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The Place of Culture in a Flat World

In April 2005, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman published the iconic book on globalization, “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century”.

The title eludes to the perceptual shift required for countries, companies, and individuals in order to remain competitive in a global market where historical and geographical divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Per Wikipedia, “Friedman himself is a strong advocate of these changes, calling himself a ‘free-trader’ and a ‘compassionate flatist’, and he criticizes societies that resist these changes. In his opinion, this flattening is a product of a convergence of personal computers with fiber-optic micro cable with the rise of work flow software.”

Many readers, including this author, initially interpreted this as saying that the world is increasingly the same, diversity is going away. A re-reading of Mr. Friedman’s book, and subsequent writings, shows this is not exactly correct. He is proposing that the business world is adopting the same standards worldwide in order to compete with companies in other countries. A strong case can be made for this postulation.

Along comes culture. Dictionary.com defines culture as: “The quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.; development or improvement of the mind by education or training; and the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.”

Businessculture.org says, “Culture illustrates the accepted norms and values and traditional behaviour of a group . . . ‘the way we do things around here.’ The culture of each country has its own beliefs, values and activities. In other words, culture can be defined as an evolving set of collective beliefs, values and attitudes.”

In my experience working in 68 countries over the past 42 years, culture is alive and prospering. In order to do business in other countries, you must be aware of the local culture and how it impacts business to be successful. Flatness is not as important as the culture with which you are dealing. In other words, you must be aware of the diversity in doing business that the local culture represents to be successful in today’s global business environment.

Robert Shaw, a highly experienced and successful global franchise executive based in Orange County, California, has studied the knowledge of local culture as a way to win in business. Mr. Shaw defines three major cultural types that you have to take into account to win in global business:

  • Linear – Aggressive, time is money, task focused, individualistic, the “John Wayne” approach – North America, Australia and Northern Europe
  • Multi-Active – Relationship comes FIRST and BEFORE business, top heavy hierarchy, only meet with decision-makers – Mediterranean, Latin America, Middle East and India
  • Reactive – Relationships first, quiet nodding, listeners, group decisions – Asia (except India.) Nodding simply means they may understand what you are saying. Not that they are agreeing with you.

The aggressive ‘let’s get the deal done and go home’ that US business people often follow leaves no time to develop the relationships that most cultures value and require in order to get business done.

And here are a few cultural “no-no’s” to remember that Mr. Shaw and I have encountered over the years:

  • White flowers as a gift in Japan – white is the color for funerals
  • Showing the bottom of your shoes in the Middle East – dirtiest thing you can do
  • Making the sign for ‘okay’ in Brazil
  • Referring to Taiwan as a country in China
  • Talking politics – sports and local culture are better topics
  • Folding business cards – cards are expressions of who someone is and what they have accomplished

Terri Morrison, in her classic book, “Kiss, Bow and Shake Hands”, shares a few basic but critical cultural differences in doing business in key countries. In regards to meetings:

  • In Brazil, lack of punctuality is a fact of life; be flexible about your counterpart’s (lack of) punctuality
  • In China, punctuality for all appointments is important
  • In India, Indians appreciate punctuality, but do not always practice it themselves!

The bottom line? While business processes may be flattening, cultures are not. To succeed in global business you have to add the cultural factor to your approach to people and companies in other cultures. Ignore the ‘non-flat’ local way of doing business because you think similar business processes are all that counts in a country and you will fail.

Cultures are what make the world an increasingly interesting place!


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