When professionalism and culture collide

Going Global

Valérie Berset-Price, owner of international business consulting firm Professional Passport, is the expert behind the Vancouver Business Journal’s advice column: Going Global: Business insight on an international scale.

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!


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!


Do you have a question for Valérie? Email Valerie@vbjusa.com. 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.