There are several hundred national and regional cultures throughout the world. The enormity of the notion of deciphering the cultural norms of each of these diverse cultures is incredibly overwhelming. A dose of cultural intelligence goes a long way toward facilitating better relationships and reducing misunderstandings across boundaries and borders. Ideally, armed with some valuable information and tools, you (as a global leader) can acquire insight into the diverse cultures within which you interact – making it possible to adopt a cultural perspective toward teams, colleagues and clients that empathizes and is designed to align to the orientations of others.
If we are open to similarities versus differences, we can begin to see that it is possible to view all of the variant cultures through three lenses. These differing orientations will greatly increase the ability to successfully interact across cultures:
1) Task-oriented, highly organized planners (Monochronistics)
2) People-oriented, extroverts (Polychronistics)
3) Introverted, respect-oriented listeners (Reactives)
In a world that has globalized rapidly, the ability to interact successfully with colleagues from disparate cultures is seen not as optional, but as essential.
Monochronic, or linear, cultures, such as the Swiss, Dutch, and Germans, prefer to devote their attention to one thing at a time – focusing hard on that one thing and achieving it within a scheduled timeframe. From a monochronistic perspective, devoting full attention to one person or group at a time is the professional, or polite, thing to do. Processing of tasks is sequential, rather than parallel. In this type of culture, people feel they are more efficient and get more done by segmenting their time, tasks, relationships, etc. into compartmentalized units. By virtue of this compartmentalization, monochronistic people are less likely to view their activities within the context of the whole, or “big picture”.
Polychronic, or multi-tasking, cultures, such as the Greeks, Portuguese, or Italians tend to interrupt a task or meeting in order to attend to another important task or relationship at the same time – they are the proverbial multi-taskers. Polychronistics are not too interested in schedules or punctuality and prefer to remain flexible. They do not like to leave conversations unfinished. Completing the human interaction, versus observing monochronistic time constraints, is the best use of their time. They consider it professional and polite to juggle different projects and people at the same time. In Mediterranean polychronistic cultures, for example, an executive interacts with multiple people at once. Everyone feels acknowledged through having access to an important person, which is seen as a significant advantage. It is accepted that several meetings may take place in parallel in different rooms. While the senior person is sharing his/her time across several meetings, it is common practice for the other attendees to continue the meeting until s/he returns.
When people of differing orientations work together, irritation often results on both sides. Unless someone adapts – and they rarely do – they are in constant crisis. For example, a German may wonder why a Mexican won’t arrive on time, work to deadlines, or follow a plan. At the same time a Mexican may ponder why a German seems so regimented, why s/he insists on sticking to plan if circumstances have changed or why a German colleague may be willing to sacrifice quality to meet a deadline.
Reactive, or listening, cultures, such as Japan, China, Turkey and Finland belong to a group of listening cultures, who rarely initiate action or discussion. They prefer to listen and establish the other’s position first, then react to it and formulate their own response. Reactives listen carefully, concentrate solely on the speaker, and do not let their minds wander. Interruption is not an option, and they will not respond immediately. A period of silence after the speaker is finished shows respect. When a Reactive does respond, do not expect him/her to demonstrate any strong opinion immediately, but instead s/he is likely to ask questions to clarify the speakers intent. Reactives are introverts by nature and are quite proficient at nonverbal communication through subtle body language.
Although adaptation to an alternative culture may not be an easy task, it is nevertheless critical to global business success. The reserved, factual Finn must navigate toward common ground with the loquacious, emotional Italian to facilitate common business requirements. American, as well as European, global leaders have the opportunity to turn over many more billions of dollars in trade if they learn to communicate effectively with the Japanese and Chinese. Observing and respecting the above cultural orientations goes a long way in the right direction toward building solid partnerships across a diverse world to achieve exceptional results. After all, whatever mode of transportation is chosen – all roads do lead to Rome….
How will you ensure all roads lead to Rome?
For the next couple of weeks I will continue to discuss specific cultural orientations that will facilitate successful communications and business results. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check back next week for the next installation in a multi-tiered discussion on understanding cultural orientations for successful communication Across Boundaries & Borders.