that the Dutch national in question has no idea she’s making you feel the way you do and that she might even be responsible for your resignation at some point. She would probably be horrified to know this. I suspect she will respond positively to you approaching her.
Hope this helps!
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