Chinese whispers in Cross Cultural Perspectives

It’s January 2011. a good time for some reflection and action-taking. I certainly have resolutions and know, from the research that is done on the subject, that keeping a diary or at least plan my behaviour may help.


Since last year, I have been keen to evaluate if the materials that I teach actually affect the students’ thinking.  One of the challenges for this year is to convey the message I have intended for my students.  In order to evaluate this, I included a review exercise as part of the MBA assessment – students were required to evaluate the impact (or not) of the course ‘Cross Cultural Perspectives’ on their thinking and (potentially) practice. The course is part of ‘Management Perspectives’, which includes ethics, diversity, consultancy & entrepreneurship. It aims to add a philosophical perspective to the MBA experience.  The MBA is a great opportunity to take some time to reflect. MBA students often come in with an air of ‘you cannot tell me anything new’ (which makes me wonder why they’re there in the first place). But the whole point is to share experiences, reflect and discuss. This is their time to learn, reject/accept and evolve.

Unfortunately for me, the reviews mainly focused on a) the need to be aware that there are other nationalities and b) we all need to be politically correct/nice to one another. This wasn’t the lesson I intended. The five sessions focused on different aspects of management (economic crisis, marketing, negotiations, leadership) and the main topic throughout all of them was to encourage a) awareness of the subjectivity of best practice, b) critical thinking in terms of cognitive biases (mental short cuts like stereotyping) and c) the importance of cultural intelligence. As is evident, this doesn’t quite match the main themes from students’ reviews (despite that they were encouraged to think critically, feel comfortable to be critical and were given a template with an example). So, back to the drawing board.

Perhaps I am dealing with a cultural difference; the students (none were British/Western European/American) may not be familiar with the pedagogic practice of  criticising the facilitator. I’ll try again at the end of the year, when they almost finished their entire MBA to see if a) cross cultural perspectives made an impact (self reflection) and b) they retained the core 3 messages (do they incorporate the knowledge into the presentation on their project?). A bit like the Theory of Planned Behaviour with an intervention…

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Research Leadership

Logo       This week, I had to re-apply for the role of Research Leader within the Business & Management department. The request was to submit a brief on why I was suitable for the role and to discuss this informally. Now, since the UK government has cut funding, the role is becoming more prominent and carries more responsibilities as the university needs to be strategic about its resources. It is important to develop the research activities of colleagues while reviewing how this fits in with the greater picture of the Business School.

I have many ideas, some of which directly related to the need to involve businesses more. Not to annoy any consultant out there, but the social capital that exists within universities is spectacular and it is not a source that is tapped into enough. Practical impact of research now will count for 25% (additional to publications, funding, phd students) when we submit our case for research funding to the government in 2014 (REF), so it is imperative that academics engage more with businesses. It would be good to know how these bridges can be built. There seems to be this odd phenomenon that people don’t trust that which is available for no or low cost (case in point: try getting rid of your old bookcase by putting it outside by your door – put a note that says ‘free – please take’ and it’ll remain there longer than if you put ‘£10 – please ring  doorbell’). This is one of the challenges I’ll be working on in the future, apart from enhancing my own research profile.

The actual interview was thoroughly enjoyable (despite my initial nerves). In fact, I was a little overwhelmed by the extent of the positive feedback that my name came up during the other interviews and that I am highly valued and a role model within the school. My influence has extended beyond the business school and I have changed and improved research related activities. Their main concern was that I need to take care of ‘me’ and work on my development too. Fab.

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Softly softly

While prowling the internet for great videos to show MBA and UG students, I come across many that talk about globalisation and the need for effective management.

All of these discuss the merits of good communication, a motivation to learn about the other and the willingness to question one’s own beliefs. I suppose what can be called cultural intelligence.

It is then to my amusement that, after a video or two on this subject (linked to, hardly a soft, touchy-feely source) and some examples of evidence based management, my MBA students proceed to bargain hard during a negotiation exercise. Some stand up and shout, some point fingers. I hear ‘you must see that our need for (resource X) is greater than yours!’. Yeah, that will do it. Aim of the game is to communicate so that the teams find out that they need different parts of resource X. Not many were willing to share that information. If asked why not they cannot answer.

Is it an innate distrust we have as humans? Or are we taught to be competitive, even if it is detrimental to our success. Why, even if the evidence is provided, do we not practice what is taught? Communicate, communicate, communicate.

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A German, Lebanese and Nederlandse walk into a bar…

Nathalie (Dutch, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in the UK) sends an email to Ronald (German, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in New Zealand) and Charles (Lebanese, PhD Cross Cultural Psychology in Beirut) about a cross cultural issue. All three are academics at local universities.

Nathalie, London 09/10/2010

A cross cultural issue:

We teach our classes in London, Hong Kong and Dubai. These are partner campuses, in the sense that when students obtain their degree it says ‘British University’ without an indication at what location. We have always been instructed that English standards apply. In practice this means that content and assignments need to be of equivalent level (although do not necessarily need to be the same).

Today we were told that Dubai students complained that they had to do an assignment that involved the analysis of the performance of companies that produce alcohol. They felt that this was insensitive to their cultural norm.

It was suggested that we adjust the content to local needs.

I have huge reservations. First, it’s analysis of a company, I am not making them drink the stuff. Secondly, the university’s aim is to expand world-wide. We now have campuses in Mauritius, China, India, Dubai, Sri Lanka etc etc. Adjusting content and assignments to each culture is just not feasible.

Some people have argued that we teach from a Western-centric perspective. We expect students to be independent learners, who are critical thinkers, which for some other cultures may be challenging. As a UK university, are we selling a UK product or is the university a multinational that should adjust it’s product to local needs?

What do you think?

Ronald, New Zealand 09/10/2010

hahaha this is too funny. sorry, but those complaints i can’t quite take seriously.

if people are too ideologically narrow to care about stuff like that, just change the name of the product. maybe make it landmines or deep sea oil drilling machinery or male underwear something like that :p is this a serious complaint or just somebody trying to act important?

Nathalie, London 10/09/2010

A serious complaint, presented today by the Dubai representative (English national), who urged all module leaders to change the content to Dubai norms.

Ronald, New Zealand 09/10/2010

i leave it to charles to reply to that.

what happened to good old educational standards, first practiced and perfected in those areas that seem to have some problems with content these days (according to this complaint).

i guess the university needs money, so you should change all your course content now. immediately.

Charles, Beirut 10/09/2010


Well, I’d probably side with the Dubai request on this one. The issue is not really about alcohol for me, but about teaching effectiveness…

The inclusion of Alcohol in the example becomes a distraction from the actual exercise as students are focusing on this “forbidden” or “unfamilar”

object rather than on the point of the exercise. This is not about critical thinking. What if the exercise was turned to “the company that publishes Mein Kempf wants to increase its sales, blab la” sent to UK or German students. it will irk some people and distract from the main purpose of the exercise. In my personal opinion, exercises need to use examples that are meaningful and recognisable by students for them to be most effective. No point giving camel trading examples to British students, or referring to superior Japanese efficiency to Chinese participants. 

However, we would have a problem if Dubai authorities request removing “sexism” or homophobic discrimination from the curriculum, or decides that some psychological concepts are inappropriate. Then we are dealing with actual content.

That’s my two cent worth of thoughts.

Ronald, New Zealand 10/09/2010

i still believe that the alc example is hypocritical though. i have not been to dubai, but i have been told that you can buy alc and many men appear to drink. so it is a superficial political reaction rather than a sacred value type kind of problem. i am sceptical about religiously motivated requests, but i understand that it might deeply offend and motivate certain groups of people. but at the end of the day, deeply religious people are often quite tolerant and these issues are used for political purposes.

my one cent.

Nathalie, London 10/09/2010

I thought about this some more and sent email last night via iPhone: On 2nd thoughts, if even working on a case on alcohol represents an acknowledgement of something abominable hence it is a problem (like a case on pedophilia discussed as a norm) then this may make sense.

I do not agree, however, with Charles’ comment that we cannot agree with homophobic issues. If by law homosexuality is not allowed, I don’t see the difference between that and alcohol, which is also forbidden by law. Thus, if it concerned a legal case of Smith vs Kramer, where Kramer was the defendant and it was related to dismissal of work due to sexuality and Dubai would complain about that… then isn’t that the same argument?

What this highlights is that our Western minds are rarely exposed to situations where we have to write about something we find disgusting (e.g., a case study of the success of a company that makes utensils for female clitoral removal). Hence, we jump through the political correctness hoop and LEARNED that issues related to alcohol are problematic, however, we do not truly understand the sentiment, we cannot empathise. I certainly didn’t, and felt that Dubai should get over it.

I understand now. It conjures up all sorts of questions. It makes me realise that the gap between cultures is magnificently huge and that debates about land, etc may be more rational but debates about these norms and values are emotional and difficult to comprehend. If people are not willing to explore, research to try to understand (and instead do the PC thing or the f*** off thing) then we’re not getting anywhere really.

My two pennies.

Charles, Beirut 13/09/2010

Feels like a conversation … : )

The example of alcohol is not similar to homosexuality, even if they seem to have a  common denominator in “laws and regulations”.

Consuming alcohol or not has no implication towards discrimination, and is a matter of choice (to drink or not to drink). This is not the case in homosexuality or gender or race. These you are born into, and all humans are equal in the eyes of Allah 🙂 (ergo the theological argument).

So, if the retrograde government of one country or the other would like to enforce homophobic legislation, it doesn’t mean we have to bend to it. I live in a country that supposedly considers homosexuality illegal, yet I talk about it openly in class even if some ears do not like to hear what I say. This is not the same as preferences and choices (e.g. to ban CFC aerosol or not :)).

Nathalie, London 13/09/2010:

I see your point. But then this too is up for debate because you say one is born into homosexuality, whereas others may argue it isn’t. It then comes back to opinion and my opinion is that, I am not asking the student to drink the stuff, I am asking him/her to evaluate a Cross Cultural Case study on a beer company. If anything, the international MBA student should’ve highlighted the cultural issues related to this product (and get an ‘A’!).

After note: The case study was changed to a different kind of assignment before this discussion happened. This particular case study on teaching a controversial product will now be used in the introductory lecture at Under Graduate and Post Graduate level as it can be apply to the context of marketing (a controversial product), advertising, shipping, producing etc. To me, this example has highlighted the complexity of cross cultural management. When a conflict occurs, the challenge is to empathise truly, i.e., understand the beliefs and emotions. This then doesn’t mean that something has to change perse. That depends on ultimately what is deemed to be in the benefit of the organisation/individuals involved.

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“I tolerate you”

Tolerance is a much used, socially desirable value across the Western world. It sounds attractive because it reflects values such as the ability to live side-by-side those who are different and to restrain oneself. Yet, tolerance as a value can be interpreted in different ways, and possibly therefore it is so attractive for a political usage.

For example, unlike with the American melting pot, the Dutch did not require immigrants to integrate or assimilate. They were merely tolerated as a different community. Yet, tolerance indicates a power relationship, with those who tolerate as the more powerful. For example, to say that ‘I will tolerate you’ at a personal level reflects this power difference clearly. Yet, it seems acceptable rhetoric at the national level, even if the meaning is the same and is not, as also commonly thought, a concept of inclusivity.

In fact, Wemyss (2006: 215) argues that tolerance is not a positive national aspiration as it is in fact ‘the conditional withholding of force by those at the top of a ‘hierarchy of belonging’. Secondly, tolerance indicates acceptance and benevolence for the greater good, which, over the years, has become synonymized with a social and liberal political view. Therefore, using the word ‘tolerance’ is indicative of an implied power relation as much as it supports the idea of a multicultural society.

Proponents of pluralism, like the enlightened Gentili, assume that the nature of human beings is as such that they can (be taught to) live side by side without caring what the other thinks, or who they worship. Pluralism, then, is a possibility provided that people acknowledge and suppress their urge to invade, segregate, and dominate. It requires a shift from an individualistic approach to politics to come towards an ethical, inclusive form of governing, as argued by Amin (2010):


One reason for a turn to a politics of ethics – the desire to link moral and political

philosophy – is the belief that rationalism, utilitarianism, consumerism and individualism have diminished the role of ethics in social organization and human interaction, and that credos such as liberalism, socialism, religious society and nationalism have legitimated harm, including ethical harm, towards those believed to be on the outside (Appiah, 2006; Parekh, 2000).


In the UK, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion published the ‘Our Shared Future’ report, which indicated that there was a sense of shared values across the individuals and communities consulted.  In an independent report advising the commission, Buofino and Thompson (2007: 15) argued that ‘good mental health, satisfying and secure work, a secure and loving private life, freedom, moral values and a secure community were found to be the main factors affecting happiness’. The Commission concluded that their expectation that communities clash in terms of values was not found to be true but warned that ‘if the discrimination experienced by some groups within our society continues, we will not be able to achieve the goals we set out in this report for building integration and cohesion’ (Commission on Integration and Cohesion, 2007: 27).

In the Netherlands, the report called ‘The Drama of Multiculturalism’ (Scheffer, 2000) shook the establishment on its foundations. The author argued that multiculturalism had failed and that, due to the pillarization ethos and because Dutch society is void of strong nationalism, immigrants were not required to integrate. This left them confused in terms of their identity as SIT and SCT would have predicted. Furthermore, Scheffer (2000) argues that for multiculturalism to work, the Dutch should not eschew conflict in order to come to a resolution. He concludes[i] (translated from Dutch):


We have had an exceptional time, when a relaxed and wealthy society let go of the reigns. The illusion of invulnerability was strong and it seemed as if freedom and forbearance stabilised autonomously. Those years are over. At the moment, citizens obtain less justice security, social protection and cultural acknowledgement from the State. Now that the cornerstones of our contented nation are moving, many turn against the government that constantly relativises itself. The political upper-layer, who used to possess a clear civilization mission, now doubts itself and loses more and more grip on the societal reality.


Then one can understand the refusal by the cabinet and parliament to face the, for everybody visible and often high-lighted, problems surrounding ethnic minorities in the Netherlands. A parliamentary study in to the immigration and integration policies is necessary, because now whole generations are signed off under the veil of tolerance. The current policy of generous admission and limited integration enlarges the inequality en contributes to a sense of estrangement in society. Tolerance moans under the weight of outstanding maintenance. The multicultural drama that unfolds then is the largest threat to societal peace.


 Instead of taking heed of Scheffer’s words, by voting for the PVV, the Dutch elected for a full immigration ban on people from Moslim countries, a tax on Moslim women wearing a veil and for The Netherlands to leave the EU if Turkey joins. Wilders’ PVV party and other similar parties in Europe reject multiculturalism because they are unwilling to be tolerant even. Statistics generated by so called voting indicator software that advises the public on a representative party of their viewpoints based on questions show that PVV’s program is popular; It is argued that they represent what people think but feel they cannot say (Kanne & de Beer, 2009).

It is the management of the complexity of the modern person’s sense of belonging and security within conflict situations that requires further study. Identity negotiation between layers of identity by definition leads to conflict. The current negotiation between the higher order national identity (American, Dutch, European), and smaller subcultures (e.g. Muslim, gender, or gay subcultures) is a case in point. Additionally to negotiating one’s own identity, people are required to interact with others with often very different values. This diversity in experience and background can be a platform for success (van Ameijde, Nelson, Billsberry & van Meurs, 2008) but it may also cause misunderstandings (van Meurs, 2003; van Meurs & Spencer-Oatey, 2007). We have to acknowledge this challenge: the human fear of uncertainty vs. the human capacity for compassion.

[i] We hebben een uitzonderlijke tijd achter ons, waarin een zeer ontspannen en welvarende samenleving de teugels heeft laten vieren. De illusie van onkwetsbaarheid was sterk en het leek alsof de vrijheid en verdraagzaamheid zich als vanzelf bestendigden. Die jaren zijn voorbij. Burgers ontlenen momenteel minder rechtszekerheid, sociale bescherming en culturele bevestiging aan de staat. Nu deze hoekstenen van onze tevreden natie zijn gaan schuiven, keren velen zich af van een overheid die zichzelf voortdurend relativeert. De politieke bovenlaag die vroeger over een duidelijke beschavingsmissie beschikte, twijfelt aan zichzelf en verliest meer en meer zijn greep op de maatschappelijke werkelijkheid.

Zo kan men de weigering begrijpen van kabinet en parlement voor iedereen zichtbare en vaak gesignaleerde problemen rondom etnische minderheden in Nederland onder ogen te zien. Een parlementair onderzoek naar het immigratie- en integratiebeleid is nodig, want nu worden hele generaties onder het mom van tolerantie afgeschreven. Het huidige beleid van ruime toelating en beperkte integratie vergroot de ongelijkheid en draagt bij tot een gevoel van vervreemding in de samenleving. De tolerantie kreunt onder de last van achterstallig onderhoud. Het multiculturele drama dat zich voltrekt is dan ook de grootste bedreiging voor de maatschappelijke vrede (Scheffer, 2000)


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On a blogroll

With Stephan, colleague and friend from Middlesex University, I had a conversation about blogs – how to advertise them (via Twitter, apparently) and how to manage them. I sometimes wonder if I am writing to a non-existent audience in an ocean of fellow bloggers but no readers. Stephan’s blog is specifically professional, whereas a blog from another friend, Patricia, is decidedly more personal, although she too writes about her professional life. Obviously, the two types of blog have very different functions and therefore audiences.

One blog I like is ICCI Blog, mainly because it’s the cognitive bit of culture that ruffles cross-culturalists. I strongly believe that many academics live in silos, where they only preach to the converted and refuse to consider alternative hypotheses. So, it’s good to read an opposing view once in a while. Just like I sometimes expose myself to Fox News or the Daily Mail. 🙂 For this reason I read Ann Coulter’s blog too some years ago (Did Philip Pullman call the ice mother in His Dark Materials ‘Mrs Coulter’ on purpose??)

I have two more blogs listed among my many bookmarks. I checked – one is a feminist blog, which I should read and the other is a political blog, which looks interesting although I am currently unsure why I bookmarked it specifically.

I like blogs because, unlike Wikipedia or news sites, I like to read behind the ‘facts’ and learn what is going on in people’s heads when they write. Second, I encourage students to think critically but also to be reflective so to become aware of any bias that they may have – blogs also allow for the space to do this. Coming to think of it, it may be a good type of assessment that is different from standard essays or case studies. Similarly, should blogs be considered an academic output? We’d need them to be peer reviewed. Academics, prepare to be thwarted by tweets in the future.

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Hup Holland Hup!

It’s the World Cup final and I am very excited because Holland (or Netherlands as they’re now referred to in this tournament) are playing!

From my living room in London, I followed all the games and when they won from Brazil the buzz really started. I wasn’t the only one – the media, the players, the people of the Netherlands had overcome a threshold that Friday – Holland won from Brazil. The Dutch are not known for their national pride (which in fact has been mentioned as a problem for integration – why join the majority if they don’t care themselves?). Anyway, after the game, Holland suddenly felt a million miles away. Although I am usually not that bothered about being an immigrant in the UK (noticed that for the Middle Classes this is called ‘being an expat’), that evening I needed to drink a biertje and sing in my native language. So my boyfriend and I took the tube to the Dutch bar De Hems. There, very tall people clad in orange were dancing ‘De Polonaise’ and I stood on the periphery.

I am unsure why this surprised me – it is not necessary to feel of mixed identity through socialisation (as opposed to being biologically of mixed heritage). Yet, if you’d ask me on any day, I am full Dutch but integrated into English society. To the point that when I travel back to The Netherlands, I experience a little culture shock each time.I feel 60% Dutch, 40%English.

But when Holland won from Uruguay and Germany lost against Spain, I found myself trailing the internet for flights to the Netherlands. Suddenly, my identity became 100% Dutch again. I could read via the internet that the Dutch media was all about orange and the Dutch boys in South Africa and I heard from my family that the streets were being painted orange back home. Was this a once in a lifetime opportunity? Should I be standing there among1000s of fellow Dutch on a square in Amsterdam and watch the game on a big screen? I checked the usual expat sites and saw that I wasn’t alone – posts on Facebook and forums indicated that other Dutch people in the UK (with British partners) had found themselves sitting on the couch alone and wanted to know where they could watch the next game. A certain fever got hold of me. Donning an orange t-shirt I went to work and phoned my father – what’s the plan?

What I didn’t know was that my brilliant friends here in the UK had planned to come over on Sunday to watch the game with me, after my boyfriend sent them a text saying I had felt very homesick. So, from Oxford, Buckinghamshire, Slough and London they will come, including one Colombian friend, who will be supporting Spain. This morning, as I was putting up the orange garlands, I realised that I am home away from home and that I’d rather sit in my living room with 10 good friends from all over the world watching what will be a very exciting game than standing among 1000s strangers who happen to be Dutch too. Our sense of identity and belonging is a complex thing – now where’s my orange vuvuzela?

World Cup 2010

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Why do sheep swing?

The results are out – the Dutch elections took place last week and the VVD (right wing, liberal) won by a small margin. Second is PvdA (socialists), third… PVV (nationalistic, anti Islam). I voted none of the above and am now wondering how the parties are going to put their coalition together. According to the votes, the Dutch want a right wing government: VVD, PVV and ? (CDA – Christian Democrats – declined).

As a Cross Cultural Psychologist, I am interested in several questions. First, according to the polls, PVV would not win seats with such a margin. So why did the Dutch defy the predictors and vote for Geert Wilders’ party?

Secondly, in Belgium for the first time in 180 years a party (N-VA) that wants to split Belgium into two (Flanders en Wallonia) has become the most popular. Although this party is not like PVV in terms of the anti-Islam policies,  one Dutch broadsheet is now wondering if it’s intellectually acceptable to vote nationalistic (NRC

Some may argue that the smaller countries are fed up with people coming in, unsettling an established culture in a country that has been occupied by foreign entities in the past and thus likely to be allergic to those who impose their views that deviate from the ‘tolerant’ norm. Hence, is there a need for the basics as per Maslow’s pyramid, to be satisfied? Lock the doors,  send a strong message to the established parties that Joe and Jane Bloggs want to be heard and sort out nationalistic interests? Interesting, but the Dutch are not known for their nationalism. At the most the Dutch would don their orange and support ‘Holland’ during the football (2-0 against Denmark, since you asked).

However, while I was in the Netherlands in April, I was intrigued to view a tv documentary on the BNP that exaggerated the support for this party among Britons. The media in the Netherlands was telling the Dutch that the British would vote BNP. They didn’t, but was this media hype enough for the Dutch to think, I’ll vote PVV since everybody else is too and I am fed up with the current politically correct climate? Certainly, things aren’t so simplistic, but my point is… why this swing? Why did the Dutch and now the Belgians vote nationalistic? Why follow each other like sheep but why did the British abstain from voting for the BNP?

I’m digging around the World Value Survey data to find out. Me thinks its something to do with pragmatic pluralism…

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No (wo)man is an island: Discussing self serving bias on Saaremaa.

The title of this blog isn’t even a metaphor. For a consultancy project I travelled to Tallinn in Estonia, where we boarded a bus to travel a further 4 hours to an island off the coast called Saaremaa. The 2-day session of the Virtex project ( brought together educators from Estonia, Turkey, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Spain and the UK. As an outsider, I observed their discussions on how to best assess students on their abilities in the hotel and tourism industry. It was interesting to watch videos that showed off the students’ language abilities and the ways that they interacted with their guests. It made me remember that people in their late teens/early twenties have guts – some move to another country without knowing much about the customs or language, having to organise a place to stay, a bank account, etc.

I talked about this project on this blog back in March and it’s interesting to be able to reflect back on the session now. The topic of cultural differences elicits mixed reactions – people either firmly believe in globalisation (i.e., we’re pretty much the same and differences cause little concern) or they believe that there are cultural differences and they do cause concern sometimes. My aim was to provide the teachers with materials that can be used to help the students understand the ‘why’ of cultural differences before they start their internship. Facts can be obtained from the CIA website ( and do’s and don’ts are also available on websites such as wikipedia. Mind, websites like these are not without bias. As is proven by the brilliant uncyclopedia (

As a consultant, it is important to select your materials carefully as illustrative videos depicting differences can generate a debate on the reality of the cultural prototypes that are displayed, rather than have a fruitful discussion on the ‘why’ behind these differences. Also, I don’t think it’s in the interest to show a student a video on the do’s and don’ts of the country they’re about to visit – prototypes quickly become stereotypes. Secondly, none of these materials are relevant if the student isn’t aware that he/she isn’t neutral and that the first step may be to consider how others perceive them as visitors/guests/employees.

I was reading Jeanne Brett’s Negotiating Globally during my time away. Interestingly, she mentions that international negotiators forget to consider their opponent’s BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and focus only on their own needs and perceptions. The message is clear: we humans suffer from a self-serving bias. It’s probably innate. And, by Brett’s account, even happens to Harvard educated MBA students. Education may make students aware of this bias, however, so I hope that the training I developed may help some of the students of the VIRTEX project to feel a little bit more confident when they’re abroad.

My time on the island and in Tallinn was invigorating, by the way. All the members of the team that I met were kind and, rightfully so, very proud of their students and curriculum. Estonia’s Nordic calm, boundless nature and stoic friendliness was a welcome change from busy London. As a Dutch person I felt strangely at home…

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Yes, but no, but…

I met Kerstin, consultant for GPiPartner ( at South Kensington station and we walked to the V&A museum to have lunch in the beautiful piazza and talk about cultural differences, identity and globalisation. It is always good to talk to someone who shares the same interests. Time flies, your brain goes a 100 mph and, I apologise to Kerstin, so many thoughts and ideas come up we hopped from topic to topic. One of the main questions that silenced me for a moment is the challenge for those of us who are direct in their communication to interact with those who are indirect.

Kerstin told me that her clients sometimes struggle when, due to globalization, a team in, for example, the UK needs to work together with a team in, for example, India or China because the latter colleagues may say ‘yes’ to a timetable or a way of executing a  project but mean ‘no’ or ‘maybe’. It is the one issue I’ve heard about when I speak to people about their work, whether it’s those in my network who work for large companies like IBM or Barclays, or those who are training a small team when they’re sent overseas as an expat. I agreed that we face the same challenge in education when we teach students from countries like China, Vietnam, India, etc.

Hall called it high context vs low context, Kim called it conversational constraints, Ting-Toomey and Gudykunst called it ‘positive and negative face’. Although these concepts give the problem a name, the solution is not that straight forward. Now, Kerstin’s example may be because the Indian team wants to maintain harmony (Kim), save face (Ting-Toomey) or come from a culture that is high context (Hall). The problem is, what do you do as a team manager from a (business) culture that does not work that way?

It left me wondering if people from high context cultures who prefer communicating indirectly view those who communicate directly? Is it easy for them? Do they view the other as rude and obnoxious? Then, I pondered how two indirect/high context/save facing teams work together. Have they learned to be more perceptive of others’ body language? Do they know what questions to ask? We agreed that it’s key to ask the right questions. If you’re someone who likes direct communication, don’t ask ‘Can you do this project?’ but instead ask ‘How will you do this project?’. Don’t ask ‘Will it be finished by X deadline?’ but ask ‘When will you finish the project?’.

Furthermore, as I mentioned before in my blog, be aware that your not working from a neutral perspective. Being direct does not equate ‘being right’. Having some cultural self awareness is a key skill for any global manager.This includes remembering the historical relations between the countries where your teams/business is located. For example is there a colonial history? Then be careful about being informal too soon, as a director for a UK company shared with me. When he said ‘come on boys, let’s get started’ to his Indian colleagues he was curtly informed that this familiarity was not appreciated. Having this kind of insight can be priceless for any organisation going global.

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